Leopold H. Kerney

Written and compiled by Eamon C. Kerney


Following a request by Williams to the British Foreign Office for the release of certain German Foreign Office documents which he required for his defence to the legal action taken against him, they agreed to produce the documents on the request of the Court. Boland, then Ambassador in London, was informed to this effect and on the 15th March 1954, at the Commonwealth Relations Office, he was shown the four documents which, presumably, had been requested. They read out to him an extract from a minute made by the Foreign Office legal adviser on the file containing the relevant papers. Boland wrote to Nunan, then Secretary of the Department of External Affairs

"In the course of this minute, the legal adviser expressed the opinion that the papers on the file did not, in his view, justify the criticisms of Mr. Kerney which had been made in Professor Williams' articles in the Leader and in the Irish Press. The legal adviser commented that Mr. Kerney's attitude, in the conversations he had had with the emissaries from Germany, seemed to him to have been cautious and perfectly proper in every way.

At this point Sir Percivale gave me to read, for my personal information, the four documents which it was intended to produce if a request were made by the Irish court. They consisted of a report made by Mr. Clissman of a conversation he had had with Mr. Kerney in 1941; a minute from Herr Veesenmeyer to the High Command discussing the possibilities of an arrangement with Ireland and referring to Mr. Kerney's conversations, although not quoting them directly; another memorandum from Herr Veesenmeyer to his superior authorities referring to conversations with Mr. Kerney and asking that 120 picked parachute troops should be made available for operations in Ireland in conjunction with the I.R.A.; and a general memorandum, the provenance of which was not quite clear, discussing the political situation in Ireland and referring, in so doing, to conversations between Mr. Kerney on the one hand and Mr. Clissman and Herr Veesenmeyer on the other.

These four documents, which I had necessarily to peruse rather rapidly, seemed to me to bear out what the legal adviser of the Foreign Office had said in his minute. Only the first of the four documents (Mr. Clissman's report of a visit he had paid to Mr. Kerney in Madrid) purported to report Mr. Kerney directly and what Mr. Kerney said to Mr. Clissman according to this report, seemed to me quite unexceptionable. If Professor Williams is relying on these four documents to substantiate the suggestions he made in his articles, I doubt whether he will find them of very much use to him." [65]

Conor Cruise-O'Brien was in Germany in September 1954 and met Kurt Haller who had worked for the Abwehr but was also, according to Clissmann, "Veesenmayer's right-hand man". [66] In the report dated 29th September 1954 on his conversation with Haller, Cruise-O'Brien wrote the following:

"Mr. Haller mentioned the visit by Messrs. Veesenmayer and Clissmann to Madrid in 1942 to see Mr. Kerney. The reason for that visit, he said, was that the Foreign Office could get "nothing out of the Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin" (Mr. Warnock) and that they hoped to learn more about Irish official thinking and, in particular, the attitude of Mr. de Valera through Mr. Kerney who was, of course, already known to Mr. Clissmann. Mr. Haller says that he saw Mr. Veesenmayer's report on his visit and that it was, from the German point of view, "disappointing". Mr. Kerney had simply adopted the formally correct attitude of a neutral head of mission and declined to hold out any hope that Ireland would be likely to come in on the German side, or at all. This account runs, of course, contrary to the version published by Professor Desmond Williams in his articles in the Leader and in the Irish Press." [67]

There are other aspects of this matter which have not been covered fully here for the sake of brevity but which also require elaboration, although unavoidably some facts are impossible to ascertain due to records being either non-existent or missing and anyone who could explain them being no longer alive.

Some historians have fertile imaginations and new myths are created which may be exciting to read but do not correspond to reality. In a letter to F.H. Boland dated 22nd January 1945, Kerney wrote "truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but is not so readily believed." [68]

As an amusing and not very significant tailpiece, but one which also has been twisted by some historians, the question of protocol arose when towards the end of the war Hitler's death was announced. A short time previously Roosevelt's death had occurred and on this occasion the usual procedure was followed involving leaving a card at the Embassy, calling on the Ambassador, writing a note of sympathy, flying the flag at half mast during daylight until the date of burial, and also attendance at a memorial service. In the case of Hitler, however, only his presumed death was reported on the 2nd May 1945 and Kerney decided to act in the same way as the Swiss Minister who was senior in rank to him. The latter suggested to wait for confirmation of death in which case a personal visit to the head of mission would be a matter of courtesy, however there was at that time no German Ambassador, only a Chargé d'Affaires ad interim. The next day the Swiss Minister rang at 1 p.m. to say it had been decided that the proper course was to leave cards personally at the embassy, but he thought that a personal visit to the Chargé d'Affaires was not necessary. Accordingly at 1.15 p.m. Kerney called and found a large number of people waiting to sign at one of three tables. It so happened that as he entered he was recognised by a messenger who asked if he wished to see the Chargé d'Affaires, so having been promptly ushered in, he expressed condolences. The following day he received a letter of thanks. Half-masting the flag did not arise as there was no burial date announced. The Spanish flag was not flown at half-mast either at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Letters expressing admiration and respect for Ireland and for de Valera's gesture in Dublin were received from a former Spanish ambassador and a former member of the Government. [69] They may have admired the gesture, given that Germany had obviously lost the war, or, being pro-German, they may have interpreted this as being a friendly act, in the same way as did those who were anti-German, including more recent commentators, whereas in fact both of these groups were incorrect as it was a purely protocolary gesture as was Kerney's as is evidenced by the fact that Kerney sought the advice of more senior colleagues in the Diplomatic Corps before taking any action. It is doubtful whether Kerney's action was noticed by anyone of note at the time [70] . It has to be emphasised that Kerney had no intention of meeting the German Chargé d'Affaires but through fortuitous circumstances found it difficult to avoid doing so. In de Valera's case however the matter raised a furore and caused an almost hysterical reaction particularly among those with whom Ireland's neutrality rankled.

It is important when judging events that they should be seen in their context. In this regard, it should be remembered that this was wartime and strict censorship was imposed in all countries, neutral and belligerent alike. Official news releases were invariably tainted with propaganda and could never be taken at face value. Nothing was known publicly about the holocaust at that stage. On the 27th January 1945 the Russians arrived at Auschwitz which had by then been mostly evacuated and destroyed by the Germans. The significance of this camp was not clarified until the following May when the Russians published a report following an investigation. The first concentration camp over-run by the western Allies was Buchenwald on the 11th April 1945. Shortly after, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid circulated a newsletter on the subject but it was difficult to know at that stage to what extent this was war propaganda. On the 12th April, Roosevelt's death occurred, followed just over 2 weeks later by Hitler's death. It was quite some time before the full extent of German atrocities was fully known and authenticated, a point which is now often overlooked.

On the 8th May Spain withdrew diplomatic recognition of Germany and closed its diplomatic and consular services.

[65] NAI, D/FA File A47: Report dated 23rd March 1954
[66] Cronin p.191
[67] NAI, D/FA File A47
[68] NAI, D/FA File A20/4
[69] Report dated 7th May 1945
[70] Contrary to what has been stated (see D. Keogh: Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol.3, No.1(1989) p.78) the Kerney visit was not commented on by anyone (other than the German Chargé d'Affaires himself). Any comments made referred to the de Valera visit.