Sunday 22 April 2018

How Hitler tried to enlist Ireland in his propaganda war

As a battle rages nearby, a beautiful rebel named Maeve cradles the head of a dying schoolboy. Patrick O'Connor has been shot by ruthless British soldiers as they vainly try to repel a daring republican bid to free fellow rebels from jail.

Patrick has been playing a dangerous double game in pretending to spy for the British, and it's only as he lies dying that Maeve realises he's a true Irish patriot after all. "You gave more than your life," she declares. "You sacrificed your honour!"

There's no shortage of British villainy in film versions of Ireland's War of Independence, such as Michael Collins (1996) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), but the scene described above comes from a more sinister source.

It's the climax of Mein Leben für Irland (My Life for Ireland), the second of two Irish-set films commissioned during World War Two by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

For a significant period before the war, "Hitler had been reluctant to be openly hostile to Britain", hoping to avoid conflict between the two countries, says historian Ian Garden, author of The Third Reich's Celluloid War, which discusses the films.

Goebbels, however, was keen to produce anti-British propaganda, and pressed his Führer to allow him to do so, finally getting the go-ahead at the end of 1938. That the Nazis set great store in their propaganda films is clear from the fact that they ensured bombed cinemas were open for business again as soon as possible.

And even after the tide started to turn against Germany following the battle of Stalingrad – which was raging 70 years ago this week – Goebbels was still willing to use resources desperately needed elsewhere for his propaganda war.

In fact, as the net closed around German forces trapped in the Russian city, he was pulling troops from the front to work as extras on Titanic (1943), a huge-scale folly that cost the equivalent of around €120m today, yet was beset by disaster.

The first Irish-set film, Der Fuchs von Glenarvon (The Fox of Glenarvon) was released in 1940.

It was directed by Goebbels's brother-in-law, Max Kimmich, although the propaganda minister took a hands-on approach with both Irish films, making some casting decisions and even changing parts of the scripts.

The Fox, like My Life, was made purely for a German audience, which explains why its depiction of Ireland is at times bizarre. It's set early in the 20th Century, and although the name of the film's Irish rebels, 'the Ribbonmen', is poached from an actual 19th Century movement, it has no real historical basis.

Indeed, the Ribbonmen – clad in dark clothes and jackboots and given to torchlight processions – are suspiciously reminiscent of Hitler's SS.

"The image of Ireland is invariably swamp land (and) marsh land with a few huts on the outskirts . . . and that's what their view of Ireland is," adds Garden.

The film boasted a strong cast of well-known German actors, and Olga Tschechowa, who starred as the conflicted Irish heroine Gloria, was a confidante of both Adolf Hitler and Goebbels. However, after her death she was named as a wartime Soviet spy by the Russians.

The Fox was a box-office hit in Germany on its release. Goebbels had demanded that a number of scenes be reworked before its premiere, and he was delighted with the final version, writing in his diary "Fuchs von Glenarvon . . . is wonderful now, and will come in very useful for our propaganda."

He duly commissioned My Life for Ireland, again directed by Kimmich, which was released in 1941.

Loosely set during the War of Independence, it was slightly more historical than The Fox, and featured a well-staged action sequence in which the British attack the rebels with a tank.

However, the film's explosives expert was called up to the front before the scene was shot, and without his guidance several extras were injured by the explosions.

One of Goebbels's principles of propaganda was that it should employ the truth as much as its underlying message would allow, and British forces certainly did use harsh measures during Ireland's War of Independence, some of them similar to the methods shown in The Fox and My Life.

"They weren't all pure, nasty propaganda, there was actually a bit of truth in them," says Garden.

Yet the Nazis were employing the same methods – and much worse – to control occupied Europe. Which is why, when The Fox and My Life were shown in countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, they backfired as propaganda.

They failed to incite anti-British sentiment, and what's more, "local Resistance movements . . . identified the Irish films as being more akin to their own struggle for freedom against the Nazis," writes Garden.

Incensed, Goebbels said he never wanted to hear about an Irish film again.

The Third Reich's Celluloid War, by Ian Garden, is published by The History Press.

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