Nazis old and new

‘So far as I know there was only one public statue erected in Europe after the war to commemorate a Nazi. And on a recent visit to Dublin I finally managed to visit it’

So far as I know there was only one public statue erected in Europe after the war to commemorate a Nazi. And on a recent visit to Dublin I finally managed to visit it.

During the 1920s and ’30s while he was a senior figure in the IRA, Sean Russell cosied up to almost anyone he could in order to gather arms and allies for the war against the British. In the ’20s he headed to the Soviet Union and America looking for support. It took till the late ’30s for him to find his truest ally. Sure enough, in 1939 the IRA declared war against the British on the side of the Nazis. In the mind of people like Russell the ultimate defeat of the British would mean an Irish Republic without partition. I suppose they imagined they were thinking big at the time.

The IRA began its campaign of bombings in English cities just before the Luftwaffe took its turn. The IRA-Nazi pact did so well that in 1940 Russell went to Germany on behalf of the IRA Army Council to be trained by the Nazis’ intelligence service.

It was Russell’s personal tragedy to die on the German U-boat returning him to Ireland, meaning he never managed to put his new bomb-making skills to use. His statue was erected in Fairview Park, Dublin, after the war, and has remained there ever since.

It has suffered intermittent bouts of vandalism. An arm was removed quite early on by a group complaining that its posture suggested Russell was a communist rather than a fascist (presumably the vandal’s own preferred side). Then during the decade before this one the statue was decapitated by an anonymous group professing opposition to the mass murder of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and others by Sean Russell’s friends.

This should have been the perfect excuse for the Irish authorities to end the embarrassment and permanently remove the statue. Amazingly, in 2009 they commissioned a fresh one, this time cast in bronze, so as to deter further vandalism.

I am happy to report that I was the only visitor to see Sean Russell on a recent, wet Sunday morning. Some local boys were returning home in the drizzle from football practice. Otherwise the park was deserted. As I scuffed my shoes on the railings that now surround the statue and looked at his face (is it a good likeness?), I wondered about the past, and these islands and the awful complexity of our continent.***

Not to remain too mawkish, but these things are on my mind. Spain’s new left-wing government is planning to move the body of General Franco from his underground mausoleum. Not before time, you might think. The only time I visited the Valley of the Fallen I was slightly shocked to see fresh flowers on Franco’s grave and a steady stream of Spaniards still coming to pay their respects. Even more shocking were the flowers laid daily on the grave of the other person buried in that ghoulish subterranean cathedral: José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange, who was executed by the republicans in 1936. A  Spanish friend memorably commented, “Yes, even the people still sympathetic to Franco admit José Antonio was a bit of a fascist.”

When the recent news broke about Franco’s possible relocation some Spaniards came out to protest, and did so with the old salutes. It sent me to YouTube — as almost everything does these days — where someone has helpfully posted footage of Franco’s last speech. The near-cadaver is on the balcony in Madrid in 1975, railing about a masonic-leftist conspiracy. In the packed square before him thousands of people respond with the fascist salute and a rendition of the Falangist song “Cara al Sol” (Facing the Sun). It feels as though it must be very ancient history. Yet it isn’t.


To some extent everything is, of course, a matter of perspective. Last month I was in Oslo to give a public speech in the evening and one in parliament the next day. Oslo is a wonderful, calm and walkable city. The sun was out and people were drinking coffee on the pavements outside the cafes. Nevertheless it gave me a certain pleasure to overhear two Norwegian friends. “It’s just impossible to get around in Oslo at this time of year,” one complained. “It’s getting crazy.” The population of Oslo is 670,000.

It reminds me of a lovely story from a general election campaign in the Isle of Lewis a few years back. A candidate for Parliament ends up not just on the island, but on an island beyond the island and a mini-island beyond that island. He breaks the ice with an old lady whose vote he is after. “Well, you’re a long way away from it all here, Mrs McCrae,” he tells her bracingly. To which she replies pleasantly, “From what?”

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