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Home Uncategorized The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back

Paul Hyde

One Bold Deed of Open Treason: Roger Casement’s Berlin Diary 1914-1916, ed Angus Mitchell, Merrion Press, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-1785370564

No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell, but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, first published in 1914-15, at the same time as Casement was writing his Berlin diary.

The construction of the historical narrative about Casement is not yet complete a hundred years after his execution. In his afterlife he still provokes painful and profound questions about the nature of loyalty, integrity and the state, questions about authority, justice and power. Angus Mitchell, in his introduction to this splendidly produced volume, writes: “Even if Ireland still finds it hard to accept Casement …” without indicating why Ireland finds it hard. But perhaps this is because there are so many Casements to choose from, because his historical identity is so fissured.

Heroes, like martyrs, are usually of one piece. The multiple kaleidoscopic identities of Casement have still not coalesced into the coherent understandable unity required for closure. He was a man of terrifying integrity or of none, a megalomaniac or a man who “eliminated self”, a defiant enemy of imperial power or simply a traitor, emotionally unstable or rational and lucid, a homosexual or a man besmirched by his enemies. Today, most people have chosen their Casement but it is always unwise to choose without complete knowledge of the “product”. That our knowledge of Casement is still incomplete is demonstrated by the frequent publication of new studies, online and press articles. This year alone there have been numerous and extensive articles on Casement in the Irish and UK press plus a dedicated edition of the online Irish Studies review BreacOne Bold Deed of Open Treason, edited by Angus Mitchell, is a valuable addition to serious scholarship about Casement and the causes of the First World War; its special value lies in how it affords the reader the opportunity to hear Casement’s voice as he intended it to be heard at a critical time in his life. When he wrote “The Berlin Diary”, from late 1914 to March 1916, Casement was fully aware that he had crossed the Rubicon, that he had risked everything, had put everything to the final test – that there would be no further career choices – and no forgiveness for the remarkable choice he had made.

That choice, he believed, was no choice at all but was a call of conscience which he was bound to obey. The former civil servant and consul had become a revolutionary and this revolutionary was driven by a semi-prophetic zeal. His aim far surpassed the aims of all other Irish revolutionaries, both contemporary and historical, far surpassed the colossal aims of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Casement wanted a free Ireland restored to the nations of Europe but he desired ardently something more, something which he was unusually placed to understand. Casement’s ultimate target was the destruction of the British empire: “ – the time has come for the break up of the British Empire … That Empire is a monstrosity,” he wrote on November 2nd, 1914. Casement saw Irish independence as the essential first step in the dismemberment.

Originally founded on piracy and slavery, the largest empire in human history was based above all on maritime strength, on control of the seas. England’s imperial security required the subjugation of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, all of which had been achieved by 1800. The conquered countries were a valuable source of food, fuel and soldiers for the ever expanding empire. As a neighbouring island, Ireland’s geographical position was of cardinal strategic importance to England’s control of the seas and therefore to the integrity of its empire. At its maximum expansion in 1922 the empire claimed 458 million subjects, no less than 20 per cent of the world’s population spread over 13 million square miles or 25 per cent of the earth’s surface. Inevitably this afforded Britain influence in and even effective control of economies in every continent.

Casement’s German project failed in all senses. Hoping to raise an Irish Brigade among POWs he sought patriotic fervour in the most unlikely of places – the British army. This was a grave error and he ought to have known that the soldiers he was addressing were mostly volunteers who had enlisted before the war. The early failure of the Irish Brigade certainly eroded official German interest in the possible advantage of Casement’s project to German military plans. From the German point of view, if Irishmen would not fight for their independence there was no reason for Germany to supply officers and weapons. Besides the failure of the brigade, the Germans had also noted that Redmond had induced 24,000 Irish Volunteers to enlist in the British army to fight against Germany. In short, more Irishmen by far were in arms against Germany than were prepared to fight for independence against Britain. By January 5th, 1915, Casement had given up hope for the Irish Brigade. He expressed his bitter disillusionment on December 10th, 1914; “The more I see of these alleged Irishmen – the less I think of them as being Irish. They are the black blot on our claim to nationality … since I saw the ‘Irish’ soldiers & read Redmond’s speeches I feel ashamed to belong to so contemptible a race.” Redmond he saw as a traitor, as “John Bull’s recruiting sergeant in Ireland”. By January 8th, 1915, Casement regarded his mission in Germany as ended and soon after he contemplated seeking US citizenship, something which was unlikely to be granted by President Wilson, himself of Ulster-Scots stock, and given anti-German feeling in the US generated by British propaganda.

Casement was by this time a “renegade” and his “treason” had been openly reported in the British press. The Guardian of December 18th, 1914 stated that his Berlin visit was “an act of monstrous baseness at first thought incredible” and as “an act of treason to England and of double dyed treason to Ireland”.

Initially successful in obtaining formal agreement with the German government in respect of its goodwill towards Ireland and its willingness to recognise a future independent state, this too lost meaning as time passed and as Casement’s disillusionment with Germany deepened. He abandoned his diary from February 1915 to March 1916 as he progressively became depressed with the course of the war and relations with the German general staff turned sour. By 1916 Casement regarded himself as entrapped and he was anxious to leave. Aware that early German promises of substantial military aid for an insurrection were not to be fulfilled and that it could not succeed without aid, he determined to have the rising cancelled.

During that year of diary silence, he observed the crucial role that propaganda played in WWI. British skill in this shady art was superior to that of Germany and the bedrock of British propaganda was Germany’s alleged plan for world domination, something which Britain had already come near to achieving with the largest empire in human history. Some might think it an example of irony that the emotive power of atrocity as revealed by Casement in his pioneering investigations became a potent instrument of British propaganda which portrayed Germany as a barbaric destroyer of civilised values. Forgeries and atrocity reports were continuously deployed as weapons not only against Britain’s enemies but also to deceive the neutral states, above all the USA. This fear propaganda was used to intimidate Ireland as being under threat of German invasion unless Irishmen joined the British military. Tens of thousands did join and tens of thousands did not return home.

In his postwar account of the British propaganda organisation Secrets of Crewe House, Campbell Stuart wrote: “The result was the greatest victory achieved by war propaganda … liberating millions of our fellow-men from a tyrannous yoke to the enjoyment of that political freedom which is the inalienable right of civilized mankind”. Stuart was referring to the campaign against Austro-Hungary, which aimed to sow dissent among the “subject peoples” and encourage soldiers to desert.

In 1918, HG Wells undertook to advise on anti-German propaganda and produced a lengthy memorandum in which he made the following extraordinary statement: “Britain … is more completely prepared today than ever it has been before to consider its imperial possessions as a trust for their inhabitants and for mankind … These admissions involve a plain prospect and promise of the ultimate release and liberation of all the peoples in these great and variegated Empires to complete world citizenship.”

“Political freedom as an inalienable right” plus “complete world citizenship” were the aims not only of Casement but also of Pearse, Connolly, Griffith, Collins and many other revolutionaries elsewhere. Terms like hypocrisy and double standards cannot quite render the kind of profound cognitive dissonance exposed in these passages. The lofty principles were never applied to Ireland. England’s control of the seas required also control of the neighbouring island.

The press empires of Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook served the propaganda effort, as did Reuters press agency, and Casement was publicly marked as a traitor throughout his eighteen months in Germany. And during that time another mark of infamy was secretly attached to his name. The whispering began before he arrived in Germany.

For an oath to have meaning it must be voluntary, which implies choice; there is no such thing as an involuntary oath. The concept of treason applied to Casement rested upon the concept of being a subject. Casement had made no oath to the British crown yet, like all other subjects, he nonetheless owed allegiance in law to that crown by virtue of his birthplace. The condition of being born a subject is an absolute and exclusive one which denies freedom and demands absolute obedience to absolute power. It defines the subject within a bond of loyalty/duty. Thus power safeguards itself by imposing an absolute duty of loyalty to itself. Subjects, by definition, are not born free but are yoked at birth to a bond of allegiance. When Casement in his final speech stated that loyalty was a sentiment and not a duty, he spoke as a free man who owed no loyalty that was not a free sentiment. For Casement a true treason would be the denial of that free sentiment – spiritual duplicity.

The knowledge that is still absent from the Casement narrative concerns the authenticity or otherwise of the notorious Black Diaries and that knowledge, far from being an irrelevant distraction, is crucial because it would clarify not only our perception of Casement’s life, motives and actions but would also clarify what happened to him in 1916. Casement foresaw what faced him if captured and was aware of his vulnerability to black propaganda:

For, with me in their hands, the ‘archtraitor’ and all the rest of it, the English government will try how [sic] most to humiliate and degrade me. They will not honour me with a high treason trial. I am convinced of that. Then I should become a martyr or a hero of revolutionary Ireland. They will rob Ireland of that & they will charge me with something else – something baser than ‘high treason’ – God knows what ‑ & what chance of a trial will I have on any charge they chose to get up against me?”

The “something baser than high treason” duly arrived upon his capture some weeks later and it succeeded in humiliating and degrading Casement’s reputation before, during and after the trial for treason which simply “legalised” his physical destruction but could not satisfy either the desire for vengeance or guarantee his moral destruction. High treason was considered the worst crime possible because it strikes at the monarch, the sacrosanct foundation of power and authority, the source of law and perhaps justice. Casement’s “one bold deed of open treason” was therefore a defiance of imperial authority made by a world famous man before the world; it was the act of a Lucifer and would be punished accordingly. His arrest in Kerry was also the arrest of his moral meaning and he very soon became more than another 1916 revolutionary. He became the Satan of the British empire, a traitor whose private life was unspeakable. Thus the whispering campaign became public.

That Casement, only weeks before his capture, could not imagine the nature of “something baser than high treason” indicates that he was unaware of any behaviour or the existence in any of his writings of anything which could be construed by his future captors as baser than treason. It is not credible that a man of his intelligence and experience had forgotten what Ernley Blackwell was soon to describe as an addiction to the “grossest sodomitical practices” over years and had, moreover, forgotten the diaries allegedly recording such criminal activities.

The provenance of the Black Diaries remains a mystery. There are six conflicting versions, four provided by CID chief Basil Thomson and a fifth provided by MEPO 2/10672 (National Archive, 2001) which is the official list of the contents of Casement’s trunks. The sixth version is that found in the interrogation transcript which contradicts most aspects of the other five. It is axiomatic in law and in common sense that the provenance of evidence is ascertained before the evidence is examined. The provenance of the National Archive diaries attributed to Casement has yet to be ascertained. Therefore the edifice of the authenticity argument rests upon highly unstable foundations. Among the many other reasons for scepticism about the diaries, the unanswered questions about provenance must not be overlooked.

The interrogation transcript is incomplete because the shorthand writer was sent away in order to facilitate Casement’s communication with his interrogators. Therefore there is no complete record of what was said during the interrogation, which has a maximum speaking length of only fifty-two minutes over three days. But while there is no mention of diaries in the incomplete transcript there is mention of “trunks” in Casement’s former lodgings before their existence was known and which duly arrive after only nine minutes. The transcript is obviously a false record.

The result of these six conflicting versions is that no one can say when, how or even if diaries were found. No prosecutor would enter court without incontrovertible proof of the provenance of the incriminating evidence. But for the Black Diaries there is no verifiable proof of provenance. Despite this, the majority of those interested in the Casement story are persuaded that the diaries were written by Casement. Their persuasion derives not from scrutiny of the documents and verified facts but from their reading of a number of books, some thirteen in all, plus broadcast programmes, dating from 1956 to present times, all of which claim authenticity and none of which resolve the fundamental question of provenance. None of these books explains why there is no verifiable record of anyone in 1916 actually being shown any of the five diaries now in The UK National Archives. None of these books explains why the extraordinary decision was made in April/May 1916 to undertake the laborious preparation of alleged typescript copies rather than simply making photographs of the allegedly incriminating diary pages.

In The Berlin Diary we hear the voice of a man who knows he has lost his last game, who is exhausted but who will not surrender. Among his anxieties was that the truth of his motives and actions might never be known. “If I live to make all clear – someday – but there is no chance of that. And yet it is only right that the truth should be known and told – for history is history …”

A few days before his fateful departure, he wrote: “It is time I died … all is lost but honour’ … the sooner my life is taken from me the better.” He could not have known that honour too would soon be lost by the “something baser than treason” and that his historical narrative would be reconstructed by his enemies.

In the end Casement was arrested by a fellow Irishman and delivered over to his English enemies to be interrogated by one gun-runner and prosecuted by his supporter, both personally involved in the same “treasonable conspiracy” against the monarch whose law they upheld when it served to destroy a political enemy. At the show trial his defence was conducted by an imperialist Irishman bearing the ancient Gaelic clan name Ó Súilleabháin, who detested all Casement stood for and whose sole motive was career ambition. The motto of that ancient clan is “a steady hand forever” but O’Sullivan’s steady hand failed on Day 3 when he realised he was attempting to save a man he did not want to save and he collapsed in court. But he regained that steady hand soon after the trial when he wrote to Casement’s arch-enemy and self-appointed prosecutor, FE Smith, to congratulate him on a scrupulously fair trial in the best traditions of English justice. Presumably the verdict satisfied O’Sullivan as much as it satisfied FE Smith.

The publication of One Bold Deed of Open Treason under the expert hand of Angus Mitchell will allow readers to reassess Casement as one who dared to question that which was and still is unquestionable – the nature of state power and its relation with individual conscience.


Paul Hyde is a writer and a retired university lecturer living partly in Sligo and partly in Verona



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