Angus Mitchell (ed.), One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916 (Merrion Press, 2016, 280 pp, €17.50 PB, €45.00 HB).
Roger Casement’s time in Imperial Germany between 1914 and 1916 raises a number of interesting questions about Casement the man, and his place in Irish history. What were his motivations? How does his time in Germany fit into a broader narrative of the Easter Rising and how does it relate to attempts by other nationalists to seek assistance outside of Ireland?
Angus Mitchell’s fascinating edited collection of Casement’s diaries from his period in Germany does much to create a greater understanding of the man and his legacy, and is a welcome addition to the historiography on the Rising. Mitchell is one of the world’s leading authorities on Casement, previously publishing a biography of Casement and edited collections of his South American journals. Mitchell is also known for continuing to doubt the authenticity of Casement’s so called ‘Black diaries’.
Casement is different from the other 1916 leaders for a variety of reasons – his Ulster protestant background, his connections to the British establishment, his being more widely travelled and, perhaps most notably, his vehement opposition to the Rising itself.
The Rising was organised by an aggressive faction within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), led by the old Fenian Tom Clarke and his younger disciple Séan MacDiarmada. The two both successfully utilised elements of the IRB and Irish Volunteers to stage an armed uprising before the end of the Great War. They were assisted by the cultural nationalist Patrick Pearse – who was unrivalled in his ability to articulate the separatist position, the Marxist republican James Connolly with his small but deeply committed group of revolutionaries, and Joseph Plunkett who, despite any real military experience, drew up plans for how the rebellion was to be carried out. This faction might be described as the hawks.
In opposition to the hawks, and within the same Volunteer movement, there was also the more dovish faction or less aggressive grouping to which Casement belonged. Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill and Casement believed in developing the Irish Volunteer structure into a mass movement that reflected all elements of Irish life and to move away from the secretive politics of the IRB. Hobson, in particular, believed in spreading the principals of the IRB through as many facets of Irish life as possible, calculating that this would have a cumulative effect. In June 1914 all three accepted John Redmond’s demand that the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers be expanded to include an additional twenty five members of Redmond’s own choosing. Redmond threatened that if they did not accept, he would form his own Volunteer body. Hobson, MacNeill and Casement considered that if they did not accept his ultimatum the existing pro-Redmond elements within the Volunteers, including influential figures such as Colonel Maurice Moore and Tom Kettle, would follow Redmond and leave the remaining Irish Volunteers in a marginal position.
Casement was also involved with Erskine Childers and Alice Stopford Green in bringing weapons from Germany for the Volunteers, and was adamant that they should come into the hands of a united Irish Volunteer force. MacDiaramada, Clarke and the IRB were not involved in orchestrating the gun running but were more than happy to use the weapons that had been brought to Ireland by the labour of others.
In Mitchell’s collection he refers on several occasions to MacNeill and Hobson. In one passage he writes of Casement’s hope that Hobson could persuade Tom Clarke to call the Rising off. Hobson and Clarke had not been on speaking terms since the former had accepted Redmond’s demands in June 1914, showing a certain innocence on Casement’s part. In later life Hobson maintained a steadfast loyalty to Casement and his legacy.
Casement was unique in many respects. He made tireless and noble efforts to show Ulster Unionists the merits of nationalism and of the island working as a unit – in this he is almost a unique figure in Irish nationalism, not least in relation to the organisers of the Rising who failed to create a meaningful response to Ulster unionism.
Casement was already in Germany when he heard of plans for the Rising from Joseph Plunkett, who through the IRB and Clan na Gael in America travelled to Germany to seek the assistance of the German Imperial army – Deutsches Heer. Casement on learning of Plunkett’s plans described them as ‘worse than folly – it was criminal stupidity’ and ‘the maddest and most ill planned enterprise that the history of Irish revolutionary affairs offers’ and a ‘foredoomed failure’. Casement concluded that without substantive German assistance the Rising would only represent needless death. He felt that most Irish people would interpret the Rising, with any degree of German assistance, as evidence of Germany meddling in Ireland and lead to an increase in anti-German feeling in the country. In this he misinterpreted the reaction to the Rising. In a meeting with German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, in December 1914, Casement said ‘I was aware, fully that today, with the British fleet barring the way and keeping all Ireland in jail, to think of an independent Ireland was fantastic and he (the Chancellor) agreed to that’. As the war went on and British Naval power increased unabated, blockading Germany, Casement felt German Naval assistance for any Irish venture would not work.
This of course begs the question as to why he was there in the first place. Mitchell writes in his introduction that Casement had ‘repositioned the question of Irish sovereignty within an international framework’. Casement believed that the only way Britain’s ascendancy could be threatened was if her naval strength was severely damaged, and that the only way for that naval strength to be continually at a disadvantage was for Ireland to be lost to the Empire. Casement concluded that a free Ireland would be an advantage to Germany, as a German victory would ensure Britain lost its Atlantic ports. This would limit Britain’s threat to Germany. These were very real concerns – Casement’s friend Erskine Childers argued emphatically, during the Treaty debates, that with the British Navy continuing to hold onto ports in Cork and Donegal, the Free State could not claim real independence. Perhaps contrary to Casement’s prediction, British naval power persisted into the Second World War period even without access to the Treaty ports, although Churchill was keen to gain access to them throughout the war.
Casement came to an agreement or ‘Treaty’ with the German High Command about the establishment of an Irish Brigade from Irish born members of the British Army in German POW camps. Curiously the treaty was between a government and one man rather than between two governments. In the Treaty the Germans agreed that if they were in a position to land troops in Ireland it would not be ‘with a view to conquest’ and that Germany wanted only ‘national prosperity and national freedom’ for Ireland. The German government also agreed that the Irish Brigade would be deployed to Ireland only in the event of a German naval victory. The agreement also stated that if that naval victory did not take place, the Irish Brigade would be deployed to assist the Ottoman Empire in expelling Britain from Egypt. In the event of the war ending without either condition occurring, the German government agreed that they would ship the brigade to America. Frankly, much of the agreement seems fanciful and Casement was soon to learn that the Germans had no intention of honouring their agreement.
Casement received a largely hostile reception from the Irish men in the British Army, and quickly came to take a dim view of the German government and of their having no intention to in any way actually assist in the setting up of the Brigade. As early as January 1915 he viewed his mission to Germany as a failure, but was unable to leave, becoming in his own words a ‘prisoner’ of the Germans.
His diaries stop abruptly in early 1915. A depressed and isolated Casement had lost the will to write. The diaries begin again in March 1916 when the situation had changed drastically. By March, Plunkett had come and gone and the plans for the Rising had been settled. Casement was in no way party to the planning of the Rising. The Germans now wanted Casement to take his small brigade to Ireland with a shipment of arms and help in the Rising. Casement believed that that by getting rid of him and his miniscule brigade the Germans were effectively washing their hands of Ireland in the hope it might ‘create some little distraction for England in Ireland’. Casement himself agreed to go but refused point blank for his brigade to be involved, knowing that on being caught they would all be executed for treason. Throughout much of the diaries he comes across as a particularly selfless man.
Casement’s view that an independent Ireland would be beneficial to Germany in the long run was quite logical. His pro German views were echoed by, among others, Pearse, Connolly and Eamon Ceannt. Pearse and Plunkett, according to Desmond FitzGerald, discussed the possibility of a German prince being made king of Ireland in the GPO. This claim should be seen in the light of FitzGerald being a steadfast defender of the Anglo-Irish Treaty – a Treaty which kept King George as head of state. By claiming the 1916 leaders were possibly royalists, FitzGerald could position them as being more likely to support the Treaty. But in light of Casement’s firm anti-imperialism, his pro German stance can be seen as questionable. At the start of his trip Casement had nothing but praise for Germany, its institutions and people, but it was also an aggressive imperial power that had recently orchestrated a genocide against the people of Namibia for opposing German colonial rule.
In his diaries Casement recounts visiting the western front in the autumn of 1914 and describes the destruction the German army wrought on Belgium. Casement writes that much of the damage was done by retreating Belgian troops and in his account most of the German damage was done by artillery. John Horne and Alan Kramer’s fascinating, but deeply disturbing German atrocities 1914: A history of denial has shown the mass killings of French and Belgian civilians by German troops, the murder of Catholic priests and other explicitly anti-Catholic actions of protestant soldiers in the German army. They also highlighted the rape of Belgian and French women by German troops. These actions were actively encouraged by the German High Command in a policy that came to be known as Schrecklichkeit – frightfulness. Casement mentions none of this. Of course Casement’s guides would not have taken him anywhere near actual atrocities but he does not come out of the episode well.
Curiously, Casement writes that the Belgian people were experiencing retribution for the crimes their former King, Leopold II, had committed against the people of the Congo – crimes Casement knew all too well and had shown to the world. Casement also seems to have wanted to fight beside the Ottoman Turkish Empire – an empire involved in the mass killing and forced resettlement of its Greek speaking population and genocide of its Armenian population.
Casement eventually regretted his decision to go to Germany. He came to detest German imperialism and felt his hosts were as bad as the British. More than anything these diaries reveal remorse and a complete reversal of opinion. Casement’s actions and those of the organisers of the 1916 Rising must always be seen in the context of British imperialism. Britain had recently orchestrated a scorched earth policy through South Africa creating the first concentration camps. Rape and pillage were common and affected both black and white Africans. Following the Second World War Britain was involved in, as of yet, not fully understood atrocities against the people of Kenya. Casement was aware of the unpleasant nature of world powers and did what he thought could prove beneficial for Ireland. He believed his choice was the lesser of two evils.
This edited collection highlights the international dimensions of the Rising and is aided by maps and photos of all the major personalities. It also features a useful appendix of short biographies of the individuals featured in the text. Mitchell is to be applauded for creating an attractive and accessible piece of work. He also laudably lets Casement speak for himself. I would welcome more volumes, such as this, in which we can read the words of those from the time. At times during the past year it seemed the 1916 Rising was used to validate various points of view in the Ireland of 2016. The generation of 1916 are entitled to speak for themselves.
Thomas Earls Fitzgerald is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin researching civilian experiences of the Irish revolution, 1918-23.