HC Deb 19 October 1945 vol 414 cc1641-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Whiteley.]

4.5 p.m.

Major Wilkes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I want to express my appreciation of the courtesy of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), who withdrew the subject he was to raise on the Motion for the Adjournment to allow me to bring before the House the extremely serious situation which is existing in Greece at the present moment. For the last 10 or 11 days Greece has been without an effective Government, and the present solution of the problem cannot be one which recommends itself to anyone as likely to be either an ameliorating or a very permanent one. In view of the very serious nature of the news from Athens I seek for an expression from His Majesty's Government which will make it quite clear to the Military League and the Populist Party in Athens that, if they attempt a right wing coup ď état which, from reports in the "Manchester Guardian" and "The Times" and from reports which I have had direct, is likely, they will be met by that same firm determination on the part of the British Army in Greece to maintain the ordinary decencies of political life as was shown in our actions last December. That is the first point.

The crisis has arisen because the Populist Party have utterly refused for the last 10 or 11 days to participate in any Government which is led by the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is the largest party in Greece. It is usually the leader of the largest party who is asked to form a Government, yet the Populist Party have consistently refused to enter into any Government under a Liberal Prime Minister and thus have precipitated the present Greek crisis. I am most anxious that every act and statement of responsible British sources in Greece should make it clear that, if the Populist Party continue with their attitude which can only make the present democratic chaos in Greece even more chaotic and lead to conditions which make military Government almost certain. His Majesty's Government would view with favour the formation of a Government led by the Liberals containing representatives of E.A.M. and the Resistance Movement, even excluding the Populists, and that if there should be an attempt made to overthrow the seat of Government, His Majesty's Government will be firmly behind the stand for a democratic solution of all Greek problems.

This question of the political crisis is so closely interconnected with events of the last 12 months that one cannot separate them. It is my duty to report that the Populist Party is blackmailing all other political parties, so that the jails of Greece are fuller than ever before in Greek history. The figures given to me, from what is usually the most reliable source, for August, compared with the figures I have in respect of October, suggest that there are 2,000 more political prisoners under detention to-day than there were last August. There are thousands of warrants which it has not been possible to execute because the members of the Resistance are in hiding.

We have had many assurances that pressure is being brought to obtain an amnesty. It is my duty to inform the House that, in Kalamata, out of 800 prisoners, five have been released so far under the general amnesty law. In Kiparissa, out of over 600 prisoners, not a single one has been released. The reason why the amnesty law is being circumvented is that what are called criminal elements are excluded. The important thing for the House to consider is what is a criminal in present Greek terminology. He is a man who, during the occupation, sat on E.L.A.S. courts-martial and meted out military court-martial justice to captured soldiers or officers of the Quisling battalions. Any such man is to-day characterised as a criminal.

I seek for certain other constructive measures from the Government in regard to Greece, because we are involved, morally and politically, to such an extent that, whether the situation in Greece be good or ill, it is not Greeks who are held responsible, in world opinion, but His Majesty's Government. I am sure I speak on behalf of all hon. Members when I say that we view with concern a state of affairs in which the Resistance is persecuted and collaborationists are in power in the Civil Service, the Army and the Police Force, and we are anxious for the good name of His Majesty's Government before the tribunal of world opinion.

As an illustration of what is happening in Greece, I would like to inform the House that yesterday the trial of 24 Greek criminals began in Athens. These are men who served during the occupation in the German Security Departments and handed over British and Greeks to be shot. Twenty-four of them were accused, but only 10 appeared, and the other 14 were missing. The Minister of the Interior later in the day admitted at a Press conference that one of them, Major Morphis, was still serving in the Police Force in the Kavalla region. Another, Voulkiossis, the notorious Greek arch-Quisling, is still not brought to trial. I read also that General Papadongonas, most notorious of all traitors, was recently promoted from colonel to major-general, but I am glad to get the assurance that this promotion has been altered. I say that the important thing for hon. Members on this side of the House is that these elements, which can behave in such a way and make such promotions, are still in positions of great authority in Greece. Because of the fact that there are in power the most corrupt and reactionary elements of the Metaxas regime, who were saved by our action in December, the economic condition of the country is disintegrating and deteriorating daily. My information is that many thousands of Greeks in the hills will be starving this winter. The black market has been such a stranglehold on Greece that not even the courage of M. Varvaressos has been able to break it.

I want to put certain specific proposals before the Government. First, that we should insist on this amnesty becoming a reality and exert pressure to ensure that it is. Secondly, if the Populist Party will not join in a Government with other democratic parties, a democratic Government should be formed with British backing, excluding the Populist Party. Thirdly, that the elections shall be post- poned until May, when the state of communications will be such that Greeks from the villages—and it was in the villages where the Resistance movement gained the greatest support—will be able to come into the towns and vote. If the elections are held in January, the state of communications and the lack of transport in Greece, will prevent men from the mountain and urban areas recording their votes.

I must ask His Majesty's Government to consider most urgently the question of sending out to Greece a Civil Service Commission. I have had dealings with the Greek Civil Service on many occasions and I know that many admirable Government decisions were rendered nugatory because of the fact that the executive machinery of Government, the Civil Service, was not functioning. The collaborationists are in control, and inflated Civil Service bureaucracy, tied down with red tape, is quite unable to deal with the distribution of U.N.R.R.A. supplies and to make use of the many millions of pounds' worth of material we are bringing into the country. The situation is so serious as far as the Civil Service is concerned that nothing less than a senior civil servant at the head of at least three or four most important Ministries—especially at the head of the Ministry of Supply—will be able so to reorganise the machinery of Government that Greece will make the best use of the present quite considerable imports going into the country. Those imports at present are going into the black market, and the attempts of black marketeers have been condemned in recent weeks in the most stringent terms by Admiral Voulgaris and by M. Varvaressos himself. When I say that the black marketeers and the collaborationists have a stranglehold on Greek economic life, I am not using a picturesque phrase; it is nothing more or less than a plain statement of fact.

Lastly, I would impress upon this House that we have a great moral responsibility for Greece. I want to assure His Majesty's Government that any action which they take which has as its object the re-creation of true democratic forms in Greece will have the support of this side of the House, and I am confident that under the new Government steps will be taken to put Greece on that road to democracy which, if I am any judge of the temper of the people, can only result in a victory at any fair election for the causes of the resistance movement now being persecuted under the present Greek régime.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Hector McNeil)

I feel indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend for presenting most reasonably a case which obviously rouses him to emotional heights with which we all sympathise. I want to give one assurance and one warning. I must repeat on behalf of His Majesty's Government that we did not seek to intervene to influence the position of the Government which now rules under the Regent, and that we are most anxious to avoid doing so.

Major Wilkes

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, who is very pressed for time. The point I wish to make is that our intervention has resulted in the present régime, and our non-intervention will quite likely keep in power the present régime which only rose to power by our intervention last December.

Mr. McNeil

I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend will agree that that is a matter of considerable argument which I cannot follow here. At any rate I am not certain that we would not get into endless digressions. We are anxious that Greece should create her own Government and go on from there. Of course I am anxious to assure my hon. and gallant Friend that His Majesty's Government have indicated, and will continue to indicate, that we will oppose with all means available to us any attempt to seize power in Greece by force. That warning goes to the Right as well as to the Left. That is our position—with all means available to us we will oppose any attempts of that kind.

I want also to deal with the point which, as my hon. and gallant Friend quite properly argued, bears a close relationship to the present situation—that people are in prison in very large numbers, as I will show in a second, for offences which, indeed, if they are offences at all, are not offences that lie inside the law as we understand it. The Government have retained troops in Greece, and we made a contribution, to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred, to U.N.R.R.A. in the hope that we might help Greece to move through this troubled phase, following occupation and fighting, to the point where they could elect, by secret ballot, a Government representative of their people. It was as an element in this transition process that we welcomed the Varkiza agreement, and particularly the provision therein: that no one should be imprisoned or persecuted on political grounds, or on grounds that they took part in the civil war of last December. It has been alleged by people other than members of the Communist Party that the Varkiza agreement has not been observed in two particulars, to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred. It has been alleged that members of the Resistance Movement, and all those who took part in the December fighting, against whom no charge of crime has been brought, have, none the less, been imprisoned for considerable periods. Further, it is alleged that some secret Right Wing organisations have been armed, and have used this position to arrest and throw into prison people who have committed no other crime than that they were political opponents of the people making the arrests.

His Majesty's Government have had to address themselves to these two allegations. I am going to submit to the House that we have used considerable influence to oppose these tendencies, and to secure the release of political prisoners who have spent considerable periods in prison without charges being preferred against them. The Government are grateful for help of the kind we have this week received from my hon. and gallant Friend in giving us details of precise cases.

Mr. Solley (Thurrock)

Surely it is the primary concern of the Government to ascertain information about these cases rather than to rely upon its being procured by back benchers?

Mr. McNeil

I do not want to be pointed, but there is no reason at all for making that deduction. We should be stupid and ungrateful if we did not ackknowledge additional help. As I was saying, when the Regent was here we continued the representations which we had previously made, that there should be a wide amnesty from which only collaborators would be excluded. While the Regent was here my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made personal representa- tions to him upon this point. We continued to exert pressure of that kind, as did the last Government, and we will continue in this Government. The Regent and the previous Greek Government—and I have no doubt the present Greek Government—have declared themselves anxious to meet us on this point. But they asserted that the majority of Greek public opinion would not tolerate an amnesty which included prisoners held on charges concerning the murder of hostages during the civil war of last December and January. I know there is a dispute about these hostages or, more properly, a dispute as to who were the murderers of the hostages. But here is a fact from which I cannot escape. Up to 2nd September, 8,752 bodies of hostages had been found in Athens and the Peloponnese alone.

The number of common criminals—I do not place these in the same category—and members of E.A.M. and E.L.A.S., charged with offences in the civil war amount to 11,500, and 8,700 of these have been accused of murder. I know that these crimes have not been proved, but the Greek Government have resisted our proposals, maintaining that if a lot of these prisoners were set free a long period of disturbance would ensue, with the Greek people taking what they consider justice—and what one might consider private vengeance—into their own hands.

I have also to say that the Greek Government did two things to try to meet our wishes. They granted a number of partial amnesties, and they speeded up the trials. My hon. Friend quoted August, 1944, as against October, 1945, but I would have been much better pleased if he had quoted figures for August, September and October this year, because my information is that, under these measures of partial amnesty, 3,700 prisoners were released between 1st September and 9th. I am also informed, I am glad to say, that 90 per cent. of these releases were of members of E.A.M. and E.L.A.S. However, I do not want to pretend that we are satisfied. We continue to bring pressure on behalf of some of the cases, and on the general situation, and we have one other measure to which I would like to refer. The previous Government proposed to us that we should send out a delegation of legal experts to examine to what extent the charge were well founded, to what extent the measures which might have been taken by the Ministry of Justice to speed up the examination of cases awaiting trial have been successful, and to examine the thoroughness of Greek methods of justice and public trial.

Before this offer could be accepted, the Greek Government came down, but we have made representations to the new Prime Minister, Archbishop Damaskinos, that he should accept this offer. We understand that he is going to accept it, and we, at this moment, are considering the names of people who might be suitable to form this delegation. We are hopeful, at any rate, that that will take us a further step towards securing the kind of amnesty which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Newcastle (Major Wilkes) wants, and which, I can assure him, the Government are anxious to have.

The other two suggestions he made, about Civil Service personnel and the economics of the situation, I most gladly promise that my right hon. Friend will consider, particularly on the side of the economic conditions, where the figures are most alarming for all commodities. My right hon. Friend is anxious to help. Any kind of reasonable help which the Greek Government ask from us in the matter of personnel or expert advice His Majesty's Government will be glad to give because, apart from the political considerations, we are desperately anxious about the conditions of these people.

Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)

What about the election date?

Mr. McNeil

About the election date, I think I must say that is properly a matter for the Greek Government, but, again, I think my hon. and gallant Friend made a good case which we shall be glad to agree to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Four o'clock.