on 30 April 2016
This book describes the work of a great humanitarian. It gives a moving account of his trial and last days, but it is far more hagiography than history, and proves disappointing.
It contains a number of “terminological inexactitudes” and misunderstandings. Churchill’s famous retort to Baldwin, “I shall write ... history” (p. 366), has a double meaning that Mr Mitchell misses. Edward Carson never prosecuted Oscar Wilde (p. 84), and the “parallels” Mr Mitchell sees between Casement’s and “the trial and public humiliation of both Charles Stewart Parnell and Oscar Wilde” (p. 330) are illusory. Wilde brought his trial and humiliation on himself by his hubris, and it was Parnell’s arrogance that led to his humiliation by his own party after he was cited in a civil divorce court. There is no evidence of British state machinations in either of those cases, unlike in Casement’s; rather, a British Commission of Enquiry exonerated Parnell in the Pigott case.
Some “inexactitudes” are mistakes that no historian should make. The “letter of sympathy [the Kaiser sent] to Kruger, which aroused fierce reaction in England” was in fact a telegram of congratulations on the defeat of the Jameson Raid “without appealing to the help of friendly powers”, an implicit offer of German support for the Boers. Winston Churchill’s “support for the leaders of the Ulster Volunteer Force” is surprising given his vocal and public support for Home Rule and the physical attack made on him by Loyalists. Perhaps Mr Mitchell was thinking of Sir Winston’s long-dead father?
Historical exactitude may not be Mr Mitchell’s prime concern. His presentation of Carson as persecutor (sic) of another Irishman may be an attempt to “poison the well”; an “association fallacy” implies that Carson was engaged in the Crown’s prosecution of Casement, though by then Carson had resigned from Cabinet. Every well from which any of Casement’s critics might drink is subtly poisoned. That IPP members refused to condemn the King of the Belgians on religious grounds may be right (the claim is unsourced), but what’s the relevance? Mention of “Britain’s lucrative slave trade” in the eighteenth century has no more relevance to Casement’s concerns with humanitarian horrors in the twentieth than that Leopold II was “a first cousin of Queen Victoria”. If the relationship is moot so is Victoria’s dislike of her cousin but Mr Mitchell leaves this out.
He claims that the Putamayo atrocities destroyed Casement’s “beliefs in the ‘civilising’ potential of the British Empire” but undermines his own claim. The Peruvian Amazon Company was run by South Americans and while it was registered in London, and had British capital invested, over 3.5 million companies are registered in London, and even if investors knew where their money went they could not have known the conditions in Putamayo until Casement exposed them. The result of that was a parliamentary investigation that led to tightening of anti-slavery legislation across the Empire---a rather civilising measure, any intelligent reader must think. Mr Mitchell acknowledges the advocacy of the British ambassador to Washington in “apply[ing] pressure on the Peruvian government” to end the abuses (p. 148); and elsewhere (p. 110), he quotes Casement’s “appeal to the humanity of England” to end the Congo atrocities.
Inaccuracies, irrelevancies, inconsistencies and contradictions abound. The sort of “internationalism” that Mr Mitchell imputes to Casement would have been anathema to an Advanced Nationalist. If Casement perceived an independent Ireland better served by links with Continental Europe than with Britain, he did so on the whimsical grounds that “early Europe was very largely Celtic Europe, and nowhere can we trace the continuous influence of Celtic culture and idealism, coming down to us from a remote past, save in Ireland only” (“The Romance of Irish History”). This suggests that Casement looked toward Ancient Ireland to set a standard for modern Europe, not toward the philosophy of a refugee from the German Reich who advocated revolution from the safety of Britain.
Evidence of Casement’s simplistic understanding of history is never harder to find than his biographer’s endorsement of such understanding. Elsewhere in this essay Casement claims: “[Sir Hugh] O’Neill would have driven Elizabeth from Ireland, and a sovereign State would today be the guardian of the freedom of the western seas for Europe and the world”.
The unromantic facts are that O’Neill was a warlord with no concept of Casement’s nationalism, far less internationalism, as ready to work with the English as MacMurrough had been to hire Norman mercenaries. Until Elizabeth refused to appoint him Lord President of Ulster O’Neill fought for her, and changed sides only when that better served his personal ambition.
Casement’s misinterpretation of the Nine Years’ War and his analysis of its counterfactual outcome reveal both extravagant hostility to Britain and naïveté. His hostility as an Irish nationalist is of course understandable, but it blinds him to historical reality, and Mr Mitchell, rather than applying a corrective analysis, endorses Casement’s views. He claims that the failure of Britain’s Continental enemies over the centuries was because “they underestimated Ireland’s significance” (p. 218). Defeat in military and naval engagements had rather more to do with things. Those enemies were well aware of “Ireland’s significance”, up to France and Russia’s half-baked invasion wheeze of 1902 and Germany’s of 1916.
The most perturbing mystery of Casement’s life is his relationship with the Second Reich. In THE CRIME AGAINST EUROPE he claims “We must find the motive for England allying herself with France and Russia in an admittedly anti-German ‘understanding’ if we would understand the causes of the present war”; he proceeds from there to “understand” the war in light of the Anglophobia shared by Germans and Advanced Nationalists and claims that “only a German victory could deliver a true balance of power in Europe”. The Reich’s aim was European hegemony, not a balance of power, so this is self-evident nonsense. One expects a corrective from an historian, however sympathetic to his subject, but again Mr Mitchell nods along, claiming that “a host of studies ... endorse several of Casement’s opinions and arguments articulated in THE CRIME AGAINST EUROPE" (p. 368).
A host of “studies” indeed exonerated Germany of responsibility for the Great War and some even “proved” that Britain provoked it. All these “studies” were sponsored by the Zentralstelle für Erforschung der Kriegschuldfrage. Best known were those by Harry Elmer Barnes, Sid Fay and Arthur Ponsonby, a Casement admirer, whose FALSEHOOD IN WARTIME “proved” that the Rape of Belgium was a myth. Then Luigi Albertini let the cat out of the German bag, the FALSEHOOD report and Barnes were discredited, and Fay conceded. These “studies” endorse only the brilliance of German propagandists even before Göbbels, and it’s depressing when an historian invokes them to try to vindicate earlier German propaganda, to the detriment of his own discipline.
Mr Mitchell is closer to the mark when he says: “the First World War was a deliberate counter-revolutionary strike by reactionary ruling elements in Europe against democratic trends” (p. 368). Since 1912 the Social Democrats had been the largest party in the Reichstag, and Germany planned to use war measures to roll back this democratic “menace” and impose full autocracy on the Reich. Is it German worries about democracy that Mr Mitchell has in mind?
It was not with German domestic or imperial matters that Casement was concerned either. He denounced the “atrocious conduct of the Germans” in Kamerun (p. 53), but said nothing about the later and far worse atrocities in Südwestafrika and Ostafrika. The first of these coincided with his conversion to Irish nationalism. One of the great disappointments in an otherwise-admirable life is Casement’s failure to condemn deliberate genocide in these German colonies---or even allude to it.
Rather, he claims (in THE CRIME AGAINST EUROPE) that “German Militarism ... has not been employed beyond the frontiers of Germany until last year ”. His earlier remarks about Kamerun directly contradict this assertion and the later bloody campaigns were infamous. Even before Kamerun, as a career diplomat he would have known about German denunciation of “negrophilist English administration” in Africa, foreshadowing the Reich’s proto-Nazi form of colonialism there. Was Casement a brazen liar---or a consummate self-deceiver? Did he have a psychological problem, the possibility of which sometimes worried him? (Fear of the family strain of insanity is something else that Mr Mitchell fails to address.) Embittered by his experiences, Casement complains to his diary in April 1916 “that Germany tried to incite a revolt ... in Ireland by a paltry gift of second-hand rifles put in the hands of excitable young men”, but he impetuously reverts to support for the Reich later, so Joseph Conrad’s assessment that he was governed by emotion rather than intellect seems shrewder than Mr Mitchell credits (pp. 47-49).
It’s difficult not to conclude that Casement’s refusal to condemn Germany was rooted in sheer Anglophobia, if not cognitive impairment. Quite apart from what he attested to in Kamerun, he saw too much of the Rape of Belgium to pretend that it did not happen---“a gruesome sight, and ... a horrible story”---yet his response is deeply disquieting: “I feel there may be in this awful lesson to the Belgian people a repayment” for what was done in the Congo (pp. 237-38).
If he merely sought to equate two wrongs as a right it would be morally bad enough; but Casement knew that “what was done in the Congo” was done not by the Belgian people, or even in their name, but by an autocrat, a private gendarmerie and native mercenaries. Absolutely not by the thousands of old men (one over eighty), women and children (one under three weeks) murdered by the Germans in 1914.
Casement justifies the Reich’s invasion, violation of a neutral country and breach of an international treaty because “[Germany] only asked for a right of way”. As a professional diplomat he knew that the Treaty of London mandated defence against breach of neutrality so this is disingenuous and shameless propaganda. Any humanitarian should have denounced Germany but Casement instead downplayed and excused murder and rapine.
How could a decent man justify such evil? One looks in vain for hard questions such as this in Mr Mitchell’s hagiography, far less for satisfactory answers.
Instead Mr Mitchell prefers to “prove” that “the Black Diaries are indeed forgeries” (pp. 17-18), marshalling circumstance and innuendo to constitute an army of “faulty generalisations” to fight his case. Protestations of innocence by obviously vested interests do not constitute convincing argument, and while no fair-minded historian would argue that Dr Audrey Giles’ analysis of the Black Diaries is beyond criticism, no critical reader of a book that would dismiss those Diaries as forgery can fail to wonder at its author’s evasion of engagement with a forensic analysis that flatly contradicts his thesis.
Casement did much to expose what George Orwell would later call “the dirty work of Empire” and his hanging must trouble even those already troubled by the disastrous foolishness of his consorting with the Second Reich and his attempts to cover up German atrocities in Africa and Europe. Mr Mitchell’s fixation on the alleged forging of his Diaries distracts him from the fact that, forged or not, unscrupulous deployment of those Diaries by certain elements arguably compromised British justice. He does eventually address this issue, but he might have said more had his focus not been elsewhere.
History needs anti-revisionism as much as revisionism in order to thrive, but more than anything it needs intellectual rigour. This book would never get the imprimatur of a university press in Britain or the USA and the University of Limerick cannot have enhanced its academic standing by endorsing it.