Forty years ago, the Republic of Ireland witnessed the end of the multi-decade career of its most dominant politician of the 20th century, Eamon de Valera.
Largely forgotten outside of the British Isles, De Valera towered over Ireland like a colossus – not only did he found the Fianna Fail party and help to establish the Constitution, but he also served as prime minister and president on multiple occasions. Indeed, De Valera founded the modern Irish state, as much as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created the modern nation of Turkey around the same time.
Perhaps the most controversial episode of De Valera's epic career took place in 1945 when – in light of Ireland's neutrality and independent foreign policy during the just-completed Second World War – he, as prime minister, extended his condolences to the vanquished German people over the death of Nazi dictator and architect of the Holocaust Adolf Hitler.
On May 2, 1945, just two days after Hitler and his consort Eva Braun committed suicide in their Berlin bunker, De Valera, who also served as foreign minister, and his aide, Secretary of External Affairs Joseph Walshe, visited the German Embassy in Dublin to sign a book of condolences for the departed Fuhrer. They also met with the top German envoy to Ireland, Eduard Hempel. Irish envoys in other nations did likewise, including Leopold Kerney in Spain, who called on the German Embassy in Madrid to express his condolences.
Not everyone in De Valera's government agreed with his decision to mourn Hitler. Frederick Boland, the assistant secretary of the Department of External Affairs, reportedly begged him not to go to the embassy.
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Indeed, no other Western European democracies followed De Valera's example – he found himself in the dubious company of two European fascist dictators, Francisco Franco of Spain and António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal, in voicing condolences over Hitler.
De Valera, who had apparently never expressed any admiration or support for Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the war, also found himself in the embarrassing and uncomfortable spot of receiving praise and gratitude from the British Union of Fascists for “honoring the memory of the greatest German in history.”
The global media also piled on. An editorial in The New York Times said of De Valera’s visit: “Considering the character and the record of the man for whose death he was expressing grief, there is obviously something wrong with the protocol, the neutrality of Mr. de Valera.”
The New York Herald Tribune also blasted De Valera. “If this is neutrality, it is neutrality gone mad – neutrality carried into a diplomatic jungle – where good and evil alike vanish in the red-tape thickets: where conscience flounders helplessly in slogans of protocol,” the paper declared.
Some Irish-Americans also condemned de Valera.
One Angela D. Walsh of New York wrote to a local newspaper: “Have you seen the motion pictures of the victims of German concentration camps, de Valera? Have you seen the crematoriums? Have you seen the bodies of little children murdered by Nazi hands? Have you seen the living dead, de Valera? Skin stretched over bone, and too weak to walk?”
In response to vitriolic international criticism over his gesture (most notably from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman), De Valera insisted it was a question of diplomatic protocol and that failing to send his respects would amount to "an act of unpardonable discourtesy."
In a letter to Robert Brennan, the Irish ambassador in Washington, De Valera wrote: “During the whole of the war, Dr. Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always friendly and invariably correct -- in marked contrast with [U.S. envoy David] Gray. I certainly was not going to add to [Hempel's] humiliation in the hour of defeat.”
De Valera also specified that his actions in no way condoned the policies of Hitler's regime.
Ireland's neutrality in a war that cost millions of British and Allied lives remains a messy and controversial chapter in Irish history. But support for neutrality was fairly strong in the country, with some Irish even expressing sympathy for the Germans as an “anti-British” entity.
De Valera had already inflamed the British government in 1943 when he sent a note of congratulations to Indian nationalist (and German and Japanese ally) Subhash Chandra Bose following the latter's declaration of Azad Hind – a “Free India” government-in-exile. Of course, given De Valera's background as an anti-colonialist independence fighter himself, his solidarity with Bose should not have surprised anyone, least of all Churchill and his colleagues.
In the wake of De Valera's appearance at the German Embassy in Dublin, Ireland's most celebrated personality, playwright George Bernard Shaw, then 89 years old, wrote a letter to The Times of London newspaper, praising the prime minister's gesture.
“Eamon de Valera comes out of it as a champion of the Christian chivalry we are all pretending to admire,” Shaw gushed. “Let us recognize a noble heart even if we must sometimes question its worldly wisdom.”
Among others, David Gray, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland in the 1940s, believed De Valera stayed out of the war on the bet that the Nazis would defeat the Allies. Gray also contended that some top Irish officials were, in fact, colluding with the Third Reich.
In addition, in the two years just prior to the outbreak of the war in 1939, Ireland refused entreaties to allow German Jewish refugees and other victims of Nazi persecution to settle there.
Interestingly, De Valera did not extend the same courtesy to Churchill as he did with Hitler when the British statesman died in January 1965. In December 1962, Sir Ian MacLennan, the British ambassador in Ireland, wrote in a secret memorandum to the Commonwealth Relations Office that De Valera would never honor Churchill, still angered by the Briton's responsibility in carving up Ireland and for criticizing Dublin's neutrality during the war. De Valera declined an invitation to attend Churchill's funeral, but deigned to release the following statement: "Sir Winston Churchill was a great Englishman, but we in Ireland had to regard him over a long period as a dangerous adversary."
It was revealed later, however, that De Valera did indeed help the Allied cause during the war, albeit clandestinely.
Nonetheless, even if the black mark of visiting the German Embassy hurt de Valera's global standing, it did not harm his political career. He served as Ireland's president until 1973 (dying two years later at the age of 92).