State must apologise for de Valera's morally repugnant error of judgment over Hitler
Published 28/01/2005 | 00:11
ALLIED soldiers arrived at the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp 60-years-ago. It had become the largest graveyard of the Jewish people in history, an estimated 1.1 million having been exterminated there.
Nothing could prepare the camp's liberators for what they would witness in Auschwitz.
The remnants of the gas chambers and the crematoria. The mounds of bodies, the stench of death, the piles of clothes, of teeth, of children's shoes and the barely living skeletal survivors, the speaking bones who greeted their arrival.
It is right that the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau be acknowledged and that we commemorate the millions who lost their lives in the Nazi genocide.
It is also of vital importance that we learn from the horrors of the past to ensure they are not repeated in the future.
Tragically, human beings are slow learners.
Whilst the scale and organisation of the Nazi genocide has not been repeated, crimes against humanity perpetrated in subsequent years in places such as Uganda, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and more recently in Darfur starkly illustrate how much remains to be done to confront and prevent evil.
President McAleese's participation at the Ceremony of Remembrance yesterday is not merely of symbolic importance.
It is also a crucial reminder to all of us in this State of the need to confront irrational hatred and intolerance and to use our role on the international stage to prevent the perpetration of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Yesterday's ceremony also compels us to examine the role of this State in the period immediately preceding, during and after the Holocaust. For too long, Irish neutrality during the Second World War has been lauded as a high moral principle worthy of support and praise.
The reality is that Irish neutrality had more to do with hostility to the British government and our view of its continued occupation of the "Six Counties" than with morality.
In the context of the Holocaust, it was a principle of moral bankruptcy.
In the years immediately preceding World War Two, the Irish government consistently refused requests made to come to Ireland by those seeking refuge from Nazi persecution.
In reliance on neutrality the de Valera lead government between 1939 to 1945 continued this policy.
Following Hitler's death and the war ending, Ireland continued to say no.
At a time when neutrality ceased to be the issue, Ireland was essentially closed to the surviving remnants of European Jewry save for a very small number of individuals.
Interviewed by Aine Lawlor on RTE prior to yesterday's commemoration ceremonies, President McAleese was asked about this State's record, its "strict application of neutrality" and whether it was morally wrong.
Responding, she doubted whether there is an apology "big enough" that can be given but acknowledged that "we hid behind bureaucracy, we hid behind words and didn't do all the things that could have been done and should have been done and to that extent we all have a fair degree of complicity and for that I think we should hang our heads with a degree of shame for the things that were within our power to do and that weren't done."
Of course, the President is constrained in her language by her constitutional position and by the remit given to her by government.
It is my recollection that such an apology on behalf of the State was eloquently and unequivocally given by John Bruton when Taoiseach on the 28th April 1995 at a State organised Commemoration Service for those Irish people who died in the Second World War and for the victims of the Holocaust.
Perhaps, if the President had been aware of this, she would have been more sure-footed in her language.
A few short months after the liberation of Auschwitz, Hitler committed suicide and the war in Europe ended.
By then, de Valera and his government were fully aware of the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi's in their attempt to implement the "Final Solution".
Despite this, de Valera visited the then German Ambassador Edouard Hemple to express his condolences on the death of Hitler.
This morally repugnant and indefensible act has been explained over the years and excused as a matter of protocol.
However, there is no issue of protocol which requires any head of State or Prime Minister to express condolences on the death of another who has perpetrated genocide and mass murder.
President McAleese when asked directly whether it was morally wrong that de Valera so visited the German Ambassador and signed the book of condolences, asserted this to be a mere "local issue" that should not distract us from the dreadful consequences of what happened in Auschwitz.
This was an unfortunate response.
Perhaps the President felt in the absence of government approval, she could not adequately address this issue.
As this week is the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz it would be of significant historical importance if either the President or Taoiseach would, before it ends, publicly acknowledge and apologise for Eamonn de Valera's morally repugnant error of judgment.
Alan Shatter is a former Fine Gael TD and a former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.