‘Oh here’s to Adolph Hitler,
Who made the Britons squeal,
Sure before the fight is ended
They will dance an Irish reel.’
(War News, 21 November 1940)
Seán Russell, the IRA chief of staff, spent the summer of 1940 in a ‘very large’ villa in the leafy Grunewald, near Berlin, surrounded by extensive grounds and parks, enjoying all the privileges of a diplomat with regard to access to food, petrol and other rationed goods. His villa contained radio gramophone facilities and an ‘excellent library’ equipped with ‘special war maps’ that enabled Russell to keep abreast of Germany’s stunning military victories that summer. As a registered representative of the Irish Republic he was accorded ‘every privilege possible’, including the use of a car and chauffeur for trips around Berlin and the German countryside and the services of a young Austrian aristocrat, who was appointed as his companion and interpreter. He was given access to the high-security Brandenburg military camp to study the latest techniques in sabotage and guerilla warfare, and met leading Nazis such as Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop. Following the fall of France, Russell urged that the German high command make use of the IRA to strike at British forces in Northern Ireland as part of a general attack on Britain. His plans were accepted and incorporated into Operation Sealion (the plan for the invasion of Britain), a mark of the ‘respect and esteem’ in which Russell was held by the German military leadership. During August Russell was to return to Ireland to oversee the implementation of these plans, but on his journey home by U-boat he became ill and died. His body was buried at sea with full German naval honours.
The above information comes not from one of Russell’s many critics, eager to paint him as a collaborator with the Nazis, but from the republican newspaper The United Irishman of October 1951. The article was published to coincide with the unveiling of a monument to Russell in Dublin’s Fairview Park and concluded that he was a ‘worthy successor to Tone and Casement’. Quite apart from that questionable assessment, what is notable about the article is the utter lack of embarrassment that the leader of the IRA was a guest of the Nazis during a period in which the German armies invaded and forcibly occupied five sovereign nations. Yet many still dispute claims that Russell collaborated with the Nazis, painting him as a simple military man unconcerned with political matters. That this should excuse him of collaboration is of course debatable. Others have suggested that both he and the IRA could have had no knowledge of the realities of Nazi policy and were simply following the tradition of ‘England’s difficulty being Ireland’s opportunity.’ The presence of former International Brigade officer Frank Ryan on board the U-boat with Russell is seen as further evidence of lack of Nazi sympathy. The question of collaboration is more complex and wider than both sides of the argument have allowed, though, I would argue, no less damning for Russell in the end.
Early contacts with Nazi Germany
Russell’s contacts with Nazi Germany dated from as early as October 1936, when he wrote to the German ambassador to the United States, apologising on behalf of the Irish people for the refusal of the de Valera administration to grant landing rights to the German air service. In that letter he signalled that he would be willing to cooperate with the Germans in any future military conflicts they found themselves in. It was in the US that initial IRA–Nazi contacts were established, with the Clan na Gael leader Joe McGarrity a key figure in building these links. During 1938 the left-wing Irish Democrat noted that the Nazis were making efforts to win allies among Irish republicans in New York. Russell and McGarrity cooperated in launching a coup within the IRA during that year, overthrowing its established leadership and committing the organisation to a bombing campaign in Britain. Tom Barry, one of the ousted leadership, claimed that money from the German-American Bund, the main Nazi organisation in the US, had been promised to fund the bombing campaign. In January 1939 that bombing campaign began but, despite leading to seven civilian deaths and the execution of two IRA men, never caused the political crisis the IRA hoped for. The international situation leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War preoccupied British opinion. During the months after the outbreak of war the IRA publicly declared that it was supporting neither ‘king’ nor ‘dictator’.
However, in July 1940 the IRA leadership issued a statement outlining its position on the war. The statement made clear that if ‘German forces should land in Ireland, they will land . . . as friends and liberators of the Irish people’. The public was assured that Germany desired neither ‘territory nor . . . economic penetration’ in Ireland but only that it should play its part in the ‘reconstruction’ of a ‘free and progressive Europe’. The Third Reich was also praised as the ‘energising force’ of European politics and the ‘guardian’ of national freedom. In response to critics such as George Bernard Shaw, who had drawn attention to Hitler’s anti-Catholic policies, the IRA countered that both ‘Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini’ proved their lack of bias by helping to establish the ‘Catholic government’ of Franco in Spain. In August the IRA confidently predicted that with the assistance of ‘our victorious European allies’ Ireland would ‘achieve absolute independence within the next few months’.
The IRA’s statements drew angry responses from Irish Freedom, published by the Connolly Association, and Irish Workers Weekly, published by the Communist Party of Ireland, who criticised the IRA for inviting ‘German soldiers to come and devastate the country they talk of freeing’. These papers also noted how the IRA and their ‘strange bedfellow General O’Duffy’ were lauding as ‘liberators’ powers that held ‘Abyssinia, Austria, Albania and Czechoslovakia’ in subjection. The reference to the former Blueshirt leader was apt. During 1940 IRA officers approached O’Duffy and asked him to become an intelligence operative for the organisation. Irish Freedom noted with disgust how the Nazis seemed to have been able to ‘corrupt’ some of the leading Irish republicans.
That this was the case became more apparent over the next year. War News, the IRA’s main publication, became increasingly pro-Nazi in tone, even claiming active IRA involvement in the German bombing of British cities. But more chillingly it began to ape anti-Semitic arguments. Satisfaction was expressed that the ‘cleansing fire’ of the German armies was driving the Jews from Europe. British war minister Hore Belisha was described as a ‘wealthy Jew’ only interested in ‘profits’. War News condemned the arrival in Ireland of ‘so-called Jewish refugees’, along with unspecified numbers of ‘Albanian, Abyssinian, Mongolian [and] Tartars’. These new arrivals were not only supposedly putting Irish people out of work but also exploiting those that they employed. Belfast was said to be increasingly in the ‘hands of international Jewry’ because of this influx. ‘The Jews’, War News warned, were ‘like the English, when they are strong they bully and rule.’ In Dublin de Valera’s government was also dominated by ‘Jews and Freemasons’ who were becoming the ‘new owners of Ireland’. Fianna Fáil TD Robert Briscoe was singled out for attack.
Given the tiny numbers of Jewish refugees actually allowed access to Ireland this logic was perverse, but it reflected a strand of thought previously expressed within the republican movement on numerous occasions by the Sinn Féin leader J.J. O’Kelly (Scelig). Throughout the 1930s Sinn Féin publications written by O’Kelly had repeatedly attacked alleged Jewish influence in Ireland. By 1940 he was praising Hitler for freeing Germany from the ‘heel’ of the ‘Jewish white slave traffic’. Indeed, by 1940 republicans and former Blueshirts were mingling in a variety of small pro-German organisations in Dublin. What is clear is that at least a section of the IRA leadership was attracted by Nazism’s successes.
Anti-Nazism within the IRA
Was this simply a more extreme form of the widespread ‘sneaking regard’ in Ireland for German military victories over the British during 1940? After all, much of nationalist Ireland refused to believe that any form of oppression was worse than that inflicted by the British. What differentiated the IRA from other sections of nationalist opinion, however, is that the organisation had an anti-Nazi history. In 1933 the IRA’s newspaper An Phoblacht had condemned ‘Hitlerism’ as a ‘disease’. After the Nazis came to power the paper attacked those ‘rather foolish people’ in Ireland who praised Hitler. It criticised anti-Semitism and drew attention to the similarity between the Blueshirts in Ireland and fascists elsewhere in Europe.
An Phoblacht reviewed the Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and explained how under Nazism ‘Jews are murdered or hounded’ and ‘bloody coercion’ imposed on the German people. That the Nazis had banned rival political parties, murdered socialists and jailed thousands of their opponents was taken as evidence that the ‘Fascist state is a collection of human chattels at the disposal of tyrants’. Reports from the underground German Social Democratic Party were also published in the paper. Therefore any IRA member who cared to read his own organisation’s newspaper during those years would have been aware of the nature of Nazi Germany. Part of the key to understanding the pro-Nazi drift of the IRA in 1940 is the nature of the political struggles within the organisation during the previous decade.
In 1933 the IRA had perhaps 12,000 members and was, in the Free State at least, a relatively open and public organisation. Yet it was divided on many levels. The dominant leadership grouping around Moss Twomey and Seán MacBride were sympathetic to social radicalism but primarily concerned with developing the IRA as a military force. An important section of the leadership was socialist, notably Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore. Another section—of which Russell, as the IRA’s quartermaster general, was probably the best example—were committed entirely to armed force and uninterested in political debate. A smaller group were attracted to Sinn Féin’s espousal of right-wing ‘Christian social’ policies. Divisions existed over the relationship between the IRA in Northern Ireland and its much larger and more influential southern counterpart, and over questions about religion and communism.
But most importantly the IRA failed to comprehend the degree to which the Fianna Fáil government was winning republican support for its constitutional politics. Violent conflict with the Blueshirts allowed the government to arrest and jail IRA members, and this violence also alienated passive support. The IRA leadership forbade its volunteers to engage in such street confrontations but was widely ignored, contributing to an image of an undisciplined, uncontrollable organisation. Differences about how to react to Fianna Fáil in government contributed to the departure of many of the most prominent socialists in 1934 to form the Republican Congress. Further violence, including murders, led to more government repression, with the eventual banning of the IRA in 1936. After Twomey was jailed that year the leadership passed to Seán MacBride, Tom Barry and Mick Fitzpatrick in quick succession. Membership fell to around 2,000.
It was in this situation that the idea for a campaign in Britain, suggested by the American Clan na Gael and taken up by Russell, appealed to young, militant IRA officers with no prior experience of military conflict. Much of the northern IRA was attracted to the idea as well, feeling marginalised and ignored by their southern comrades. Russell and McGarrity won a bitter internal power struggle, partially through sabotaging a plan for a northern campaign and convincing their young supporters that a bombing campaign in Britain would be tolerated by the Irish government. To these men cooperation with the Germans made perfect military sense.
The marginalisation and decline of the IRA and the loss of many of its more experienced leaders contributed to the German alliance. Contacts between the IRA and German nationalists in Dublin had existed since the early 1930s. In 1938 the Republican Congress warned how these nationalists, now working for German intelligence, were wooing the IRA. During that year Russell would claim to have ‘no more’ interest in Germany ruling Ireland than in Britain doing so, while still being happy to solicit their military aid. One jailed IRA leader expressed the view that he was ‘not greatly interested in the different interests’ fighting the war, ‘except in so far’ as to see ‘England beaten’. This view was echoed by the women of Cumann na mBan, who saw the Germans as ‘fighting Ireland’s battle and the battle of all oppressed nations within the empire’ but were not eager for them to come to Ireland. While naïve in the extreme, these views were at least in line with the republican belief that ‘England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity’. A key factor in the more openly Nazi line was the military success of the Germans during 1940, which made it seem likely that the defeat of Britain was imminent.
Anti-Communism within the IRA
But there was more involved than apolitical militarism and opportunism. The 1930s IRA had seen bitter arguments about its social policies, especially those believed to be ‘communistic’. Criticism of the organisation by the Catholic Church had also had a major impact on the IRA, and its leadership struggled to find ways of expressing social radicalism that did not conflict with church doctrine. By the mid-1930s ideas about social credit and distributism, which included strong anti-Semitic elements, were current within the organisation, and Sinn Féin’s ‘Christian social’ policies also gained new supporters. Sympathy was expressed with demagogic figures such as Fr Charles Coughlin and Huey Long in the US.
That some IRA volunteers fought fascism in Spain is used to absolve the organisation of charges of collaboration. But the IRA actually forbade its members to go to Spain, and those volunteers who did go went in defiance of their leaders. Similarly, the commander of the Irish anti-Fascists in Spain, Frank Ryan, had severed his connection with the IRA in 1934 and joined the Republican Congress. There were pro-Franco as well as pro-Spanish republican elements within the IRA. A number of younger officers became more open to right-wing politics. Supporters of the old IRA leadership in 1938 had accused some of Russell’s supporters, such as Peadar O’Flaherty, of ‘fascist’ leanings. The strategist of the bombing campaign, James O’Donovan, was also seen by some as influenced by fascist thinking. It was in this context that IRA officers could approach Eoin O’Duffy, who as a Free State general, Garda Commissioner and Blueshirt leader had been a sworn enemy of their organisation, and offer him a place in its leadership. Clearly a section of the leadership at least was also happy to revel in Nazi successes.
It is important to note that the IRA in 1940 was under severe pressure and in decline. Hundreds of its members were jailed or interned in the Curragh camp. Undoubtedly a measure of desperation contributed to its thinking. Similarly, the views expressed in War News need to be put into context. Much of what was written in the journal was fantasy, especially the claims that the IRA was playing a major role in the German war effort. But the IRA clearly wanted to be seen to be doing so, and there may have been an element of hoping to impress the Nazis as well as the Irish public. Furthermore, War News was illegal and therefore written and distributed surreptitiously. A small number of people were responsible for its content and only a few IRA members could have had any input into it. Despite the violence of some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric in War News the IRA did not attempt to physically attack Irish Jews.
But the reality was that, whether ideologically pro-Nazi or not, the IRA was committed to aiding the German war effort. By late 1940 that meant supporting a German invasion of Ireland. The IRA’s opponents in Irish military intelligence were prepared to concede that the IRA ‘would give every assistance’ to the defence forces in the event of a British invasion but would assist the Germans if they landed. Across Europe a variety of ethnic and political groups collaborated with the Nazis in order to further their own agendas. Inevitably this meant active involvement in Nazi persecution of Jews and political opponents. It also meant becoming a part of the Nazi governmental machine. Does anyone seriously believe that the IRA would have avoided playing this role?
Furthermore, the argument that Russell and the IRA could have had no idea of the nature of Nazi policies is spurious. That Nazi Germany was a one-party dictatorship was not a secret. The banning of political organisations and the jailing and murder of opponents by the Nazis during 1933 and 1934 was widely reported in Ireland, not least in the IRA’s own press. The November 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of citizenship rights and forbade physical relations between Jew and ‘Aryan’, were not a closely guarded secret. The support given to Franco by Germany and the destruction of Basque Guernica by Nazi bombers in May 1937 was actually condemned by An Phoblacht. The Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 that saw the murder of 100 people, the destruction of thousands of homes, businesses and synagogues and the jailing of 26,000 Jews was international news. By 1940 the Nazis had invaded and occupied a large part of Europe. That these occupied countries did not desire foreign occupation should have given pause for thought to a movement claiming to seek national self-determination.
IRA role in German-occupied Ireland?
Seán Russell may have been uninterested in political debate but he was hardly unaware of these matters. That he was happy to take up residence in Berlin as a guest of the Nazis, meet their high command and propose plans for military action in support of a German invasion was collaboration, whatever his private motivation. Is there not something perverse about an Irish republican enjoying special privileges in the capital of a state that was embarked on a mission to conquer all of Europe?
Given the experience of other occupied countries in Europe, the IRA would have found itself rewarded for its assistance by a role in the administration of occupied Ireland. IRA intelligence would have been used to arrest left-wing and other political opponents of the Nazis. The anti-Semitic authors of War News would have been put to work on helping to round up Ireland’s Jews. Old scores would have been settled by newly empowered local IRA officers. Those IRA members who had no time for Nazi ideology but wished to see a German victory would have had to face the logic of that position. A German victory meant the Nazi occupation of Ireland. Here we face the question posed by Joe Lee as to how the Black and Tans would have retrospectively looked after our occupation by the SS. Even in purely numerical terms, the Germans killed more Irish civilians in the bombing of Belfast than had died at the hands of the British during the War of Independence.
No doubt a section of the IRA would have realised their mistake and resisted. Certainly among the internees in the Curragh there were those who came to the conclusion that German imperialism represented a graver threat to Irish freedom than British. Other sections of Irish society would have collaborated too, of course, and the European experience suggests that many of the great and the good would have found reason to do so. But, unlike these hypothetical collaborators, the IRA actually wanted a German invasion and was in a position for a period to physically assist one. That is the central problem that many still refuse to face up to.
Brian Hanley lectures in Irish history at NUI Maynooth.
S. Cronin, Frank Ryan: the search for the Republic (Dublin, 1980).
C. Foley, Legion of the rearguard: the IRA and the modern Irish state (London, 1992).
B. Hanley, The IRA, 1926–1936 (Dublin, 2002).
J.J. Lee, Modern Ireland, politics and society, 1912–1985 (Cambridge, 1989).