Ben Lowry: Irish neutrality towards Hitler was logical, but not admirable

Eamon de Valera, who not only kept Ireland neutral but paid condolences on Hitlers death
Eamon de Valera, who not only kept Ireland neutral but paid condolences on Hitlers death

A spokesman for Leo Varadkar yesterday clarified the Taoiseach’s comment that Eamon de Valera’s “finest hour” was staying out of World War II.

Quite reasonably, Mr Varadkar’s spokesman outlined the context of Irish neutrality in that conflict. Ireland was a small, newly independent nation that wanted to stay out of wars.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who described Irish neutrality in the Second World War as de Valera's "finest hour".

Photo by Matt Mackey / Press Eye.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who described Irish neutrality in the Second World War as de Valera's "finest hour". Photo by Matt Mackey / Press Eye.

While the spokesman for the Taoiseach did not say so, there was also presumably no appetite to fight alongside Britain, the country from which Ireland had split after a war of independence.

All this is understandable.

There was little appetite for war in Great Britain either, or in Northern Ireland. Volunteer levels in the latter were said to have been a disappointment to London.

I imagine recruitment rates would have been disappointing in GB too if there had been no conscription (as there was none in this Province due to political sensitivities).

In 1939 the Great War, which had ended a mere 21 years before, was as recent as 1996 is to today.

By some calculations almost a million British people were killed in that disastrous conflict.

Few young men in the 1920s and 30s, having seen their older brothers and cousins or their uncles and teachers killed on a large scale in World War One, can have harboured romantic illusions about war, as many enthusiastic recruits of 1914 had done.

So it wasn’t just Eire that lacked an appetite for war in the 1930s, but much of Europe including France (Germany, however, was fuelled by a sense of grievance about the 1918 armistice and its aftermath).

There are gifted historians and writers such as Andrew Roberts and Robert Harris who dispute the notion that Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich pact was a shameful act of appeasement of the Nazis.They say it was an almost inevitable attempt to forestall a conflict by a country – Britain – that was not capable of fighting another big war.

It is all the more understandable that Ireland wanted to stay out of the Second World War, particularly in its early stages.

But having said all that, it was extraordinarily tone deaf for Mr Varadkar to describe Irish neutrality as de Valera’s “finest hour”.

It clearly was a defining moment in Irish history, but Mr Varadkar sounded as if he was celebrating neutrality in the face of one of the greatest evils the world has seen.

Note that Ireland did not merely stay independent after the fall of France in 1940 and after the near collapse of Britain in the face of German air assaults thereafter, but it did so after the Nazis began to kill civilians on a grand scale from 1941, including in Belfast.

The horror of those attacks in Northern Ireland’s capital city, which killed 1,000 non military people, was so clear to people south of the border that their firefighters rushed north to help out, in a poignant display of shared humanity.

The Belfast raids, while terrible, were of course a minor event in the rollcall of Nazi attacks across the continent.

Allied forces later retaliated with massive raids on German and Japanese cities, but all the way through the war it was the Nazis who pioneered the brutality.

De Valera stayed neutral after Hitler’s deranged invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (justified, like the Polish invasion, by lies).

He stayed neutral after Pearl Harbour brought in the Americans.

De Valera stayed neutral after the madness of Stalingrad (which left a million or so people dead) extinguished any doubt as to the fact that Hitler was unhinged.

He stayed neutral after reports began to seep through of the scale of Nazi repression (although in fairness to him, even political leaders in London found it hard to believe the early reports of what was happening to the Jews could be true).

But all of this would still be understandable, given Ireland’s recent history, and forgivable if he had not made his visit to the German embassy in Dublin to express condolences upon Adolf Hitler’s death.In this contemptible act, de Valera exposed himself as at best a fool.

There was never an indication that he had any remorse about Ireland’s failure to join the fight against Hitler, even after news of the holocaust emerged.

But if he was unmoved by any moral argument for helping defeat the Nazis, perhaps he later felt discomfort at the way the war brought closer his old foe Britain and the land of his birth, the United States.

And also the way that great men such as Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower had a lasting regard for Northern Ireland’s role in such a vital global war.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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