Irish rebels with a German accent
A new television documentary reveals that the Nazis made 'Irish' rebel movies as anti-British propaganda aimed at a German audience, writes Kate Holmquist.
The cause of Irish freedom had an unlikely champion in 1940: Hitler and his minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, Dr Joseph Goebbels. They ordered Germany's most popular screen idols - the equivalents of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie today - to appear in films that celebrated Irish
Their goal wasn't to encourage sympathy for the Irish but to encourage the German people
to hate the British through subliminal propaganda presented as blockbuster melodrama.
This subtle psychological propaganda soon backfired, but not before several unintentionally hilarious feature films were made. Glamorous actors had fun dressing up as Irish peasants and rebels. "Irishmen" in jackboots danced "jigs" in slow motion like funereal Cossacks. German actresses fell in love with rebels and sang "Irish" laments that were more Schubert than sean-nós.
And landlords were depicted as Irish patriots conspiring to overthrow the British. RTÉ1 viewers will have a chance to see clips from these films on Tuesday evening in Hitler's Irish Movies, which was directed by Jeremiah Cullinane (39), an Irish-born film-maker who grew up in Montreal and for several years has studied film in Paris. His co-writer and producer was an Italian, Bartolomeo Dibenedetto. Cullinane became fascinated with Hitler's Irish propaganda when a friend told him about the films and RTÉ quickly accepted his proposal and funded the documentary.
The films are bizarre, certainly, but also disturbing in the way they shape Irish history into a stick to beat the British with. The Nazis saw the Republic and Northern Ireland as a backdoor they could use to invade England. But before they attempted that, Hitler and Goebbels had to brainwash the German people into hating the British.
Up to that point, Hitler saw the British as the ultimate Aryan and Nordic role models. But when it
became clear that the British were to be enemies rather than allies in Germany's battle for European
domination, Hitler and Goebbels decided to use popular cinema to defame them. The British were to be portrayed as untrustworthy, greedy, treacherous and vile exploiters of the Irish people - although any nationality oppressed by the British would have sufficed.
The Irish were to be celebrated as the new role models because they hated the British and were willing to die for their cause. The Germans reinvented the Irish as a courageous peasant warrior society.
But the type of German-speaking "Irish" character invented by Goebbels had so little similarity to the real Irish that absolutely no research was required to make Irish characters appear remotely genuine. The actual Irish people, the German propaganda machine believed, had absolutely nothing in common with the self-disciplined Germans.
"In fact, if Germany had invaded Ireland it would have done to the Irish what it did to everyone else," says Cullinane.
The Irish were seen as sub-Aryan by the Germans, who actually had no sympathy for the Irish rebel cause.
The Germans, who invented concentration camps, created the fiction that it was actually a British invention during the Boer War. The Germans were presented with their own evil, but with someone else as the culprit in a weird twisting of history. Director Max Kimmich, who had made silent films in Hollywood, was given the task of creating the new anti-British cinema not due to his talent, but because he had married Goebbels's younger sister, Maria. His first anti-British production was an adaptation of the romantic novel, The Fox of Glenarvon (1940), which concerns a love triangle involving an Irish woman, Gloria, played by Olga Tschechowa, with whom Hitler was infatuated.
Gloria's husband, Grandison, is the English local justice of the peace, and her lover is a brave rebel, Ennis. When Gloria says (translated from German) "it's not about my happiness, I'm an Irish woman and I have a duty to fulfil", the German female audience was meant to identify with her and subliminally get the message that German women should be willing to sacrifice their happiness in the cause of the war.
The deliberate attempt to appeal to women on an emotional level was a success, according to
Gestapo secret reports, which noted that public comments on the films focused on the good looks
of the actors and the attraction of the love story, with hardly anyone noticing the propagandistic
The films also "Jewified" the British by portraying them as having what the Third Reich preached
were negative Jewish characteristics, such as avarice and lack of compassion. In this way, the Germans were shown the ideological propaganda of Germany but at a palatable remove, with the battle between Irish and British instead of between Germans and British and Germans and Jews.
Kimmich's second film, Mein Leben für Irland (My Life for Ireland, 1941), is a romantic pot-pourri
of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, based around beautiful young boys in a British-sponsored school that is trying to turn them into model British citizens. The parallel with Hitler Youth is obvious, but in this film the boys are heroes because they take up arms - just how so many guns got into a boarding school is another matter - and defeat the British. Along the way, one of the boys falls in love with the mother of a classmate and is traumatised when he sees her in the arms of her lover, who turns out to be an IRA commander.
The main message of the film, as expressed by one of the characters, is: "No one has the right to put his personal feeling before duty."
The films were intended to be shown in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, until Goebbels realised that the Poles and Czechs could misinterpret them as being thinly veiled attacks on the Third Reich itself. A further film, Titanic (1943) - which portrayed the British as arrogant and stupid enough to steam into icebergs - was never shown in Germany. By the time it was completed, Germany was failing at the front and didn't want the public to interpret the film as the sinking of the Third Reich. The film didn't go to waste, though, because its special effects were later used in the Hollywood epic, A Night to Remember
The Third Reich wasn't the only power to use propaganda. The British used Goebbels's methods
to vilify the Irish in general and de Valera personally in films that showed the Irish as traitorous for remaining neutral during the war. Mrs Miniver (1942), directed byWilliam Wyler and featuring screen idols Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, was the ultimate in propaganda in its portrayal of a family making personal sacrifices during the bombing of London. More recently, Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center (2006) may not have been official propaganda, but it was transparently designed to boost American spirits in the wake of 9/11.
Previously, the propagandistic, pro-American Independence Day (1996) was, ironically, made by
a German, Cullinane points out.
The current backlash against the US invasion of Iraq is being capitalised on by Barack Obama in
the early stages of the 2008 US presidential election campaign. There's no doubt that documentary
film-maker Michael Moore has played a huge part in "educating" the ordinary US voter and provoking anti-Bush sentiment. Meanwhile, Davis Guggenheim's film of Al Gore's campaign to make global warming a recognised problem worldwide, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), is propaganda in the best, original sense of the word: art designed to promote a good cause. Or is it just a new form of campaign propaganda? It's difficult to label a film as propaganda because successful propaganda doesn't look like propaganda. There's also a view that it's propaganda only if you disagree with it.
Cullinane's documentary ends with a warning that propaganda may have become a dirty word, but that doesn't mean it no longer exists. His next documentary, Apostles of the Seventh Art, will be about the way popular film is being used by American evangelical Christians who believe in the biblical prediction of an apocalyptic "rapture".
These films aren't particularly well made, but, Cullinane says, evangelical Christian viewers are willing to forgive the aesthetic faults in films that promote their own values. The same evangelical Christian groups castigate films such as American Beauty (1999) that promote an individualistic, humanist view of the
world. We're surrounded by propaganda all the time. Cullinane's documentary, Hitler's Irish Movies,
sheds some light on how it works and why we are still vulnerable to Goebbels's methods.
• Hidden History: Hitler's Irish Movieswill be shown on RTÉ1 on Tues at 10.15pm