HL Deb 11 July 1856 vol 143 cc632-9

Your Lordships will, I hope, allow me, even at this hour, to say a few words explaining the object which I have had in view in putting the question to my noble Friend (the Earl of Clarendon) of which I have given notice. In a recent publication by an eminent foreign statesman, Count Montalembert, he complains in strong terms of the course pursued by the late Congress of Paris in censuring the Governments of Naples and Greece, and he contrasts that course with the silence which prevailed relative to the wrongs of Poland, which, he says, the Congress would have been justified in taking notice of, both diplomatically and morally, in consequence of the ancient treaties entered into with that country. He enlarges with his usual eloquence upon this subject. My Lords, I am compelled to admit that, as far as appears upon the face of the protocols, there is nothing whatever to show that the affairs of Poland were at all brought under the consideration of the Congress; but I know my noble Friend; opposite too well, and I have too high an opinion of his manly and generous character, to suppose for a moment that he could have been silent on such a subject. I am persuaded that such a silence would have been impossible for him. Allow me to recall some of the past circumstances connected with this question. The Congress of Paris represented the Sovereigns, who were also represented in the Congress of Vienna, in 1815. We know very well that one of the most important subjects considered at the Congress of Vienna was the arrangement made with respect to Poland. That subject underwent great and anxious consideration. After a long struggle it was agreed that the duchy of Warsaw should be raised into a kingdom, and that the Crown should be conferred upon the Emperor of Russia for the time being. This arrangement was come to upon the express and distinct condition which was insisted upon with great earnestness by all the parties to the treaty, and perhaps with greater earnestness by Lord Castlereagh than by any one else. The conditions of the arrangement were, that Poland should remain a separate kingdom, that it should never be incorporated with the Russian empire, that its national institutions should be preserved, that it should have a representative assembly, and that the administration of the financial department and of the army should always be kept distinct. These were the terms finally settled by the Congress of Vienna, and which it was thought absolutely necessary to impose. The Emperor Alexander swore to the observance of these conditions. The Emperor Nicholas also swore to the observance of the constitution; but afterwards, regardless of the earnest remonstrances of the allies, regardless of the oath he had taken, he incorporated the territory of Poland in the empire of Russia, making it an integral part of that empire. From that period until his death the Emperor Nicholas passed a series of laws the object of which was to extinguish the Polish name and Character. The works of art in the palace at Warsaw were transferred to St. Petersburg. The two universities of Warsaw and Wilna were totally abolished. The national schools were either abolished or remodelled. Many thousands of the inferior order of nobles were transported to distant parts of the Russian empire. The language of Russia was ordered to be used in administering the laws throughout the whole of Lithuania, and it was ordered that in every school of the empire there should be some person to instruct the people in the Russian language. The Polish dress was prohibited, and all the inferior orders were commanded to wear the Russian dress. All these circumstances must have been present to my noble Friend at the time of the Congress, and the more so that last year, before the war terminated, the allied Powers were engaged in forming a Polish Legion which was to have been commanded by the most eminent of the Polish exiles. My Lords, under these circumstances it is impossible to suppose that my noble Friend opposite could have been silent on the subject t to which I have referred. I have no doubt that he must have brought this subject under the view of the Plenipotentiaries of Russia at the Congress, and that he must have earnestly remonstrated on the subject. I entertain no doubt as to the course which my noble Friend pursued; but I fear the result has been unsatisfactory, and that no beneficial issue has resulted from the representations of my noble Friend. So far from that being the case, the Government of Russia has taken elaborate pains—if I may so express myself—to furnish proof, for the purpose of convincing Europe and the inhabitants of Poland that she will not allow any intervention with respect to that territory or with respect to the mode in which it is governed. I refer to what has recently taken place at Warsaw upon the occasion of the entry of the Emperor into that place, and to the language which he held to the two assemblies who met him to welcome him. Upon that occasion he addressed the nobles and the clergy in a speech which was very short, very precise, and very emphatic. He said nothing would induce him to depart from the policy of his predecessors with respect to Poland. He said it was for the interest of Russia that Poland should form part of the Russian empire—of the Russian family. He added, that it was also for the interest of Poland. This was followed by murmurs. He said— Entertain no illusions; or, if you do entertain illusions, let them only lead to noble aspirations; for if they go beyond that I, who can reward can punish. I know how to punish, and, if necessity occur, I will punish. Above all," he said, concluding his speech, "no visionary dreams—no visionary dreams. Nothing could be more marked than this speech—nothing more marked than the policy he intended to adopt; and I must regret, whatever passed between my noble Friend and the Plenipotentiaries at the Congress, that it was attended with no beneficial results. But this is only one part of the subject to which I have to call your Lordships' attention. My noble Friend expressed at the Congress a strong and earnest desire that an amnesty should be granted by the King of Naples for political offenders. It is impossible to suppose for a moment that my noble Friend should not at the same time have urged in the strongest terms the desirability of granting an amnesty for the Poles. My noble Friend gives no sign of assent at this moment, but I am persuaded my noble Friend must have urged the necessity of that amnesty. My Lords, what is called an amnesty has in truth been granted. What is called, I say, for it "keeps the word of promise to the ear, but breaks it to the hope." Everything which deserves to be called an amnesty should be of a comprehensive character—of a generous character. It should be precise in its terms. As to exceptions, they should be distinct and clear, and the exceptions should be of such a nature as to be justified in the opinion of the world. Try this amnesty by this test. It is stated that those persons who partook of its benefits on their return to Poland shall be free from indictment and prosecution. But under what circumstances are they to return? What are the limitations surrounding it? Every person who desires to return shall in the first instance present a petition. He must state in that petition under what circumstances he left the territory of Russia, and he must state minutely everything which has occurred to him from that period down to the moment of his petition. If the officer of the Government is satisfied with this explanation, then only is he permitted to avail himself of the amnesty; his civil rights are restored. But, my Lords, we all know and we all remember, that there was a sweeping confiscation of the property of all emigrants. Not a single word is said about the restoration of property or any part of it; so that a man who is allowed to return, returns houseless, distressed, outcast, and penniless. Such is the amnesty, so far as the return to the country is concerned. But what is his situation after his return? He is to be for three years under the surveillance of the police. Everybody knows and feels what must be the position of a person for three years under the surveillance of the Russian police. If after the expiration of that time, the report is favourable, he is then allowed to be a candidate for official employment. What are the exceptions? Exceptions, my Lords, as I stated before, should be precise and well-defined. These exceptions are most vague and unsatisfactory. I find that no person shall be allowed to return who has exhibited a spirit of hostility against the Russian Government; and who is to decide upon what may be a spirit of hostility against the Russian Government? The officers of the Russian Government. What can be more unsatisfactory than a provision of this kind. But there is one other point to which I would call your attention. We know that in the struggle for the liberty of Poland some of the most distinguished inhabitants of Poland were taken prisoners, and sent on foot in chains to the deserts of Siberia. No part of the amnesty comprehends any of that class of persons. I have heard that some persons are surprised that the most eminent of the Polish exiles have refused to avail themselves of this amnesty. They have stated their reasons in a document which lies upon your Lordships' table. They say, "We do not object to this amnesty from personal considerations or feelings, but on principle; for if we avail ourselves of this amnesty, we shall admit the injustice of our conduct in struggling for the preservation of the liberties of our country, and we shall admit the justice of the proceedings taken against us." Upon those grounds, therefore, they refused to avail themselves of it, and, in doing so, I think they acted with the greatest possible propriety. If my noble Friend did exert himself in the Conferences, the result of his interference must be not only mortifying to him but offensive to the Government which he represented. It may be said, and I dare say will be said, that it is very inconvenient that I should bring forward a question of this kind at the present moment; but I do not incline to that opinion. I am in no way connected with the Government. No one is responsible for anything which falls from me. I am not speaking as the representative of any party. I am speaking my own opinion, and I am sure, in speaking that opinion, I am speaking the opinion of every wise and temperate man in this country and on the continent of Europe. I feel it is a duty that every person who is placed in a position where his voice can be heard should raise his voice in denouncing injustice, tyranny, and oppression. To commit injustice is a crime; to treat it with silence is to participate in the criminality; and that must be my justification for the course I have taken. I wish, therefore, to put to my noble Friend, in point of form, the question of which I have given notice—that is, whether the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has received any official communication of the recent Act of amnesty issued in favour of the Polish exiles by the Emperor of Russia; and, if so, whether he will lay a copy of it on the able of the House?


My Lords, when the amnesty to which my noble and learned Friend has called the attention of your Lordships was recently issued, we had neither diplomatic nor consular agents of Russia in this country. Her Majesty's Government have consequently not received a copy of this document, for the correctness of which they can vouch; but that amnesty has been published in all the newspapers, and I have no doubt that which is published is correct. My noble and learned Friend certainly requires no apology on his part for bringing this question under your Lordships' consideration. He says truly, he is speaking as an independent Member of this House—that he belongs to no party—that no one is responsible for what he says; but he considers it his duty to lift up his voice against what he characterises as injustice and oppression. I think my noble Friend is at full liberty to take the course which he has taken. I am, however, sure he will understand that the responsibility which weighs on me in the office which I hold prevents me following him in those remarks, or characterizing the acts of a foreign Government by such terms; and I am further restrained by the belief that the cause of the Poles would be prejudiced rather than served by my doing so. In answer to my noble and learned Friend, I have to assure him that, being fully alive to all those circumstances in Polish history to which he has referred, and which are familiar to your Lordships, the British Plenipotentiaries, in conjunction with the French Plenipotentiaries, had determined to bring the question of Poland before the Congress, together with other matters of general and European interest, after a treaty of peace had been disposed of. We had every reason to believe that the intentions of the Emperor of Russia towards Poland were generous and benevolent. We believed that the Emperor was prepared to grant a general amnesty, to restore certain national institutions to Poland, to recognise the religion and language of Poland, and to place education in Poland upon a larger and more national footing. We believed, in short, that it was the intention of the Emperor of Russia to depart from that harsh system which has hitherto prevailed in the Government of Poland; and it was with these expectations weighing upon us that we determined to bring the subject before the Congress. But at the same time we felt it to be our duty to make inquiry as to what might be the result of that proceeding on our parts. We believed that, although the Russian Plenipotentiaries might deny our right to interrogate them, and might say, in reply to our demands, that they were not there to answer any inquiries we might make respecting the internal administration of a portion of the Russian empire; yet we did think it might not be inconsistent with the policy of the Emperor of Russia, and might form a fitting collateral termination to the labours upon which we were engaged at Paris, that he should have authorised his Plenipotentiaries to announce to Europe the intentions he entertained towards Poland, and the mode in which they were to be carried into effect. But when we found that this would not be the case, and that any proceeding on our part was likely to lead to misrepresentation in Russia, and would interfere with those acts of clemency for which certainly the Emperor of Russia had a right to choose his own time, and which as certainly would lose much of their grace if it were supposed that they had been suggested or promoted by those Powers with whom he had lately been at war— when we found that such would be beyond all doubt the case, the French and English Plenipotentiaries departed from their previous determination, and they said nothing about Poland, not because they were indifferent to the fate and the futurity of Poland, but because they believed that in the present instance it would be for the interest of Poland itself to remain silent. That was the course we pursued, or rather those are our reasons for not pursuing the course which my noble and learned Friend seems to think we ought to have followed. Certainly, after the expression of clement intentions on the part of the Emperor of Russia upon his accession to the throne, I, for one, did look for a realisation of those intentions, and, in common with every one else, I have felt disappointment at this so-called amnesty. I am unable to account for what has led to an act of clemency so restricted in its nature, and which must be inoperative; but I do know that the mere rumour of a real and general amnesty produced the greatest enthusiasm in Warsaw in favour of the Emperor, and justified the belief which was entertained in Paris that a large measure of this kind would be completely successful and would render the Polish subjects loyal and grateful, instead of being a source of trouble and anxiety. I say, the mere rumour of an amnesty produced enthusiasm in favour of the Emperor of Russia, and I cannot but think that that manifestation of feeling must have been gratifying, and, if I may presume to say so, encouraging to him; because, as far as we know the Emperor's character, judging from all matters over which he personally presides, he is just and generous. He is, so far as we know, alive to the sufferings of his people, he desires to promote their happiness and prosperity, and be is deeply sensible of the responsibility which weighs upon him in governing a vast empire which is entirely dependent upon his will. Therefore, my Lords, if we are correct in our estimate of the Emperor's character, I cannot believe that Poland has not something more to hope for and to expect from him than this amnesty which my noble Friend has brought under our notice. But, my Lords, I must say I believe that if the Emperor does intend doing anything for Poland it must be spontaneous, and I believe that that country would derive little benefit from either Parliamentary discussion or the expression of individual opinion.