On 2 May 1945, Eamon de Valera, Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs, and Joseph Walshe, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, called to the home of Eduard Hempel, German Minister to Ireland since 1937, to express their condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler, who committed suicide in Berlin on 30 April. This visit caused an international furore and extremely hostile coverage, particularly in the American and British press. De Valera’s protestations that the visit was in keeping with the protocol requirements of a neutral state were largely derided, and he found himself in the uncomfortable company of the Spanish and Portuguese, who also expressed condolences, and at a distance from the canny Swiss, who did not, on the grounds that they had received no formal notification of Hitler’s death.
The background to the affair and its development are explained in Dermot Keogh’s article, ‘Eamon de Valera and Hitler: An Analysis of International Reaction to the Visit to the German Minister, May 1945′, reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, originally published in “Irish Studies in International Affairs”, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1989).
There is no doubt that protocol played a role in de Valera’s decision to visit Hempel. He had suspended the Dáil as a mark of respect on the death of President Roosevelt, and while there was no question of such reaction to Hitler’s death, the forms had to be observed. Various shrewd advisors pointed out that Britain and the United States had actually won the war, and it would have been in Ireland’s best interests not to antagonise them. However, de Valera insisted that the visit implied no judgment, good or bad, on the activities of the German state, and that this was the appropriate position for a neutral state; also, Irish neutrality had been difficult to maintain, Hempel had ably assisted in that endeavour, and de Valera appreciated this; and lastly, he liked Hempel, and felt sorry for him in his predicament.
The visit was slightly impulsive, and it is possible that if de Valera had considered the likely consequences, and taken counsel from more people, he might have opted to leave a card, or not visit at all. But it is also possible that he would have gone ahead, protocol and personal loyalty taking precedence over pragmatism. George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to The Times at the height of the controversy, suggested that de Valera could be seen “as champion of the Christian chivalry we are all pretending to admire. Let us recognise a noble heart even if sometimes we must question its worldly wisdom.” However, most observers were more likely to agree with historian Basil Williams, in another letter to The Times: “There would no doubt be justification for de Valera’s visit of sympathy to the German representative in Dublin in ordinary circumstances but in view of the horrible cruelties and slow murders ordered by Hitler condolences of a Christian government seem singularly out of place.”