When war broke out in September 1939, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera announced that Ireland was to remain neutral. The 26 counties of what is today known as Éire had gained de facto independence from Britain in the 1920s. But in 1939 it was still part of the Commonwealth and de Valera was keen to keep up the momentum for achieving a full Republic, especially as the Irish people had voted for a new constitution to be adopted just two years earlier, which gave greater autonomy to the fledgling state. More than anything, he wanted Britain and the rest of the world to recognise Ireland’s right to it’s own foreign policy. However, he arguably took this attempt too far in 1945 by extending his sympathies on the death of Adolf Hitler to greater levels than when the US President Roosevelt had died just three weeks earlier.
Churchill was always opposed to Irish neutrality. It irritated him so much that he and Roosevelt collaborated to try and persuade Ireland to join the war, but garnering support for the Irish war effort by Irish Americans. Churchill at many times throughout the war considered invading Ireland, as he knew that the questions of Irish unity and sovereignty meant that it would not be easy to persuade Éire to abandon it’s policy. Neutrality was a policy generally supported by the general public in Ireland and despite numerous barriers it remained throughout the duration of the war.
When Roosevelt passed away in April 1945, the Dáil (Irish parliament chamber), held a special sitting in which de Valera delivered a moving tribute to Roosevelt. As Taoiseach, de Valera was also Foreign Minister, and together with his aide Joseph Walshe, he visited the German Embassy in Dublin on May 2, 1945, to sign a book of condolences for the Fuhrer. They also met with a German envoy to Ireland, Eduard Hempel, to express condolences.
The visits were met with major opposition, particularly in the United States. De Valera had arguably intended it as mark of statesmanship, reflecting the fact that Ireland was a now a nation separate from Britain. Additionally, the decision of President Douglas Hyde to send condolences to Hempel further ignited the anger, notably because there had been no presidential delegate had visited the American embassy after the death of Roosevelt. This was a move backed by the government, which further adds to the curiosity surrounding de Valera’s actions.
The visit to Hempel’s home has puzzled historians ever since, and it is likely that the decision was taken purely in a domestic context. Éire was a fledgling state, trying to exert itself on the world stage as a neutral nation. De Valera later argued that he offered his sympathies purely on moral grounds, stating, “During the whole of the war, Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. … I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”
This “irreproachable” conduct could not be said for the American Ambassador to Ireland, David Walsh. Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle, he led efforts to persuade Ireland to join the war, to the point that de Valera even requested that Gray be removed from his position after Roosevelt had died. Perhaps the bad relations between the two men were part of de Valera’s reasoning not to visit the American embassy when Roosevelt passed away, and probably further ignited anger when he visited the German embassy when Hitler died. Either way, the visit to Hempel created a storm of controversy, and never before had Ireland received such worldwide attention – perhaps a happy by-product of the visit to Hempel on the part of de Valera, as it parachuted the neutral State to the world media and told the world that it had maintained it’s own neutral foreign policy for the duration – if if it was for all the wrong reasons.
The Republic of Ireland was formally declared in 1949, but with 26 counties and not 32 as was de Valera’s long-held wish. Churchill never agreed with Irish neutrality during the war, and de Valera would later accuse him of not being able to “find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression…” in his famous radio broadcast on May 16, 1945.
Despite it’s success however, the neutrality policy combined with the visit to Hempel was probably the final nail in the coffin in terms of de Valera’s chances of ever securing the 32-county Republic he had always dreamed of. The international storm caused by the visit to Hempel meant that the support for Irish independence which at one time was rife (de Valera had enjoyed support from Irish America for over 25 years), waned, and so did any general support for it from the United Nations when it was established in 1945. The visit was a small but yet significant glitch to de Valera’s dream.