Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler's Irish Slaves by David Blake Knox
David Blake Knox has written a fascinating account of a neglected aspect of Irish involvement in the second World War
Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler's Irish Slaves
David Blake Knox
For much of the 20th century, Ireland had an ambivalent relationship with the second World War. On the one hand, Ireland was one of just five European states that remained neutral during the most devastating war in human history; on the other hand, thousands of Irishmen volunteered to join the Allied war effort, whether for material or ideological reasons. Others, though significantly fewer in number, fought for Hitler’s Germany.
In his new book, David Blake Knox explores a much neglected aspect of Irish involvement in the war. Suddenly, While Abroad tells the story of 32 merchant seamen from Ireland whose ships were sunk by the German navy and who, after refusing to work for the Nazis, were sent to an SS slave-labour camp in Farge, a small inland port on the River Weser near the north German city of Bremen. There, the Nazis were building a huge bunker in which to assemble submarines. To achieve that goal, they were prepared to work thousands of slave labourers from across Europe to death, including five of the Irishmen who died in one of their camps. Despite brutal conditions, the seamen steadfastly resisted all attempts by the SS to turn them into collaborators with the Third Reich. (For a more balanced picture, however, it must be noted that a number of Irishmen in German captivity chose differently. Some even joined the SS and fought on various battlefields against the advancing Red Army.)
Those who refused to collaborate with the Nazis were subjected to a brutal regime of repression and exploitation, in blatant violation of the international laws governing the treatment of prsioners of war. According to Christopher Ryan, who survived the camp at Farge, the guards made the prisoners run around the camp at night, despite their physical exhaustion from hard labour during the day. Each guard carried a weighted hosepipe, whips or wires, with which they slashed the prisoners at random. The SS personnel at Farge would sometimes amuse themselves by staging boxing matches between their captives, with the winner gaining an extra ration of bread. As a result, the starving men fought each other with a passion born of hunger and despair.
At other times, the camp’s commandant, Karl Walhorn, would arm himself with a hunting rifle. He would place a small piece of potato or turnip on a rubbish tip and then hide in one of the huts until a starving prisoner ran out to retrieve it – at which point he would open fire. At his postwar trial, Walhorn justified his sadistic behaviour by claiming that he was entitled to shoot “because I had issued an order expressly forbidding potato stealing”.
Besides the SS camp guards, Blake Knox identifies other villains in this story: the seemingly indifferent Irish government of the time and, in particular, its representative in Berlin, William Warnock, who served as the Irish chargé d’affaires in Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1944. Warnock is described as “a timid and ineffectual representative of his country during the tumultuous years of the second World War”, who displayed little interest in the fate of Irish nationals in German captivity (many of whom had volunteered for service in the British armed forces or enlisted as merchant seamen), even when he was alerted that Irish citizens were interned in camps. Neutrality was to be maintained at any cost.
When the camp at Farge was finally liberated, in 1945, and 27 of the Irish seamen imprisoned there were able to return to Ireland, they were largely ignored by the press and soon disappeared from public view. Many of the men (alongside those who had served in the British armed forces) even faced hostility from the public and felt that they could not openly talk about their participation in the war without their integrity as Irishmen being questioned. Anti-Britishness was often stronger than resentment against the Nazis.
While some former Nazis found a new home in Ireland after fleeing the postwar trials in Germany, the Irish government banned an Armistice Day parade by Irish veterans in November 145. As Blake Knox points out, the actions of Charles Haughey, who, as a student at University College Dublin, marked VE Day (the anniversary of the Nazi defeat) by burning a Union Jack outside Trinity College, were indicative of the attitude of many. It was not until 1991 that a memorial for the Irish victims of the second World War was finally unveiled in Dublin’s docklands.
Blake Knox is to be commended for bringing the life stories of the imprisoned Irish merchant seamen back into focus and for restoring their place in the larger story of the war. There are, however, certain weaknesses in the book that ought to be mentioned: at times it has a moralising tone and a somewhat simplistic storyline of honest Irish seamen falling victim to Nazi evil. It is perfectly understandable that Blake Knox, a relative of one of the seamen who died at Farge, has greater sympathy for the Irish camp inmates than for those back in Ireland whose anti-British sentiments made it difficult to recognise the seamen’s sacrifices. Yet historians of the second World War have been at pains over the past decade or so to bring more subtlety into such narratives of good and evil, in order to allow for historical ambivalence and to emphasise that, in this terrible period of conflict, people had to make difficult decisions that are often hard to understand from a peacetime perspective. I therefore wish that the author had maintained a more consistently sober and objective tone. The story itself is both fascinating and deeply moving. It did not require further dramatisation or moralising.
I also wish that the publisher had asked someone to check the German terms and expressions used rather abundantly in the book. Most of these terms are misspelled, sometimes to the point of complete obscurity, which is bound to annoy a reader with even the most rudimentary knowledge of German. It should also be noted for future editions that the name of the current German armed forces is the Bundeswehr and that the Transylvanian-born Nobel Peace laureate and Auschwitz survivor quoted in the opening pages of the book is Elie Wiesel, not Weisel.
But these minor criticisms should not distract from the fact that David Blake Knox has produced an otherwise well-researched book that deserves to be read widely by those interested in a largely forgotten chapter of 20th-century Irish history.