De Valera, Hitler & the visit of condolence May 1945

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), The Emergency, Volume 5

A terse paragraph in the Irish national dailies on 3 May 1945 started the avalanche of international protest. Under the heading ‘People and Places’, the Fianna Fáil-backed Irish Press reported laconically that the Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs, Éamon de Valera, accompanied by the Secretary of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe, ‘called on Dr Hempel, the German minister, last evening, to express his condolences’. The condolences were for Hitler who had committed suicide on 30 April. The Irish Times was prevented by the censor from publishing the following report from Reuter on 3 May: ‘Éire delegation mourns Hitler. Lisbon, May 3. The Éireann Minister in Lisbon today hoisted the German swastika at half mast over the legation as a sign of mourning for Hitler’. While the report that de Valera had condoled with the German minister was accurate, the Lisbon report was incorrect on one count. The swastika did fly at half mast over the Irish legation in Lisbon; but it had not been placed there by an Irish diplomat. While the Irish occupied the ground floor, the headquarters of German intelligence for the Iberian peninsula was situated on the floor above. They, not the Irish, had hung out the swastika in sympathy.
Both pieces of information—one accurate and the other false—were sent by the international wire agencies around the world. Éamon de Valera, the leader of neutral Ireland, was widely interpreted internationally as being pro-Axis and personally sympathetic to Hitler. The swastika at half mast was further proof, if proof were needed, that the Irish diplomatic service abroad had been instructed to show respect for Hitler and his fallen Reich. No such instruction had been issued by the Department of External Affairs to its mission abroad. One Irish envoy, Leopold Kerney, had, without instructions, called on 3 May at the German embassy in Madrid to express his condolences. The reports of his visit were carried by the Spanish news agency, EFE. Fortunately, for Ireland’s tattered reputation the letters of gratitude he received remained unpublished. A former Spanish foreign Minister and philo-Nazi, Ramon Serrano Suner, wrote with embarrassing warmth to Kerney about de Valera’s action:

The brave, Christian and human attitude of President de Valera [sic] moves me to write you these lines to express to you my admiration for your country and to assure you again of my friendship.

The Conde de Mayalde Jose Finat, who had been Spanish ambassador in Berlin, wrote to Kerney:

The sympathy which both as Spaniard and as Catholic I have always felt for the noble people that you represent has continually increased during the war before the Christian and dignified attitude of its government. Today, in the presence of the noble [cabelleroso] gesture of Mr de Valera, president of Ireland [sic], I desire to manifest to Your Excellency my admiration and respect.

In the meantime, Michael McDunphy, the secretary of President Douglas Hyde, had been reported on 4 May as having ‘called on the German minister [yesterday] to express condolence on behalf of the President’. That report, too, was carried in all the Irish dailies and sent around the world by the wire agencies.

Unwanted international attention

Within forty eight hours, de Valera’s Ireland—which had managed to remain below the radar for the duration of the war—was the subject of unwanted and unwarranted international attention. De Valera had been ‘begged’ by Frederick Boland, the assistant secretary of the Department of External Affairs, not to go. Although Walshe’s position is less clear, he probably took the same view as Boland. It is likely that de Valera was more influenced in his decision by the advice of cabinet colleagues who viewed the issue in its narrow, domestic context. The counsel of the professional diplomats, as was evident within hours of the ill-fated visit, proved the more reliable and trustworthy. Nevertheless, de Valera continued to try to rationalise his action and justify what he had done in the teeth of the international protests. He wrote to his close friend Robert Brennan, the Irish envoy in Washington, that he had ‘noted that my call on the German minister on the announcement of Hitler’s death was played up to the utmost. I expected this’, and he added:

I could have had a diplomatic illness but, as you know, I would scorn that sort of thing…So long as we retained our diplomatic relations with Germany, to have failed to call upon the German representative would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy to the German nation and to Dr Hempel himself. During the whole of the war, Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always friendly and invariably correct—in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.

De Valera felt that shirking his visit would have set a bad precedent. It was, he thought, of considerable importance that the formal acts of courtesy should be made on occasions such as the death of a head of state and that they should not have attached to them any further special significance, such as connoting approval or disapproval of the politics of the state in question or of its head: ‘It is important that it should never be inferred that these formal acts imply the passing of any judgements good or bad’, he concluded. In Dáil Éireann, de Valera stated that his visit ‘implied no question of approval or disapproval or judgement of any kind on the German people of the state represented here’. He added that there was little publicity given to the fact that the Dáil had been adjourned on the death of President Roosevelt.
Dev myopic and naive

De Valera appeared to be both myopic and naive. His considerable political skills deployed during the course of the war had won him the grudging respect of the US envoy and amateur diplomat, David Gray. The British representative, Sir John Maffey, understood de Valera better than his US counterpart. Exasperated as he had been on many occasions by de Valera during the course of the war, Maffey had come to admire the Irish leader. Both Maffey and Gray were fully aware that de Valera was not pro-Axis and that he had been of considerable covert assistance to the Allies during the course of the war. He had never shown any admiration for Hitler or for the Nazis during the 1930s or during the war years. Yet, Gray’s immediate response on confirming the news of de Valera’s visit was to suggest to Washington that he should be recalled in protest. He also encouraged Maffey to persuade London to follow the same course. Neither the US nor the British felt it necessary to take such an extreme course of action. But de Valera was left in absolutely no doubt about the depth of the anger of both Churchill and Truman. The victorious Allies knew how to exact retribution and the coldness of Washington and London was felt by Dublin when it came to trying to procure scarce supplies in the difficult months which followed the ending of the war.
Although Frederick Boland had strongly advised against the visit, the Department of External affairs could hardly have anticipated the deluge of international criticism which descended on them. The Irish envoy in Washington, Robert Brennan, sent a telegram to Dublin within hours of the visit:

Radio Commentator announced item in bitter and caustic tone. Although similar action by Portugal is reported Chief gets headlines in all papers seen. Particularly because of horror atrocity stories of German prison camps during past months. Anti-German feeling was never so bitter as now.

The latter was a reference to the photo and film coverage of the liberation of the concentration camps which had, in the previous months, brought out the hidden horror of the Holocaust.

US press coverage

The major US papers reported the visit and carried scarifying editorial comment. The New York Times, under the heading ‘Mr de Valera’s regrets’ wrote that de Valera may have merely been following ‘what he believed to be the protocol required of a neutral state’. However, the editorial stated caustically: ‘Considering the character and the record of the man for whose death he was expressing grief, there is obviously something wrong with the protocol, the neutrality of Mr de Valera’. The Herald Tribune was even more forceful; it entitled its editorial ‘Neutrality gone mad’ and commented:

In this time of the breaking of nations when the stream of history becomes a rushing millrace, there is much to arrest the attention of the world. But, despite all preoccupation with greater events, there is still time for a glance and a gasp at the spectacle of the prime minister of Eire marching solemnly to the German legation to present his government’s condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler while the pious Dr Salazar places the flags of Portugal at halfmast to mourn the passing of the enemy of the human race.
If this is neutrality, it is neutrality gone mad—neutrality carried into a diplomatic jungle—where good and evil alike vanish in the red-tape thickets: where conscience flounders helplessly in slogans of protocol, and there is no sustenance for the spirit but mouldy forms of desiccated ceremonies… Obviously, for all the colourless connotations of the word, neutrality can go rancid when it is kept too long.

The Washington Post headlined its editorial ‘Moral myopia’. The paper did not question the ‘correctness’ of de Valera’s action. Concluding that the visit provided an indication of ‘why diplomatic usages have fallen into such disrepute’, it added:

The neutrality which these governments practised throughout the course of the war was dictated by expediency… Now, however, the war in Europe has been won; the neutrals need no longer fear Hitler or the Reich. Can it be that the moral myopia they imposed upon themselves in the face of danger has now blinded them to all ethical values? Or is it merely that a preoccupation with protocol has atrophied their emotions? In sober truth, there could be no real neutrality in this war… Even in death, Hitler forced a choice upon the neutral governments. By their response, they have judged themselves and that judgement in the case of Éire and Portugal is a condemnation in the eyes of all free people.

What de Valera had quickly come to discover was that he appeared, at that time, to be unique in his action among the leaders of the Western democracies. Neither Switzerland nor Sweden had adhered to the protocol. That left the Irish leader in the dubious company of the Iberian dictators, Salazar of Portugal and Franco of Spain. All inquiries by the Department of External Affairs to their envoys abroad yielded the same answer—de Valera was alone in his adherence to the protocol.
Brennan confirmed the gravity of the Irish situation in a telegram on 5 May:
Among general public, incident has attracted more attention than anything else arising from our neutrality. There is considerable adverse criticism among Irish and some defenders… I know how to answer all this…but I am not sure it is wise to have controversy at the present moment and think that I should wait for a few days, subject to your opinion.

That proved to be very solid advice. De Valera’s action was not capable of being understood objectively or sympathetically. It had been indefensible. But to engage in public debate with the leading US newspapers would simply have been foolhardy. The depth of antagonism among certain Irish Americans may be gauged by the following letter from Angela D. Walsh of New York:

Have you seen the motion pictures of the victims of German concentration camps, de Valera? Have you seen the crematoriums? Have you seen the bodies of little children murdered by Nazi hands? Have you seen the flourishing cabbages—cabbages for German food—flourishing because of the fertiliser, human remains of citizens from almost completely Catholic countries like Poland? These were citizens of a conquered country—and ÉIRE might easily have been a conquered country, neutrality or no neutrality. Have you seen the living dead, de Valera? Skin stretched over bone, and too weak to walk?

Angela Walsh was not alone in her condemnation of de Valera. Irish American politicians, many loyal friends of the country, felt obliged to express their outrage at the visit. Those views were shared by their counterparts in Britain where the Irish High Commissioner, John Dulanty, found that his job had become all the more difficult in those early weeks of May 1945. Speaking to an unidentified senior politician [it may also have been a senior civil servant], described only as ‘a mutual friend’, he reported on 15 May that he had ‘shown a rather violent reaction to the visit of the Taoiseach and yourself [Joseph Walshe] to Herr Hempel’. He had been appalled at what struck him as ‘the diplomatic lack of wisdom of the Irish government’s action in regard to the death of Hitler’. The case was outlined in the following pragmatic terms by their ‘mutual friend’:

His point, which he put vehemently, was that England had won the war, that she now had it in her power to make conditions more easy or more difficult for Ireland in the future and that, consequently, it should be one of the first objects of the Irish government to please English opinion so far as it was consistent with its own interests.

While Dulanty attempted to explain the Irish position, the arguments failed to have any impact. The ‘mutual friend’ believed that in the circumstances surrounding the visit there had been no moral issue at all and no principle that mattered a damn:

Protocol was not principle. It was made for man, not man for it. Nor could he see that any question of dignity arose. Even if it did, the practical advantages of doing what our government had done would have seemed to him so immense that he would have brushed aside any question of national amour  propre.

That source then proceeded along the same pragmatic line of argument:

He could understand a policy which, so long as Germany was unbeaten, avoided offending her. But Germany was now beaten. The German State was in dissolution and it was not unlikely that any government of Germany during the future would curse the memory of Hitler. The effect of paying compliments on his death would, unless vigorous counteraction were taken, be to antagonise not only England and America and most of Europe, but antagonise German opinion as well.

Appreciation of the British Union of Fascists

That unnamed British voice said very much what Frederick Boland would have also been telling de Valera in the Department of External Affairs. And, if further proof were needed of the dubious company into which the visit had placed de Valera, it was supplied by Dulanty who sent the original of a letter to Iveagh House on 11 May with a laconic minute, ‘no comment’. From an underground address, came the following missive:

The British Union of Fascists, which is still in existence, although it had to go underground for the time being, have instructed me to write to your Excellency, and to express their deep appreciation of the news that the secretary to the president of Eire has called on the German minister in Dublin to express condolence on behalf of the president on the death of Adolf Hitler. The British Union of Fascists begs of your Excellency to convey its gratitude to the government of Eire for thus honouring the memory of the greatest German in      history.

Bubbling over with excitement, the letter further informed de Valera that the BUF had had ‘wonderful news from our comrades in Norway’ that the ‘Fuehrer is not dead’ but had escaped in a submarine together with other leading Nazis.
Well, with friends like that…! Salazar, Franco and the British Union of Fascists were hardly the company to be keeping in May 1945. But de Valera’s visit had, quite predictably, placed him and the country in their society. He had worked successfully throughout the war to maintain Irish neutrality. He had clandestinely supported the Allies in a very active fashion. Ironically and paradoxically, he had made a decision—perhaps without deep reflection on its wider implications—to visit the German Minister to express his condolences on the death of Hitler. That action—and not his pro-Allied wartime record fixed his place in history for many tens of thousands of people who knew little—and cared less—about the Irish leader. The decision to visit Hempel may have been the first serious evidence that the man who had been born in 1882 and served as Taoiseach since 1932 was losing his diplomatic and political sharpness.
Outside of this country, the arguments about the justification for the visit to the German legation get very short shrift. In Ireland, one finds people who will defend the act. In a review of my book, Ireland and Europe, 1919-1989, the late Brian Lenihan provided this formulation:

The terms ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’ do not tell us, for example whether a given decision is marked by moral integrity, a consideration which I believe was fundamental to de Valera’s thinking. Dev’s visit to the German legation on 2 May 1945, may be questioned, as Dr Keogh questions it, on a certain view of political realism, in a world in which Germans and Germany were at their lowest ebb.
Perhaps one day we will all come to see the two world wars as a great European tragedy, and de Valera’s observance of protocol in the case of the German ambassador, Dr Hempel, will be understood as a far-sighted recognition of the inextinguishable rights of the German people, as of any other people, even at their darkest hour.

Perhaps, but for me that day and the dawning of that realisation has not yet come.

Dermot Keogh is Professor of History at University College Cork.

Further reading:

D. Keogh, Ireland and Europe, 1919-1989 (Dublin 1989).

D. Keogh, The Jewish Community and the Irish State (Cork 1997).

R. Fisk, In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the price of neutrality 1939-45 (Dublin 1983).

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