Post 79 – de Valera and his Government welcomed Nazi killers to ‘holy’ Ireland –

  I’m taking coffee in Dublin, just off Grafton Street in the city centre. I’m at a table with Claire, an attractive young Irishwoman who’s been going through her college accountancy syllabus, which she now folds and returns to her bag.

‘We have an interesting history here,’ she tells me. ‘And you may not have heard about this:  but de Valera’s Government is alleged to have welcomed between 100 and 150 Nazi activists from Europe in the late forties and early fifties.’ This wasn’t an Ireland I was familiar with; but as a London tabloid journalist, I was intrigued, and Claire had more to tell me.

‘There was a feeling,’ she said, ‘that because of previous conflicts with England, the Irish might welcome Germans – some of whom had murdered Jews during the Second World War, and quite a few of them came here. The worst offender to be given sanctuary,’ she explained, ‘was probably Andrija Artukovic  – known as ‘the butcher of the Balkans’  – who was responsible for the deaths of more than a million men, women and children during the Second World War. He worked for Hitler as an Interior Minister in Croatia. But he arrived here in 1947 after being referred by a Franciscan church in Switzerland, and he lived under the assumed name of Alois Annick in the leafy suburb of Rathgar in south Dublin where he  frequently went to a local church. Then, after gaining an Irish identity card, he left for the US in 1948 and settled in California where he worked as a book-keeper. There is apparently a file on this man in our Irish Department of Foreign Affairs which has never been disclosed.’ Claire said in a low voice. ‘But in the fifties Yugoslavia demanded his extradition, and after 30 years of legal wrangling he was eventually sent back to his homeland where he was sentenced to death for his crimes – but he died in a Yugoslav prison cell in 1988.’

I found this difficult to take on board over my coffee in central Dublin where most of the other customers were smartly dressed middle-aged ladies. But Claire had details for me about another notorious Nazi war criminal who found refuge in Ireland.  ‘His name was Celestine Laine,’ she said. ‘And he was the leader of a Waffen SS unit that was responsible for the torture and murder of civilians in German occupied Brittany. According to a piece I recently read by an Irish journalist,’ she said, ‘Laine – a  French extremist – joined the SS when the Germans recruited local help and he took command of the region where he had grown up, ordering the torture of countless fighters who once lived alongside him. His favoured method was to take young men and women into the forests at night to torture and then execute them. Today, mass graves are scattered all over Brittany as a testament to the cruelty of his unit. Some of these people, who were recaptured, were found to be in possession of letters of recommendation written in English and addressed to the Irish consulate in Paris.’

I now needed alcohol rather than coffee, but Claire wasn’t quite finished as my mouth opened and I shuddered. ‘In 1947 word reached Laine that he could escape to Ireland where our  Government was prepared to grant him asylum,’ she said. ‘He didn’t do too well while he lived here, and he died in 1983. But he was not the last Nazi to be protected in Ireland. During the seventies it emerged that a Dutchman, Pieter Menten, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jews in Poland, was dividing his time between Holland and Waterford in Southern Ireland, where he had a large country home at Mahon Bridge. And then there was Otto ‘Scarface’ Skorzeny’, she added. ‘He was once described as Hitler’s favourite soldier and the most dangerous man in Europe. Fourteen years after he had rescued Mussolini from a hilltop fortress in 1943 he arrived in Ireland and was feted by the Dublin social glitterati at the Portmarnock Country Club. He later escaped from prison in the United States, where he had been incarcerated, and he then bought a farm in our Curragh racing neighbourhood where he lived happily for a decade.’

Claire was prepared to share a bottle of wine with me as we finished our coffees, and she smiled appealingly when it arrived and we toasted each other with glasses of a very drinkable French Merlot.  

‘I have just heard,’ she said quietly, ‘about a former Auschwitz camp guard who died last week in a South American care home. He used to run a café just over there,’ she said, pointing towards a row of shops in Anne Street. ‘It was a popular little place and Herr Schmidt, who was the owner, apparently enjoyed living here until his Nazi identity was revealed.’

‘And how did that happen?’ I asked when I had taken another sip from my glass of Merlot.

‘It was a former Auschwitz prisoner,’ Claire said. ‘He was a child when he was imprisoned at the concentration camp. But he had frequently been beaten by Schmidt and after the War someone mentioned how former Nazis had been welcomed here, so he came over to investigate and it wasn’t long until he discovered Schmidt’s café, went in, and immediately recognised his former SS camp guard from Auschwitz. The Irish Government were apparently reluctant to take action. So Herr Schmidt bought three pedigree Alsatian dogs and gave then to the Dublin Gardai as a ‘thank you’ gift. Unfortunately, however, the dogs were rather wild, and as the Gardai tried to police an anti-Cuban missile demonstration outside the US Ambassador’s residence in our rather secluded Phoenix Park many people were attacked and bitten by the Alsatians.’  

I found it difficult to take on board the possibility of Nazi killers finding refuge in de Valera’s largely Catholic Ireland. So I made a call to an Irish journalist contact I had, and he confirmed what Claire had just told me. ‘It’s something that, to a large extent, has been swept under the carpet,’ he said. ‘And now that we’re part of the European Union, I don’t think any of our politicians want to mention it … but you could have a story here, Phil … so why don’t we meet for lunch and talk about it.’

I would prefer to have taken lunch with the lovely Claire. But she had an upcoming lecture at Trinity College. So she smiled agreeably while lightly touching the back of my hand. ‘Perhaps this evening,’ she said as she got up. ‘I could see you at six in the Bailey, Phil. and we could have a proper chat.’

And that was it … but my hand was shaking as I nervously gripped my glass for a final gulp of the Merlot wine. End.