HL Deb 22 June 1906 vol 159 cc487-93

My Lords, I rise to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is prepared to make a statement with reference to the renewal of diplomatic relations with Servia. When the barbarous murder of the late King and Queen of Servia took place, and when the perpetrators of that crime were not only not punished, but actually rewarded by high positions and influential commands, Lord Lansdowne, who was at that time Foreign Minister, withdrew our representative at Belgrade, and since that period diplomatic relations between the two countries have been suspended. This action of His Majesty's Government was not only unanimously approved here, but it produced an excellent effect, throughout the Continent, possibly owing to the fact that some Powers entered into a kind of ignoble competition as to which should be first to recognise the regicide Government. I think you could have no better evidence of the wisdom of the action of his Majesty's Government than that the Servian Government has been endeavouring ever since to resume diplomatic relations with this country.

The attitude of the late Government was something of this kind. They intimated that so long as the Servian Government identified itself with the regicides they preferred to have no communications with it. No demand was made that any punishment should be inflicted upon them, and I venture to think this was a wise reservation, because if we had endeavoured to insist upon punishment these men would probably have been converted into patriotic martyrs. I think it was pointed out that His Majesty's Government, naturally regarding Servia as an independent country which it was not our business to interfere with, thought it ought to recognise its own duty in the matter, and that we should not maintain any official relations with it until the Servian Government had done what was obviously fitting and right under the circumstances.

The Servian Government continued to make inquiries as to what our wishes were in the matter, and on April 11th of this year Sir Edward Grey, departing in a very slight measure from the attitude previously adopted by this country, announced in another place that until the regicide officers were removed the question of reopening diplomatic relations with Servia could not be discussed. This clearly meant the retirement of eighteen persons who were prominently associated with the crime in question, and who, I believe, had actually personally taken part in the murder. The then Servian Prime Minister submitted to the king a decree proposing to place eleven of the principal regicides on the retired list. The monarch, however, preferred rather than grant this demand to accept the resignation of the Prime Minister and his Government. Thereupon appeared on the scene another Government, and the new Prime Minister appears to have also approached the Foreign Office through intermediaries, who, I understand, were Italians.

Unofficial inquiries were made with the new of ascertaining how many retirements would satisfy our views, and somehow or other it was conveyed that if five of the regicides were retired, and retired in such a manner as to indicate clearly that the Servian Government disapproved of their crime and dissociated itself entirely from them, nominal diplomatic relations with Servia would be resumed. It was clearly intended that the Servian Government should distinctly dissociate itself from these men, and that they should be retired under such circumstances as one might reasonably expect. What actually happened was this. I have here the translation of a decree which appeared in the official Servian organ of May 30th. The decree runs as follows:— We, Peter, on the proposal of our Minister of War, having heard and taken cognisance of the decision of the Council of Ministers, do resolve that and here follow the names of five officers— "are, at their own request, and on the ground of Section 22 of the law on the Army, placed in a state of peace. The Section 22 referred to in the decree is, I understand, a provision by which officers who have rendered distinguished service to their country are allowed to retire on pensions amounting to the full salary which they are at the time receiving. The decree proceeds to state that out of consideration for their good will, by which they have placed their positions at the disposal of the Government, their pensions shall amount to their full salary.

What has actually happened, therefore, is that five of the principal members of the regicide party, so far from having been retired in what I may venture to term a somewhat ignominious manner, are allowed to retain their present salaries as full pensions and to leave the Army without a stain on their characters. I am also informed that in order that there should be no unpleasantness the King has recently appointed two members of the regicide party to the position of aide-de-camp, in which capacity they no doubt would come occasionally in communication with our representative when he goes there.

Speaking for myself, I should like to see diplomatic relations reestablished with this country. We have no quarrel with the Servian nation, and it is, so far as I am aware, just as much entitled to our respect as any other nation; but I must say I do resent a state of things which appears to have brought about a resumption of diplomatic relations under somewhat unsatisfactory circumstances. If what I have stated is correct, and I have every reason to believe that it is, then I venture to think this country has not been overwell treated in this matter. I observe that an English Minister ha? been appointed, but has not yet been gazetted. I venture to ask whether it would not be well, before this gentleman actually proceeds to his post, to suggest to the Servian Government that it should show rather better evidence of goodwill in this affair than it has demonstrated up to the present time.


My Lords, I think it is natural that my noble friend, who possesses great knowledge of the affairs of the East of Europe, should call attention to the facts connected with this incident. Undoubtedly the situation that has existed in Servia since the great crime committed in June, 1903, has been; a very difficult one. It was the bounden duty of the Government of this country to mark its sense of the terrible character of the events which took place in the Palace of Belgrade. We had strict precedent for our action in suspending diplomatic relations with Servia. Personally I was mixed up many years ago in the complicated negotiations which ended the suspension of relations between this country and Mexico consequent on: the death of the Emperor Maximilian, when nearly all the Great European Powers suspended relations with Mexico for a longer or a shorter time, and we were almost the last, if not the last, to renew relations. Therefore, had the Government chosen in the case of Servia, which was an infinitely graver matter than that of Mexico, we would not have been without argument to show that we could take up a still' stronger attitude.

On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that if the duty of a country like ours is to make a clear assertion of the dignity of the public right of Europe—if I may use the expression—it has also to bear in mind that the suspension of diplomatic relations with any country is always a matter which bears rather hardly on our own "nationals" We ought always to be careful that, while punishing other countries, we may not possibly be inflicting considerable injury on our own subjects. As to Mexico, for example, it was forcibly borne in upon my mind, especially through communications in the House of Commons, where I at that time sat, how very serious a condition of things the suspension of diplomatic relations was for British subjects in Mexico.

The Secretary of State thought it was his first duty in the case of Servia to see that there should be some clear acknowledgment on the part of the Servian Government by some public act that the crime of June, 1903, was not to be passed over without notice. It is impossible on the other hand in a matter of this kind for a foreign Government like ours to interfere in details; but the broad fact is that, out of deference to the sole and unsupported action of this country, the Servian officers have been removed from the active list, and an assurance has been given that they will not be employed again. I believe it will be felt that by our action this country has sufficiently vindicated what we consider to be the public law affecting the case. One point has weighed with His Majesty's Government. Servia is in a very unsatisfactory condition, and the presence of a British Minister may in itself be the means of helping towards the restoration of a more satisfactory condition of affairs. The: people of Servia may thus be reminded by the presence of our Minister that there is a country in Europe where liberty and order can exist together, and perhaps in time they may be able to realise and to follow our example.


I am sure your Lordships will have heard with satisfaction the statement which has just been made by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affiairs. I do not think that any of your Lordships could have been in any doubt as to the opinion of the Government, or of any British Government, in respect to the odious crime which was committed a few years ago in Servia. But it is a matter of satisfaction that, not only in the House of Commons, but here, there should be a formal pronouncement by the Foreign Office to the effect that the present advisers of the Crown are entirely in accord with the policy which we pursued in this matter when we held their places.

It was impossible for a British Government to continue in a relationship of courtesy with a Government which had been guilty of so heinous a crime, for if we had done so it would have appeared to Servia and to the world that Great Britain condoned the crime. Accordingly we took the only step which was open to us to take. My noble friend behind me who raised the question has complained that the Servian Government have not made full reparation, that they have been not a little grudging in acknowledging the heinousness of the error they committed, and that His Majesty's present Government have been too kind in overlooking their fault. I agree with my noble friend that the behaviour of the Servian Government from the beginning to the end of this unhappy business has been in the highest degree deplorable and shocking, and it is only of a piece with their previous conduct that their reparation should have been of so hesitating and grudging a character.

I also think that my noble friend opposite, the Under-Secretary, was justified in saying that we have not only Servian interests to consider in this matter but British interests as well, and it is of the highest importance, from a British point of view, that the ordinary means of diplomatic intercourse should be resumed as soon as reasonably may be. I gather from my noble friend behind me that he entirely concurs in that view. With regard to the reparation, that is not a matter with which we need concern ourselves very greatly. There remains upon record the fact that in consequence of the action of the British Government, and that action alone, public justice in Europe has been vindicated, and the Servian Government have been compelled by our action publicly to admit that a great crime was committed, and that those who were principally responsible for that crime are no longer worthy of the confidence of their country and of the King who reigns over it. That is a great achievement upon which the Government of this country are to be congratulated.


My Lords, I only rise for the purpose of saying that, if this question is a very difficult one, it has clearly been solved very much to the advantage of the Servian Government; and if any people have a special right to be satisfied with the arrangement arrived at it is the regicide officers themselves, who are no worse off for what has happened, but, if anything, are in a better position.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past Six O'clock, to Monday next, a quarter before Eleven o'clock.