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This story published 05/25/2000
Written by Adriana Pena

The Story of Three Men:

Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Claus von Stauffenberg and Sean Francis Lemass



Ursula's History Web


This is the story of three men, who were born close together, at about the same time, and whose destinies were enmeshed with that of their countries. Two of them would not survive the turmoil. The third thrived and helped changed his country for the better. One was a lawyer, one was a military officer, and one was a terrorist-turned-politician. Their countries? Spain, Germany, and Ireland. Their names were Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Claus Philip Schenk von Stauffenberg, and Sean Francis Lemass. Their stories are a nice trick question, because it was the terrorist-turned politician, Sean Lemass, who became a first-rate Prime Minister, while the other two, far more respectable, ended up in front of firing squads.

Why it did happen that way? Why was it that the Irish Free State survived and thrived while the Weimar Republic and the Spanish Republic failed? By the simplest reckoning, Ireland, poor and backward, with little experience in parliamentary government and a very old tradition of political violence would be the least likely to develop stable democratic politics. Both Spain and Germany had long-established political parties and functioning Parliaments and were far more developed economically and socially. Yet when the moment came, they broke under pressure. Ireland steered through terrible economic problems and the threat of armed groups ready to seize power by violent means, and kept itself a free and orderly society.

All three had to survive in the climate of excessive expectations and diminished authority that follows any upheaval. After the old regime was gone, everyone had great hopes of what the new system could accomplish - expectations that were bound to be disappointed. And since one system of government that was not to their liking had already been forced to relinquish power, if the new government still was not to their liking, then it too could be booted out, and so on. Until a government came which could not be dislodged at all.

Here are their biographies, short and to the point:

The Military Officer: Claus von Stauffenberg

Claus von Stauffenberg was born into an old family of the nobility and was taught that his position implied responsibility and duty. He had artistic leanings (he wrote poetry, was a member of the Stephan George group, and played the violoncello). While he thought that he would like to become an architect, he decided for a military career as one befitting the tradition of service that his family followed. He showed great ability, and a great future was promised him. Like so many others, he originally welcomed the Nazi takeover, expecting it to end the chaotic situation of the Weimar Republic. He showed distaste for some features of the new regime, but it was only when he was assigned to the Eastern Front that, after watching the massacres perpetrated by the SS, he understood the basic criminality of the regime. Being a subaltern officer, he approached his superior officers, asking that they took action and deposed Hitler. His superior officers did not wish to do it, but did not turn him in, either, and they transferred him to Africa.

In Africa he was seriously wounded, losing one eye, one hand, and two fingers of his remaining hand. While in the hospital he said that he had assumed responsibility. No sooner was he out of the hospital that he managed to find his way to the Resistance, which had been hatching plots against Hitler that failed for one reason or another. He laid the plans for assassinating Hitler and overthrowing the regime, locking up the SS, opening the camps, and trying to seek peace with the invading Allies. In July 20, 1944 he himself put the bomb in the Wolf's Lair, then flew back to his base at the Bendlerstrasse to start his take-over. Hitler survived and the attempted coup collapsed. Captured after an attempt of resistance, he was summarily executed in the night between the 20th and the 21st.


The Lawyer: Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera

Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera was the son of the Spanish Dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. As a Dictator, the old man was an odd fish, as he had the strange idea that political opponents were fellow human beings, who might even become friends. His regime was in more than one instance misguided, clumsy, and naive, but it was a basically generous and inclusive one. Spain under him would develop economically, and all Spaniards would share the benefits. There were public works, greater employment, more schools, sanitary improvements, and attention given to worker's rights. But his solutions were superficial many times, and scattershot. He fell from power, and died, reportedly of a broken heart.

The son dabbled a bit in politics with his father's supporters, then he started his own organization, which was part militia, part political party, and part movement. He took for inspiration Mussolini's fascism (which was seen as a success story in those days), and started preaching about the need for a greater national interest that would be above all the particular or group interests then claiming for attention, and that the answer was not in either the Right or the Left, but in an amalgamation of the best of both. In the turmoil of those days, with the intense partisanship that was the lot of all political activity in those days no one seemed to notice that. once stripped of its rhetoric, he was offering common sense practical advice on what it would take to stabilize the political situation. One of his biographers, by no means uncritical, commented that he had little of the sectarianism that was common to Spanish politicians in those days. It was not only an irony, but a sad comment on the prospects for the Spanish Republic that, if you wanted to find someone who could see the general interest above partisan ones, you had to go see the Fascist leader. Like his father, he offered a program that was clumsy, misguided, and naive, but basically generous, and inclusive.

His group had neither the numbers nor the money to make a difference. For a while he managed to keep his followers from responding to the increasing violence in the streets. Then he too was swallowed in the gunpoint battles that was the regular form of intercourse at the street level. The situation having deteriorated further he ended up, after other options had failed, joining the conspiracy to overthrow the Popular Front government. He had been jailed earlier, and when the Civil War started, he was behind bars, in the power of his opponents. He was tried for his part in the rebellion, condemned to death, and executed. Later on, he became a martyr whose memory served as prop for the Franco regime.


Sean Francis Lemass

The terrorist-turned politician: Sean Francis Lemass was born in a comfortable middle-class family in Dublin. He was still in his teens when he participated in the Easter Rising, and was briefly jailed by the English. He became a gunman for Michael Collins, participating in the killing of fourteen intelligence officers on "Bloody Sunday". Later on, he would be part of the group of the Four Courts that sought to overthrow the Dail (Parliament) and put a military dictatorship. His side having been defeated, he continued in semi-legal activity, helping organize a jailbreak and assaults to movie houses that showed English movies. With Eamon de Valera he co-founded Fianna Fail (Warriors of Destiny), a party that he described as "slightly constitutional". According to rumors, he took his oath as member of Parliament with a gun in his pocket.

In 1932 Fianna Fail won the election, and formed government. Eamon de Valera became Head of Government and Sean Lemass Minister of Industry. He presided over the efforts to industrialize Ireland and diversify its economy. While not all his ideas were equally good, he had a measure of success in his efforts, and was recognized as the most talented minister in the de Valera cabinet. When the war came, and with it a sharp curtailing of shipping that would get supplies in, he took all the necessary measures so that the impending catastrophe that threatened would become only a bearable hardship. His party fell from power in 1948, and he had to help reorganize it and modernize its platform. The party won again in 1957 (it had been back to power in 1951 to 1954) and in 1959 de Valera retired to become President and Sean Lemass became Taioseach (Prime Minister). As such he presided over the economic transformation of Ireland, with dramatic improvements in the standard of living. He retired in 1969 and died in 1971, a widely respected and beloved figure in his country.


Conclusion

Why did it happen that way? Very simply, because Ireland achieved political stability, while neither Germany nor Spain did, and paid the price for it. The search for political stability is an imperative in any society. Without it, there can be neither economic nor social progress. And yet the priority of this stability is imperfectly valued, and the means to achieve it are not as well known as they deserve to be. Theories of "Left" and "Right" obscure the quest, and the fascination with Revolution devalues the search further. Asking for order, for change within a framework, is seen as reactionary, and thus suspect. Progress must be pursued at all costs. And it is thus sought after until disaster strikes.

A Mexican poet and thinker, Octavio Paz, has said, shrewdly, that while many political thinkers describe how a liberal democracy functions, or should function, they do not explain how to get to that state. What is the right way? What are the pitfalls along the way? Is there a blueprint somewhere? For the lack of this blueprint too many new nations have been plunged in civil wars and bloody dictatorships. There were men of goodwill there, and determination, but quite often they did not know how to do it, and they fell into the trap that Paz talks about: assuming that they are already there, where they want to be, and fail to take all the intermediate steps. Two people who studied the Irish case, Dr. John O'Carroll and Professor Jeffrey Prager mark as decisive the charismatic leadership of Eamon de Valera and the formation of his party, Fianna Fial, which served to unify the nation under a shared purpose, and to create a basic consensus about what needed to be done, and how far to go when disagreements arise. For, while it is important to be able to accommodate dissent, there has to be a basic agreement that no matter how deeply felt the differences are, no matter how important they are in their beholders' eyes, they must no be allowed to destroy the system that makes them possible. Societies that have not achieved political stability will tear themselves apart, and the result of this lack of an unspoken agreement will lead to civil war or dictatorship, or both. Fianna Fail was a nationalistic mass party, at a time when such nationalistic mass parties were swaying many nations: These parties had the following characteristics:

- Emotive nationalism
- Charismatic, authoritarian leadership
- Virtual one-party states
- Desire to use the develop the resources of the country for the benefit of the entire population
- Rejection of both classical economic liberalism and Marxism
- The tendency to amalgamate all groups and subgroups into a whole
- Search for international presence and prestige
- A rather fuzzy doctrine which sought to give something to everybody

There would be many variants of this type. There was the regime of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Gaullism in France, Peronism in Argentina, the Congress Party in India, the PRI in Mexico, and the MNR in Bolivia, plus the Socialism of Senghor in Senegal (with a liberal dose of the theory of Negritude). There would be also Fascism in Italy, though after the war, he was made to be something completely different by its more respectable relatives (nevertheless, in 1929 Eamon de Valera would promise to do for Ireland what Mussolini had done for Italy). And Nazism, of course, the extreme that showed how virulent nationalism can get.

These movements are more or less democratic, more or less authoritarian, more or less effective, more or less tolerant of diversity. And these characteristics change within each movement with the passage of time. They do not fit easily in any ideological scheme, but they do the job they are supposed to do: Stabilize the situation, keep people in some sort of mutual tolerance, and set the basis for social and economic improvements. As long as they do that, their ideology can be a mess, and no one will care.

In Spain there was no such movement that could stabilize the situation. The Falange was an embryonary scheme to achieve it, but while Primo de Rivera had the theory pat, his implementation was even clumsier than that of his father. He was trying to play the role of Charles de Gaulle, when he was only an Andre Malraux. He died because of it.

In Germany, there was such a movement, but the Fuhrer proved to be a false one. We forget that most of the July 20 plotters had originally welcomed the rise to power of Hitler. Carl Goerdeler (mayor of Leipzig, Germany) praised the new regime, because he thought that it would bring badly needed unity to the country and start to change things to the better. When he understood the nature of the new regime, the same deeply held values and beliefs that led him to praise Hitler, led him to risk all he had to topple him. He had expected a Charles de Gaulle, or an Eamon de Valera. With all the crimes that Hitler was guilty off, does it make sense to charge him with disappointing men like Goerdeler? Yet, he was guilty of that, too.

In Ireland, Eamon de Valera proves to be as true a Taioseach as Hitler has proved a false Fuhrer. He brought stability and rule of law. He set down the rights of its citizens and the limits to the power of the State over them in the Constitution he wrote. He kept the peace, and dealt fairly with the minorities. He helped set the basis for the economic transformation of the State, and was very stingy with the blood of this compatriots. Ireland, which was a powder keg, became a civilized country, and one of the most stable Western democracies under his government. And he made it seem easy. He died a few months before Franco did. Franco's death stole the limelight with his protracted agony as they sought vainly to keep him alive one more day to allow for his regime to survive him. De Valera's death was a quiet, peaceful one, with the Government being informed afterwards.

Ireland had changed much through the years, and many did not realize how much they owed him. But Ireland's Constitution is the one he wrote, and his party, Fianna Fail, is never away from power too long. The motley collection of terrorists that he brought together became well-behaved politicians and statesmen. Ireland, with its unfortunate history though the ages had finally found its good fortune, while Spain and Germany had to go through Hell before they found their way.


References

Sean Lemass; the enigmatic patriot, by John Horgan, 1997.

Stauffenberg: the architect of the famous July 20th conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, by Joachim Klamarz, 1967.

Falange: a history of Spanish Fascism, by Stanley Payne, 1967.

Building Democracy in Ireland: Jeffrey Prager, 1986.

Charisma and Political Development: John P. O'Carroll in De Valera and his times, compiled by John A. Murphy and John O'Carrol, 1983.

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