HC Deb 20 October 1975 vol 898 cc205-14

11.50 p.m.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

I should declare an interest in this subject on two counts. The first might be said to be on the family side, since in May 1941 Hess asked to see my father, whom he had never met before, or after, May 1941. The second interest could be called a business interest since I once put together a book called "The Story behind Hess's Flight to Britain". I regret to have to tell the Minister that mat book is now out of print, but I believe that there is a copy in the Library.

I am following a well-worn path in this matter since my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has raised the question in the past many times, and I wish to be associated with the untiring efforts he has pursued so well, yet so far without positive response elicited from the Russian Government. I am therefore raising the matter again now. Apart from that, there is a rumour that Russia is considering releasing this 81-year-old sole inmate of Spandau in exchange for establishing a Nazi war crimes centre. I should like to know from the Minister whether there is any truth in that rumour, reported on the front page of the Daily Telegraph—whether he can confirm the facts as they are at present, and state the Government's position.

It is no part of my case to suggest that Hess was other than a dedicated fanatical and ruthless Nazi Party leader. The case for clemency in 1975 does not rest on any alleged innocence during the Night of the Long Knives, or, indeed, on any claim to ignorance of the impending attack on Russia. All the evidence would suggest that he was fully implicated in both episodes, as well as in many of Hitler's crimes.

At the Nuremberg war crimes trial, Hess was charged on four counts: first, crimes against peace; second, war crimes; third, crimes against humanity; fourth, having a common plan or conspiracy to commit those crimes. At the end of the trial, he was found guilty on charges 1 and 2, that is, crimes against peace and war crimes, and not guilty on charges 3 and 4, that is, crimes against humanity and having a common plan or conspiracy to commit those crimes. Lord Justice Lawrence imposed upon Hess a sentence of life imprisonment, and of all the judges, representing France, America and Britain and Russia, only the Soviet judge, Major-General Nikitchenko dissented, saying that the appropriate sentence was death.

It is not for me to go into the merits of the case before the Nuremberg judges. I merely state as a matter of fact that the British, French and American judges considered that the appropriate sentence was one of life imprisonment, and Hess was sent to Spandau prison, with the other Nazi war criminals. Gradually, one by one, all the other war criminals were released, until eventually only three remained, the Nazi youth leader Schirach, the Nazi Minister for Armaments, Speer, and Hess. On Friday 30th September 1966, nine years ago, Schirach and Speer were released. Since then, the British, American, French and Russian soldiers have been guarding Hess in rotation. We have had 26 soldiers representing Britain guarding him for one month in four.

Hess is now 81, and since May 1941 he has been held in captivity, a total of 44 years. About 30 of those years have been in Spandau, and nine in solitary confinement. For a man in his 80s, who is now in doubtful health, solitary confinement for a protracted period is a barbarous type of punishment and one in which, I suggest, no British Government should voluntarily be implicated.

The present situation gives rise to a number of questions. First, is Hess a danger to anybody at this stage? All the evidence suggests that he is not, and I suggest that if he were released, after the initial burst of publicity he would fade into the background in the same way as Raeder and Doenitz did. Second, does it serve any useful purpose to keep him in Spandau prison guarded by a large number of soldiers? It would seem that, far from serving any useful purpose, it imposes on the soldiers a dull and denigrating duty.

Third, is there any symbolic value in keeping him in Spandau? The view of the Russian military is said to be that, as Russia lost between 20 and 25 million citizens during the War, Hess should be kept in Spandau as a symbol. But a symbol can be regarded in many ways and in Germany the fact that he is kept in prison has resulted in a widespread mood of sympathy and three books of letters he has written to his wife have sold better than any of the works on German resistance to Hitler. It is undesirable to create a widespread movement of sympathy for a Nazi war leader instead of releasing him.

As the Government are engaged in contacts with the Soviet authorities, it is relevant that there has been no recent evidence of the Government making a strong and unequivocal statement to the Soviet authorities that Hess should be released. Is the Minister prepared to commit the Government to that policy in public? He kindly wrote to me saying that it remained the Government's policy to release Hess. I would be grateful if he could underline that policy tonight.

One can feel compassion for even the most hardened criminal when he is no longer a danger to society. The only reason for Hess's imprisonment is the intransigence of the Russians, and I hope that those who have an interest in Russia, like the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Group, will join in uring the Russians to change their mind. I do not believe that any hon. Member would willingly accede to the continued imprisonment in solitary confinement of a man of 81 who is in doubtful health and who, whatever his past crimes, is no longer a danger to society. After all, a life sentence in this country can mean only 10 years, with remission. As we are responsible for Hess's detention for one-quarter of the time, can we not join with America and France in making a strong plea that Hess should be released?

In his "History of the Second World War", Sir Winston Churchill said, in the third volume, I am glad not to be responsible for the way Hess has been and is being treated. He wrote many other words on the same subject, but he wrote that passage in January 1950. If he felt that strongly then, would he not feel even more strongly 25 years later? I hope that the Minister will be as direct as was Winston Churchill with the Russian Government.

11.58 p.m.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and assure him that his plea is echoed by many on this side.

It is almost 30 years since Ernest Bevin, the then Foreign Secretary, rattled his advisers by asking, "What are we going to do about 'ess?" The advisers ran this way and that, wondering what top secret agent had the code name "S".

My right hon. Friend who is replying tonight is better informed. Ernest Bevin is dead, but Hess is still alive—if we can call it life—in Spandau. He has been incarcerated for the past 34 years, first after his flight to Scotland, latterly in Spandau and, for the past nine years, in solitary confinement. It is essentially a cruel, inhumane punishment and an absurdity. Even at the time of his trial he may have been a medical and not a criminal case. Albert Speer, with whom I have had several long conversations since his release, found Hess a very strange customer and he and Schirach got to know him as well as anyone. Perhaps he is, and has been for a long time, not altogether sane. In that case his imprisonment now is as cruel as it is unnecessary. But let us suppose him sane and fit to reflect on the monstrous crimes which the Nazi leadership plotted and perpetrated. Even then, after 34 years, have we had retribution enough? Hess is not a martyr yet, but he may become one if he remains in jail for the rest of his natural life, in the eyes of a generation which knew nothing of the crimes in which he was involved.

The punishment of the war criminals at Nuremberg is not to be measured in years. As Albert Speer has written, to the sane man, what he heard and saw at his indictment has outlasted the verdict of the court.

We are told that the Russians could possibly now consider some fresh approach to the problem of Spandau. The problem of Spandau is not inextricably linked with Hess, but Hess is mortal.

I hope that my right hon. Friend can give an assurance that he can make a fresh approach to the Russian military authorities on this point.

12.2 a.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) is to be congratulated on having raised this subject tonight, and also on having set the scene for his call for Government action and for describing the Government's attitude so clearly. There are some things about Rudolf Hess that we do not know and perhaps never will. We do not know why he flew to Scotland on 10th May 1941. Perhaps he did not know exactly himself, but for the rest of the war he was imprisoned. When the war ended he, with other Nazis, was tried in Nuremberg in 1945 and he appeared before an international military tribunal which the allies had established.

He was convicted of the less serious charges, the charges of crimes against peace, and as a result of that conviction was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to serve that term in Spandau gaol. He has been there for 34 years. The last nine of those have been spent as the lone prisoner in that gaol. He is now 81 and if the sentence is carried out in full he will remain the sole prisoner in that gaol for the rest of his life.

The Government have tonight been asked to make a specific and categorical statement of our position as to his continued imprisonment, so let me leave the House in no doubt whatever. It is the Government's belief, for reasons of compassion, that Hess should be released and released now. Were it within our power we should release him tomorrow. It is, however, my gloomy duty to tell the House that whilst we believe, for reasons of compassion—and I emphasise that because I want neither to dispute nor to agree with the contentions that there are reasons for releasing him as for keeping him prisoner—that he should be released at the first opportunity, that is not within our power if we are to maintain our international obligations and keep faith with our international treaties.

The view that he should be released is not held simply by the Government of Great Britain. Two of the other parties to the quadripartite agreements—France and the United States—have joined with Britain in urging clemency on the fourth party to the agreement, the Soviet Union. Whilst on occasion we have done it together, there have been numerous other occasions on which Great Britain has made individual approaches. I assure the noble Lord that we shall draw the attention of the Russian Ambassador to tonight's debate.

I told Mr. Hess's son when I saw him some months ago that when the time was ripe I would make another approach to the Government of the Soviet Union. The fact that the matter has been aired in the House tonight makes this an admirable opportunity for the next approach to be made. But while we shall make it with all the eloquence and force at our disposal I would be wrong to encourage the House, and cruel to encourage Rudolf Hess's relations, to believe that there was much possibility of the Soviet Union's changing its established position, because on this matter the Soviet Government have been totally inflexible for the past 10 years.

I do not find it easy to explain why the Soviet Government take up the position they do. Perhaps it is not for me to judge the accuracy or inaccuracy of their judgments on the question. There have been occasions on which they have seemed to be showing some flexibility and leniency towards prisoners in Spandau. Two were released before their terms of imprisonment were concluded, though it is true to say that both of them were seriously ill.

When we last made approaches to the Soviet Union we were told that Hess would become the focal point of a resurgent Nazi spirit and organisation. We were told that as Deputy Führer he had borne special responsibility for the deaths of many millions of citizens of the Soviet Union, and that Russian public opinion would neither understand nor tolerate his release. I emphasise that I do no more than describe those replies to previous initiatives. I certainly do not endorse them. I describe them in order that the noble Lord and my hon. Friend may realise that there is no certainty of success, no matter how strong our pressure, for the compassionate action that we believe to be right.

Belief in the necessity to release Hess for humanitarian reasons is not held simply by the Government in which I serve. It was held by the previous Government and the Government before that. I am sure that those Governments were pressed, as the present Government certainly have been on one or two occasions, to take unilateral action, to let Hess return to his family during the time when the British commandant and guard are in command at Spandau prison. I must tell the House that we could not possibly do that. If we did, we should flout a solemn agreement between Her Majesty's Government, the United States of America, the Soviet Union and France.

The Nuremberg Tribunal, established by formal agreement between the Governments, was something to which we were formally committed in international law. The charter of that military tribunal clearly states that it is the responsibility of the Control Council for Germany—the Four Powers—to reduce or alter sentences. The Four Powers act by quadripartite agreement in a number of things. They acted in that way when Spandau Prison was chosen, and they did so in drawing up regulations to govern the way in which prisoners live in that prison. It is also the way in which the techniques and methods by which prisoners should be guarded have been changed since the original sentences and incarceration. It is not possible for Her Majesty's Government to pretend that we do not have legal responsibilities to carry out those agreements, and without total acceptance by all parties, adjustments of the sort that I would like to see, and that which the noble Lord recommended, cannot be made.

There is a little more to it than the obligation that I hold dear that the British Government should observe their international responsibilities. In Berlin the whole Western position depends on the success of and respect for the Four Power agreements, agreements similar to those which concern Spandau Prison and the incarceration of Rudolf Hess. The three Western Powers have always respected the agreements governing Berlin scrupulously. We have regarded it as right and expedient to maintain the strong legal position so that there was never a legitimate reason for the Soviet Union to interfere in the government of what are the sectors of that city controlled by France, the United States and Great Britain. I believe that to begin unilaterally unravelling the quadripartite agreements now would lead to serious dangers and possible repercussions in Berlin. Her Majesty's Government could not act unilaterally in the matter and we do not believe that were we to attempt to do so or contemplate doing so, we would be supported by the Governments of France or the United States.

Let me make it absolutely clear that there is no hope at the moment of the rumour to which reference has been made turning into fact, thereby allowing Rudolf Hess to return to his family. I think that the story appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Friday or Saturday of last week. In fact, we had heard of it earlier in the year. We had heard it from Church sources, and like the other Powers concerned with the imprisonment of Hess, we made immediate investigations to see whether the rumour was right. We found that it was not.

I cannot tell the noble Lord whether we would have responded positively or negatively to such a proposition had it been made. It is a matter that we would have considered very carefully. However, since it was rumour and not fact the situation does not arise.

I do not believe that we can make a unilateral declaration on the grounds of incapacity or sickness. The noble Lord suggested that Rudolf Hess was in less than good health, but I am advised that his health is remarkably good for a man of 81 years who has been imprisoned for 34 years. I believe that it would be a breach of an international obligation were we to pretend that matters of health required him to leave prison to return to his family. In the past when he has gone into hospital for necessary and proper medical treatment we have been scrupulous in ensuring that the obligations we have to the other Powers have been observed and that they knew he was leaving prison whilst treatment took place. What we can do is to make a further approach to the Government of the Soviet Union. That we shall do, and we shall make it in the spirit of the declaration that I have tried to make tonight—namely, in the most positive and unequivocal terms. I believe that Hess should now be released from Spandau Prison.

Question put and ageed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Twelve o'clock