Thursday, May 27, 2004

Ultranationalism and the Irish Stance in World War 2

Here's an interesting BBC article on a period in Irish history which I suspect most would rather forget, given what we now know. Still, it is heartening to learn that many young Irishmen weren't so consumed with dislike for their former colonial rulers that they were willing to abide by a stance of neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.

Sixty years on from the anxious summer months of 1944 it is a time for remembering in all the nations that were shaped and scarred by World War II.

There is one European country though where the full picture of what happened during the war is being discovered for the first time.

Neutral Ireland saw no reason to fight against Hitler's Germany alongside Britain in 1939; it was after all only 18 years since the country had bloodily secured a partial independence from London after centuries of British rule.

At the time it seemed a reasonable decision, and at the political level neutrality was scrupulously observed.

When the first, still barely believable reports of what had happened in the Nazi concentration camps emerged they were strictly censored.

And the Irish leader Eamon de Valera even paid his respects to the German representative in Dublin when news of Hitler's death emerged.

Irishmen who had volunteered for Britain's armies were given a tough time when they were home on leave, and were cold-shouldered after the fighting by a de Valera-led government that didn't see why they should qualify for state welfare payments when they came home from fighting for a foreign power.


Yvonne McEwen, a historian with a special interest in Irish affairs, has now come up with a detailed estimate of the numbers of Irishmen from both sides of the border who fought for Britain.

Based on the War Office calculation that 22 men served for every one who died, she estimates that 99,997 Irishmen volunteered, with the number divided almost evenly between the North and the South.

Fascinating stuff which still has a certain political resonance. After all it suggests that while the government of Ireland may have been neutral, many of its people were not. And it also demonstrates that the supposedly non-combatant Irish Free State contributed as many soldiers as Northern Ireland, a region of the UK whose unionist population prides itself on its loyalty.

I've known about Eamon de Valera's paying his last respects to "Chancellor Hitler" for quite some time now, but I still can't help feeling nonplussed that anyone should have been so consumed with hatred for Britain that he should have been willing to go that far; fear of German aggression can't explain it, as Germany had obviously lost the war long before then, and the cessation of fighting in Europe was clearly going to occur in a matter of days. No, de Valera's message of condolence to Admiral Dönitz was clearly a matter of sticking a finger in the eye of the hated British enemy.**

It's compensatory hypernationalism of the sort epitomized by the American-born de Valera* (and by Napoleon, and by Verwoerd, and by Stalin, and even by a certain Austrian ...) that makes me less than agitated by the decision of Sonia Ghandi to decline the premiership in the face of BJP opposition. Whether they are driven by an ambition to prove their loyalty to their newly-adopted countries, or merely by the same intense identification that drove them to adopt new nationalities, foreign-born leaders tend to have a marked tendency to go overboard with the chauvinism. What a striking thing it is to consider that some 100,00 native-born Irishmen, who were unlike de Valera in lacking the easy option of a return to some foreign domicile, were willing to risk their very lives in opposition to a cause they rightly recognized as being far more evil than even the British Empire ever was at its very worst.

For the record, I don't believe that Eamon de Valera was an anti-semite, or any more of a racist than the average white person in the Western world was in those days, and I certainly don't think that Irish neutrality was entirely a matter of cocking a snook at the British. Nonetheless, it seems to me at least that this was one moment in history in which the Irish government allowed (well founded) historical animosities to get the better of its moral judgement. If this shameful story is redeemed, it is by those Irish volunteers who came forward in the face of official government indifference, only to be met with indifference on their return from the fighting.

*It's also worth noting that the only reason de Valera wasn't hanged after the Easter Rising of 1916 was because of his American citizenship, while Roger Casement, a far nobler character who did far more to make the world a better place, went to the gallows all the same.

**Further corrobaration of this view can be found in de Valera's contrasting reaction to Churchill's death; not only did he refuse to attend the funeral on being sounded out by the British government, but he also sent a low-level official to stand in for the Irish government in his place. As a calculated insult one could hardly have done better.