Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, May 11, 2015

From the Archives: How the Irish Viewed a German Defeat of Great Britain in WWI

This doesn’t happen very often (read: ever): earlier today, I was interviewed on Irish radio in a short ten minute segment of the Dublin-based Moncrief Show that was devoted to my new book, Hi Hitler!

In preparing for the interview, I decided to read up a bit on Ireland’s stance of neutrality during World War II (the country was neither pro-Nazi nor pro-British).  In doing so, I ran across an interesting counterfactual comment by the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Éamon de Valera from 1940. 

Following Britain’s occupation of neutral Iceland in May of 1940, de Valera declared:

“I would like to put a hypothetical question-it is a question I have put to many Englishmen since the last war. Suppose Germany had won the war, had invaded and occupied England, and that after a long lapse of time and many bitter struggles, she was finally brought to acquiesce in admitting England's right to freedom, and let England go, but not the whole of England, all but, let us say, the six southern counties.

These six southern counties, those, let us suppose, commanding the entrance to the narrow seas, Germany had singled out and insisted on holding herself with a view to weakening England as a whole, and maintaining the securing of her own communications through the Straits of Dover.

Let us suppose further, that after all this had happened, Germany was engaged in a great war in which she could show that she was on the side of freedom of a number of small nations, would Mr. Churchill as an Englishman who believed that his own nation had as good a right to freedom as any other, not freedom for a part merely, but freedom for the whole-would he, whilst Germany still maintained the partition of his country and occupied six counties of it, would he lead this partitioned England to join with Germany in a crusade? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.

Would he think the people of partitioned England an object of shame if they stood neutral in such circumstances? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.”

Whatever one thinks of de Valera’s political stance in the war, his point is well taken.  His declaration is an effective example of a didactic “trading places” type of counterfactual, one that asks readers to imagine how the stronger party in a conflict would behave if they were in the shoes of the weaker party.  Because de Valera’s scenario is set in a counterfactual world in which the Germans won the First World War, it assumes a rhetorical power that it would otherwise lack if he merely offered it in the abstract (ie. if he merely speculated on how England would have acted if it were as weak a political position as Ireland). 

The comment certainly reflects a benevolent view of Germany from the vantage point of 1940 – indeed, it creates a implicit moral equivalence between the Third Reich and the British Empire – yet it is understandable in light of the longstanding antagonism between Great Britiain and Ireland.  It furthermore raises a closely related counterfactual question. Would the Irish have collaborated with the Germans had the Nazis successfully invaded and occupied the British Isles?  Would de Valera have been the Irish Quisling?  I don’t recall any of the numerous novels on the subject addressing this topic, but maybe I’ve overlooked it.

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