In this edition of The Aidan Project, Aidan examines the claims regarding culpability and blame within the historiography of The Irish Famine (circa 1845-1850). The Irish Famine devastated Ireland’s population: it is estimated to have killed a million people, with around two million more people forced to leave the country. Furthermore, this appalling event is a key example of the uneasy history between Ireland and the United Kingdom. At the time of the Famine, Ireland was a formal part of the UK, following the Act of Union in 1801. Did the British intend to extirpate the Irish, as has often been claimed, or were the British simply incompetent? The genocide charge dominates the historiography of the Famine. This debate over culpability and blame is, of course, a contentious one. This episode, after providing a brief introduction to the Famine, will summarise the competing arguments. This episode includes audio from episode 24 – The Irish Famine: Tragedy and Propaganda, which featured an interview with Professor Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of History at Queen’s University Belfast. Aidan and Professor Kennedy discussed the comparisons made by Irish nationalists between the Irish Famine and the Jewish Holocaust. Professor Kennedy’s most recent book is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish.
Bibliography: D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day, The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy, (London: Routledge, 1996).
Richard English, Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland, (London: Macmillan, 2007).
Peter Gray, The Irish Famine, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995).
John Mitchel, ‘The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps)’, Boston College Libraries, https://archive.org/details/lastconquestofir00mitc, accessed on 11 February 2018. [Note: Digital version of The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) (1882). Other publishing dates listed are 1860 and 1873.]
Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine, (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1995).
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Kristallnacht, or ‘Night of Broken Glass’, was a notorious pogrom against German Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. In this edition of the podcast, Aidan expands on the arguments presented in episode 49, ‘Notes on Atheism, Hitler and Nazism’, to provide a comprehensive afterword. In the original podcast, Aidan explored the classic argument of the faithful against atheism when discussing human history. This argument – especially prevalent whenever the issue of violence or hatred is discussed – is that Adolf Hitler was an atheist. The inferred claim is that this godlessness demonstrates the danger of turning away from the moral teachings of the church. Another aspect of the argument which is often thrown in as an addendum is a charge that the Third Reich was a secular movement. Aidan revisits these arguments, with particular attention to the Night of Broken Glass, to provide further insight and analysis. Aidan is on Twitter @AidanXCoughlan.
Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012).
Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
John Toland, Adolf Hitler, (New York: Doubleday, 1976).
The faithful are playing with reference to a different set of rules when arguing for the merits of religion based on faith alone. Faith, by definition, requires no tangible evidence. But claims from the faithful about human history can be countered by the inquisitive atheist. We all have access to a plethora of terrestrial historical accounts which were not gleaned from divine revelation. In this edition of the podcast, Aidan explores the classic argument of the faithful against atheism when discussing human history. This argument – especially prevalent whenever the issue of violence or hatred is discussed – is that Adolf Hitler was an atheist. The inferred claim is that this godlessness demonstrates the danger of turning away from the moral teachings of the church. Another aspect of the argument which is often thrown in as an addendum is a charge that the Third Reich was a secular movement. How much merit is there in these claims? Did Hitler reject God, and if he did, did this make a difference to human history? And how secular was Hitler’s Nazi regime? Aidan delves into the argument to provide grounded insight and analysis. Indeed, as with the claims of the holy books, the introduction of earthly evidence is crucial when one desires to separate fact from fiction. Selected bibliography: J. Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII A. Hitler (ed. N. Baynes), The Speeches of Adolf Hitler A. Hitler, Mein Kampf C. Hitchens, God Is Not Great G. Orwell, Literature and Totalitarianism
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In this edition of the Aidan Project, Aidan is joined by Professor Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of History at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy for Social Sciences. The Great Famine was the most traumatic event of modern Irish history. Professor Kennedy explains the famine and seeks to provide context to the argument, propagated by some, including a number of Irish Americans, that the Great Famine is comparable to the Holocaust that occurred in Eastern Europe. Professor Kennedy also provides some thoughts on the death of the Irish republican and Sinn Féin politician, Martin McGuinness. Professor Kennedy’s most recent book is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?, which is available at all good bookstores and at Amazon.
When defining what it is, or perhaps increasingly, what it was, to be British, courage under fire and Churchillian intransigence rank highly. Stiff upper lip, staying calm and carrying on. Much of this identity is borne out of World War 2, when Britain, so it was claimed at the time, stood alone. Alone, of course, apart from its vast Empire. There is no question, I hasten to add, that the evacuation from the northern French town of Dunkerque was an incredible undertaking. However, for understandable reasons of wartime propaganda, there are prevailing myths associated with Operation Dynamo that continue to this day; etched in stone within the British consciousness and collective memory.
How will Christopher Nolan’s 2017 summer blockbuster, Dunkirk, handle the realities and address the myths of this event? It will be intriguing to see how far Nolan goes in telling the harsh home truths about 27 May – 4 June 1940. Little is known about the project, which is in keeping with Nolan’s closely guarded filmmaking process. The first trailer for the film looks gritty enough. We see abandoned vehicles, a woebegone soldier walking into the sea to end his life, and the horrified reaction of a terrorised Cillian Murphy when informed that his rescue vessel is returning to the beach. Indeed, Operation Dynamo was, quite literally, far from plain sailing.
Will we see the spat between the army and the RAF, which arose as a result of the former wrongly believing that the airmen had not taken to the sky to combat the Luftwaffe? Churchill, in his voluminous memoirs of the war, noted how much it upset him to hear that rescued soldiers were furious with the RAF, unaware that a great struggle had indeed taken place above the channel. Will the bravery of the French to hold the line be featured? Will we see scuffles on the beach between the English and French over the precedence in evacuation? Nolan did much to make Batman real, so I imagine realism will dominate myth in his telling of the real story of Dunkirk.
Certainly, the fortuitous decision of the Germans not to press the assault on Dunkirk with tanks and artillery, and to instead rely on Herman Goering’s confident posturing that his Luftwaffe could finish the job, was the primary reason 340,000 personnel made it off the beach. The Allies were heroic, no doubt, but the Germans had made a huge tactical blunder.
Another aspect of 1940 which remains little known is that Britain was not as united in its desire to fight to the end as popular imagination tells us. Indeed, Churchill’s defiance was not even shared by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who considered attempting to topple the Prime Minister to pursue an armistice with Hitler. Another enduring myth of the evacuation is the apparent eager acquiescence of boat owners to assist in the withdrawal. Whilst it is true that many bravely answered the call, many certainly did not. One can quite understand their reluctance.
Another film set during the opening months of World War 2, due for release a year from now in December 2017, is Darkest Hour, in which Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman. Could either film be bold enough to explore the claim that three of Churchill’s famous radio speeches were actually read by the actor, Norman Shelley, including the legendary “Fight them on the beaches” oration? In truth, this is unlikely for reasons of disputed evidence, and moreover, because the most prominent historian to make this claim is David Irving. To put it mildly, Irving has a less than stellar reputation, and is perhaps best known for his denial of the Holocaust and the famous libel trial that resulted from it.
In any case, as a massive fan of Nolan’s work – especially Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige – and a proponent for the teaching of history in as many forums as possible, I look forward to seeing Dunkirk when it hits cinemas on 21 July 2017. Much of the reality of Dunkirk has been glossed over for the benefit of national pride, but Dynamo is doubtless an incredible story, especially when told accurately. The harsh realities of Dynamo, for my money, make the event more engaging, not less. The proud flag-waving propagated at the time and since cannot be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, war is war. But the truth is that Dynamo was something of a disaster. The British Expeditionary Force was saved, but its equipment was lost to the shores of a defeated France.
There is no question that Churchill sincerely believed what he said when voicing a willingness to continue the struggle; to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. However, what equipment Britain would have had to do such fighting is, fortunately for the United Kingdom, something that never required an answer.
The late comedian, Spike Milligan, who was serving in the British army on the English side of the channel during the evacuation, offered a frank summation of the real Dunkirk in his autobiography. Milligan could have spoken for many when he wrote, “As the immensity of the defeat became apparent, somehow the evacuation turned into a strange victory.” Milligan further noted the striking words of a Bombardier, ‘Kean’, who had made it off the beach and was posted to Milligan’s regiment thereafter. When Milligan asked what the operation had been like, Kean responded, “Like, son? It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck-up.” Churchill, for all his celestial talk of deliverance and miracles, did offer a similarly grounded, though more politically-conscious, conclusion when he told Parliament on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”
22 July 2017
‘Notes on Dunkirk’
Upon seeing the film, here is my podcast. In this edition of the Aidan Project, Aidan looks at the glorious myths and gloomy realities of the real Dunkirk, and examines how accurately Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster addresses the bittersweet events of Operation Dynamo.
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