Ireland, West Germany and the New Europe, 1949-73: Best Friend and Ally? by Mervyn O’Driscoll, Manchester University Press, 280 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-0719089831
On August 6th, 1969 Oliver J Flanagan, a front-bench Fine Gael TD and father of the present Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, told the General Council of Committees of Agriculture in Dublin that “we have no room in this country for Nazis and we are not going to entertain them here … the sooner we take steps to end this the better.”
By Nazis, Flanagan actually meant Germans – the Irish Independent reported that “he considered all Germans Nazis” – but more specifically a small number of German landowners resident in Ireland. Flanagan’s incendiary comments followed arson attacks on June 11th in Cos Meath and Louth on German- and British-owned farms; attacks later claimed by the IRA. The then Sinn Féin president, Tomás MacGiolla, also released statements attacking foreign ownership of Irish resources, linking this to the history of British colonialism and the coming of the Normans to Ireland eight hundred years ago (but distancing himself from violence).
The Republic of Ireland is often seen as unusual within the wider European context, failing as it does to retain an electorally relevant populist anti-immigration/anti-foreigner political party. This vignette, recounted in Mervyn O’Driscoll’s excellent monograph Ireland, West Germany and the New Europe 1949-73, shows that a specific Irish sense of victimhood and strong but often vague historical feelings of anti-colonialism, combined with antipathy towards “the foreign”, could indeed have provided the raw materials for such a movement in the Irish context. In this instance Fine Gael, however, acted quickly and completely renounced both Flanagan’s statement and all illegal actions against foreign landowners in Ireland. Sinn Féin, of course, was soon to be side-tracked by events north of the border, as well as its subsequent Marxist-traditionalist split. Populist anti-foreigner sentiments in Ireland have probably thus been checked by tendencies towards a more moderate right-centrism on national questions, as well as the intermingling of Irish nationalism with a type of liberationist Marxism.
While O’Driscoll is at pains to emphasise that foreign ownership of Irish land was statistically low, and German ownership minuscule, some very prominent Nazis did indeed live in Ireland for a time. Austrian citizen Otto Skorzeny – a former high-ranking officer in the Waffen-SS who was “Nazi Germany’s most audacious unconventional warfare specialist”, responsible for the rescue of Benito Mussolini in September 1943 – managed to purchase a two-hundred-acre farm in Kildare in 1959 under his wife’s name. He divided his time between a residence in Majorca and Kildare, “but he remained under suspicion for participation in international neo-Nazi, paramilitary and mercenary activities, much to the discomfort of Dublin”. Another case involved Baron Alexander von Dörnberg, who bought a holiday home and twelve acres of land near Glengariff, Co Cork in either 1959 or 1960. He had been head of the protocol department of the German foreign office from 1938 to 1945, and had played a role in the Munich Agreement (1938) and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939).
The presence of these high-ranking and well-known National Socialists led some international newspapers to claim that Ireland had become a haven for Nazis on the run from war crimes. It also became clear that a flaw existed in Irish legislation, which allowed non-nationals to purchase property while only possessing holiday visas. O’Driscoll believes that this small number of former influential Nazis in Ireland “may also have coloured local perceptions of new arrivals”, and resulted in rural agitation against land purchases taking a distinct anti-German tone in the 1960s. Some British and Italian media also talked of a “German invasion” of Ireland and of the Germans retaining a “foothold in Britain’s backdoor”. While the German purchase of coastal properties and the fencing off of beaches – contrary to Irish norms – caused some local resentment, O’Driscoll notes that “the number of purchases and quantity of land changing hands was diminutive in a national context”.
The principle argument of O’Driscoll’s monograph relates to Labour Party leader William Norton, minister for industry and commerce from 1954 to 1957 in the Second Interparty Government (also 1954-57), which O’Driscoll sees as laying the basis for Irish economic modernisation. Taoiseach John A Costello’s government looked principally to West Germany for foreign direct investment. According to O’Driscoll “Bonn played a dynamic and instructive role in reorienting Ireland”, while an “Irish perspectival switch occurred from viewing West Germany as a fall-back market for agricultural exports to appreciating its potential as an investor in modernisation”. O’Driscoll here makes extensive use of archival sources from both Ireland and Germany, as well as wide-ranging use of Irish, German and British print media publications. His arguments relating to William Norton, the Second Interparty Government and West Germany’s role in Irish economic modernisation are convincing.
O’Driscoll is not certain whether Costello’s government – “that dysfunctional coalition” – became an instrument of Irish economic modernisation truly by design, however. The government, but especially Norton, “experimented hastily to find solutions to Ireland’s economic nadir”; and during this time “several government agencies finally began to promote Ireland as an export platform and a location for foreign capital”. Although O’Driscoll believes this occurred in an “ad-hoc fashion and in desperation”, the 1954-57 government still “laid the seeds for what Lemass and Whitaker subsequently nurtured”.
The Fermoy Progressive Association had looked to entice German pencil and biro maker Faber-Castell to set up a factory in the Cork town, beginning negotiations in 1952. William Norton made sure that the association got all the help it could possibly receive from the Irish government, ensuring for example that information on Ireland’s special access to various Commonwealth countries was provided. Inspired by Faber-Castell, which eventually set up a factory in Fermoy in 1955, Norton spearheaded efforts to attract investment. The Industrial Development Authority (IDA), which had been established by the First Interparty Government, was reinvigorated after 1954. Despite opposition from the Department of Finance and the Central Bank, Costello and Norton were resolute and “an interagency effort between Industry and Commerce, External Affairs and the IDA emerged to attract foreign investment”. Germany became a chief focus, with Norton going on a number of promotional visits to West Germany in 1955, and the IDA produced promotional material in conjunction with the Department of Industry and Commerce. At a press conference in Bonn, Norton “provoked an international public relations sensation” when he emphasised that Ireland held preferential access to the British Commonwealth. This was received very poorly in the British press, with the Daily Mirror, for example, stating: “The guilty honeymoon that Éire had with Hitler’s Germany during the war is now being evolved into a peace-time trade relationship.” Following Norton’s presence in Germany, and the subsequent controversy, the IDA received numerous enquiries from German industrialists. It achieved little direct success, however, with the crane producer Liebherr one of the few German firms that moved to Ireland during this period, setting up outside Killarney. While interagency and interdepartmental coordination had been pioneered, the enticements offered in 1955 remained, according to O’Driscoll, “ad hoc and primitive”, while German firms were also wary of antagonising Britain and wanted to avoid negative British publicity. Yet O’Driscoll believes that the Irish negotiations with Faber-Castell and Liebherr “led to the beginnings of the process of formulating an attractive package to lure foreign investment to Ireland”.
Between 1954 and 1957 tourist visa regulations were liberalised, with Germans now also seen as potential tourists. Norton introduced legislation in 1955 that created the Irish tourist board, Bord Fáilte, which became fully operational in 1957. The Irish-German Air Transport Agreement was, in addition, established in 1956. This allowed Aer Lingus to fly to Frankfurt and Düsseldorf by 1957; cities also used by the Irish airline as hubs for travel to other parts of Europe. Lufthansa also introduced direct flights to Dublin and began to operate to North America via Shannon. Thus O’Driscoll successfully argues against the prevailing, largely negative representation of the Second Interparty Government, showing it to be an administration of ideas and (perhaps somewhat disorganised) innovation that looked to establish strong links with West Germany.
The story of Liebherr and Killarney is, indeed, worth filling out more substantially. In a 2012 Irish Times article, Derek Scally wrote of how the “German firm Liebherr has lifted the Kerry economy for years”. He writes: “Around Killarney, Liebherr is more than a company. Its name is associated with a far-sighted way of doing business that has spared many generations from emigration.” The company currently employs more than eight hundred people directly in Kerry, and Scally states that its “engagement in Ireland goes well beyond economic crises or political spats”. In a 2014 master’s thesis in Irish-German Studies at the University of Limerick, Mary McDermot examined the early years of Liebherr in Killarney, showing how the proprietor, Hans Liebherr, successfully transported his paternalistic, locally rooted business model to Co Kerry. The company was embedded in Liebherr’s native Kirchdorf in rural southern Germany, and was based upon the retraining of local farmers and agricultural workers as builders of a new, more mobile crane that Liebherr himself had developed and patented. While Hans Liebherr was, apparently, not a fan of trade unions, he did build houses for his employees outside Killarney, established an apprenticeship system in conjunction with local technical schools to train potential workers and also invigorated Kerry tourism by establishing a number of hotels. Competition for the apprenticeship places with Liebherr was vigorous as the firm’s reputation as a good employer became established. In an interview, a former apprentice, Michael O’Connor, tells McDermot: “If you got called to work in the German factory, you certainly were made for life.”
Scholars from the interdisciplinary areas of cultural studies and cultural history are often critical of a lack of theoretical and methodological reflection among wider historians. This review falls into this pattern. O’Driscoll tells us in his monograph that he partakes of “the standard methods of international, political, diplomatic and economic history”, without telling us explicitly what these actually are or discussing them in any way. Presumably he means source hermeneutics, but this is not fully clear. He also tells us: “The only approach that can satisfactorily capture enough of the complexity and provide a convincing explanation and understanding of the Irish-German relationship from 1949 to 1973 is the historical narrative.” Perhaps, but why is this so? Indeed, what is a “historical narrative” exactly, and how may this be delineated? A brief discussion and comparison of possible methodological approaches would have been required here in my view. A multifaceted discussion on narrative and history has, in fact, been taking place since the 1970s. While many would here instantly think of Hayden White, the Israeli historian Alon Confino has also written astutely on this topic. For Confino, in his essay “The Historian’s Representations”, the creation of historical narratives is shaped by three “concentric circles of influence”: the personal, the public and the professional. The personal relates to the background of the author, “the historian’s subjectivity in making choices”; the public relates to “the dominant perceptions of the past in the surrounding culture”; while the professional consists of “the rules and modes of operation of the historical discipline”. For Confino history “can never fully interpret, explain, and capture a past”, remaining “a form of narrative art practised with tools that permit verification of our knowledge about the past”. Presumably the historian O’Driscoll has also reflected upon historical narratives; sharing his reflections with his readers, even in succinct form, would have enhanced his text.
In a 2014 article for the Irish Review the Limerick-based academic Joachim Fischer makes a number of observations relating to Irish Studies. He argues that Irish Studies – understood as an interdisciplinary Area Studies rather than a branch of literary scholarship – would be better served by moving away from the paradigmatic dominance of post-colonialism and an obsession with Irish identity and should look more towards a European comparative perspective and, indeed, should be situated institutionally within the wider area of European Studies. O’Driscoll’s monograph is, certainly, a substantial historical contribution to a Europeanist Irish Studies.
Fergal Lenehan teaches Intercultural Studies at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena. He has published two books: Intellectuals and Europe, published in 2014, and Stereotypes, Ideology and Foreign Correspondents: German Media Representations of Ireland,1946-2010, published in 2016, which was reviewed in the November 2017 issue of the Dublin Review of Books.