Sunday 26 May 2019

The shamrock and the swastika

A new RTE documentary reveals how the Irish establishment gave a warm welcome to a rogue's gallery of fascists and Nazis after the war. KIM BIELENBERG reports

At one time Otto Skorzeny, Hitler's top SS Commando, lived with the tag "the most dangerous man in Europe".

But in June 1957, the Nazi who had made his name rescuing the Italian fascist leader Mussolini from a hilltop fortress, was made welcome in Dublin by such luminaries as Charles J Haughey.

A respectable gathering of Dublin middle-class folk assembled at a reception in Skorzeny's honour in Portmarnock Country Club. According to the Evening Press account of the event, "the ballroom was packed with representatives of various societies, professional men and, of course, several TDs".

Among the throng greeting one of Hitler's most notorious henchmen was the young TD, Charles Haughey.

In Irish press reports of the time, Skorzeny was portrayed as a glamorous cloak and dagger figure, the Third Reich's Scarlet Pimpernel. The tone in newspaper articles was one of admiration rather than repulsion.

Skorzeny was most famous for his 1943 commando raid on the castle in Italy where Mussolini was being held captive. Swooping down on the fortress in gliders with his accomplices, Skorzeny succeeded in getting away with the deposed dictator.

A year later, Skorzeny was involved in rounding up and torturing members of the German resistance after their failed attempt on Hitler's life. One of these plotters was my own grandfather, Fritz Schulenburg, who was executed in Berlin in August 1944.

After my grandfather was arrested with other resistance leaders and held in army headquarters in the German capital, Skorzeny arrived and pulled off the plotters' military badges, placing them in a tin helmet.

The plotters were then forced to listen to a speech given by Hitler on the radio, confirming that the Fuhrer was indeed still alive and well.

Despite his notoriety, Skorzeny was acquitted of war crimes by a US military court. He remained a prisoner because other countries wished to try him, but in typical fashion he escaped, eventually finding sanctuary in fascist Spain.

The cead mile failte extended to Skorzeny, a key figure in Hitler's tyrannical regime, by polite Dublin society encouraged him to buy a farm here in 1959. The man nicknamed "Scarface" owned Martinstown House near the Curragh for a decade. On his regular visits he could be seen driving his white Mercedes across the Kildare countryside.

The TD and former cabinet minister Noel Browne must have seemed like a voice crying out in the wilderness when he expressed concern about Skorzeny coming to Ireland.

At the time, the spectre of Nazism still haunted much of Europe and there were genuine fears that it might re-emerge as a political force.

Dr Browne told the Dail: "It is generally understood that this man plays some part (in neo-Nazi activities) and, if so, he should not be allowed to use Ireland for that purpose."

During World War II, the Irish Government notoriously shut the door in the faces of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution across Europe. Even after the full horrors of the concentration camps had been exposed, the authorities were reluctant to allow Jewish refugees into the country.

But a two-part documentary which begins on RTE television next week reveals how a surprising number of Nazis were allowed to make a home in Ireland.

The programme's presenter, Cathal O'Shannon, who met Skorzeny during one of his Irish visits, has delved into the movements of Nazis in and out of Ireland. He estimates that between 100 and 200 Nazis moved here.

O'Shannon (78) is himself a World War II veteran, having served in the RAF in Burma. As a Dublin teenager, he crossed the Border into the North and joined up.

"I came back in 1947, and at that time you held your head low if you had been in the British forces. At that time, there was a very strong anti-English element in Ireland that supported the Germans.

"Many of the leading Nazis who came here were not German. They were collaborators from other countries such as Belgium or Croatia. There was a lot of sympathy for them because many of them were Catholic and anti-communist."

Chillingly, one of the Belgian Nazis, Albert Folens, helped to shape the minds of generations of Irish schoolchildren as one of the country's leading publishers of school textbooks.

As reported this week by Senan Molony in the Irish Independent, Folens fought for the Flemish legion of the SS before working as an interpreter for the Gestapo.

He appeared on an American list of suspected war criminals and security suspects but later denied any involvement in murder, torture and inhumane treatment.

Whatever the role of Folens in Nazi persecution, it is likely that it paled in comparison to that of Andrija Artukovic, the so-called "butcher of the Balkans" who found sanctuary in the genteel Dublin suburb of Rathgar in 1947.

In a sequence of events that shows the Catholic Church in an even less flattering light than The Da Vinci Code, the leading Croatian Nazi was given safe passage to Ireland with the help of the Franciscan order.

Before he arrived in Ireland, having been provided with immigration papers under the false name Alois Anic, Artukovic served as interior minister in the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia.

He instigated the opening of concentration camps and was accused of being involved in the genocide of up to one million Orthodox Christians, Jews, Romany gypsies and other minority groups. None of this seemed to deter Catholic Church authorities from sheltering him.

Artukovic lived with his wife and children in Rathgar for a year, passing himself off as a professor of history and living under his assumed name. His son Radoslav was born in a nursing home in Terenure.

He moved on to the United States, and was extradited to Yugoslavia decades later and sentenced to death for his murderous activities (the sentence was never carried out, because the authorities ruled that he was too ill to be executed).

The mass murderer's stay in this land of saints and scholars might have passed without notice had it not been for the persistence of the Kilkenny writer Hubert Butler, who tracked his movements here decades after Artukovic had moved on to America.

The precise circumstances in which the Croatian received papers to move here remain mysterious. According to Tile Films, the film company which has made the RTE documentary, the Department of Foreign Affairs still refuses to release its file on the war criminal.

All but a few of the Nazis who came to live here after the war are now dead. But until now, much of the story of how they came to live here and why they were let in has remained untold.

Hidden History: Ireland's Nazis, a two-part documentary, begins on RTE One next Tuesday

Ireland's Nazis

* Andrija Artukovic - Croatian "Butcher of the Balkans" adopted an alias and lived in Rathgar.

* Pieter Menten - Dutch Nazi war criminal, moved to a Co Waterford mansion in 1964 before he was eventually tried and imprisoned. After his prison term, the Irish Government would not allow him back.

* Otto Skorzeny - Leading SS Commando bought a Kildare mansion and hob-nobbed with Dublin glitterati.

* Helmut Clissmann - World War II German spy involved in failed missions with the IRA. Later became a successful Dublin businessman.

* Albert Folens - Flemish nationalist and Nazi collaborator became a leading publisher of Irish school textbooks.

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