Irish post-war asylum:Nazi sympathy, pan-Celticism or raisons d’etat?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Volume 15

Much has appeared in the Irish media in recent months concerning the asylum granted to Axis collaborators and ‘war criminals’ in the years after 1945. The general tenor of this commentary has tended to increase the perception that Ireland’s attitude to these asylum-seekers was determined by pro-fascist or anti-Allied proclivities. On the other hand, if one were to read histories of the Breton movement and related accounts of those Celtic militants who found asylum in Ireland, the decision to admit such individuals is frequently ascribed to ‘interceltic solidarity’ or to a natural Irish sympathy for those engaged in struggles of national liberation. Both views result from simplistic analyses and flourish in the ignorance of contravening facts. What, then, were the factors that determined the Irish government’s attitude to those fugitives who arrived after the Second World War, and who had, for a variety of reasons, opposed the Allies or collaborated with the Axis?

The principle of sovereignty
As leaders of the only western European state born of nationalist armed struggle in the twentieth century, it was vitally important for Irish state figures to be received as equals in other European capitals—especially London. As the British representative in Ireland, Sir John Maffey, commented of Joseph Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs from 1922 to 1946:

‘It is impossible to avoid using the hackneyed expression “inferiority complex” in speaking of him . . . This complex is indeed an ingredient in the whole Anglo-Irish problem . . . There is the ever present query “Does London take our Department of External Affairs seriously? Am I not the equal in stature to the top rank of their Foreign Office?”’

De Valera likewise attached great importance to the symbols of Irish independence, and insisted that these be respected. In Robert Fisk’s view, the taoiseach felt ‘any tiny qualification of the principle of sovereignty was a denial of that principle’.
In asserting its right to diplomatic stances independent of Britain (and to avoid difficulties with Republicans should it ally itself with the ‘occupier’ of the Six Counties), wartime neutrality was arguably the ‘supreme assertion’ of Irish sovereignty. Yet it is now commonly understood that Ireland’s neutrality was ‘friendly’ towards the Allies in practical, if discreet, terms. Despite the vitriol directed at Irish neutrality by the British and American press, MI5 (the British secret service) conceded that ‘Ireland neutral’ was of greater wartime utility than ‘Ireland belligerent’ could ever have been. Ireland repatriated downed Allied airmen, issued en clair reports of German U-boat sightings, and presented no obstacle to the stream of Irish volunteers to British armed forces and industry—all without Britain being obliged to divert precious resources to Ireland’s defence. In this way, Ireland was an ‘unneutral’ neutral, but could not afford to admit this, even to its own citizens. Scrupulous adherence to the protocols of neutrality (such as de Valera’s condolence visit to the German ambassador on news of Hitler’s suicide), combined with a rigorous press censorship, kept the reality of this ‘unneutrality’ from the public both at home and abroad.
When the British returned the Treaty Ports to Irish control in 1938, de Valera gave an undertaking that Ireland would never become a base for attacks upon the United Kingdom. The 1939 Offences Against the State Act enabled effective monitoring and suppression of Nazi sympathisers, German agents and militant Republicans to this end, and much of the intelligence accumulated was shared with MI5. Irish military intelligence (G2) and Garda records furthermore indicate that there was no sympathy in operation, either on anti-British or pan-Celtic grounds, to those few foreign minority nationalists resident in Ireland during the Emergency. The Breton nationalist Leon Mill-Arden, considered the chief liaison between the IRA and the German Abwehr (secret service), was subjected to repeated interrogation, intrusive surveillance and regular confiscation of his personal correspondence. Despite being resident in the Irish Free State since 1931 and married to an Irishwoman, Irish authorities repeatedly refused him citizenship and closely shared their intelligence reports concerning him with their counterparts in Britain. His links with foreign Celtic militants and German intelligence marked him out not as a person of favour but as a subject of intense suspicion to the point of harassment.

Exiled Scottish nationalists
Wartime Ireland was also home to a small number of exiled Scottish nationalists, most of whom had arrived after the declaration of war in September 1939. Most belonged to radical, IRA-influenced groups that had been expelled by the mainstream Scottish National Party (SNP) and opposed conscription into the British Army without the express approval of a Scottish parliament. Some among them—notably the theatrical firebrand Ronald MacDonald Douglas—were said to have more revolutionary ambitions, and were rumoured to be planning ‘to do in Scotland what Patrick Pearse did in Ireland’. Douglas had even arrived upon a yacht, with the rumoured intention of emulating Erskine Childers’s gun-running adventures at Howth. Here, therefore, was a perfect opportunity for this supposedly anti-British, pan-Celticist Irish government to foster and support what could, at the very least, have proved a serious irritant for the British war effort—if not in the form of open rebellion in Scotland, then at least in the form of anti-British subversion, sabotage and espionage.
Yet, as in the case of Mill-Arden, all Scots nationalists resident in the Irish state during the war were subjected to intense scrutiny and were regarded by the Irish authorities with suspicion, even hostility. In Douglas’s case, the Department of Justice (usually regarded as the most ‘anti-British’ and ‘illiberal’ of Irish ministries) advocated immediate deportation—an action stymied only by the Scotsman’s British citizenship, which guaranteed a right of abode in Ireland. This did not mean that the Irish authorities were unwilling to act against those Scots nationalists deemed a security risk: one such exile who had joined the Irish army was peremptorily discharged on the orders of G2’s Col. Liam Archer.
Raisons d’état dictated, therefore, that Irish neutrality be distinctly pro-Allied in practice. Once the Allies were clearly beginning to prevail in the war and the geopolitical realities in Europe changed, the crucial task of asserting sovereignty would remain but the means of doing so would become very different.

Regulation of alien entry a visible demonstration of statehood
Regulation of alien entry is one of the most visible demonstrations of statehood, and a central tenet of international law—especially in those years before international conventions governing asylum came into force in the 1950s, and certainly before Ireland joined the United Nations in 1955. The Irish would decide who came to Ireland, not any foreign power. The United States ambassador David Gray knew this in 1944 when he demanded that no ‘war criminal’ be given asylum in the Irish state, just as he knew that de Valera would never agree. The demand was made for domestic American reasons, to tarnish the image of Ireland and hamstring any post-war anti-Partition campaign conducted there. It was particularly galling to de Valera, as T. Ryle Dwyer has noted, because Ireland had done everything possible to assist the Allied war effort short of declaring war on Germany. Gray was informed of this vital Irish assistance, yet went ahead in painting Ireland as a pro-Axis recalcitrant anyway, for his own political reasons.
This politicised image of Ireland was cemented by the first post-war test of Irish sovereignty in this area: the very public tussle over those German nationals who found themselves on Irish soil after 1945. The press in the UK and US were publicly rebuking Dublin for resisting requests to surrender all ‘obnoxious’ Germans, regardless of whether they had been simply German diplomats or, in the case of captured spies like Hermann Görtz, had broken only Irish law. The Irish government was unwilling to accede publicly to the wishes of foreign governments in this sensitive area. As a consequence, de Valera decided to sacrifice good relations with the Allies in the short term in order to assert Irish sovereignty. Even when the Allies were later accommodated and a number of former German spies were surrendered, the Department of External Affairs still took pains to refute the ‘malicious suggestion that the action was taken in consequence of pressure by other governments’.

Breton nationalist refugees
It was in the midst of this struggle concerning the Germans that the first Breton nationalist refugee arrived, in August 1946. Perhaps owing to the paucity of sources in English, the cases of those Breton nationalists who were granted asylum in Ireland appear particularly susceptible to misunderstanding. All too often, what was a disparate group representing a broad spectrum of Breton autonomist opinion is portrayed simplistically as a bloc of pro-Nazi war criminals. Célestin Lainé, known as Neven Henaff while in Ireland, is one of the better-known figures. Lainé had created a Breton nationalist unit that collaborated with the Germans known as the Bezen Perrot (Perrot Unit). This unit in fact formed only the militant ‘physical force’ wing of nationalism in Brittany. Under Lainé, it split from the mainstream Breton National Party (PNB). The bulk that remained were committed to a neutralist line partly inspired by Ireland’s own neutrality. They argued that the war was a dispute between the Allies and Germany that should not concern Bretons—perhaps a bankrupt policy given the circumstances, but hardly a declaration of war upon France in alliance with the Germans.
The Resistance, however, felt that all autonomism was treasonous, and determined to treat all nationalists accordingly, regardless of their attitude to collaboration. A number of nationalists were assassinated by the Resistance, especially by its Communist element, the FTP. It was in response to this that the Bezen Perrot was first formed—as a protection squad for nationalists. Finally, the FTP targeted the conservative Breton priest Fr Yann-Vari Perrot, in a move that most informed observers now acknowledge was calculated to provoke maximum outrage and to force nationalists into open collaboration with the Germans. Lainé’s group renamed itself after this slain priest, and did just that. In the course of its subsequent campaigns, some members of this 70-strong force were alleged to have participated in the ill treatment and summary execution of prisoners. Ever since, Paris has been able to tar all Breton nationalists with the Bezen Perrot brush.
Because they were all treated with equal severity after the Liberation, many Breton nationalists who went on the run and ended up in Ireland belonged to the mainstream PNB and had never taken up arms against France. One prominent Breton, Yann Goulet, had led the PNB’s uniformed but unarmed youth wing, the Bagadoù Stourm, and had actively opposed the formation of the Bezen Perrot. Contrary to baseless allegations made in certain sections of the Irish media, his organisation never operated on behalf of the German SD (security service). But in 1947 Goulet was sentenced to death in absentia all the same. Others, like Yann Fouéré, had been editors of autonomist or pro-Vichy newspapers, or Breton linguists, or PNB functionaries. In its zeal to ‘purify’ France of all collaborators, the French authorities continued to conflate all shades of Breton autonomism with the worst excesses of Nazi occupation. Many at the time felt, and still feel, that France was capitalising on the revulsion felt towards Nazism and collaboration to stamp out the Breton autonomist movement once and for all. The Breton movement’s difficulty, as one American historian remarked, was now Paris’s opportunity.
The nationalist movement in Wales in particular was so concerned that its cousins in Brittany were suffering excessive persecution that it sent a delegation from the National Eisteddfod there in 1947, which reported that there was ample evidence that Bretons had been sentenced and harassed for the sole ‘crime’ of holding autonomist ideas, even if they had never collaborated with the Germans. Even Charles de Gaulle eventually called for a calmer and more reasoned approach towards post-Liberation justice in Brittany. So to portray the Bretons who fled to Ireland—or other countries—as a uniform group of uncomplicated Nazis or fascists is simply misrepresentative and untrue. Many of them faced genuine persecution in a France justifiably outraged at collaboration but perhaps stretching its definition somewhat further than was always deserved. It is important to remember, for example, that Yann Fouéré took the first opportunity to return voluntarily to his home country in 1955, where he was acquitted of all charges by a French court.
Importantly, even Lainé was never charged with, nor was even alleged to have participated in, atrocities against civilians or Resistance fighters. Those Bezen Perrot men sentenced to death in absentia who came to Ireland were condemned for the crime of ‘attacks upon the integrity of the French state’—that is, for the ‘crime’ of separatism. Most later received amnesties. Lainé was the political leader and motive force behind armed Breton nationalist collaboration with Germany, and must certainly be judged on that basis. But he was never the unit’s field commander and, as the Breton historian Kristian Hamon confirms, there is no evidence that Lainé personally harmed anyone.
The fact that some Bretons were subjected to persecution on the basis of their political beliefs is one of the reasons why the Irish government gave them asylum. This is equally true of many Flemings who fled Belgium. It is a long-established principle of extradition law that offences of a political character are exempted, owing to the fact that the prosecuting state cannot be considered impartial in a case in which it itself is the plaintiff. Territorial asylum is a central plank of international law, and Ireland, as an independent state, was fully entitled to grant such asylum to whomever it pleased if it was believed that the refugee would be unjustly treated if returned to his home country. Even though there was no specific Irish legislation regarding extradition to Europe until 1965, Dublin tacitly acknowledged that the political exception clauses of pre-independence British treaties were still in force when it refused a Belgian request that a Flemish refugee be returned in 1952.

Catholicism and anti-Communist solidarity
What these Bretons, Croats and Flemings had in common with their Irish hosts was, of course, Catholicism. Even this, however, would exercise real influence upon policy only after the war. De Valera had strongly resisted Spanish proposals that a ‘Catholic bloc’ of neutral nations be set up during the war, given that many such regimes, both in Europe and Latin America, had rejected democracy and adopted some form of fascistic authoritarianism. In fact, Ireland was the only European Catholic state to maintain democratic government throughout the 1930s and ’40s, resisting the brief threat posed by O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. Fianna Fáil had certainly drifted from its secular republican roots towards Catholic nationalism by 1937, but it still faced enormous criticism from the Catholic Right for refusing to align with Franco in the Spanish Civil War and recognising his regime only a few months before the Nationalist victory.
After 1945, however, Ireland, like many Western states, looked upon Communist gains in Europe with considerable dread. Anti-Communist solidarity was therefore a major motive for the granting of asylum to former Axis collaborators. This was especially acute in the mid- to late 1940s, when it was feared that the Red Army could overrun Europe and that both France and Italy could ‘go Red’ from within. In its sympathy for ‘proven anti-Communists’, Irish governments—heavily influenced by the Catholic Church—turned a blind eye to the wartime actions of their ‘guests’. As Chris Agee observed, the Catholic Church in particular was now seeking to ‘shape-shift’ former Axis war criminals into ‘martyrs of the struggle between Christianity and Communism’.
Ireland, however, was not alone in this endeavour. For example, Andrija Artukovic, the former interior minister of the Croatian Ustasha state, spent one year in Ireland under the name of ‘Alois Anitch’. Irish government files pertaining to this individual and his time in Ireland remain unreleased. It is possible that his identity was known to the Irish government, but it was almost certainly known to the Catholic Church, who actively assisted him and other wanted Croats, Flemings and Uniate Ukrainians to escape to Argentina, Spain, Ireland and other countries. The British, however, had captured Artukovic in Austria and, despite being fully aware of the allegations against him, released him with ‘no security objection’. After his single year in Ireland, he spent almost 40 times as long in the US. Moreover, the Vatican and Western governments assisted and funded Krizari operations in Croatia, in which Ustasha guerrillas fought Tito’s Communist rule. Similarly, in an operation codenamed ‘Jungle’, the Western Allies parachuted agents into the Baltic States (many of them former members of the German SS) soon after the end of the war, to destabilise the rule of their former Soviet allies and support anti-Soviet partisans. Indeed, the Americans’ entire intelligence network in Eastern Europe was inherited wholesale from the Nazis, and even run by its former head, Gen. Reinhard Gehlen.

Wholesale Allied collaboration with collaborators
Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s larger-than-life commando chief, was never granted asylum in Ireland, but did buy property and spend time there in the late 1950s. In more evidence of Western complicity with former Nazis, the historian Glenn Infield details how Skorzeny claimed that his escape from American detention was effected with help from US intelligence itself, which even went so far as to provide him with American uniforms to make his getaway. More explosively, Skorzeny claims that he was sent back to Germany in 1950 to recruit ex-SS men on behalf of US intelligence. Allied states Australia and Canada, too, harboured wanted and fugitive ‘war criminals’ from regions behind the Iron Curtain, in numbers far in excess of those given asylum in Ireland. In fact, the total number of Axis or collaborationist refugees granted asylum in Ireland—whether Bretons, Flemings, Croats, Ukrainians, Austrians or Germans—almost certainly numbers fewer than 100. In the United Kingdom alone, some 7,000 Ukrainian collaborators and their families were granted post-war asylum, many subsequently moving on to Canada or the US. Evidence of all this has been available for many years, so it is rather incredible that certain commentators still single out Ireland for charges of ‘pro-Nazi’ proclivity. Ireland’s attitude to these refugees was certainly motivated by strong Catholic solidarity, by anti-Communism, and by its all-too-frequent concomitant anti-Semitism. Reprehensible as this is, it was not uncommon in Catholic countries at the time—many of which, unlike Ireland, had actually declared war upon the Axis.
The only difference in the late 1940s was that Ireland felt, as it had in 1939, that it could not ally itself with Britain (this time in NATO) while the UK ‘occupied’ Northern Ireland. This led to charges that Dublin was once again opting out of crucial geopolitical conflicts and shifting the responsibility for its defence onto other countries, despite the declaration by Irish ministers such as Seán MacBride that Ireland’s neutrality was not axiomatic and that it would be guaranteed to join in any conflict between the West and Communism. The sticking-point, once again, was Partition, yet the refusal to join NATO handed anti-Irish commentators a propaganda stick with which to beat Dublin—suggesting that Irish governments revelled in any anti-British threat and were enjoying the benefits of Allied protection without contributing to its costs.
The granting of asylum has always been a tool for political ends. Assertions of pan-Celticism as the prime motivator for the admission of Breton exiles are made problematic by the entry, in roughly equal numbers and at the same time, of non-Celtic fugitives from Flanders, Croatia and other regions. Final determinations of state policy were made for less sentimental raisons d’état. Catholic, more than Celtic, solidarity played a greater role in the admission of foreign exiles—a role given greater significance by the developing Cold War and Ireland’s identity as a Catholic nation firmly on the side of the West in that struggle. Only Partition militated against Irish membership of NATO, as it had against involvement in the Second World War. Charges that asylum was motivated by anti-British or pro-Axis impulses are equally challenged by Ireland’s secret pro-Allied actions during the war, including the hostility shown towards Scottish nationalists and others thought receptive to Nazi approaches or hostile to British interests. If there was a pro-Axis proclivity in Irish policy-making, it developed only after German defeat, and was determined by fear of the new threat in Europe—the march of Stalinist Communism. In this, and in its shameful attitude towards contemporary Jewish refugees, Ireland must accept its responsibility; it was, however, a minor player in a grander Western secret.
But perhaps the most significant factor in this question was Ireland’s determination to assert control over its own borders and immigration—in short, its sovereignty and independence. To this end, Irish governments of the immediate post-war years were prepared to endure short-term Allied hostility in defence of the long-term goal of international recognition and respect. That sovereignty would be respected, even if Ireland found itself ‘almost wholly isolated from the mainstream of world events and without the means to influence them’.

Daniel Leach is the Gerry Higgins scholar and a PhD candidate at the School of Historical Studies, University of Melbourne.

Further reading:
M. Aarons and J. Loftus, Ratlines: how the Vatican’s Nazi networks betrayed Western intelligence to the Soviets (London, 1991).
T. Ryle Dwyer, Irish neutrality and the USA, 1939–47 (Dublin, 1977).
C. Molohan, Germany and Ireland 1945–1955: two nations’ friendship (Dublin, 1999).
J. E. Reece, The Bretons against France: ethnic minority nationalism in twentieth-century Brittany (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977).


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