The Derry man who watched the rise of Hitler

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler pictured with Herman Goering. (2004MM18)
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler pictured with Herman Goering. (2004MM18)

Derry-born diplomat Leo T. McCauley spent four decades in the Irish civil service and spent many years working as a diplomat in countries across the world. He was in Germany in the 1930 and provided a first hand account of the Nazi rise to power. ‘Journal’ reporter Michael McMonagle looks back at the Derry man’s career.

Mr McCauley held a series of high-rankng civil service and diplomatic positions in Ireland from the foundation of the state in 1922 right up to the 1960s when he retired.

Derry born diplomat Leo T. McCauley

Derry born diplomat Leo T. McCauley

During that time he served in the Department of Finance and the Department of External Affairs, the latter seeing him posted to a number of embassies across the world.

Prior to entering the fledgling Irish civil service in 1922, the Derry man had lived and studied in Dublin for a number of years. He graduated from UCD in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, and continued his studies through the turbulent years which followed, completing his MA in 1919. While completing his studies, he worked as a lecturer in UCD from 1916 until 1921 when he qualified as a barrister and was called to the Irish Bar.

He did not practise as a barrister for long, however, and entered the newly formed Department of Finance in 1922. During his time in the department, he held a number of senior positions including Private Secretary to Minister Ernest Blythe, and Secretary to the Budget Committee.

He was also Secretary to the Committee on Coinage Designs, which was chaired by poet and senator, W.B. Yeats.

He left the Department of Finance in 1929 and transferred to the Department of External Affairs, in whose service he travelled the world.

His first posting, in his first year in the Department, was to Berlin, where he initially served as Secretary of the Irish Legation, and later as the charge d’affaires from 1932 to 1933.

His time in Berlin co-incided with the most turbulent and controversial periods in Germany’s history; the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

Hitler’s rise was watched with interest and concern across the world and it fell to Mr McCauley to monitor the situation for the Irish government.

His diplomatic cables to his superiors in the Department of External Affairs in Dublin reveal an interesting picture of how Ireland perceived the rise of the Nazis, and how Ireland was viewed on the international stage.

When he was first sent to Berlin the Nazis were a fringe party with little support but by the time he left Germany in 1933 they were the dominant force in German political life as the largest party in the Riechstag with Hitler as Chancellor.

In 1932, Mr McCauley reported to his superiors that Germans viewed the change of government in Ireland and the attitude of the new government, led by Eamonn deValera, to England, with considerable interest.

He noted however, that ordinary Germans were getting a rather one-sided portrayal of affairs in Ireland. “One unfortunate feature of the relation between the German Press and Ireland is that the special correspondents who report on Irish affairs live in London,” he wrote.

He also said that a number of German officials voiced concerns about the direction of de Valera and the so-called ‘economic war’ with Britain.

In a letter to Joseph P. Walshe dated May 3 1932, Mr McCauley said that “Ireland, as a tributary state to England would be more desirable to Germany just at present than an independent Ireland.”

He also said the interest of a number of “eminent German scholars” in the Irish language should not be interpreted as “a symptom of German interest in Irish matters”.

It is his communiques with Dublin after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 which reveal the pace of change in the country as the grip of the Nazis strengthened.

In a memo titled ‘Political situation in Germany,’ dated March 15 1933, Mr McCauley said that the situation in the country was fluid. “New history is being made daily; and the change which has taken place is regarded by many as a more drastic revolution that which over-threw the Imperial government at the end of 1918.”

He also noted that before the Nazis took power, many foreigners living in Germany often remarked that the Germans needed a “strong hand to rule them.” However, he observed that viewpoint changed during the early days of Nazi rule. “Now, however, that Germany has a strong hand holding the reins foreigners are not at all too pleased,” he wrote.

Interestingly, Mr McCauley alerted his superiors in Dublin about the possibility of a German invasion of Poland in March 1933 - six years before it happened.

“It is said the military attachés in the various embassies are already calculating the period within which Germany will be able to take the field against Poland. It may be taken for granted that the military spirit of Germany has been revived in all its glory by Hitler and his Storm Divisions.”

He also reported that the Nazi flag was given official recognition alongside the old imperial flag and the flying of both was causing great excitement among ordinary Germans.

Mr McCauley’s diplomatic cables also recognised the influence of Hitler’s deputy, Herman Göering, and the danger he posed. “The most violent man in the new government is Göering,” he wrote. “He is certainly very violent and unrestrained in his speeches. He is regarded as a somewhat mischievous influence in the Cabinet and as Hitler’s evil genius.”

The Derry-diplomat also acknowledged the anti-semitism of the new Nazi regime and warned that it would be a hallmark of their reign.

“One of the most interesting problems before the new government is that of dealing with the Jews,” he wrote.

He added that there was an expectation that the Nazis would seize Jewish-owned property and expel Jews from the country.

“It will not be so easy to effect this, particularly in the case of the large body of Jews who have been settled in Germany for generations, many of whom occupy prominent places in the industrial, professions, and artistic life of Germany,” he explained in his report.

He also reported that a number of attacks on Jews had already taken place but indicated that they were isolated incidents. “Some direct action has been taken by irresponsible members of the movement against individual shops and business houses owned by Jews; but this has all been stopped, at least for the time being, by the personal order of Hitler,” he said.

In May 1933 he returned to the subject of anti-semitism in his reports to officials in Dublin.

“Germans cannot understand that the persecution of the Jews in Germany should evoke so much interest in Great Britain and give rise to so much unfavourable criticism,” he wrote.

He also tried to summarise what he believed to be the attitude of Germans toward the Jews.

“The Germans suggest that the Jewish problem exists in Germany in a form which cannot be appreciated in Great Britain, the reason being that the Jews in Great Britain have usually reached that country after a soujourn of several generations in Germany, where they have undergone a process of civilisation, while Germany itself has to deal with the rawer product drawn from Eastern countries with a lower standard of culture,” he said.

His letters also indicate that the attacks on Jews were increasing. “This persecution of the Jews is carried out in the matter most calculated to give offence,” he reported.

Controversially, Mr McCauley suggested that the Jews bore some responsibility for the persecution.

“To some extent the Jews brought this trouble on themselves.

“They made a display of wealth and prosperity when the average German was struggling for an existence,” he wrote.

Elsewhere in his reports from Berlin Mr McCauley claimed the Catholic Church “missed a big opportunity” to criticise the Nazis and suggested the German bishops were anxious that the Nazis were trying to promote the protestant churches.

Mr McCauley left Germany in later that year and was sent to the Vatican where he was Charge d’Affaires until 1943.

While in Rome he was heavily involved in organising birthday celebrations for Pope Pius XI. He was then moved to New York where he served as Consul General until 1946 before returning to Dublin as Assistant Secretary of the Department.

He served as the Irish Ambassador to Spain from 1949 to 1955 before being appointed as the ambassador to Canada.

He returned to the Vatican in 1956, this time as ambassador and remained there until his retirement in 1962.