Glaoch ón Tríú Reich (‘A call from the Third Reich’)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 21

Dr Arndt Wigger, a former student of Dr Hans Hartmann, at Lough Inagh, Connemara. The desolate and breathtaking landscapes belie the deadly subject-matter. (Mind The Gap Films)

Dr Arndt Wigger, a former student of Dr Hans Hartmann, at Lough Inagh, Connemara. The desolate and breathtaking landscapes belie the deadly subject-matter. (Mind The Gap Films)

The noted linguist, Celtic studies expert and Nazi propagandist Dr Hans Hartmann has been enjoying something of a revival recently. First he had a starring role, albeit dramatised, in Desmond Bell’s film The enigma of Frank Ryan. This depicted Hartmann interviewing  Ryan about his IRA role in wartime Berlin, something that never actually happened, although the German linguist did try to lure the IRA man to work for his radio propaganda unit in Luxembourg in 1944 (the service moved from Berlin in 1943 to avoid increasing Allied bombing). Ryan was keen to go but his health gave out and he died in Germany the following year.

 

The latest instalment of the saga sees a former student of Hartmann’s, Dr Arndt Wigger, chasing the academic’s ghost from Berlin to Donegal and beyond. Wigger is an interesting choice to front such a documentary and he deserves recognition for taking a brave step into the Nazi shark pool. But he comes across as a doubting Thomas, agonising for most of the hour-long programme over whether or not Hartmann was a Nazi. A simple trip to the Bundesarchiv in Berlin could have uncovered the academic’s party card and the fact that his NSDAP membership dated from 1 March 1933, just a month after Hitler became German chancellor.

Hans Hartmann (sixth from left) at a meeting of the Irish Folklore Commission in the National Museum of Ireland in 1937. Museum director (and Dublin’s Nazi Party leader) Adolf Mahr is fourth from the left. (Dept of Folklore, UCD)

Hans Hartmann (sixth from left) at a meeting of the Irish Folklore Commission in the National Museum of Ireland in 1937. Museum director (and Dublin’s Nazi Party leader) Adolf Mahr is fourth from the left. (Dept of Folklore, UCD)

But such a direct approach to finding out what made Hartmann tick would perhaps have spoiled Wigger’s long and winding odyssey through the Celtic mists of time, as he drifts relentlessly towards the inevitable denouement, which hits him like a sledgehammer. If this were a silent movie it could double as a promo for Fáilte Ireland. But the desolate and breathtaking landscapes of Donegal and Connemara belie the deadly subject-matter. Whatever way you look at it, Nazi propaganda—as it sought to convince a wary world of Hitler’s New Order—is not an easy or palatable subject. Nor is it for the fainthearted.

 

Dr Wigger finds himself in an unenviable position, having learned Irish under Hartmann at Hamburg University in the 1960s. It is understandable that none of Hartmann’s students dared to ask him about his wartime role belting out Goebbels-style propaganda from the Berlin Rundfunkhaus. When Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a former Brussels correspondent for RTÉ, tried to interview Hartmann in the early 1970s he cancelled the appointment. So what didn’t happen is almost as telling as what did.

A simple trip to the Bundesarchiv in Berlin could have uncovered Hartmann’s Nazi Party card and the fact that his NSDAP membership dated from 1 March 1933, just a month after Hitler became German chancellor. (Bundesarchiv, Berlin)

A simple trip to the Bundesarchiv in Berlin could have uncovered Hartmann’s Nazi Party card and the fact that his NSDAP membership dated from 1 March 1933, just a month after Hitler became German chancellor. (Bundesarchiv, Berlin)

One of the most moving parts of this documentary is when Wigger (who was born in 1943) speaks about his own background and his memories of sheltering with his mother as the Allies bombed their home city of Hamburg. His father was imprisoned for helping a Jew to escape to England, but was released when he agreed to join the army. The estrangement of father and son during the war seems to have had a lasting effect. And in pondering Hartmann’s motives for doing the radio work, Wigger admits that he might have done the same, if only to save himself and his family from danger.

 

Some twenty years ago, when researching Germany’s wartime radio broadcasts to Ireland, I went to meet Hartmann in Cologne, where he was living in retirement with his wife Helene (his son, Detlef, is a leading lawyer in the city). I asked him about his links to the Nazi party and he frankly admitted that he had joined in 1933 ‘in order to be left alone later on’. I also asked him about anti-Semitic propaganda on the Irish radio service or Irland-Redaktion, and he said that he had ‘tried to keep it to a minimum’. Nonetheless, while Hartmann was careful not to include any anti-Jewish material in his nightly Irish-language talks, he allowed some members of his team to broadcast anti-Semitic invective. In addition, coded messages were broadcast to German sympathisers in Ireland.

Hans Hartmann (standing, left) interviewing POW Larry Slattery from Thurles in a Berlin hospital. Slattery’s RAF plane was shot down while dropping leaflets over Germany on 4 September 1939. (Irish Military Archives)

Hans Hartmann (standing, left) interviewing POW Larry Slattery from Thurles in a Berlin hospital. Slattery’s RAF plane was shot down while dropping leaflets over Germany on 4 September 1939. (Irish Military Archives)

Hartmann enjoined his Irish listeners to ‘Coinnígí bhur neodracht’ (‘Keep your neutrality’), explaining to me that ‘It was a part of the war aims . . . when de Valera declared his neutrality, Hitler said to himself that that was the best thing for him too . . . Irish neutrality was really one of the objectives which was in conformity with German policies’.

 

Wigger overlooks these angles and tries to blame the tone of Hartmann’s Nazi talks on his mentor, Professor Ludwig Mühlhausen, who initiated the Irish-language service from Berlin in December 1939 and continued until mid-1941. Wigger also makes Hartmann look like a lone operator speaking to Ireland, whereas in fact the German ran the nightly radio service from December 1941 to May 1945 and oversaw a team of speakers including the Irish writer Francis Stuart (whom he sacked in February 1944 for refusing to broadcast anti-Soviet propaganda). Wigger’s best source by far is Dr Sabine Heinz from Humboldt University in Berlin, who trawls through the archives and finds that Hartmann ‘identified with the [Nazi] party’s ideology, approved of it’ and ‘tried to get a foot in the party from early on’. More disturbingly, Dr Heinz discovers that in 1937 Hartmann applied for various scholarships, supported by Dr Erich Jaensch, a psychiatrist ‘involved in defining Nazi race theory’. 

Hans Hartmann at home in Cologne in 1990, aged 81.

Hans Hartmann at home in Cologne in 1990, aged 81.

Faced with the irrefutable evidence, Wigger concedes that had he known about Hartmann’s Nazi past when attending his lectures in the 1960s he ‘would have left him immediately’. Chameleon-like, Hartmann managed to reinvent himself in the post-war period, visiting Connemara in the mid-1960s with UCD’s professor of Irish, Tomás de Bhaldraithe, to record local dialects. It is a salutary lesson in how someone, as Wigger puts it, ‘can hide their true self like that’.  HI

David O’Donoghue is the author of Hitler’s Irish voices: the story of German radio’s wartime Irish service (Belfast, 1998).
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