HC Deb 05 April 1944 vol 398 cc2010-4
Mr. Driberg

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he is aware that despite the efforts of the Polish Government there are persistent and widespread manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Polish Forces in this country and that a number of Jewish soldiers and sailors are now undergoing or awaiting court martial for absenting themselves from the Polish Forces in the hope of securing their transfer to the British Forces; and if, in the interests of the unity of the Allied war effort, he will reopen negotiations with the Polish authorities and endeavour to facilitate such transfers, taking as a precedent the recent similar negotiations satisfactorily conducted by his Department and the War Office.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

The negotiations referred to by the hon. Member, as a result of which in agreement with the Polish Government the transfer to the British Army was arranged of a number of Jewish deserters from the Polish Forces in this country, constituted an entirely exceptional departure from the normal principle that transfers from one Allied Army to another cannot be facilitated in war-time. His Majesty's Government, however, took the opportunity to represent to the Polish Government the desirability of making a thorough investigation of the men's grievances and of remedying any that might be found to exist. They understand that a full inquiry has, in fact, been made and that the Polish authorities have taken all steps in their power to ensure that their declared policy of suppressing all manifestations of anti-Semitism is brought to the notice of all ranks in the Polish Armed Forces and that appropriate action is taken to carry it into effect.

In the circumstances, and having regard to the overriding importance at the present time of maintaining at the highest level morale and military discipline in the Forces which are preparing to take part under British command in forthcoming operations, His Majesty's Government and the Polish Government are in entire agreement that it would not be in the best interests of the Allied war effort to enable further members of the Polish Armed Forces to secure their transfer to the British Forces. I regret therefore that it will not be possible for His Majesty's Government to intervene in the recent cases in the manner that the hon. Member suggests.

Mr. Driberg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are only about 600 men in all now concerned, and that the transfer of such a small number would surely not represent a serious dislocation of any war plans? While fully agreeing that the Polish Government have done what they can, I would like to ask him if he is aware that formal Orders of the Day condemning something like anti-Semitism, which is an emotional thing, do not really get down to the root of the matter, and that these most unfortunate 'and regrettable manifestations are still going on—to the detriment of the military discipline which he refers to.

Mr. Eden

I have gone into this question with great care, as we did on an earlier occasion. As I have already said, the arrangements under which the previous arrangements were effected con- stituted absolute exceptions to the normal principle. I have to have regard both to military discipline and to impending operations. I would ask the House seriously to consider, before they press me on a matter of this kind to encourage further movements of members of Polish forces from units which will shortly be going into battle under British command. I have investigated the matter very carefully, and I do not think there is any action I could take.

Miss Rathbone

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the representatives of Polish Jewry in the Polish National Council did their best to persuade these men to return to, or remain with, their units, without success? Does he not think that the whole situation suggests that these men's really valuable qualifications for the common service that they are willing to undertake would be better exercised if they were in less uncongenial surroundings?

Mr. Lipson

Is it a fact that it is by virtue of powers conferred by this House that the Polish authorities are able to take the action that is contemplated against these men? When the House conferred those powers it was not intended that they should be used against the victims of anti-Semitism, and will my right hon. Friend inform the Polish Government that, if they cannot properly control these manifestations, the Government may have to ask the House to withdraw those powers?

Mr. Eden

I do not really think my hon. Friend is quite fair to the Polish Government in the matter. Since we had the last incident there have been numerous conversations and, from all the information that I can get, very far reaching efforts have been made to make sure that anti-Semitism does not prevail in the Polish Army ranks. I have gone into it very carefully with a desire to deal with the situation. I have to balance very important considerations against those which the hon. Lady has mentioned and I do not feel that I should be justified in taking any further action.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all that these men desire is to serve the cause of the United Nations in some responsible capacity, and that the decision the Government have reached will be a terrible blow to men who have been persistently insulted and humiliated, as is demonstrated by their depositions? While making no charge against the Polish Government, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman would he consider the alternative of keeping a constant watch, in association with the Polish Government, on the activities of anti-Semites in the Polish Forces, or allowing these men to serve the British Government and the United Nations under the aegis of the War Office?

Mr. Eden

In answer to the first part of the question, naturally I after what has happened to-day, again have conversations on the subject with the Polish Government. I am sure no one could be more anxious than they are to see that there is no anti-Semitism in the ranks of the Polish Army. The other side of the question is that these men are leaving a unit which is, in due course, very soon perhaps, going into action. I really feel that I have some responsibility and I do not feel that I could go beyond the line I have taken.

Mr. Silverman

While appreciating the right hon. Gentleman's difficulty, and appreciating also that the Polish Government has done everything in its power, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman himself appreciates that most of the men concerned are volunteers in the Polish Army, and have only taken their present action because the efforts of the Polish Government have failed? In those circumstances, does he not think it rather hard that the same treatment should not be given to the soldiers now as was given to their colleagues on the two previous occasions? It is very difficult to draw any distinction between the two classes of cases. Having granted the transfer on a former occasion, it is a little inequitable to withhold it now.

Mr. Eden

I do not think I can add very much to what I have said. I fully understand the hon. Member's feelings in the matter but I also have to have regard to the fact that conditions, at present, are not exactly as they were when the last incident occurred and improvements have, I know, been made by the Polish Government. I have to consider what the effect would be of allowing the movement of members of Allied Forces out of those forces, to join other forces, for whatever reason, at a time like this.

Mr. Driberg

While greatly appreciating the right hon. Gentleman's sympathetic attitude and his promise to start conversations again with the Polish authorities, in view of the importance of the issues involved I beg to give notice that I will endeavour to raise the matter on the Motion for the Easter Adjournment.