Men (José-Antonio, Von Stauffemberg & Lemass)
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 it was the Irish Free
State that 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 throught 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 disminished authority that follows any upheaval. After
the old regime was gone, everyone had great hopes of what the new system
could accomplish. Expectations which were bound to be disappointed. And
since one system of government that was not to their liking had already
been forced to relinquish power, then if the new government still was not
to their liking, then it too could be booted out. And the next, and the
next, and the next.
Until a government came which could not be dislodged at
Here are their biographies, short and to the point:
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 that 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 responsibilty. 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
Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera was the son of the Spanish
Dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. As a Dictator, the old man was a 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 on its 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 on politics with his father's
supporters, then he started his own organization, which was a bit of a
militia, a bit of a party, and a bit of a 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 rhethoric, 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 never had either 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
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 governent.
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.
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. 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 bluepring 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. Jonh 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 accomodate
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 which 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 charactertics:
to use the develop the resources of the country for the benefit of the
of both classical economic liberalism and Marxism.
tendecy to amalgamate all groups and subgroups into a whole.
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 dosis 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 one such movement that could
stabilize the situation. The Falange was an embryonary scheme to acheive
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 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 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
In Ireland, Eamon de Valera prove 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 powderkeg, became a civilized
country, and one of the most stable Western democracies under his
governemnt. 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
Govenrment being informed afterwards. Irelandd 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
brough 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
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,
Building Democracy in Ireland: Jeffrey Prager, 1986.
Charisma and Political Development: John P. O'Carroll in
“De Valera and his times”, compile by John A. Murphy and John