HC Deb 09 March 1936 vol 309 cc1808-14
Mr. ATTLEE (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any statement to make on the action of the German Government in sending troops into the Rhineland?


The answer is a long one, but I feel sure that the House would wish for the fullest possible information. On 6th March I asked the German Ambassador to come and see me at the Foreign Office, and I made to him a proposal which His Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin had made to the German Chancellor on 13th December last that the Powers signatory of the Treaty of Locarno should proceed with the negotiation of an air pact. The House will recall that such a pact was suggested during the course of the Anglo-French conversations held in London in February, 1935. On this occasion I reminded His Excellency of the hopes which Herr Hitler himself has expressed for the betterment of international relations in Western Europe, and I told him that it seemed to me the time had now come when a real effort must be made to translate these hopes into facts, and attempt to achieve a real improvement in the relations of the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

I pointed out to the Ambassador that the air pact touched what was in some respects a point of junction, and a sensitive point of junction, in the relations of the three great Western Powers, and His Majesty's Government considered that the conclusion of such a pact would constitute a stabilising element in our relations in the West. I did not feel that it was impossible to negotiate such a pact even while the situation was complicated by the Italo-Abyssinian war, and I asked the Ambassador to communicate with his Government at once in this sense. I added that His Majesty's Government were genuinely anxious to convert into practical resolutions the sentiments so often expressed in speeches.

The German Ambassador came to see me on the morning of 7th March and informed me that he had a communication of very great importance to make. He then handed to me a Memorandum of which he read a translation and the English text of this Memorandum is now available in the Vote Office. I do not therefore propose to give the House a full account of this Memorandum, but I should like to draw attention to certain salient points in it. The Memorandum falls into two parts. In the first part the German Government have developed at considerable length their objections to the Franco-Soviet Pact and the reasons why, in their-view, the intention of the French Government to conclude this pact has created an entirely new situation and destroyed the political system of the Locarno Treaty. The German Government hold that for these reasons the Locarno Treaty has ceased in practice to exist, and that Germany consequently regards herself for her part as no longer bound by this no longer valid Treaty. The Memorandum then announces that the German Government has restored the full and unrestricted sovereignty of Germany in the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland.

The second part of the Memorandum contains a series of proposals which are described as being designed to promote the establishment of a system of peaceful security for Europe. These proposals are, first, that a demilitarised zone should be created on both sides of the Franco-German and Belgian-German frontiers; secondly, that non-aggression pacts for 25 years should be concluded between Germany, France and Belgium, and that Great Britain and Italy should guarantee these pacts; thirdly, that the Netherlands might be invited to join this Treaty system; fourthly, that these security arrangements should be supplemented by an air pact; fifthly, that non-aggression pacts should be concluded between Germany and the States bordering Germany on the East similar to the agreement between Germany and Poland, the exception previously made in regard to Lithuania being conditionally withdrawn. Finally, it is stated that Germany is willing to re-enter the League of Nations now that equality of rights and the restoration of her full sovereignty over the entire German territory has been attained. In this latter connection the German Government express the expectation that in the course of a reasonable period the question of colonial equality of rights and of the separation of the League Covenant from the Treaty of Versailles may be settled through friendly negotiation.

On receiving this communication from the German Ambassador I told His Excellency that he could not expect me to make any detailed observations on a document of this importance until I had had an opportunity to study it and to consult my colleagues on the situation which it created. At the same time I told His Excellency that there was one observation which I must make at once. I deeply regretted the information which the Ambassador had given me about the action which the German Government was taking in respect of the demilitarised zone. The Ambassador would appreciate that this amounted to the unilateral repudiation of a treaty freely negotiated and freely signed.

I had a clear recollection of the statement that the Chancellor had made to me at our first meeting in Berlin on the subject of the Treaty of Locarno, when he had drawn a clear distinction between that Treaty and the Treaty of Versailles and emphasised that Germany had freely signed the Treaty of Locarno. I was aware—I said to the Ambassador—of the view of the German Government as to the effect of the Franco-Soviet Pact on the Locarno Treaty. That view was not, however, shared by the other signatories of the Treaty, and if the German Government, despite the opinions of the other signatories, still maintained their own conclusion, then there was the proper arbitration procedure available for their use. I feared that the effect of the unilateral repudiation of this Treaty upon His Majesty's Government and upon British public opinion must inevitably be deplorable.

As to the later parts of the, Ambassador's communication, I said that His Majesty's Government would have carefully to consider these, but clearly the declaration in respect of Germany's attitude towards the League was most important. The Ambassador at this point informed me that the German Government's decision in regard to the League was to a large extent due to their desire to meet the views frequently expressed by the Prime Minister and myself when we emphasised that the policy of His Majesty's Government was based upon the League and upon collective security. Germany, he said, was willing to share in such a policy and there were no con- ditions attached to her return to the League; Germany was willing to re-enter the League of Nations. While the German Government expected that in due time the Covenant would be divorced from the Treaty of Versailles and the question of colonial equality of rights would be settled, these were not conditions but matter for negotiation subsequent to Germany's return to the League. I do not need to emphasise the importance of the communication from the German Government of which I have given the House an account. Similar memoranda have been communicated to the other signatories of the Locarno Treaty, namely, France, Italy and Belgium.

Before passing on to observations of a more general nature, it may be well for me to inform the House of the steps which are to be taken in the immediate future. The French and Belgian Governments, with the full knowledge and agreement of His Majesty's Government, have asked that the Council of the League of Nations may be summoned as soon as possible to consider the situation. I must emphasise that the Council of the League is the proper body for this purpose. The Council will, it is understood, meet on Friday next, and no decision can, of course, be reached in advance of that meeting, but an exchange of views will take place in Paris to-morrow between the representatives of the four Locarno Powers, other than Germany, and these conversations will be resumed at Geneva on the following day. His Majesty's Government will be represented at these conversations by the Lord Privy Seal and myself. I have now given the House an account of recent events, together with some comment upon them. I have also given the House such details as are in my possession of the procedure to be followed in the immediate future.

But hon. Members will no doubt expect to receive some immediate indication of the ideas and intentions with which the representatives of His Majesty's Government must approach at Geneva a problem the development of which is as yet in some important respects obscure. It is clearly desirable to do this, for no one can fail to realise the stabilising force of a clear-sighted and united British opinion in the affairs of Europe at this juncture. Let us not delude ourselves. The course taken by the German Government in unilaterally repudiating obligations into which they have freely entered and in simultaneously acting as if they did not exist both complicates and aggravates the international situation. The abrogation of the Locarno Treaty and the occupation of the demilitarised zone have profoundly shaken confidence in any engagement into which the Government of Germany may in future enter. There can be no one in this House or this country who would wish to condone or excuse such a step. It strikes a severe blow at that principle of the sanctity of Treaties which underlies the whole structure of international relations.

There is, I am thankful to say, no reason to suppose that the present German action implies a threat of hostilities. The German Government speak in their Memorandum of their "unchangeable longing for a real pacification of Europe" and express their willingness to conclude a non-aggression pact with France and Belgium. But in case there should be any misunderstanding about our position as a signatory of the Locarno Treaty, His Majesty's Government think it necessary to say that, should there take place during the period which will be necessary for the consideration of the new situation which has arisen any actual attack upon France or Belgium which would constitute a violation of Article II of Locarno, His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, notwithstanding the German repudiation of the Treaty, would regard themselves as in honour bound to come in the manner provided in the Treaty to the assistance of the country attacked.

It must be obvious to all that in existing circumstances the transition from a had past to a better future will be an arduous and hazardous enterprise. At the same time, we are not merely concerned with the past or the present; we are concerned also with the future. One of the main foundations of the peace of Western Europe has been cut away, and if peace is to be secured there is a manifest duty to rebuild. It is in that spirit that we must approach the new proposals of the German Chancellor. His Majesty's Government will examine them clear-sightedly and objectively, with a view to finding out to what extent they represent a means by which the shaken structure of peace can again be strengthened. In the present grave condition of international affairs His Majesty's Government feel that no opportunity must be missed which offers any hope of amelioration. In the anxious circumstances of the present time I feel justified in asking v.I1 sections of opinion in this House for their support in the exacting and arduous task which now confronts the combined wisdom and statesmanship of the world.


I do not wish to ask any supplementary questions arising. immediately out of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. It is a very important matter and a very vital matter, and we have not had full time to consider it. I only want to ask the Prime Minister whether, in case there should arise the need for a further Debate after the meeting at Geneva, he will bear in mind that that may be necessary for the House?


Yes, I think that in such a circumstance as that to which the right hon. Gentleman alludes, we shall have to find time for a Debate.


I wish to ask the Foreign Secretary one question. Did the German proposals for new engagements extend to the countries on the Southern frontier of Germany or were they confined to the frontiers on the West and East, and will the right hon. Gentleman in any negotiations which His Majesty's Government may undertake consider the position of Austria and the interest which this country has in the maintenance of its independence and integrity as part of the system of Europe?


As I understand the position, the offer was limited to neighbours on the West and the East. The answer to the second part of my right hon. Friend's supplementary question is, "Yes, Sir."


Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the neighbours on the East included Russia?


To that there is a geographical answer.


Can the Prime Minister be a little more definite about the promise of a Debate? Does he not think, in view of what might easily be the fateful circumstances of Europe today, this House ought to be consulted at the earliest convenient opportunity?


I do not quite know what my right hon. Friend means. This week I see great objections to having a Debate in this House. It might well cause very great difficulty to Lord Halifax and the Foreign Secretary in the most difficult and delicate task which they will have to perform. With regard to the question of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, I shall certainly at the earliest date possible agree to give a full Debate on the return of the Foreign Secretary from Geneva, which I hope will be very shortly.


Does the Foreign Secretary consider that his suggestion for an Air Pact, made on 6th March, was in keeping with our support of the League of Nations and the principle of collective security?


Yes, Sir.

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