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Thomas Niedermayer with his wife, Ingeborg Tranowski, and their two daughters. He was kidnapped in 1973 and his body was discovered five years later

The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer: A quietly angry book

Book review: David Blake Knox’s non-fiction work is a lie detector for the post-Troubles era

In 1980 workmen from the West Belfast Environmental Action Group spent four weeks cleaning out an illegal dump in swampy parkland on the outskirts of Andersonstown. The cleared site eventually became the genesis of today’s Colin Glen Forest Reserve, a popular amenity in the hills of west Belfast.

There was no such thing as a West Belfast Environmental Action Group. The workmen were undercover RUC officers, searching for the body of Thomas Niedermayer (45), a West German factory manager and honorary consul who had been abducted six years before, with no admission of responsibility.

The elaborate ruse, complete with fake offices downtown, was necessary to protect the searchers from attack by the local IRA unit which, an informant had told them, had dragged Niedermayer from his nearby family home. After a month of stomach-churning and nerve-wracking work amid the maggots and rats, the detectives eventually found his remains under the garbage, hands bound behind his back, buried face down so – as the IRA informant had told them – “he could dig himself deeper”.

Today, the Colin Glen Forest Reserve has a golf course and sports fields and zip lines. A Gruffalo Trail invites children to brave the deep dark wood. There is a lesson to be drawn from this: out of darkness, light. From suffering, hope. A people’s park, where children play, born from the sacrifice of a collateral victim to a struggle now best forgotten.

This is not the lesson that David Blake Knox wants us to learn, however.

The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer, the new non-fiction work from the author and former RTÉ producer, is a quietly angry book, a lie detector test for convenient post-Troubles narratives. Niedermayer may have been only one victim out of 3,500, but Knox uses the egregious circumstances of his death and disappearance to shine a cold light on an era that is being romanticised at least as quickly as it is being forgotten.

The ruthless IRA commander accused of ordering Niedermayer’s murder (among many others), the late Brian Keenan, has – thanks to his belated conversion to the Good Friday process – since been reinvented as a hero of the peace process. Niedermayer is buried in an obscure Belfast grave with no family – for reasons that will become heartbreakingly clear to readers of this book – to visit him. Republicans organise an annual Brian Keenan lecture and a hill walk in honour of the man jailed for 18 years for his involvement with the Balcombe Street gang (convicted of seven murders, with hundreds more injured). There is no plaque to Niedermayer in Colin Glen park.

Kidnapping

Yet Niedermayer loved Belfast, and made it his home. Raised as a Catholic in Bavaria, he was too young for military service in the second World War but was conscripted instead as an electrical technician. After the war he married Ingeborg Tranowski, a Protestant from East Prussia, and they had two daughters. Having risen quickly through the ranks of the Grundig electrical company, then a West German manufacturing giant, Niedermayer was sent in 1960 to manage its new tape recorder factory in Dunmurry, on the outskirts of Belfast.

Hard-working, conscientious, and an eager champion of further foreign investment in Northern Ireland, he was appointed honorary consul for West Germany. Most of his 1,000 employees – non-segregated but majority Catholic – liked him. One who did not was an angry and intemperate young shop steward named Brian Keenan.

In 1973, after IRA volunteers Dolours and Marian Price were convicted in London for bombings that killed an elderly shopkeeper and injured 200 people, Keenan – now leader of the Andersonstown IRA battalion – decided to kidnap his former boss to try and exchange him for the sisters. Niedermayer, ignoring a contemporary (now forgotten) IRA murder campaign against what it termed foreign “capitalists”, continued to live locally. He considered himself neutral, and not a target. He was dead within days of his kidnapping.

It is the aftermath of Niedermayer’s death that now speaks most loudly, in this era of fake news. The IRA deployed its habitual policy – remorselessly anatomised by Blake Knox – of denying involvement in any activity that it thought might reflect badly on it. This time, it had an ally of convenience in British military intelligence, which – in a period when loyalists and unionists were uniting to bring down the London-sponsored Sunningdale power-sharing agreement – was keen to implicate Protestant paramilitaries in any crimes it could.

Journalists, particularly from Britain and Germany, were fertile ground for lies sewed by earnest IRA briefers and military propagandists like the notorious Colin Wallace. Three German newspapers – the tabloid Bild and the reputable Der Spiegel and Die Zeit – produced detailed and entirely false investigations to the effect that Niedermayer had been killed by loyalists, and not the IRA, because he was (variously and/or collectively) an alcoholic, a gun-runner for loyalists, a philanderer in his factory, and/or having an affair with the German wife of the leading unionist William Craig.

‘Never knowing’

The notion that Niedermayer was shipping weapons from east Germany to a west Belfast factory, staffed mainly by Catholics, for distribution to Protestant paramilitaries, would not even qualify for a bullshit test in Ireland. But his fellow countrymen lapped it up, not least because, as a journalist for Die Zeit reasoned circularly at the time, the IRA wouldn’t have done it because it was “really not in their interests”.

No mercy was shown to Niedermayer’s widow, already battling with depression at the time of his disappearance, whom the stories tainted as an alcoholic and possible adulteress. She had a grave dug for him and left empty for six years, visiting it regularly, until his body was found.

“It is terrible living like this and never knowing,” she had said. “I beg these people to let me know – my life has been shattered.”

No IRA voice ever answered.

The demand for justice for the disappeared and for so-called “legacy killings” – such as the Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy massacres by the Parachute Regiment, the murder of widowed mother of 10 Jean McConville, who was driven to her lonely death by an unrepentant Dolours Price, or the Kingsmill slaughter of 10 Protestant workmen, which Brian Keenan is suspected of ordering – continues to dog Northern Ireland’s politics. The wounds of surviving loved ones have not healed, the whataboutery seems undimmed by the decades.

Niedermayer, all but forgotten, claimed by neither side, with no one to mourn him, becomes, in Blake Knox’s clear yet deceptively subtle argument, a perfect test case: avenge or forget? Instead, he argues, it is better to remember. He quotes the veteran Northern Ireland correspondent Henry McDonald, who – writing of the peace process – remarked that the Troubles differed from other conflicts in that truth was not the first casualty, but the last.

“At times,” Blake Knox writes, “the public response in Ireland to the Peace Process has seemed like a battered wife being grateful that her husband had stopped beating her, but fearful that any complaints about the previous abuse might provoke him into renewing his assault.”

Such arrangements, of course, seldom last.

Ed O’Loughlin’s latest novel is Minds of Winter