Innocent German caught up in North horror

Thomas Niedermayer was an apolitical figure — he employed 1,000 people with workers coming to the Grunding factory from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

Innocent German caught up in North horror

  • The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer
  • David Blake Knox
  • New Island Books, €14.99

David Blake Knox doesn’t accept the famous, though often misquoted, line from George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

This position shouldn’t be confused with discrediting the importance of history and telling the stories of the people who shaped the society we now live in.

One person whose story was almost completely forgotten was Thomas Niedermayer. A memory briefly resurrected when the subject of a 2013 RTÉ Radio documentary, the German is largely a forgotten figure in the troubled story of 1970’s Northern Ireland. Niedermayer was an apolitical figure — he employed 1,000 people with workers coming to the Grunding factory from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

“Here, I am a stranger in this country — therefore, I have no right to get mixed up in its domestic politics,” were the German’s ominous words.

However, this did not matter to the IRA who through Brian Keenan — who was one of those who worked for Niedermayer — masterminded the kidnapping of the man who became the West German consulate to Northern Ireland.

The reason for the abduction was to get Dolours and Marian Price, imprisoned in the UK for a bombing in London, moved to a prison in Northern Ireland.

David Blake Knox recounts the abduction and murder of German businessman Thomas Niedermayer and the events that led to such brutality becoming commonplace in Northern Ireland.

A lot of the book sees Knox going through the political climate in Ulster in meticulous detail in the 1970s in particular. However, this is no refresher course in Leaving Cert history but a more rounded look at the turbulent times from all angles — the Nationalists, the Unionists and the British government.

In fact, this is nothing like the textbooks, as Knox has the ability to write this non-fiction book like a novel — with a beginning, middle and end with the characters developing throughout the 278 pages.

The reader — despite knowing what happens given the book’s ominous title — is left turning the pages in anticipation of what comes next.

How this German industrialist who survived World War Two (where he spent six months in an internment camp as a teenager) only to resettle in the North and find himself collateral damage in another conflict is as harrowing as it is damning of the climate at the time.

However, the unfortunate point the book emphasises is that the legacy of the Troubles lingers on.

As recently as 2003, current Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald shared a stage with Keenan at a commemoration honouring IRA man Thomas Begley.

This commemoration saw people gather around a statue of Sean Russell who was once chief of staff of the IRA.

That Russell lived out his final years in Germany, and is described in the book as a Nazi collaborator, only adds to the discomfort of the story.

There is also a brief mention of the murder of journalist Lyra McKee earlier this year. More than 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland isn’t fully at peace.

In fact, as is the case with the Niedermayer family, the victims continued even after the arms, for the most part, were put down.

Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK — with Niedermayer’s wife, two daughters and the son-in-law he never met all suffering that fate in the years after his abduction and murder.

Through his brilliant writing, Knox has ensured the life and death of Thomas Niedermayer doesn’t just become a statistic. The most harrowing aspect of the Troubles is that what happened to the Niedermayer family was, in the words of Knox, “exceptional but not unique”.

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