by John Freeman

It has been nearly one hundred years since the Irish Free State first possessed a representative in Germany and ninety-two years since the two countries established official diplomatic links. Throughout these (almost) one hundred years, Ireland and Germany grappled with significant changes to the nature of their relationship as well as shifts in how both nations were defined. The passage of time has seen multiple upheavals in the German political system, whilst both countries have experienced a contest over borders. Where Germany has reunified, the island of Ireland is split by the British-Irish border. Since the Republic of Ireland’s accession in 1973, the two countries have been drawn together within the European Union, where pertinent issues such as the European debt crisis of 2009 and Britain’s decision to leave the EU have formed the basis for intense discussion.

The event, hosted by the Centre for Geopolitics and the Irish History Seminar on 14 October, framed Irish-German relations as a space between Britain and Europe. The panel was chaired by Brendan Simms, director of the Centre for Geopolitics, and featured a presentation by Dr Gisela Holfter of the Centre for Irish-German Studies in Limerick, followed by comments from the University of Cambridge’s professor in modern and contemporary history, Prof. Eugenio Biagini. The framing of the event particularly spoke to the current situation where the Republic of Ireland possesses the European Union’s only land border with the United Kingdom.

At the beginning of Dr Holfter’s presentation, the Irish Free State was coming out of the United Kingdom’s shadow, geographically situated on the other side of Britain from the continent, but also ending a period where it was represented by British rule. The first Irish office in Berlin, established in April 1921, was the propaganda office of Nancy Wyse Power. Her interest was predominantly in the promotion of Irish and Celtic culture, the means by which Ireland first came to the attention of the Weimar Republic. Official embassies required a further wait of eight years. To illustrate the continuities and disruptions that occurred in Irish-German relations since 1929, Dr Holfter presented the audience with a number of significant ambassadorial individuals. The focus on individuals highlighted how certain eras of relations can be defined by the ambassadors that articulate them. The period of contact between Nazi Germany and Ireland, for instance, produced two infamous figures, Charles Bewley in Berlin (1933-1939) and Eduard Hempel in Dublin (1937-1945). Bewley was infamously an anti-Semite who was a champion of his country’s original policy not to admit German refugees in the lead up to the Second World War. Hempel has also been remembered poorly for his links to the Nazi Party which were essential for receiving a diplomatic posting. In fact, Hempel was a career diplomat before Hitler had come to power. The perception of German ambassadors, particularly in the Irish press has been of great significance. Hempel’s predecessor, Georg von Dehn-Schmidt, lost his job in 1936 after being photographed kissing the ring of the papal nuncio. In more recent times, Christian Pauls (2007-2009) incited controversy for his criticism of Irish doctors.

Despite the stumbles the Irish-German relationship has endured along the way, Dr Holfter spoke of how officials are striving for ever closer cooperation. It has been noted, on both sides, that trading links are strong and extensive. After the turmoil of Brexit, Germany has seen consultation and understanding with Dublin as essential. During the process of Britain’s exit from the EU, there has been a movement to place Irish interests at the core of European thinking, making good on Heinrich Böll’s comment in the 1950s that Ireland is ‘the glowing heart of Europe’. To this end, an initiative for a ‘wider and deeper footprint’ was announced in 2018 to strengthen ties between the Republic of Ireland and Germany, followed by a similar strategy with France in 2021. The bilateral relations have come full circle from Wyse Power, as the approach also places significant importance on cultural exchange; the first Irish cultural affairs officer in Berlin took up their post in 2020.

Prof. Biagini’s response to Dr Holfter also highlighted how Irish ties in Germany connect into its relationship with its neighbour. He framed Irish-German relations as being formed in reaction to common enemies, namely Britain. Irish-German relations were, of course, first established in the aftermath of two significant conflicts with the British, the Irish War of Independence and World War One. This characterisation of Dublin’s relationship towards Berlin had been put to the side since Britain had also been a member of the European Union but is now present again due to the British exit.

Prof. Biagini also pointed out that membership of the European Union had implications for identity politics in the Irish republic. The EU offered an anti-nationalist strategy for the development of nationhood in a continental framework. This appealed not only to post-war Germans looking to rebuild, but also members of religious minorities in Ireland, such as Protestants and Jews. These minorities had been particularly vocal in their opposition to engagement with representatives from Nazi Germany during the 1930s. For Protestants the transition of Europe away from far-right nationalism towards supranational structures of cooperation, offered a model where certain interests would not be allowed to dominate political decision-making, as they feared Catholics would in the south of Ireland. That model also offered an alternative to empires, where equality between nations gave Germany legitimacy in acting on a continental scale. The Republic of Ireland could also do the same, working on an equal footing with Britain.

Now, with the ongoing issue of Brexit, Prof. Biagini asserted that Ireland’s place between Britain and Europe is again firmly on the agenda, as the atmosphere of cooperation has been broken and the capitals of Europe become increasingly anti-British. In this instance, the panel was agreed that both Brussels and Berlin have been inclined to follow Dublin’s lead on issues relating to the Northern Irish border. Merkel’s government recognised the importance of Irish opinion in relation to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, something that does not seem set to change under the new coalition. From the German point of view, the Republic of Ireland has become an arbiter over an important aspect of Britain’s status in Europe.


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