In his review of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vol VII, 1941-1945, in the last drb, Pádraig Murphy rightly identifies World War II as “the greatest test of the effective assertion of sovereignty that the then relatively new [Irish] state had faced”. These documents chart the way in which the policy of Irish neutrality evolved as the global war progressed. They reflect certain divisions within Irish society – as well as providing fascinating insights into the thinking inside the Irish Government, and our civil service, during those five critical years.
The documents also offer valuable and unique perspectives from outside this country. Ireland was, after all, one of the relatively few states to keep its diplomats in place across Europe for the entire duration of the war. In this context, the dispatches from Germany are of particular interest. There is much to admire in the skill, determination and flexibility with which Irish politicians, civil servants and diplomats pursued the policy of neutrality – sometimes, in very difficult circumstances ‑ and, as Murphy notes, “all this makes for very gripping reading”.
However, I would argue that it is possible to acknowledge that neutrality was the best option open to the Irish Government during World War II but still question some of its legacy to succeeding generations. Irish diplomats were not the only Irish citizens to find themselves behind German lines, so to speak, during the war. There are other viewpoints and other experiences that are still missing from what has become the dominant narrative of that period. I would suggest that such omissions still affect us, and will continue to do so until they have been properly acknowledged as an integral part of Ireland’s history in the war years.
Like many Southern Irishmen, my father crossed the border into Northern Ireland shortly after war was declared in 1939 and enlisted in an Irish regiment of the British army. He ended up in Burma: arriving in Rangoon just two days before the decision to evacuate and burn that city was taken. He became part of the longest forced retreat in British military history, but was also part of the counter-offensive, when defeat was turned into victory. My father returned to Ireland in 1946: to a country that had little direct experience of the global war.
When he died three years ago, he left a mass of papers. Sorting through them, I came across some faded press cuttings. One of these, from The Irish Times, was dated May 17th, 1945. It described the homecoming of a small group of Irish merchant seamen who had just been liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, where they had been part of a slave labour force. My father had mentioned that his cousin, William, had died in Bremen in 1945. I had assumed that William was an Allied soldier who had been killed during the invasion of Germany ‑ like one of my uncles. Now I discovered that he had served in the merchant navy, and that the circumstances of his death were much darker than I had imagined.
From another cutting ‑ this one from the Times of London – I learned that William’s ship was on its way from South Africa to India in August 1940 when it was intercepted off the coast of Madagascar by a German raider. The raider, which was “probably a disguised merchant vessel”, took the crew prisoner and sank their ship. The prisoners were eventually brought to Bordeaux in Occupied France; from there, most of them were sent on to be interned in Germany. However the Irish seamen were segregated, and, in the spring of 1941, they were taken with other Irish prisoners to be interrogated by German Military Intelligence.
The surviving seamen told The Irish Times how the Abwehr (German Intelligence) tried to persuade them that they had a common enemy in Britain. At this stage of the war it was still believed that Ireland could be of strategic importance if Germany were to invade England. The Irish seamen were asked to become part of the Nazi war effort. All of them declined the invitation and, towards the end of 1941, they were moved to a concentration camp in Germany. A year or so later, they were moved again: this time, to a merchant navy internment camp.
Throughout their captivity, the Irish seamen consistently refused to sign an agreement to become freie Arbeiter – voluntary workers ‑ for the German Reich. In early 1943 they were again segregated, and thirty-two of them ‑ including William ‑ were moved by the Gestapo to Bremen Farge. This was one of seven satellite labour camps attached to the large concentration camp at Neuengamme in northern Germany.
According to the survivors, they were beaten by SS guards when they arrived at Farge. They were told that, since they were civilians, they were not protected by the Geneva Convention, or the International Red Cross. Their new accommodation was a disused fuel tank buried beneath several metres of solid concrete. The seamen learned that they had been brought to Farge to work on Project Valentin: the codename for an immense underground bunker, where Reichsminister Albert Speer planned to construct submarines on an assembly line, in pre-fabricated sections – like the US “Liberty Ships”. Speer’s ambition was to build a new U-boat every fifty-six hours.
The thirty-two Irishmen joined more than ten thousand other slave labourers – mainly Russians and Poles ‑ who were working on Project Valentin. This operated on a twenty-four-hour-shift system, with each shift lasting for at least twelve hours. There was one half-hour meal break for soup and black bread: the bare minimum required to keep prisoners alive. According to the survivors, the Irish seamen were assigned to some of the hardest work. Usually, this involved lifting, carrying and emptying heavy bags of cement. The prisoners would inevitably inhale some of the dust during the day, and hack it up in wet balls during the night.
Before they left for Farge, the merchant seamen had written a number of letters to the Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin, William Warnock, explaining their predicament and seeking his assistance. At that time Warnock held pronounced anti-British views. In a breach of diplomatic protocol, he had publicly applauded Hitler’s triumphant Reichstag speech of July 1940. In a dispatch sent to Dublin in the same year he predicted confidently that the Luftwaffe’s blitz of London would soon have a “shattering effect on the morale of the self-centred and self-satisfied British”.
Warnock had earlier advised against seeking the release of James Joyce’s Jewish friend Paul Léon from Auschwitz. He had been asked by Dublin to intervene “in case there is danger that Léon be shot”. Warnock claimed that the real danger was that such intervention might affect Ireland’s “good relations” with Nazi Germany. Dublin deferred to his judgement, and Léon was executed in April 1942.
In 1940, Léon had rescued many of Joyce’s original manuscripts when their author fled the Nazi occupation of Paris ‑ including the only known drafts of the “Ithaca”, “Scylla and Charybdis” and “Penelope” episodes of Joyce’s Ulysses. Léon died in Auschwitz, but ‑ sixty years later ‑ the Irish Government paid €11 million to acquire those same manuscripts from his family. It is not known if Warnock ever received the Irish seamen’s letters: what is quite clear, however, is that he did nothing to help them.
As the tide of war began to turn against Germany, Dr Edward Hempel, the German minister in Dublin, complained that the Irish Government’s attitude had also changed: becoming “unhelpful and evasive”. In this context, it seems that Warnock’s apparent sympathy for Hitler’s regime came to be viewed as potentially damaging to Irish interests. In late 1943 he was replaced by Con Cremin, whose view of Nazism appears to have been a good deal more critical. Cremin sent reports back to Dublin of the Nazis’ genocidal treatment of Europe’s Jews, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to rescue some of them. In August 1944 he visited the Irish merchant seamen in Bremen Farge. According to the survivors, he told them he was determined that they would be repatriated to Ireland.
Cremin argued that, as non-combatants from a neutral state, they should not be treated as prisoners of war – let alone slave workers. By the end of 1944, his campaign for their release appeared to have succeeded. The Irishmen were loaded onto a train and sent to the port of Flensburg where they were to be dispatched to Sweden ‑ and, thence, home on board a Swedish merchant ship. However, Allied bombing prevented them from reaching Flensburg and they were returned to the camp at Bremen Farge.
The camp was run jointly by the SS and the Gestapo and according to the Irish survivors its Kommandant was an unrestrained sadist. In the last weeks of the camp’s existence, he went on a homicidal rampage, shooting many prisoners, strangling and suffocating others. On April 10th, 1945, Bremen Farge was abandoned by the SS and most of the prisoners were forced to march to another camp, further from the Allied advance. Farge was finally liberated by British troops in the first week of May ‑ but liberation came too late for William. He had survived nearly five years of captivity, but died on March 2nd – either from starvation or typhus. He is buried in Rheinberg war cemetery, along with three of the four other Irishmen who died in the camp at Farge.
In 1947, thirteen of the Farge guards were tried for war crimes. The military court heard harrowing evidence of back-breaking work, prisoners shot or beaten to death and pitifully inadequate rations. Despite that, the German government denied legal liability for many years, insisting that the Irish seamen had been paid for their labour. In fact, all such payments were made directly to the SS, in alleged recompense for the prisoners’ food and board. It was not until 1999 that a proper scheme for compensation was established, and not until 2004 – fifty-nine years after his liberation ‑ that the one Irish survivor who was still alive received any money.
Not all Irishmen in Germany during the war were treated as badly as the merchant seamen. While they were held in Farge, the Irish novelist Francis Stuart was employed as a lecturer in English literature at Berlin University. This was, of course, the kind of academic post from which all Jews had been excluded since 1938 by the Nuremberg racial laws.
Stuart had come to Nazi Germany in 1940 as an emissary of the IRA. Soon after he arrived in Berlin, William Warnock helped him to organise a party to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. By 1943, Stuart was making weekly propaganda programmes for Irland-Redaktion – a radio service aimed at Irish listeners. In his broadcasts, Stuart spoke with open admiration of Hitler, whom he compared favourably with Gandhi, and considered to be “a kind of contemporary Samson”. Stuart praised the “vision and courage” with which the Führer had defied international “financiers and bankers” – clearly identifiable in this context as Jews ‑ and he expressed his belief that a victory for Germany would lead quickly to the reunification of Ireland.
Stuart came home after the war and resumed his writing career. In the years that followed he became a respected figure in Irish literary circles. In 1982 he was chosen to be one of the first members of Aosdána (the Irish arts academy), and was granted a yearly stipend from our national Arts Council. Then, in 1996, he was elected a saoi ‑ the highest accolade in the Irish arts world – joining such luminaries as Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, who had been a friend of Paul Léon and who worked with the French Resistance during the war. The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, presented him with a gold-plated torc – a symbol of the ancient Celtic bards ‑ as a mark of the state’s recognition and esteem.
Only one of Aosdána’s two hundred members resigned in protest at Stuart’s election. That was the Irish-language poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi. One of those who voted in favour of honouring him was the distinguished novelist and critic Colm Tóibín. In 2001 he looked back upon his decision to do so in the London Review of Books: “No one in Aosdána, as far as I am aware, had lost family in the War,” he wrote, “All of us were part of the legacy of Irish neutrality, and all of us, debating the issue of Francis Stuart, were living in a sort of backwater, protected from the terrible pain and anger suffered by the families of those killed by the Nazis.” Tóibín went on to raise a fundamental question: “I believed and still believe that the honour was justified, but I’m not sure I would believe this if I had lost friends or family.”
In 1991 a memorial was unveiled to the merchant seamen from Ireland who died during World War Two. It lists the names of more than one hundred and fifty men who were lost at sea as a result of German naval action. It took many years of patient lobbying for their deaths to be acknowledged publicly in this way. However, the granite monument in Dublin’s docklands does not bear the name of my father’s cousin William, or of any of the other Irish seamen who were used as slave workers in Bremen Farge and who perished in the Nazi terror. The reason given was that they were not serving on Irish-registered merchant ships when they were captured.
Three of the five Irishmen who died in Farge were from Dublin, one was from Mayo and another from Wexford. The Germans could identify these merchant seamen as Irish – even though they sailed under Norwegian, Dutch and British flags. It appears that some of their fellow countrymen have not been so sure.
In the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín affirmed his rejection of the naive belief that “writers should be good people”. In fact, Tóibín had once seemed at pains to prove that Stuart was not such a bad person. Writing in the Sunday Independent around the time that he was elected as a saoi, Tóibín stated categorically that Stuart had no connection with “politics, or anti-Semitism, or fascism, or Nazism”. It seemed then that he accepted fully Stuart’s own evaluation of himself as “an ostracized writer, writing for other ostracized people”. Tóibín felt compelled to revise this opinion following the publication of Brendan Barrington’s The Wartime Broadcasts of Francis Stuart – which clearly established that the bulk of those broadcasts were not only explicitly political in nature, but were also “consistent with the broad thrust of German propaganda”.
As it happens, I share Tóibín’s belief that writers needn’t be good people. However, I don’t think this should exempt any state from an obligation to scrutinise the criteria by which it decides which of its citizens it will honour and which it will ignore. When Mary Robinson, as President of Ireland, presented Stuart with his golden torc, she referred to his role in contemporary Irish culture as “awkward”. It seems to me that the history of some of the Nazis’ Irish victims raises issues that have proved, in reality, to be much more awkward to address.
Stuart was undoubtedly a talented artist ‑ but he was also someone who admired Hitler, who gave expression to anti-Semitic feelings and who broadcast extreme anti-British sentiments when Britain was at war with Nazi Germany. The Irish seamen who died in Farge may have been less talented than Stuart, but they stubbornly refused to collaborate with Nazism ‑ and their experience remains missing from the official record.
Stuart was, of course, not the only one to resume his career with some success after the war. William Warnock returned to Germany: this time as a full ambassador to the Federal Republic. He ended his career as Ireland’s ambassador to Washington – usually considered the top posting in Ireland’s diplomatic service. Warnock dismissed any previous sympathy he held for the Nazis as the product of “youthful enthusiasm”: Paul Léon might have taken a somewhat different – and, perhaps, a harsher view.
I don’t know why my father told me so little about William’s ordeal. Perhaps he was too absorbed with memories of the jungle war he had fought in Burma. He may even have felt a little ashamed that his cousin had not died a “proper” soldier’s death. As it turned out, the agonising labour that William and thousands of other slave workers were forced to expend on Project Valentin was all for nothing: Speer’s underground factory was still incomplete when the Second World War ended and no submarine ever left the bunker. It is now used as a commercial warehouse. An imposing sculpture by Fritz Stein stands outside the site: its title is the inversion of a Nazi slogan ‑ “Extermination through Labour”.
David Blake Knox is a former Director of Production with RTÉ, and Executive Editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. He is currently producing a feature documentary about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.