The Hidden History of Herr Hoven: Part 1

The great Ulster intellectual Emyr Estyn Evans (1905-1989), in his article on the Celtic Racialist and Nazi Spymaster in Dublin before the Second World War, Adolph Mahr, wrote of another of his aquaintance: “Suspicion fell too on another German, a certain Herr Hoven, then living in Belfast, though officially domiciled across the border. He often called to see me, and I once asked him when he hoped to return to Germany. His unguarded reply, ‘Not until early September’, seems to have been prophetic, for war was declared on 3 September 1939. I should add that neither Mahr nor Hoven, to the best of my knowledge, was ever charged with spying, for legally they were residents in a neutral country.”
So it was that throughout these years two young Germans were in and out of the company of the leaders of the I.R.A. Both were students who came from the neighbourhood of Aachen and who knew Ireland through educational trips and longish stays in the country. Indeed, the two Abwehr agents Dr. Jupp Hoven and Helmut Clissmann were ostensibly products of the Young Prussian League and ranked as representatives of political thought which was generally denounced as “Nationalbolschevist”.

Dr Hoven, who was studying anthropology in Ireland, was tasked to become friendly with Frank Ryan, the former editor of the I.R.A. weekly paper An Phoblacht, who was a student of “Celtic” philology and archaeology. It was Ryan who in 1934 took over leadership of the splintered left-wing Congress Group and fought on the side of Republican Spain in the Spanish Civil War. When the Second World War broke out, Dr Hoven should have been classified as not “suitable for service” and therefore not enlisted, being adjudged to the outside world as “politically unreliable”.

Yet as an associate of Captain Dr. von Hippel, the Commanding Officer of Special Duty Construction Demonstration Company 800, of the subsequently famous Brandenburg Division, he was able to don the field-grey uniform as a member of Admiral Canaris’s Abwehr (German military intelligence) organisation. In Brandenburg circles Hoven was a well-informed expert on matters concerning the I.R.A. And at the secret headquarters of Admiral Canaris on the Berlin Tirpitzufer, it eventually fell to Dr Hoven to play an important part in the Abwehr’s Irish operation and the destruction of Belfast.

In 1930 Helmut Clissmann – then also outwardly a member of the Young Prussian League – made his first trip to Dublin as a student. He also made friends among leaders of the I.R.A. and got to know Sean Russell best of all. In 1933 Clissmann, who was continuing his studies in Germany, was able to return as an exchange student to Trinity College, Dublin. For him, Ireland was to be a land of opportunity. Not only did he establish branches of the Spy Unit, the German Academic Exchange Service, in Dublin, Cork and later Galway, but he became the director responsible for these branches.

In late 1936 Frank Ryan had travelled to Spain with about 80 men he had succeeded in recruiting to fight in the International Brigades on the Republican side. Ryan’s men are sometimes referred to as the “Connolly Column”. He served in the Lincoln-Washington Brigade, rising to the rank of Brigadier. He was attached to the staff of the 15th International Brigade in charge of publicity – writing, broadcasting and visiting the front line to see conditions first-hand. He fought in a number of engagements – at the Battle of Jarama (February 1937) he took over command of the British Battalion (the Irish were split between this and the Lincoln Battalion) after it suffered heavy losses.

He was seriously wounded in March 1937, and returned to Ireland to recover. He took advantage of the opportunity of his return to launch another left-republican newspaper, entitled The Irish Democrat. On his return to Spain, he again served in the war until he was captured by Italian troops fighting for the Nationalists in March 1938. He was accused of murder, court-martialled, and sentenced to death before being committed to Burgos Prison in 1938. He was under the death sentence for 16 months. During this time he expressed his disagreement with the IRA bombing campaign in England. His sentence was later commuted to thirty years hard labour in January 1940.

To be continued

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