|World War II - A Foreign Affair
The great achievement of Eamon DeValera was to make the Second War on Germany, declared by Britain seventy years ago this month, a foreign affair. This was the major event in the establishing of Irish independence.
Today, of course, it is no cause for celebration in Ireland that the Second War on Germany was a foreign affair. And there have even been attempts made to suggest we really participated in it, in a sly kind of way. But Ireland did nothing to bring down Hitler, or facilitate the deaths of fifty million, or establish Soviet power across Europe. Ireland, to coin a phrase, stood idly by, as Europe and other areas were torn apart.
That is the logic of the collapsed view held widely by our academics and historians today. But it could not be further from the truth. Irish neutrality was a purposeful and activist event in the history of the country. It was a decision that sat logically and comfortably within the Irish world-view of the time. The fact that this world view, of independent Ireland, has conceded to that of the victors of that War is beside the point, except in the issue of making Irish neutrality now a source of discomfort.
It is hard to justify the hard facts of the destruction brought about by the Second World War on Germany. So it has to be presented as that most moral of wars. The morality of the war has superseded all critical thought about it (except, perhaps by some right-wing thinking historians) and to question the morality of the war sets one beyond the pale. But that makes the War a mystery and a caricature in which Irish neutrality is very problematic, and the view that it should have been our affair (Our War?) gains credence.
Ireland had good reasons not to participate in England’s War on Germany in September 1939 and these start with Britain’s Balance of Power policy.
England got its Balance of Power policy very wrong in the 1930s. From 1934 Britain encouraged and facilitated Hitler’s geopolitical ambitions - in contrast to frustrating the modest redresses Weimar Germany had asked for - so that its former ally, France, would not dominate continental Europe. Because Britain is an island and predominantly a global naval power, the Balance of Power always required the enlisting of continental allies and the encircling of the object of that policy. A partially rejuvenated Germany fulfilled that requirement.
But what if Germany played the game too well, under an exceptional leader, and tipped the Balance? Well a new game could begin.
If Hitler did not know his place in the scheme of things, the great Polish State constructed after Versailles could be employed, with the French and possibly, Fascist Italy, to do another job on Germany. That was how it had worked in 1914, after all.
The situation for England was complicated by the presence of the Communist State to the East of Poland, however. Soviet Russia was the State that England detested most in the world and whose influence it feared greatest. But this powerful State lay to the East of the Poles and that caused problems for a new grand alliance against the Hun. England had no compunction about using detestable states against its primary objective in the Balance of Power Policy. It had utilised great Catholic states when it was anti-Catholic, great illiberal states when it was Liberal and now a Bolshevik one when it was anti-communist.
However, the Poles, given their historical relationship with Russia were disinclined to play ball.
This is where disagreements occurred in England over what to do. The vast majority of the ruling class felt that Hitler should be appeased so that he would turn his attentions eastward against his natural enemy, Communist Russia. However, another smaller group felt that the Hun was the major enemy and the traditional Balance of Power policy should continue despite the Bolshevik complication. This group, who were known as anti-appeasers, perhaps should be called the Bolshevik appeasers - if the term appeasement is to mean anything practical.
So this is the situation that confronted Irish geopoliticians in September 1939.
The reader might wonder: what Irish geopoliticians? But The Catholic Bulletin had one in ‘Fear Faire.’
‘Fear Faire’ did not see the war that England declared on Germany in September 1939 in the same terms as the British projected it. He saw it - like most other European neutrals - as another imperialist Balance of Power war waged by Britain to keep Germany down, after Hitler had overstepped the line it had decided to draw in the sand for him at Danzig.
‘Fear Faire’ was John Tobin or Sean Toibin, schoolmaster. ‘Fear Faire’ took over the From The Hilltops column in the Catholic Bulletin from ‘A Viewer’ (J.J.O’Kelly) in September 1936. The series ‘From The Hilltops’ by ‘Fear Faire’ is very representative of Ireland’s outlook on the world in 1937-9 on the eve of Britain’s second world war on Germany. They were proved by history to have been remarkably astute in their judgement of the situation and its subsequent development. And they are the best thing independent Ireland produced in terms of an account of the events and politics that preceded the war.
The Catholic Bulletin was connected to DeValera through Fr. Timothy Corcoran, Professor of Education at University College, Dublin. Coughlan was the driving force and main contributor to The Catholic Bulletin in the 1920s and 1930s. Corcoran had taught de Valera and was a close friend of the Sinn Fein President and Fianna Fail Taoiseach.
The other important influence in the Bulletin was its Company Secretary, Patrick T. Keohane. The Bulletin had developed an anti-treaty position under Corcoran and Patrick Keohane - who became its editor - until Keohane’s death, and that of the Bulletin itself in December 1939. Keohane had kept a tight eye on the content of the Bulletin and when he realised he was dying it was his wish that the Bulletin should die with him.
For a generation after the War, Ireland retained its scepticism, in the face of all the Allied propaganda produced to justify the war that killed fifty million across the world. And it defended its neutrality within understandings it had developed – although it never got around to producing an independent account of that war, to justify its stance. ‘Fear Faire’ began such an account but The Catholic Bulletin folded at the end of 1939 in reverence to the death of its inspiration and Editor.
By July 1940 Britain had been effectively defeated in its second war on Germany. Britain, in conjunction with its French ally, had outnumbered and outgunned Germany, as in 1914. But, after guaranteeing Poland’s intransigent stance over Danzig, it let Poland fall without lifting a finger to help her -whilst the German frontier lay open to the Anglo-French armies. Then it dithered about for nine months refusing to fight the war it had declared. During this period it went to the brink of fighting Soviet Russia in Finland while it was supposed to be at war with Germany and was only saved by the Finnish coming to terms with Russia in the nick of time.
Such a position could not persist and the German Generals duly smashed the Anglo-French armies standing on its borders in a couple of weeks and drove the British Expeditionary Force off the continent in May 1940.
In July 1940 Britain had neither the will to defeat Germany nor the means to do it. It effectively had a choice of accepting generous terms from Hitler (who was a great admirer of the British Empire and its civilising effect on the lesser races) and calling it a day, or holding out until something came along. It had the power to determine whether the localised and comparatively bloodless European war (compared to 1914-18 anyway) it had lost was concluded or whether to throw the situation into the melting pot and hope that an escalation into a second world war could be engineered. And so Britain prodded around the fringes, without ever being able to take on Germany in meaningful conflict and the war was spread wider and wider, until Germany was destroyed.
Britain knew that the outcome of its activities would be devastating for Europe and many parts of the world, at that time untouched. But as in 1915, it chose to make sure it somehow emerged on the winning side by setting Europe ablaze and hoping something would turn up.
And something, indeed, did turn up and saved Britain from disaster. That something was the state that Britain detested more than anything else in the world, the state that Britain had hitherto regarded as the greatest threat to civilisation – Bolshevik Russia.
The war between Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany, which started in June 1941, rescued Britain from total defeat. Britain became a minor ally of the Soviet State in that war. Six months later the Japanese/United States war broke out and Britain became a minor ally of America in that war. And that is how Britain ‘won’ the ‘Second World War’.
No matter that because of Britain’s desire to wage war (through other nations) to the end, no matter that fifty million died as a consequence of persevering in it, no matter that half of Europe fell to Communism for half a century, Britain won the war and wrote its history.
Ireland, in latter years, became incapable of defending its wartime neutrality on the basis on which it was held at the time. And there has been a wholesale capitulation to the world-view of the victors, decades after the event. This is despite the fact that independent Ireland itself was actually very much a product of its independent stance on neutrality during the Second World War.
So below is a fragment of independent thought that would have made a start in an Irish account of the Second War on Germany. It was published in the October edition of The Catholic Bulletin - one of its last editions. It explains why Ireland was neutral in Britain’s Second World War on Germany and why it was sceptical of Britain’s motives for making war on Germany at the time, having, a couple of decades before, been fooled into participating in another British war for “democracy” and “civilisation”. It recognises the great blundering of Britain that would lead to the end of Empire. It also describes the political skill of Hitler within the situation created by England - but ultimately predicts Germany’s destruction in the face of the enemies that will line up against her. ‘Fear Faire’ also has some pertinent things to say to the Poles and their disastrous decision to place faith in England. And he says, in October 1939, that the real victor in England’s War on Germany will be not England, but Stalin:
“The Great War that the world has been dreading for years has come. Germany and the British Empire are locked in a death struggle with France on England’s side. Ireland, in common with Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, has announced her neutrality, and has received assurances from Germany that it will be respected. That Ireland has been able to assert her neutrality—her totally independent action—is the greatest proof and the most precious fruit of her new-won sovereignty, justifying Eamon de Valera’s statesmanship to the full.
The reason for Ireland’s neutrality is the same as that for the neutrality of the other countries that we have named. The war is not our affair. Most of our people have strong opinions about the merits of the war for one side or the other; but, even if we were unanimous in believing one side to be wholly in the right and the other wholly in the wrong, our first duty is to our own nation. Utter destruction must be the fate of a small country that enters this conflict of the giants. Wasted by centuries of misgovernment, famine and emigration, we have little enough man-power left to safeguard our own future, and we are resolved that our little forces shall not be thrown into the furnace if, by God’s favour, we can preserve our neutrality and our island’s peace.
Neutrality will not be preserved easily. In fact, it will put a greater task before the Government of Ireland than a facile declaration of war. To preserve neutrality will require rigid national discipline and forces strong enough to impose it against would-be mischief-makers. Efforts may be made by one side or the other to use Irish waters or Irish soil for acts of war, and the Government may have to resist those efforts by arms. A large part of our territory is occupied, against expressed will, by one of the belligerent Powers, and attempts may be made to entangle us in diplomatic quarrels. There may be rash action from within when wild gusts of passion or propaganda sweep over parts of our people. Let every prudent mind be well-prepared, not only to resist war-fever in its various forms, and to instruct public opinion, but also to foster loyalty to the Government in whatever course it may find necessary…
The real issues.
If we are to keep cool heads in a struggle that is fought on the ether with arguments as well as in the air with bombs, we must understand the issues that are at stake. It is needless to remind an intelligent Irish public that the real quarrel is not over the fate of the German city of Danzig or the independence of the Polish people, any more than the real issue of the war of 1914-18 was the neutrality of Belgium. Nor is the issue Hitlerism, any more than the issue in the former war was Prussianism. Each war had its immediate casus belli, or minor dispute that brought the opening of hostilities; but in each the real conflict ranged over a world-wide field of rivalry. In 1914, England fought to bring down a Power that had risen to rival her in the markets of all the Continents, and that threatened her predominance upon the seas. She succeeded; she took that Power’s colonies, disarmed it and ended its fleet. She bound down Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, which reduced a world-Power to a weak nation. In the present war, Germany seeks to undo all that remains of the Treaty of Versailles and reaches out to even greater strength, military and commercial, than she was attaining in 1914. This time, each side has thrown its entire manhood and wealth into the fight, so that it seems that one or the other (or both) must perish completely; everything is staked in a war without quarter.
The Russo-German pact of non-aggression was the first signal, in the fatal month of August, 1939, of the final alignment for battle. England and France, for months past, had been seeking to bind the Soviet Power in an alliance against Germany—an encirclement which would be overwhelmingly strong. They miscalculated. At the last moment Russia declined to act with them and made a peace pact with Germany—“we won’t fight you if you don’t fight us”—that broke the hope of the Allies and ruined their plans. It is likely that the miscalculation sprang from a misunderstanding of the new Russia. As we pointed out a few months ago, the new war has been raging, bloodlessly, ever since the Abyssinian affair, and the Allies suffered defeat after defeat. Their diplomacy was outclassed in Abyssinia, in Spain, in Austria, in Czecho-Slovakia, as if England (hitherto the master of diplomatic war) had lost her grip entirely. When Germany secured Russian neutrality the biggest diplomatic defeat of all was suffered, and it may be to the same cause as those that went before it; namely, a lack of understanding of the forces that are moving in the world to-day…
We have no liking for Stalin, the Georgian spoilt priest who passed through Socialism to the dictatorship of Russia and turned into a new Napoleon… Nevertheless, we understand him, as the English do not. We remember that when the Communist Lenin in 1920 despaired of Petrograd against the army that Winston Churchill backed in war against Russia, it was Stalin who swept that army off the map. We understand why, in the last twelve months, he had a film made of Tsar Peter the Great’s life and caused it to be shown far and wide, rousing young Russia’s interest in a great patriot figure of the past. We understand he caused the Soviet Press to cease its propaganda for internationalism and to preach pride in Russia, as if what the Bolsheviks had called the bourgeois virtue of Patriotism was to be Russia’s guiding light henceforward. The Russian revolution, like the French revolution, has been “liquidated” by a national revival under an iron man’s leadership—an atheist, indeed, and a calculator, but not a futile Communist fanatic…
The Russo-German agreement made it necessary for the Allies to fight at once, before Germany became any more powerful; for, once rid of danger from Russia, Germany was in a position to master the whole of South-Eastern Europe, unless stopped by arms. That mastery is really what is at stake. Germany has not pressed her demand for the return of her colonies, which was raised in the Chamberlain-Hitler talk after Munich last year and her reason for not pressing what is, on the face of it, the most reasonable of all her demands (and one partly admitted in Mr. Chamberlain’s own utterances) is that her rulers have conceived a much bolder form of expansion An empire scattered over-seas like the British cannot he defended without sea-supremacy, but a continuous land-empire, self-sufficient in metals, food and oil, can be held like a fortress and can grow stronger and stronger by the internal production of its munitions. This is what Germany seeks. She has brought almost all Germans under German rule, and now seeks to extend the power of the Reich over the lesser nations south and east. In peace, such extension means commercial monopoly in war, it means right- of way for German armies and bases for German air forces.
The Slovaks and the Czechs. .
Already Germany has pushed her hegemony of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe far. What happened when she wrung the German areas from Czecho-Slovakia a year ago? The Slovaks, a conservative and strongly Catholic people, shook themselves free from the Czechs and invited German protection as an independent people. That is to say, they decided that a small nation, placed as they were, could thrive only within a large system, and they came under the Third Reich’s protection, in place of being isolated, tradeless and defenceless. Down the years they had been part of the Second Reich, so their present position is nothing new, although it allows more freedom than they formerly possessed. The Czechs were constrained to follow the example of the Slovaks, and their country became a German Protectorate. Meanwhile, German influence reached out to Rumania, which lies beyond Slovakia, and this territory, so rich in oil and wheat, was brought into the German economic sphere a few months ago, by a sweeping most-favoured-nation treaty that gave Rumania preference in Germany, and assured to German trade almost a monopoly in Rumania…
Developments like these make the Third Reich the successor of the Austrian empire, with an extension of its borders, turning central, south and eastern Europe into one huge economic bloc. Such an achievement is worth more to Germany than a scattered colonial empire. Whether she incorporated the members of this large combination of States in an empire in name and form, or was content, in accordance with Hitler’s expressed theory, to be mistress of them without tampering with their nationalism, does not matter much, as far as her rivals are concerned. The Allies want to prevent a German commercial hegemony just as much as a greater German empire; it is the rising Power, not the name of it that they are fighting. Let that mighty hegemony be established and it must be more powerful by far in Europe and the Near East than France and England combined. How would Britain and France prevail in commercial competition, how would they hold their vast colonial possessions against the rivalry of this immense Power…
Poland has borne the brunt of the onslaught, and the mechanised German legions have proved irresistible. Most observers expected Poland to make a more effective resistance for she has nearly half as large a population as Germany, and is no small nation, while her soldiers are renowned for their gallantry. The German calculations proved correct and mechanical superiority was established so quickly that the country was overrun before any relief was afforded anywhere. Perhaps (but this we cannot test) the spirit of the Polish people was not equal to their awful ordeal, when they were set to withstand single-handed the enormous, exultant Reich.
Hitler is the most consummate political strategist who ever re-moulded the map. His proposals for a Polish settlement, made public in detail on the eve of the war, but offered in principle in a speech months ago, may have taken the heart out of the Polish resistance. Danzig was to go to the Reich, to which it belongs by blood and its people’s desire, but Poland was to retain the seaport of Gydnia. There was to be a corridor across the Corridor, so that both nations would have what they need. Mothers must have asked whether their sons were to die in order to prevent this reasonable settlement, which, by the way, we analysed some months ago and recommended the Poles to accept…
Poland not a united nation in 1939..
It must be understood that Poland is by no means the united nation which its military chiefs would have the world believe. Consider its record. All true Irishmen have a gradh for Poland, by reason of past history, and Poland reciprocated this regard in the days when Adam Mickiewicz read a Young Irelander’s book as he died. The Poland which rose from the peace of 1919 was not the same idealistic nation. Asked to express sympathy with Ireland in her own struggle for freedom, Polish leaders refused—they would not offend their beloved English patron. The Peace Conference assigned to the new Polish State territory extending to Brest-Litovsk. A year later, the Poles carved out a huge part of Ukraine, beyond that limit, and added a third to their country’s territory by subjecting six millions of another race. Some of us can remember Madame Markiewicz describing the Polish landlords dwelling amid the Ukrainian multitudes and treating them with the same brutal contempt that the alien Anglo-Irish landlords showed to the historic Irish people.
Poland also tore Vilna from the Lithuanians, as brutally as ever they themselves were treated. Within the last year, the Poles mustered their army on the Lithuanian frontier and forced a weaker nation to open the Niemen to them.
Meanwhile, they had spent £20,000,000 on the seaport of Gydnia, and had diverted to it two-thirds of the trade that formerly went through Danzig, thus deliberately starving the city, while holding it within their customs union. All this sad record is traceable to Marshal Pilsudski, an imperialistic dictator who lacked discretion with which to safeguard his country’s gains. Poland grew large and rich, but only by creating enemies who were sure to seek vengeance when they in turn grew strong and could demand back their own and something more. Accordingly, Germany has seized Danzig, which ought to have been ceded to her, and has avenged herself by breaking the Polish army. In turn, Lithuania will demand, from broken Poland, her own city of Vilna and maybe something with it. The Ukrainian region, to which Poland denied autonomy, has been entered by Russia, and re-united to the rest of Ukrainia; and it is certain that if the Allies succeeded in defeating Germany, they never could restore to a resurrected Poland this Ukrainian territory which has been lost.
In short, the Allies never can make a case against Lithuania recovering Vilna or the Ukraine being united so Poland is likely to find itself reduced to its elements, like Czecho-Slovakia before it, with no hope of recovery unless or until all Eastern Europe is burnt down and the Allies dictate terms amid the ashes. We may assume pretty safely that pre-war Poland is gone forever. If Germany wins, the purely Polish area which surrounds Warsaw and Cracow will be established as an inland buffer-State between the Reich and Russia. If Germany loses, Poland will get Prussian Poland, too, and possibly East Prussia. Before that can happen, a war that staggers the imagination must be fought out to the end, and great Germany must be laid like a corpse on the dissecting table… There is little doubt that the Allies depend on time as their chief strength, and expect that a long-drawn war may exhaust Germany’s finances in three, four or five years, pending which they resign themselves to a series of German victories…
What we anticipated—the partition of Poland and re-entry of Russia into Europe in force—has come to pass. For our lifetime it is Finis Poloniae. This came of Poland’s trusting England, in the hope that English help would enable her to hold all her White Russian and Ukrainian and Lithuanian conquests, and possibly to add to them East Prussia. She would have done better to make a good bargain with her mighty neighbours and to relieve herself of what she could not hold without foreign help. A reduced Poland could have survived. It is likely that Herr Hitler designed to recognise that reduced Poland; but as happens in warfare, once the marching armies were victorious there was no staying them. Russia did not pause at Brest-Litovsk, nor Germany at Posen; their armies swept into the vacuum caused by the unaided Poles collapse, and they said to each other, as it were: ‘Why should we set up a new Polish State—why not hold all that we have taken so easily?’
The Poles have some heady native Imperialists, and the untrustworthy diplomacy of London, to thank for this disaster. The advance of Russia to the very gates of Warsaw makes the Soviet Union a power in European affairs no longer aloof and looking Asia-wards. It casts the shadow of Stalin over the Continent…”