HC Deb 26 October 1948 vol 457 cc57-84

6.49 p.m.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

Before I change the subject of Debate I feel it would not be out of place, now that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply has let us into his private life, to wish him for the rest. of the day a happy birthday. I want to raise tonight a matter which is not a party affair at all, but one which is in my view, and, I think in the view of most Members of the House, one of very high principle, which greatly affects the prestige of this country and the reputation and tradition which we have for fair play. I refer to the continued detention of the German field-marshals in hospital near Hamburg awaiting trial for war crimes.

Before I open on this subject, I want to make two protests, and I wish the Chief Whip were here. As he is not, I hope that my remarks will be communicated to him. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for War will not take amiss what I have to say, and I must say that I am glad to see him here. I, first of all, asked that this Debate should be answered by the Foreign Office. In my opinion, the War Office cannot answer it. I agree that the War Office have to deal with conditions, and, to that extent, they can answer, but that is a minor matter compared with what I want to say. I protest that the Foreign Office are not represented here tonight to answer this Debate. Secondly, I say, in general, with no disrespect to the Under-Secretary, that I think that it is not right for the Government to send a deputy Minister to answer a Debate of this kind. It is the one occasion when a back-bencher can give a crack, and it is not fair on back-benchers of either side of the House that Ministers should now invariably avoid what I consider to be one of their first responsibilities, and that is to come here and answer the Debate. That used to be the custom, and I hope that note will be taken of what I have said.

The question of the German Field-Marshals was first raised in the House in the Debate on the Address on or about 15th September, in the short Session. I told the story myself of what had happened in regard to that, and the right hon. Member for Warwick and Leaminigton (Mr. Eden) also spoke, but we could not get any reply. In consequence of not getting a reply, about a week later many of us put down Questions to the Secretary of State for War, who refused to answer them because he said that the Foreign Secretary was going to reply to them the next day. I asked the Secretary of State for War on that occasion: "Did the War Office say that the field-marshals were fit to stand their trial or not?" I was told that the Foreign Secretary would answer that question, and on 23rd September I interrupted the Foreign Secretary and put it to him again. The Foreign Secretary then said that he must have notice of the question. The fact that it had been asked twice already did not seem to occur to him, and I got no reply from him. On that occasion, he told the Government story of what had happened.

I am not going to go into the details of the general merits of the case, except to say that I believe that those who feel as I do represent a large body of opinion in this country and elsewhere when I say that the whole thing is entirely repugnant to our sense of fair play. The particular question of what the field-marshals are to be tried for is another matter. The Foreign Secretary's statement was that no evidence as to their complicity in war crimes was in the possession of the British authorities at the time of the Nuremberg trial. It seems to be an astonishing thing, if that were so, that it should be necessary to put them on trial now.

The particular aspect of the matter with which I am concerned is the question of what the doctors did or did not say. The story which I told the House on 15th September, and which I will repeat quite shortly to refresh hon. Members' memories was that in the early days of this year, a panel consisting of War Office doctors visited the field-marshals and reported that they were all unfit to stand their trial. Three months later, as a result of various discussions—I suppose, within the Cabinet, but I do not know—and disagreement, it was decided that it was an absurd thing to send War Office doctors down to inspect field-marshals because the international trade union of generals would object, and, therefore, they ought to have a report by civilians. Home Office doctors were sent down and according to the report which I got, and which I gave to the House on that occasion, the Home Office doctors decided they were fit to stand their trial. The Foreign Secretary when speaking on 22nd September said: A series of medical boards, therefore, examined the officers, and it was finally reported by the Director-General of the Army Medical Services, in consultation with the medical officers of the Home Office in April, 1948, that three of the officers were fit to take their trial, but, at that time, the fourth was not."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd September, 1948, vol. 456, c. 899.] I do not accuse the Foreign Secretary of attempting to mislead the House, but when I heard that, the impression to my mind was that there had been a joint board of War Office and Home Office doctors, who jointly visited the field-marshals and made a joint report,

My story is entirely different. My story is that the War Office doctors went first, and said that the field marshals were unfit to stand their trial; and that the Home Office doctors in April said that they were fit. I can understand that when the Home Office put it to the Director-General of Army Medical Services he would quite rightly say, "If Home Office doctors say they are fit, I am not going to put any obstruction in their way." The question I want to ask is whether or not, when the Army doctors boarded the field-marshals in January of this year, they reported that all of them were fit to stand their trial, or if they said that none was fit to stand trial, or how many they said were fit to stand their trial? My story is that they said that none of them was fit to stand trial. As I was not able to get a reply, I thought that it would be quite fair to visit the field-marshals. I asked for this to be arranged, and that I should be allowed to see them privately, without all the paraphernalia of Army officers and the rest of it. I regret to say I was not allowed to do that. There may have been technical international difficulties against my doing so, but it seems to me that if a Member of this House cannot go and see people of that standard, alone, it is quite ridiculous.

The field-marshals' story corresponds with mine. I am not suggesting that they know what the doctors reports were because they do not and they told me they did not, but they said there was never a joint board of doctors which visited them. In January of this year; they were War Office doctors, and the doctors who visited them in April were Home Office doctors, and the Camp Commandant, on each occasion, informed them that that was so. There were Army officers there who heard what I was saying, and the field-marshals were given no lead as to what I wanted to know. Some of them were extremely irate because they thought I was dealing with what appeared to them to be very petty things, and not discussing the question of their trial. Quite clearly, they were convinced in their view that the doctors were not identical, and that the doctors who visited them in April were not the doctors who visited them in January. It was impossible for them to say whether they were Army or civilian doctors, except for the assurance of the Camp Commandant, which, they say, was given to them.

There is another aspect of the matter which I wish to raise. It seems to me that it is disgraceful that these officers, high-ranking officers—in my view it would be the same if they were privates or lance corporals—should have been kept in detention in this country for well over three years, and actually sent back to Germany without being told that they were to be put on trial. They lived a life of comparative freedom here after September, 1947. With one exception, they were allowed to spend week-ends with friends in the country, and so on. They went back to Germany believing they were to be set free, and they found, to the contrary, that they were handed over to the Americans for a short time. The treatment which they were given was quite disgraceful, in my view, but I do not want to go into the details of that. They were finally sent from Nuremberg to Munster Lager where their detention was better, and, after protests in this House, they were finally moved to Hamburg, where, I must say, conditions were very good indeed. On some details about that I have written to the Foreign Office and to the Secretary of State for War. The astonishing thing is that they are in close detention after three months, and they still have no charge preferred against them. I do not think that has anything to do with the War Office. I think that this again is a matter for the Foreign Office.

They were told when they were taken away from Munster Lager, I think it was, that they were going to be charged with war crimes; or when they were handed over by the Americans to the British. I saw the paper and it was a rather glorified 18B form. Members of this House will re Member how inadequate was the information given on this form. They have been three months in close detention and not allowed outside the camp, yet they have not been told the charges against them. I have met their lawyer, who happened to run across me in Rome, and who told me he had not yet been told what the charges were. Yet these men understand that they are to be tried in January. And this after more than three years in captivity in this country, under the belief that they were going to be set free. That, to my mind, is very wrong.

There is another aspect of the case with which I hope the Under-Secretary will deal. A field-marshal told me that according to the German Constitution—if one exists—once a man is made a field-marshal, he is always a field-marshal and cannot shed his rank. I question very much whether even under the laws of this country or under the Geneva Convention we are entitled, when a man is a prisoner of war—and, after all, we are still at war with Germany; the Attorney-General insists that is so—to try a field-marshal or any officer except as an Army man.

One aspect of their detention which is particularly troublesome—and this I think will astonish the House—is that there is no interpreter in the place. I agree that two of the surviving generals —because Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch has died—talk or understand English. But it does seem to me that when these decrepit old men—whose ailments are really their own concern-are in hospital they should have somebody with them who can properly understand what they want to discuss, when they wish to talk about their own personal affairs. To my mind it is outrageous that when von Brauchitsch died, he had beside him nobody at all who understood German. It may be argued that that would not have made any difference; but I shall have something to say about that in a minute.

The terms of detention are such— though this may be due to some international difficulty—that while they may see their relations they are not allowed to see friends. I cannot see why that Should be persisted in, in view of the very wide range of freedom they were allowed in this country. There are other details with which I will not bother the House. In general, I would say that no one in Germany with whom I spoke—either amongst Germans, Control Commission officers or the Army, with possibly one exception—thinks this thing is a good idea at all. They all think it is wrong. The highest officials there told me that in their experience they have not come across a single person who was not absolutely revolted by the whole business.

But quite apart from that, even if the Government are not concerned with people's feelings, the whole policy is so cockeyed, when at the very moment we are trying, as I understand it, to build Germany up, we do something which is objectionable to everybody, and is politically most inexpedient. I do hope the Government will find some way of getting themselves out of the jam into which they seem to have got through a bit of inadvertence. I always try to stick to the principle that one should not condone in friends what one condemns in enemies, and I say that these high— ranking people in Germany who do not approve of this policy ought to resign and get out. By carrying out the Government's instructions they are doing exactly the sort of thing for which, at Nuremburg and elsewhere, we condemned high-ranking people in the German Army. In other words, the people who carry out these instructions are behaving in exactly the same way— it may be a matter of degree, but the principle is the same-and doing exactly the same thing as that for which a lot of these fellows now have to stand their trial. In my view it is a terrible thing that we should have sunk so low, and that the people at the top do not give a lead in the right direction.

In connection with this particular case— which had the most disastrous effect upon the lower ranking people who have to administer affairs—I will conclude by telling two stories which came to me in the course of my visit to the hospital. The first concerns Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch. I have explained to the House that when he died, except for his wife who arrived an hour before he actually passed away but when he was unconscious, there was nobody with him who could speak his own language. When I protested to the doctor he said, "But Mr. Stokes, that would have made no difference." Of course not; I did not suggest that it would make any difference. But if I were dying in the midst of a horde of Chinese I should like to find alongside me somebody who could speak my own language. That is a most inhuman way of approaching problems of this kind. But worse still, through my own fault I had to endure an audience with von Brauchitsch's wife, who, incidentally, had to come from a hospital elsewhere to reach him only an hour before he died. She told me, with an officer sitting there, that she asked a British officer-whose name I know but will not mention— whether arrangements could be made for the ashes of her husband to be conveyed by car to her home in the Harz Mountains. The reply she got was-and this, I think, just about reaches the depths—" The urn is quite light and can be carried in the hands."

7.7 p.m.

Brigadier Head (Carshalton)

I should like to support what has been said by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes). I have not the knowledge with which he speaks, but from what I have heard and read of this case it is my belief that throughout the House there is a feeling that it represents neither the feelings of the people of this country nor the manner in which they are accustomed to behave in these matters. It does not seem to me that the demilitarisation of these generals — which seems to me a very doubtful proceeding— is the worst aspect of this matter; nor, regrettable though it may be, is the precedent which has been set. It seems to me that the really bad side of this question is the series of blunders which has been made, initiating a chain of events which after a while have been generally recognised to be regrettably unfair and unworthy of this country.

That having happened, it seems to me that what this House deserved was a Member of the Front Bench with the courage to come down and say, "Over these unfortunate men a mistake has been made. I am sorry that it has been made and I am going to put it right." That is what was needed, and the courage to do that. But what has happened in this case? Time and again we have seen this weary spectacle of the Foreign Office playing off the War Office and the War Office playing off the Foreign Office: evasion, collusion, avoidance of the facts and no answers. That, to me, is the most sinister and regrettable aspect of this case, with this evasion by official sources, and these endless briefs. I can imagine them being made out, with orders to officials in Germany and here "Don't tell the hon. Member all these things. Keep him away. Hush it up. Keep the facts hidden." That is the very thing against which the democracies are fighting today. The whole handling of this affair smacks a little of the very thing we complain happens on the other side of the iron curtain. That is what has upset the people of this country and this House, and I hope the Under-Secretary, difficult though it may be for him, will come to that Box tonight with some sort of statement which will cast a little more light on this matter.

Another thing which seems to me particularly regrettable is that, having made this blunder, having, shown obvious unfairness to these men, there has been an attempt to blacken them. We all know their responsibilities. We all know they may have done very bad things in the past. But they were ordered by politicians to do them. And there is not a single person in a high responsible position in the Armed Forces of any country at the present time who would not do the same. Let that be remembered. These men may have been guilty of certain things. Perhaps they should have resigned. I am not arguing about that. But this attempt to blacken them since these mistakes have been made seems regrettable.

I read with great sorrow an article in "The Times" after von Brauchitsch had died. In that article it first said that Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch was the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army at the time of the attack in 1941, and, therefore was largely responsible for the slaughter. That is absolute rubbish. He was a field-marshal; he was ordered to do it. What else could he have done? Secondly, in that same article in "The Times," it stated that his wife was with him when he died. That was untrue. That article seemed to smack of the same sort of thing, hushing this up, blackening these men and getting rid of this awkward situation. I say that great unfairness has been shown here, and the best thing that can be done by the Under- Secretary is to assure the House that a mistake has been made and that something will now be done to put this unfairness right.

7.10 p.m.

General Sir George Jeffreys (Peters-field)

I should like to support the case which has been made. It seems to me that we have treated these distinguished German officers very shabbily and in a way entirely unworthy of our great country, the traditions of our fighting services and of our previous records in many wars. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) has emphasised the question of the fitness or otherwise of these distinguished officers for trial, and he has said everything that is necessary to strengthen the case for an inquiry into that matter. We have heard nothing about the question. We know that they were sick, that they were hustled over to Germany in custody after being prisoners of war for about three years and that they were then demilitarised, which I agree is at least of doubtful legality in dealing with officers who are prisoners of war and not civil prisoners.

It seems to me that our treatment of these field-marshals and generals is likely to cast a slur on the reputation of this country for fair dealing and for honourable dealing in connection with prisoners of war and opponents. After all, these men were, as far as we know, honourable opponents of this country. We have not heard a word to suggest that they were anything but honourable opponents of this country. I wonder where the evidence comes from, if there is any evidence, as to their guilt. We ought to look at any evidence with very great doubts which comes from other countries with a less high standard of honour or truthfulness than our own in dealing with these matters. In the Napoleonic wars, when we differed as strongly in this country from Napoleon and his regime as from Hitler and his regime, there was no suggestion that we did not treat our French opponents as honourable opponents within the rules of war.

I should like to know what evidence there is against these men. We have never had a hint of any kind as to what it is, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to give us some particulars, both as to the evidence on which these distinguished officers are being tried and the reason why that evidence was not produced long ago. Three years is an unconscionable time to keep these officers prisoners of war and then to produce this kind of evidence against them.

I know there has been a case—it has been reported in the Press today—of an S.S. officer who was tried for most brutally massacring British troops. That was three years after the war. He was convicted, and from the evidence published in the Press was rightly convicted. But is there anything of that kind in regard to these officers? This S.S. officer was on the spot and brutally took this action of massacring a large number of British prisoners in 1940. Nothing could he said in extenuation, and the only thing that could be said against that case was that the man was not tried long ago. The same sort of thing does not apply in any way to these elderly and distinguished officers who fought against us according to their lights as honourable opponents, and who we now know as an absolute fact were politically opposed to Hitler and his regime in many ways and some suffered as a result. It was their duty as officers in the German Army to carry out Hitler's orders so long as they served in it. It seems to me that we are guilty of being shabby and mean to these elderly Germans who, as I have said, were honourable opponents as far as we know. It is time that these generals were released or a statement made in the plainest terms of what is the evidence against them, from where it comes and what is proposed to be done about it at the earliest possible moment

7.17 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

I rise to make it clear that this is a matter which arouses concern not only on one side of the House, but on all sides of the House and throughout the country. That feeling has been expressed by my own party in a letter to "The Times" which was signed by many prominent persons in the Labour Party. I hope it will not be thought by the Government that there are not many persons in many parties who do not feel deeply anxious about the conduct of the Government in this matter. The most important point is the interminable delay which has taken place. It is one of the strongest principles of British law that justice should be speedy, and in our law courts arrangements are made so that justice shall be done as speedily as possible. I should have thought that if there were any single case in which that principle should be applied it is in this case.

Surely, in dealing with a case of this kind we should have been over-scrupulous in ensuring that we applied the best principles of British law. But we did not do so. We kept these gentlemen in captivity for a long period without letting them know what was to happen to them. I agree that it would have been much better, having made this mistake, for us to admit it openly and to agree that the field-marshals should be left free. The main argument which has been used has been that there were others under these men who had been condemned to death by other courts, but they at least were condemned by courts in a much shorter length of time after the war. Therefore, I do not think that argument applies.

I believe it would have a real effect throughout Germany and in other parts of the world if the Government were prepared to say that they have made a mistake, and that because of their conviction that justice should be speedily applied, which cannot be done after this interminable period, they are prepared to take a different course of action than they would otherwise have taken. I hope that my hon. Friend who is to reply will convey to the Government the feelings of Members on all sides and of the mass of the people of the country who believe that in these matters it is the duty and privilege of this country to set an example to the whole world.

7.20 p.m.

Mr. George Ward (Worcester)

I shall be brief, because I know very little about this case other than what I have read in the Press and heard tonight. I think we should all be grateful to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) for raising this extremely important question. The hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) said there were many Members on both sides of the House who felt strongly about this matter. I agree, and that is why I am surprised to find the House so empty on this occasion, and why the Government should think it sufficient that the War Office alone should be represented on the Front Bench and no one from the Foreign Office should be here. It is extraordinary, in view of the strong feeling there is in the country about the treatment of these unfortunate generals.

Mr. Stokes

I am sure the hon. Member does not wish to mislead the House. The House has had little opportunity of knowing that this subject would be raised tonight, as I only gave notice yesterday and it was not on the Whip.

Mr. Ward

I am sorry. I had the advantage of speaking to the hon. Member last night, and I assumed that others knew that this matter would be raised tonight.

I wish to ask two questions: First, why were these men handed over to the Americans? Why were they not transferred, if they were to be transferred to Germany in custody, in our custody, and not in American custody? Was it because we thought there was insufficient evidence to bring them to trial, or did not want to bring them to trial, and the Americans did? Might it not be a fact that the Americans, having got them in custody, decided that they, too, did not want to bring them to trial, and handed them back to us? Second, what time elapsed between the War Office medical board which examined these men and the Home Office medical board? I understand it was several months. Why was there any delay? Why were the medical boards not held in rapid succession? I consider that the whole of this business is highly discreditable to us as a country and to the Government as a Government. The Government have behaved with great weakness, and the quicker the matter is cleared up and fully explained the happier not only we in this House will be but people elsewhere in the country will be as well.

7.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) and other Members who have taken part in this Debate tonight have raised almost every aspect of this matter, and I hope the House will bear with me while I give a brief summary of the history of this case and comment on some of the points which have been put to me.

In the first place, I think it should be realized—and evidently it is not by all those who have spoken tonight—that this matter did not really come within the power of His Majesty's Government to decide until very nearly the end of last year. It was suggested by the hon. and gallant Member for Petersfield (Sir G. Jeffreys) that there have been no indications as to where the evidence against these men came from. I would ask the House to pay rather more attention than seems to have been done to the statement made last Session by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in which a great part of the delay was explained. It was not until August, 1947, that we were informed by the United States that their inquiries had produced evidence which would appear to support the very serious charges against these four men.

We made what seemed to us, and, I think, would seem to anyone, the reasonable suggestion that the United States authorities should include these four men, together with certain other suspected war criminals, in the trials which they were beginning in October of that year. The American authorities, however, replied that the indictment for that process was already complete, and that it would be unreasonable to delay it if these four men were to be added to those trials. That remedy, therefore, was not available. That answer was not given to us by the American authorities until the end of November, 1947. It was not until then that the matter actually came within the power of decision of His Majesty's Government.

Mr. Stokes

Can my hon. Friend explain why the Americans took until August, 1947, to send us this information, why they waited until the end of November before saying whether they could do it or not?

Mr. Stewart

It was because of the enormous complexity of the case: literally, thousands of documents were examined. What they provided in August was not the actual documents, but a memorandum based on those documents. Following the Nuremberg judgment there was a great mass of evidence to be gone through, and I think that that largely explains the delay in the earlier stages of this case.

The statement made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary emphasised that it was only during the period between December, 1947, and July of this year that a final decision was taken to bring these men to trial. It is only that period which is in question, if any criticism is made on the grounds of delay. That disposes of the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Petersfield as to the source of the evidence, although I must say that there are several nations—our Allies in the last war— who are concerned with the charges preferred against these men. I cannot accept the attitude which seems to be adopted by the hon. and gallant Member for Peters-field, that offences which might have been committed against our Allies are to be regarded as trivialities in comparison with the offences which might have been committed against our own men.

Sir G. Jeffreys

I did not suggest that offences against other than our own troops could be regarded as trivialities. What I did suggest was that evidence emanating from certain foreign sources would not be accepted as though it were from British sources.

Mr. Stewart

The hon. and gallant Member suggested that one reason for taking the course of action he is pressing on us was that very little was alleged in the way of offences against our own men. That is true, but we have obligations to our Allies in this matter, to which I will now refer. The Government decided this case, roughly, from December, 1947; reaching a decision involved two types of inquiry, one of which was a legal inquiry. We had to consider whether evidence which had been brought to us was or was not sufficient to support a prima facie case. That was not an easy question, which could be answered in a hurry. It was a matter to which protracted consideration had to be given. If it had been a medical question alone we might have been able to reach a decision more speedily.

The facts about the medical examinations which my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich had asked with such commendable pertinacity over a considerable period are these: In January of this year the War Office doctors examined these men. Their terms of reference were, "Would trial adversely affect the health of these men?" which my hon. Friend will notice is not the same question as whether they were fit to stand trial. Possibly it is arguable that time and trouble would have been saved if that other question had been put to them in the first place, but the question was, "Would trial adversely affect the health of these men?" The answer in the cases of the four was, "Yes, it would." Then in April there was an examination by Home Office doctors.

Mr. Stokes

May 1 press this point because my own information is different. I agree that there is a difference between "adversely affect" and "unfit" but did not the doctors go on to say they were unfit to stand their trial?

Mr. Stewart

No. I want to make it perfectly clear that at no time have the War Office said that the men were unfit to stand trial. The reports my hon. Friend has heard are a distortion of what I told the House just now.

Brigadier Head

This has one more important aspect. The terms of reference were, "Would trial adversely affect the health of these men?" Everyone knows that a person's health is affected if he is standing on trial for his life. Therefore, it seems to me that any doctor, who has a sense of responsibility, is not going to say, "Yes, it would adversely affect their health," because that is obvious. What largely is the point is, "Would it so adversely affect their lives as to endanger those lives?" It must be on the basis of that kind of answer that it is considered whether they are fit to stand trial. Otherwise it would be a mere platitude. It would be the same as asking, "If you run in a race would you get tired?" and the answer is, "Yes."

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the conclusion reached was that these men were unfit to stand trial. I repeat that with the exception of one of them at no time was a decision reached by War Office doctors that three out of these four men were unfit to stand trial. Of course, the report from the War Office doctors did not only answer that particular question. The answer is very nearly self-evident. Their report contains a full statement of the medical condition of these men. It is noteworthy that when in April they were examined by Home Office doctors there was no difference in the judgment of the War Office, and the Home Office doctors as to the actual condition of these men. However, in April there was this further question, "Are these men fit to stand trial?" and the answer was that all of them were fit except Brauchitsch. Meanwhile, while this medical inquiry was going on, the legal aspect of the case had also been examined and it was. therefore, by July—

Mr. Ward

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, I should like to ask why there was a delay between the times when the War Office doctors and the Home Office doctors carried out their examination. Why was there a delay between January and April?

Mr. Stokes

Why was a second inspection by doctors necessary at all?

Mr. Stewart

The second inspection was considered necessary, because it was felt that this was an important case and it was important that no one should have even the slightest ground for suggesting that an attempt was being made to burke the whole issue on medical grounds. It was realised then, on a further examination, that one of the vital questions, the question of fitness to stand trial, still required a definite answer. As to the question of the months between January and April, I think I am correct in saying it would have meant no serious difference to the proceedings as the legal inquiry had still to be gone through. On the medical question I would add this: it was also agreed in April that if any further considerable period elapsed between that time and their being brought to trial, a re-examination would be necessary. The position at the moment is—

Mr. Wardrose

Mr. Stewart

No, I cannot give way again.

The position at the moment is that three of these men have been considered fit to stand trial, though the health of Rundstedt is now very much open to question. They will not, of course, be brought to trial if at the relevant time competent medical opinion is that they are unfit to stand it, but if competent medical opinion considers they are fit to stand trial, then it is the intention to persevere with the decision reached in July this year to bring them to trial. When that decision was reached they were, as hon. Members pointed out, sent to Germany and demilitarised.

On this question of demilitarisation I am surprised that so many hon. Members should have questioned that procedure, because that again was explained—and I think in the mind of any unbiased person adequately explained—by the Foreign Secretary when he made his statement on the matter. It was a necessary procedure in order to comply with the Quadripartite Agreement on the disbandment of the Wehrmacht. This procedure was carried through in a great many other cases, as hon. Members—

Mr. Stokes

It is not in accordance with the Geneva Convention

Mr. Stewart

I will take up that question in a moment. If hon. Members have discovered something unsatisfactory in this procedure they have left it rather late in the day to discover it

Mr. Nigel Birch (Flint)

We have mentioned it hundreds of times

Mr. Stewart

They were war criminals and procedure necessarily follows from the Quadripartite Agreement. As to the Geneva Convention, these men are not now prisoners of war. The offences with which they are charged are not offences which were alleged to have been corn mined at times when they were prisoners of war. The fact that they may have been prisoners of war in the intervening period does not bar the proceedings which it is now proposed to take

Mr. Stokes

The Geneva Convention lays down quite clearly that a prisoner of war must remain a prisoner of war until peace is declared, unless he is sent back to his own country and properly demobilised by his own country That procedure has not been followed, and I have protested against it hundreds of times in regard to corporals. privates and goodness knows whom.

Mr. Stewart

These men have been sent to their own country and in view of the fact that the Wehrmacht has ceased to exist, they are now being tried in accordance with the procedure of war criminals used in so many other questions

Mr. Stokes

A quibble.

Mr. Stewart

I should like to draw the attention of the House to the main reasons for reaching the decision to bring these men to trial. Before embarking on that decision, I should like to say that I am very well aware of the disquiet which is felt by many people in the country and which has been voiced by many hon. Members tonight. This was not an easy matter to decide. One could have said, are these men not in poor health and would it not be better simply to set the whole question aside and not bring them to trial? Against that we have to weigh these very considerable matters. First, the extreme gravity of the offences alleged against them for which there was a prima faciecase. The offences are against not only our own countrymen but those of our Allies.

The second point has already been mentioned this evening, but I do not think sufficient weight has been given to it, namely, that already subordinates of these men have been brought to trial, convicted and punished for offences similar to those alleged against these four men. We had, therefore, to weigh up the questions of justice and morality. It might be said that it was harsh and vindictive to bring these men to trial after so long a period. I have already dealt with that question and how that period of delay arose, and I have shown that by far the greater part of it did not lie within the power of the Government at all. On the other hand, was it not repugnant to justice that subordinate officers should have been punished for offences of this type and that these men, simply on the ground of superior military rank, should be regarded as exempt from such proceedings?

Mr. Stokes

I never suggested it.

Mr. Stewart

I am bound to say that that is what some of the arguments have very nearly amounted to. It has been suggested that if an officer was actually on the spot when some outrage against humanity and the laws of war occurred there is a clear case against him. If that is so, are we to say that because an officer of a higher rank who gave explicit orders that that kind of thing should be done, who knew that it was being done and who was content that it should continue to be done, was not there on the spot to see it done, the mere fact of his physical absence is to exempt him from any guilt in the matter? I think the House will agree that since we are discussing crimes which are merely alleged against these men and which it will be for a court to determine, I cannot pursue that aspect of the matter further.

A third reason, to which not sufficient attention has been given in this Debate, is that which was given by the Foreign Secretary. It is that His Majesty's Government are under a very clear obligation to hand these men over to certain other Governments, Allies of ours in the recent war, unless we bring these men to trial before a British tribunal. It would be extremely difficult in law or otherwise to refrain from trying these men or from handing them over to other Governments who have preferred serious charges against them.

I would ask hon. Members, despite their very natural human feelings in this matter, to give consideration to the three grounds which I have just advanced: the great and undoubted gravity of the offences alleged against these men; the treatment already meted out to certain of their subordinates; the obligation under which we are to hand the men over to certain other Governments if we do not bring them to trial ourselves.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)rose

Mr. Stewart

I cannot give way for the moment. I believe that when hon. Members have given proper and due consideration to those points they will come to the conclusion that, distasteful as it was, the decision to bring these men to trial was right.

Mr. Hale

When I rose just now I wished to say that I am sure that we all want to thank my hon. Friend for the full, able and moderate way in which he is presenting his case. I would like to deal with a point which is exercising us very much. He referred to the complexity of the case and to the fact that it involves legal issues which it has taken five months to determine, that thousands of documents have been gone through and that masses of witnesses have had to be seen. What possible facilities can there be for the defence to attempt to refute the allegations if their investigations have to be spread over a long period in order to prepare a defence on behalf of these aged men who have spent three years in captivity? How many years will the defence be given in order to make the necessary investigations?

Mr. Stewart

With regard to the opportunities given to the defence I think the House has already been informed that these men will be defended by German counsel of their choice, or failing any decision on that point, by counsel whom we shall endeavour to provide for them and who will be appropriate to the task. I am bound to say that both for prosecution and defence it will be a lengthy and laborious job. I am not a lawyer and have no expert knowledge, but I think it is correct to say that the main difficulty will be one for the prosecution, in extracting from the great mass of material that which is properly relevant and can be established as a proper case. The difficulties of the prosecution will, in my judgment, be very much greater than those of the defence. Of course, in this case as in other criminal trials, the burden of proof will lie on the prosecution. Since this matter is, in a sense, sub judiceI do not think the House will wish me to pursue it further.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

One point which the hon. Gentleman has not yet dealt with was put by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes). Is it the case that no charge has yet been preferred against these officers and that they have not yet been informed of what it is they are to be charged with?

Mr. Stewart

It is the case, as was stated by the Foreign Secretary, that these men have been furnished with a short statement of the general charges to be preferred against them. The matter has not, according to the latest information I have, gone further than that. There are still a great many points to which I have not yet referred and to which I hope to refer if I am able to continue

I was saying that although some hon. Members may not agree with this decision I would ask them at least to believe, that if there are reasons of feeling and emotion that lead people to suppose that this was a wrong decision, there are also very grave reasons both of justice and policy in favour of the Government's decision. It would not be correct to suggest that this decision has been taken lightly or because of muddle, or that we are now attempting to brazen out a decision that ought never to have been taken. The decision was reached very carefully after a diligent weighing of very grave arguments on both sides. I must again express the opinion that I think it was a right decision.

I would add this. It was a Government decision—here I take up the first point which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes)—and that explains partly why I am answering here tonight. It is not a decision which can be laid particularly at the door of the Foreign Office, the War Office or of any one Government department. It is a Government decision, but of course it is a decision which has to be implemented by the War Office, since upon us has been laid the responsibility of preparing and conducting the trial of war criminals. It seems to me appropriate that the War Department should be replying to the question which my hon. Friend has raised.

I do not think I need take too seriously the—if I may say so-common form indignation that was expressed in some quarters at the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich will know that the practice of using the Adjournment is very much more frequent in this Parliament than it has been in its predecessors. The burdens which fall upon Ministers are very great, and hon. Members cannot therefore expect that on every occasion when matters are raised in the House the senior Minister of the Department will be present to deal with it.

Mr. Stokes

I am not complaining that he is not here. I said that it was a bad opening for the new Session that the Minister did not come himself. The real fact is that the Ministers never come themselves.

Mr. Stewart

I am not at all sure whether I follow my hon. Friend. He began his interruption by saying he was not complaining, but at the end of it he seemed as though he was complaining. I do not think there is adequate ground for his complaint.

I have now dealt with the time-table of this matter and with the reasons for the decision. I think we are now left with the question of the conditions under which these men are kept, to which some reference, not very prolonged, was made by some hon. Members. We had to consider, when we were faced with the responsibility of looking after these men as prisoners who were to be tried as war criminals, the danger of one or more of them committing suicide, more particularly as medical reports in some instances suggested possible suicidal tendencies. We should have been held culpable if we had allowed that to occur. On the other hand, the precautions against it, the supervision, the provision of lights, are themselves liable to criticism. We have endeavoured to hold the balance reasonably between excessive supervision, on the one hand, and carelessness on the other. We have decided recently that, on the whole, it is desirable to relax the supervision that we practised originally.

Brigadier Head

Why? It seems to me that the decision as to what supervision there should be, was made and, when there was an outcry in the Press at the way in which these men have been treated, the system was changed. Is that fortuitous or is there any connection between the two?

Mr. Stewart

Certainly there is a connection between the two, but when the hon. and gallant Member says that the system has been changed, that is an overstatement. What has happened has been a modification of certain of the conditions. I make no bones about saying that that modification was made partly in view of the criticisms that had been made. It is perfectly legitimate to observe the current of public opinion, whether it is expressed in this House or in the Press, and to consider what action we can take to meet that criticism, but the changes did not have to be very great.

Mr. Stokes

Enormous changes.

Mr. Stewart

No, I cannot agree with the hon. Member.

Brigadier Head


Mr. Stewart

Take, for example, the lights in the rooms of these men. The public were informed by one letter in the Press that all these men had a light in their rooms day and night. I do not know what impression most people formed on reading that account, but I found that the actual position was that the light was a 15 watt, blue-shaded lamp, with the exception of two officers who had themselves requested a lamp of higher power. I would suggest that the first phrase used in the Press—" They had a light in their rooms day and night "—was bound to be misleading and would not give the reader the true picture of the facts. The position now is that the only lights provided are such as the men may themselves request. They were moved to the hospital at Hamburg where they are now. Their families are located in the same building. so that there is no difficulty about their visiting them. I may say that the men themselves have written a letter to the Area Commander in Hamburg expressing their appreciation of the way in which they are looked after.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich referred to certain suggestions he had made in a recent letter addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I gather that he did not want me now to go into great detail and answer that. However I will say that we shall certainly look into some of the suggestions he makes, particularly the one about the interpreter. I would draw the attention of the House to this, that these men are already being looked after under conditions very much more favourable than any of their predecessors as suspected war criminals, and there must be some limit beyond which we cannot go in the making of further concessions.

I am sorry to have taken up so much of the time of the House. If I have not persuaded all hon. Members that the decision of the Government has been right in this matter, I hope I have answered many of the questions of fact which have been worrying a number of hon. Members, and that I have suggested that there is substantial reason for the decision which the Government have taken.

Mr. Stokes

May I ask my hon. Friend this question before he sits down? The Secretary of State said that the high executive forwarded a memorandum summarising the evidence on which the Government based their decision. Is my hon. Friend aware that these men have now been three months in close detention, having had nothing but a general 18 B charge sheet shown to them? Why have they not had a copy of the memorandum? If the charges are so clear, why cannot they be told of the charges against them?

Mr. Stewart

I did comment on that when I was speaking earlier. I will take up that point as to whether a full and proper statement cannot be given to these men.

Mr. Molson

Before the hon. Gentleman resumes his seat, may I put one point with which he has not dealt. Why were these men handed over to the Americans when they were moved back to Germany, and then handed over by the Americans to the British authorities in Hamburg?

Mr. Stewart

I am sorry, but I must tell the hon. Member frankly that I am not in a position at the moment to answer that question.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. Birch

I think my hon. Friend, and I daresay many other hon. Members in other parts of the House, have been profoundly disappointed by what the hon. Gentleman has said. He seems in some way to resent criticism—

Mr. Stokes


Mr. Birch

—and, if I may say so, to be a little complacent on this matter. He said that it was quite right for the Government to pay attention to legitimate criticism. That is perfectly true, but it is also extremely important for the Government to act rightly and not to wait until, by criticism, they are forced to do right—or, anyway, not to do as badly as they were doing before. And to say that these men may be treated better than their predecessors is not a good answer. The deduction from that is that their predecessors were also treated wrongly.

Mr. Stewart

I cannot agree that such a deduction is legitimate. In my judgment, when dealing with war criminals we have generally provided conditions of detention that are appropriate, and we are entitled, in view of the criticisms that have been made, to draw attention to the fact that in the case of these men we have already made a considerable number of extra concessions.

Mr. Birch

All I was pointing out was that if the concessions were appropriate to these officers, they were appropriate to people before. The hon. Gentleman said that he only made concessions as a result of criticisms, and I was saying that it would have been better to do the right thing straight away.

There were three main grounds on which the hon. Gentleman defended the Government action and inaction over these last three and a half years. The first was the gravity of the offences. After three and a half years, in spite of these grave offences—and the graver they are, the quicker one would have thought they would come to light—we still do not know what they are. Secondly—and this is a most important point—he said it would be unfair not to try these men because their subordinates had already been tried for carrying out their orders. I have no doubt that is true, but, if it is true, surely it means that every action of these officers must have already been examined most carefully before their subordinates were brought to trial? Therefore, all the facts on which this indictment must be based have been used already in other trials, so why is it that these men could not have been tried before?

The third argument which the hon. Gentleman used is one which is always used by Members of the Government, the argument about international agreements. All the wicked, devilish things we have done over de-nazification, arrestable categories, and so on have been done as a result of international agreements. If we enter into an agreement which goes against the rules of law and the rules of humanity and the laws of war, that agreement has not any equity value. We should not uphold it; we should not allow these things to happen. We are supposed to have fought for the reign of law. Yet what happens to these men? The reign of law, as far as the treatment of prisoners of war is concerned, means the observance of the Geneva Convention. Yet we deliberately blink at that Convention with the excuse that we are really the government of Germany and therefore the matter does not arise.

The hon. Gentleman said no protest had been made against this before, but again and again protests have been made, particularly with regard to the treatment of prisoners of war.

Mr. Stokes

Hear, hear.

Mr. Birch

The question of the Geneva Convention having been got round by discreditable means has been raised again and again in this House, and no proper answer has been given to it. The only thing that cheers me up about all this is that at last everybody— including the Army and everyone in the Commission of whatever rank, and civilians in this country— feels outraged in this matter. I, the hon. Member for Ipswich, and many others have tried to stir up the conscience of this country about many of the things we have been doing, and we have been unsuccessful, but at last even the people who have stood out so far are beginning to be angry. That at any rate is something.

The reason why, in my opinion, people have put up with outrages of law and equity and mercy all this time is because the wickedness of the Nazis, the wickedness of the S.S., and so on, is a thing which has affected everybody We have all drunk up certain pollutions from them. I think it is impossible, when any crimes are committed, for other people to be completely unaffected. I was reading only the other day from Jung, the psychologist, who said a very profound thing. He said that even a saint would have to pray in order not to be affected by the wickedness of the S.S., and I think that is true. Not many of us are saints, a great many people do not pray, and the result is that they have been affected by all these wickednesses; they have thrown away their standards— the sort of standard upheld by my father who was a professional soldier, and we have behaved like this.

The depressing thing about what the hon. Gentleman has said is that he does not confess to that and say we have made a mess of it. He just goes on hiding behind the Quadripartite Agreement, saying it was a muddle but not a very big muddle, that only one of the generals had died, and so on. On and on it goes and meanwhile the guilt piles up. These things will have to be paid for. Evil always has to be paid for and it will be paid for, not only morally, but, I am very certain, practically in the results in Germany.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

Including the atom bomb?

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

I am extremely sorry that I have not been here during the whole of this Debate. I did not know it was on or I should have been here. I am very grateful for this opportunity of expressing the sentiments which I feel very strongly indeed on this subject. We have done a lot of very indecent things since the war. The ground of those indecent things has generally been the Quadripartite Agreement. Surely, something has happened since then, something in our relationships with the Russians, which should at least relieve us of the duty of having to be indecent on their behalf any longer?

The trial of these Germans—I am not going into the rights and wrongs of it—offends every sense of good taste in this country. It is something which has, at last, really roused the people in this country to a sense of indecency. Surely, it is not, even now, too late to stop? After all, the good will of the people in Germany is now of some importance to us. To put it on the lowest possible grounds, what effect does this performance have upon the sentiments of Germans? It is a crowning piece of arrogant power of a conqueror. Do we want to go and do that sort of thing now? Not only is it morally indecent, it is political folly; and for Heaven's sake, since we have set out on a wrong road, let us have the good sense to turn round and come back again.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Four Minutes past Eight o'Clock.