Thursday 27 July 2017

Hard truths echoing from Nazi horrors

Ireland's shameful past comes into focus in this blood-boiling account of Irish mariners abandoned in Nazi Germany

Captured Irish sailors were sent to SS labour camps in northern Germany
Captured Irish sailors were sent to SS labour camps in northern Germany

Hilary A White

Last year's Easter Rising centenary taught us that a welcome era of mature reflection is dawning that sees the discordant birth of the State for what it is. David Blake Knox first published this release in 2012 and this reprint (New Island €11.96) is perhaps testament to the fact that while releases concerning the Third Reich will always draw subscribers, there is an appetite for self-analysis developing here too.

The root germination for Blake Knox's extensive body of research is the author's cousin, William Hutchinson Knox, around whom a shroud of mystery always hung. He was one of 32 Irish merchant seamen captured by the German Navy during maritime raids that saw thousands of crewmen taken back to Germany. These were non-combatant civilians who, under the Hague Conventions, were to be repatriated to their homelands. But despite an Irish Legation in Berlin who knew of their capture, no one came to their aid. Blake Knox explores possible reasons for this, and even if he is only half right, it will make your blood boil.

This, though, is an hors d'oeuvre in the litany of injustice brought to light regarding our mud-strewn relationship with that conflict. The author does not explicitly sermonise about the need for us to accept how shamefully this State behaved because he doesn't need to - the facts speak for themselves.

Following capture, all 32 refused to volunteer and were subsequently interned in an SS slave-labour camp in Farge, northern Germany. There, they were put to work in horrid conditions building a massive bunker that would house an ambitious submarine production line. Some 50,000 inmates would perish, most of them Jews, Russians and Poles. Of the Irishmen, three died of typhus while another was beaten to death. The fifth was Hutchinson Knox, who was 59 when illness took him in 1945. All these numbers, dates and names are utterly useless unless we appreciate the day-to-day reality of life under the SS. Enter a chapter entitled Heart of Darkness, which makes Joseph Conrad's novella of the same name seem rosy by comparison.

Running parallel is a thread relating to other brave Irish men and women - 140,000, according to some estimates - who refused to sit back and watch Hitler's virus spread across mainland Europe. Most risked the charge of desertion if they were caught smuggling themselves north and enlisting in the British Army. How this nation treated those who returned, both soldiers and merchant seamen like those at Farge, is yet another frankly mind-boggling chapter of Ireland's 20th-century history, and one only really properly addressed in 2013 by Alan Shatter's Second World War Amnesty and Immunity Bill.

At its very heart, Hitler's Irish Slaves is almost an argument for the abandonment of any cuddly ideals of Irish neutrality, especially when this island's manpower contribution to the war effort was vastly greater than any of the other neutral European states at the time.

There was, of course, an element of realpolitik involved, but neutrality was nonetheless "allowed to assume an explicit and unjustified moral dimension" when, Blake Knox points out, evidence would suggest it was more to do with bet-hedging by the de Valera Government that was indirectly infused with more sinister prejudices.

Explanations of people, words and systems pertaining to Ireland suggest it has one eye on overseas markets. Primarily, however, it will probably come to secure a place on the essential-reading lists of those wishing to truly get a handle on the complex journey this country of ours. continues on.

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