The manager of Dublin’s Theatre Royal held hostage by Himmler

Major John McGrath was in an elite group including Pastor Martin Niemöller and Léon Blum

Irishman Major John McGrath is in uniform next to Pastor Martin Niemöller, who famously wrote: “First they came for the communists...” He is holding Sissi, daughter of the former Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg

Irishman Major John McGrath is in uniform next to Pastor Martin Niemöller, who famously wrote: “First they came for the communists...” He is holding Sissi, daughter of the former Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg

 

The above photograph appears on the cover of a recently published book, Dachau to the Dolomites. The book, in its final chapters, recounts the journey of a group of hostages from Dachau Concentration Camp to a deserted hotel, the Pragser Wildsee, in the Dolomite Mountains, part of the Italian Alps.

The 20 persons pictured were part of that group of 160 prisoners from 18 countries gathered outside the hotel. The woman in the centre of the picture is Vera von Schuschnigg, the wife of the former Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, (not in this picture) deposed by Hitler after the Anschluss, the forced absorption of Austrian into the Third Reich in March 1938. She volunteered to join her husband in captivity in 1942. The child in the arms of the pipe-smoking figure is her daughter, Maria Dolores, who was then known as Sissi. She had never known life outside a concentration camp until a week before this picture was taken.

The man holding Sissi is Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor imprisoned on Hitler’s orders in 1937. He was an important symbol of prewar resistance within Germany, but is now best known as the composer of the lines that begin “First they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist” and reiterating the stance in respect of socialists, trade unionists, and Jews until the last line, “Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me”.

The smiling man in the military type garb beside Niemöller is Major John McGrath, a Roscommon native who at the outbreak of the war left his job as manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin to join in the war effort. He was a veteran of the first World War and had remained a reserve officer despite having returned to Ireland. Captured in northern France after the rescue boats had left Dunkirk in June 1940, he became for a time the senior British officer in a camp for Irish-born POWs who the Germans hoped to convert to their cause. McGrath ended up in concentration camps for most of the war after German Army Intelligence (Abwehr) discovered he was conspiring to undermine their scheme.

The fur-clad gentlemen to the left of the Irishman in the photograph are believed to have been members of the Hungarian government deposed by the Nazis in March 1944. Among the group on the right are some Soviet generals who for a time collaborated with the Nazis, some more enthusiastically than others, to avoid execution. Other important hostages not in shot include Léon Blum, the former French prime minister and his wife Jeanne, and members of the former Greek regime. Also present in the hotel were former high-ranking Wehrmacht officers, including General Franz Halder, at one time chief of the army general staff, and a number of aristocrats, clergy, industrialists and diplomats.

McGrath was not the only British officer present. A number of the survivors of the Stalag Luft III “Great Escape” accompanied him on the journey into the Alps, along with four Irish soldiers and NCOs. All had been kept by the SS in isolated sections of concentration camps, some because they were judged to have hostage bargaining potential.

From the millions of prisoners of war held in German camps, a few hundred were awarded special status. Himmler is believed to have been the architect of this policy. A group of Jewish prisoners who were thought to have rich and influential relatives in the United States were assembled in a special section of Bergen-Belsen with the hope that they might be traded for foreign currency. Castle Schlossitter, near Innsbruck, held important French political and military prisoners whom Blum had not been allowed to join because of his Jewish identity. The group that ended up in Hotel Pragser Wildsee had been assembled in Dachau as a last-ditch initiative, designed to encourage talks with the Allies.

In March 1945, a meeting was held in London to discuss matters related to the “the removal of monies from Germany and their possible secretion in neutral countries”. It was chaired by Lord Drogheda, director general of the ministry of economic warfare, and attended by Sir Claude Dansey, the deputy head of MI6, and Sir Alexander Cadegan, the senior foreign office civil servant . The participants heard that a Monsieur Musy, a Swiss politician, was acting as a middleman for the Germans ,who were conditionally offering to release certain hostages. Léon Blum and Martin Niemöller’s names were among those mentioned. Musy had already met Himmler and his close confident Walter Schellenberg, and, separately, with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the SD, the intelligence and security branch of the SS. Each was competing in attempts to interest the British and Americans in talks that might save the Reich, or as defeat became ever closer, themselves.

Hitler knew of the existence of these prominent prisoners, although he had little interest in hostage bargaining. General Gottlob Berger, Himmler’s chief of staff, in a meeting with Hitler on April 22nd, 1945 raised the subject with the Führer. In the context of his own impending journey to Munich, Gottlob asked Hitler what was to be done about the Prominenten as they were known. Before any reply was forthcoming, the conversation moved on to reports of emerging separatist movements in Bavaria and Austria. This evidence of yet more treachery caused Hitler to lapse into frenzied convulsions. According to what Berger told Hugh Trevor Roper, “his hand was shaking, his leg was shaking, and his head was shaking; and all he kept saying was; ‘Shoot them all! Shoot them all,’” leaving Berger to work out if he was referring to the separatists, the hostages or nobody in particular.

Hitler would have preferred to have all concentration camp inmates perish, and, it seems, plans were drawn up to firebomb Dachau, but a lack of resources, and the reluctance of some Nazis to commit mass murder when they would soon have to answer for their crimes, prevented this happening. Attempts to interest the Allies in talks were similarly unsuccessful, despite the hostages being transported to an envisaged Alpine fortress to prevent their liberation by the Allies.

McGrath and the rest of his follow hostages were rescued by American troops on May 4th and later taken to Capri, before being repatriated to Britain. By early June 1945 the Roscommon man was back in Dublin where he resumed his managerial role in the Theatre Royal. He didn’t have long to enjoy his freedom for he died in his flat in Merrion Square on November 5th, 1947.
Dachau to the Dolomites: The Irishmen, Himmler’s Special Prisoners and the End of WWII by Tom Wall is published by Merrion Press

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