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Much has been written in recent days about Eamon de Valera’s decision to offer his condolences on behalf of the State to the German government on the death of Hitler. De Valera’s actions have been interpreted as at worst “a morally repugnant error of judgment” (Alan Shatter) and at best “excessive zeal” (Michael McDowell). Both views are misrepresentative of the former Taoiseach’ s reasons for visiting the Minister of the German legation, Dr. Edouard Hempel to “express condolences”.

The death of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker was announced in the Irish newspapers on May 2, 1945. Later the same day, An Taoiseach, Eamon De Valera, accompanied by the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Mr. Joseph Walshe, called on Dr. Edouard Hempel at his residence in De Vesci Terrace, Monkstown to offer his condolences. It has been taken as gospel that De Valera blindly rejected advice from Walshe and other senior departmental officials and basing his decision on his own judgment, decided to visit Hempel. Tim Pat Coogan writing in his biography of De Valera, states that despite strong representations from Walshe and Frederick Boland, De Valera called on Hempel. However, like so much of the detail in Tim Pat’s book, the facts are to the contrary. Dermot Keogh writing in 1989 states, “I have found nothing on file (in the department) to indicate one way or another how the department advised de Valera. According to Keogh, department official, Frederick Boland, was “probably disappointed that Walshe did not hold firm and oppose the visit” – leading the reader to believe Walshe did not disagree with the visit. Keogh asks the pertinent question “is it possible that de Valera would have gone in spite of the recommendation from senior diplomats? That was not his usual practice.”

Some commentators would have us believe that de Valera, was acting merely out of petty mindedness when he decided to visit Hempel. Again, this is to misread the situation. Far from acting in isolation, De Valera sought the council of Sean T. O’Kelly, Frank Aiken and Frank Gallagher. All were in favour of the visit. Only months previously, De Valera sought the advice of all party leaders when deciding on whether to reject out of hand the U.S. ambassador, David Gray’s request to expel German and Japanese diplomats from Ireland. Neutrality was the rock and fortress of their security, all concurred. Even Richard Mulcahy, then leader of Fine Gael, commented, “the position is as the Taoiseach definitely put it.”

De Valera’s reasoning for the visit had far more to do with his personal respect for Hempel than for any sense of sorrow over the death of Hitler. Mervin O’Driscoll, in a newly published book on Ireland’s relationship with Germany during World War II, suggests that De Valera’s visit to the Minister, Dr. Hempel, arose not just out of observance of diplomatic protocol on the death of a head of state, but also to thank Hempel for his help in keeping Ireland out of the war. Throughout the war, the Irish government remained on good terms with Hempel, in stark contrast to the often frosty relations with the American ambassador, Gray. (Just days previous to Hitler’s death, on the 30th of April, Gray demanded that the Irish government hand over the keys to the German legation so that incriminating archives be seized. De Valera angrily refused this request.)

According to O’Driscoll, Hempel was an old style German diplomat, who declined to join the Nazi party until 1938. He had entered the foreign service in 1927. Hempel had repeatedly impressed upon the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop the need to respect Irish neutrality. It should also be noted that de Valera did not call to the German embassy on Northumberland Road but chose instead to call to the home of Hempel. This in itself is significant and reinforces my belief that he was visiting Hempel as an act of personal gratitude rather than a mark of respect on the occasion of the death of Hitler.

Though he never publicly commented on his reasons for visiting Hempel, de Valera privately defended his actions in a letter to Robert Brennan, the then Irish ambassador in Washington. “I have noted that my call on the German minister on the announcement of Hitler’s death was played to the utmost. I expected this. I could have had a diplomatic illness, but as you know, I would scorn that sort of thing. So long as we retained our diplomatic relations with Germany, to have failed to call upon the German representative would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy to the German people and to Dr. Hempel himself. During the whole war, Dr. Hempel’s conduct was always irreproachable. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in his hour of defeat.” De Valera went on to say his actions should not have “special significance attached to it such as connoting approval or disapproval of the State in question, or of its head”.

In hindsight, and in the full knowledge of the atrocities carried out in the extermination camps across eastern Europe, it is unsurprising that de Valera’s visit on Hempel has been misinterpreted as an act of gross indecency. This, however, is to misread the context and reasons that lay behind de Valera’s decision. Knowing full well that his visit to the German ambassador’s residence would attract criticism, de Valera acted in a fashion believed by him to be the one most filled with integrity.

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