HL Deb 16 July 1919 vol 35 cc690-6

VISCOUNT BRYCE had the following Notice on the Paper—

To call attention to the statement, made in the official summary of the terms of peace offered to Austria, that those terms include a provision that the frontier of Italy should be advanced to the watershed of the main chain of the Rhætian Alps at the Brenner Pass, with the result of transferring to the Kingdom of Italy more than 200,000 German-speaking Tyrolese inhabiting a region which has never been under any Italian Sovereign; and to ask His Majesty's Government in what form it is proposed to present to Parliament an account of the negotiations which have led to the settlement of the terms of peace proposed to Germany and Austria and to the conclusion of whatever peace may be ultimately signed with the latter State.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, at this late hour I shall endeavour to be as short as possible in addressing the Question I have to put to His Majesty's Government, but it has been so long upon the Paper and has been so often postponed at the request of the Government that I think it is high time it was disposed of.

The only question that I put to His Majesty's Government is this. I ask, In what form it is proposed to present to Parliament an account of the negotiations which have led to the settlement of the terms of peace proposed to Germany and Austria and to the conclusion of whatever peace may be ultimately signed with the latter State. I understand that the Government do not desire to be asked with regard to any matter that is now pending in the negotiations at Paris, and therefore, although I have to call attention to the statement made regarding the terms of peace that have been offered to Austria, I do not ask the Government to make an answer upon that subject, because I understand that they do not wish to make answers on any subject relating to pending negotiations. I therefore confine my question entirely to the latter part of the Notice.

The negotiations that have gone on at Paris have been secret to a greater extent, I think, than on almost any occasion of recent years. All we know about them is vague rumours. The country, although it was promised that this should be a popular pace carrying the will of the pope with it, has hardly any authentic information, but was presented with a fait accompli when it was too late to make any change. On this occasion questions far more numerous and important have been decided than have ever been dealt with at any previous Europan Conference, and I want to know in what form we are to be told of the progress of those negotiations and of the reasons which influenced the negotiators in coming to the conclusions to which they have come.

The Treaty with Germany is only a part of a complete re-settlement, not only of Europe but of pa of Asia, and, considering the immense importance of these issues, and considering how little we have been told hitherto regarding them, I think we are entitled now to have the fullest account the Government can give us of what has taken place and of the reasons and arguments which have influenced the negotiators in coming to the decisions which they have reached. After the Treaty of Berlin there was a very full record presented of the deliberations of the Congress there. It occupied, in the Blue-book presented in 1878, 280 pages, and I desire to know from His Majesty's Government in what form we are now to have an account of what has passed at Paris in the negotiation of these several Treaties.

I propose to illustrate that by what I have to say about the case of Tyrol. It would be impossible for me to explain the matter fully to your Lordships without delivering a sort of geographical lecture, and, in fact, without the aid of a map; therefore I shall give you as few names as possible and confine myself to stating the broad outlines of the case. Tyrol, as we know it on the map, consists of two totally different parts. There is the ancient county of Tyrol, which is inhabited by a German-speaking population and which has ever since the fourteenth century formed part of the dominions of the House of Hapsburg. That is what I may call North and Central Tyrol. The other part is the Bishopric of Trent (South Tyrol) which is inhabited by a population speaking Italian, which is not Teutonic, and whose history and traditions are entirely different from those of North and Central Tyrol. And what is now proposed, according to the statement which reaches us to-day, is to hand over to Italy Central Tyrol, by which I mean the southern part of the Germanic part of Tyrol—the part which lies south of the great ma in chain of the Rhaetic and Norie Alps. Here is a large population speaking German, of Germanic traditions, which has no connection whatever with Italy, and it is proposed in virtue of the Treaty which is said to be in course of negotiation now to deliver that over to the alien government of the Italian kingdom. I desire to know what possible grounds can be influencing his Majesty's Government in giving their consent to such a proposition.

It is said that this is to be done in order to give Italy a new strategic frontier. Let me ask your Lordships for a moment to consider what passed before Italy entered the war. Italy negotiated with Austria., Austria endeavouring to induce her not to join the war against her. Italy demanded a frontier from Austria which she alleged she ought to have on strategic grounds, to be protected against what was then the great Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. That frontier was to be fixed at a point called Klausen in the valley of the Eisack River, where there is a narrow gorge through which the road and railway pass and which does constitute, according to all military authority, a very strong frontier, and probably the strongest frontier along the whole course of the road and railway from the Brenner Pass in the north to Verona at the outlet of the Adige into the Plain of Lombardy in the south.

But what Italy asks now is very much larger than what she then desired to have. Now Austria, from being the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, the great military Empire of 1914, has become a petty State of only about 7,000,000 people, and yet Italy demands as a strategic frontier against this petty Austria a far more extensive territory, and a frontier far more extended to the north than she asked before the war when she was negotiating with Austria. That will appear at once to your Lordships to be a most unreasonable demand, which the strategic considerations alleged cannot justify—that a State of 36,000,000 inhabitants, like Italy, should desire this immensely extended frontier against a State which will only have 7,000,000.

In reality, moreover, it is a worse frontier, because the line of the Brenner is not nearly so strong a defensive position as the gorge of the river at Klansen, and because the frontier to the north-west, opening from the valley of the Vintschgau, is a comparatively, open country, far less strong than the frontier which Italy would have if she had obtained what she formerly asked, or were to fix the frontier at a point which is the true demarcation line, the line of demarcation between the Italian speaking and the German-speaking area of Central Tyrol. That is at a, place called Salurn to the south of Botzen

If this proposal were to be justified, surely it would be one of those cases in which the opinion of tie people whom it is proposed to transfer should be taken—in other words, there should be a popular vote, or what is called a plébiscite. If that was taken in the territory which it is proposed to transfer no one can have the slightest doubt as to what the result of the popular vote would be. But I understand that the Italians—the Italian Government, for I do not attribute this to the Italian people—in the endeavour to justify the refusal of a plébiscite, say that if a plébiscite was taken over the whole of Tyrol, including the Trentino, it would give a majority in favour of annexation of this part to Italy. But we do not want to know what the people of the Trentino think, but what the people proposed to be annexed to them think, and if the plébisite is to have any value at all it ought to be taken only in the district which is affected.

Those are, broadly speaking, the facts of the case, and I think your Lordships will agree that any such annexation as is now proposed of this population of more than 200,000 hardy mountaineers speaking German—a people of Teutonic race, Teutonic in their speech and in all their traditions—to the rule of an alien Government would be as gross an offence as could be imagined against that principle of nationality to which the Allied Powers have declared their adhesion. Here is an attempt to transfer these people, as if they were so many sheep, although everybody knows perfectly well that they want to remain where they are, and not to be transferred to the Government of another nation.

I should like to remind your Lordships that this is not the first time an attempt has been made to take the people of Tyrol and transfer them from one Government to another. In the year 1809 Bonaparte at the height of his power obtained from the Austrian Government, which he had defeated, the cession of a considerable part of Tyrol, which he proposed to hand over to Bavaria. The Tyrolese rose, led by Andreas Hofer and a number of other valiant leaders, and they offered a strong resistance, to Napoleon and the French troops, and in that they had the cordial support of the people of England. Those who have read the history of that time will remember how strongly our sympathy went out to the Tyrolese of that day when they resisted that attempt to transfer them to another Government.

I have reason to believe that that spirit is not extinct among the Tyrolese, and that if this transfer were to be carried through it would be resisted. It would be resisted, I hope, at first by peaceful methods, and I have no doubt that if the Treaty were to sanction it the first thing the Tyrolese would do would be to go to the League of Nations and endeavour to have this injustice rectified. But if they failed no one could tell what would happen afterwards, because they are a very high-spirited people, and they would not tamely acquiesce in the injustice which it is proposed to do to them.

I may add that it is doing a very had service to the League of-Nations to start it with injustices of this kind to be redressed. The League of Nations is supposed to be based upon the principle of the recognition of the rights of nationalities and the right of self-determination, and to found that League by a Treaty which at the same time sanctioned an annexation violating its principles, destroying the whole moral foundation on which the League of Nations rests, will be a most unfortunate beginning for that project from which we have been venturing to hope a great deal for the future peace and welfare of Europe. I desire to ask the Government the Question which stands in my name on the Paper.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Curzon is unable to be present this evening, and I much regret therefore that the noble Viscount will not receive an adequate answer to a question of great importance, and one of which, of course, he has great knowledge.

The facts with regard to this matter are that when the Austrian Peace Delegation arrived in Paris they were informed that it was proposed to cede a large portion of the Southern Tyrol to Italy. This annexation will, as the noble Viscount stated, include within Italian territory some 200,000 persons of the Teutonic race The Allied Peace Delegates considered that, in the interests of the populations themselves and for the purpose of security and permanence, it would be an unwise act arbitrarily to disturb the marked geographical and economic unity of the districts of the Trentino and the Southern Tyrol. If this area be taken as a whole, the Italian majority for the district, it is estimated, will stand approximately in the proportion of two to one.


Does the noble Lord mean by "the district" the whole country, including the Trentino, northward from the frontiers of Italy?


The district proposed to be annexed. The frontier of the Brenner was accorded to Italy by the Treaty of London of April 25, 1915; and after hearing the representatives of the Italian Delegation, the President of the United States—the Government of the United States not being party to the Treaty—has agreed that the claim of the Italians to the natural frontier of the Italian Peninsula is justified. As regards the question of holding a plebiscite in this area, the Peace Delegates consider that if a vote of the area as a whole were taken there would be an overwhelming Italian majority recorded, and it is considered, therefore, to be unnecessary to resort to this procedure in order to arrive at a decision. I regret that this is all I am able to state on the present occasion. With regard to the latter portion of the noble Viscount's Question, I have been requested to ask him to postpone it until the Prime Minister has returned to London.


Do I understand the noble Lord to mean that the suggestion is that the plebiscite to be taken should include the whole of the Italian population of the Trentino as well as of the German population of Central Tyrol?


I understand that the plebiscite is to apply to the territory which is proposed to be ceded.


No. As I understand what was read by the noble Lord, the plebiscite is to be taken nut only in the territory proposed to be ceded but in all the Italian country which lie to the south of it.


What I said was that it was not considered that a.plebiscite was necessary in view of the certainty that there would be a large Italian majority.


That is to say, if you were to add to the 200,000 people who are proposed to be ceded the far larger number of Italian-speaking people who are not affected in any way, you would get a majority?


I am afraid I cannot explain myself any better than I have hitherto done. I understand that a plebiscite is not going to be taken because they feel so absolutely certain of the result and consider that it is not necessary.


Does the noble Lord mean by that, absolutely certain of the result if they include among the people whose wishes are to be ascertained a very large number of people who are outside the district altogether?


I am afraid that I am not sufficiently well acquainted with the subject to give any further answer to the noble Viscount.