HL Deb 30 July 1919 vol 36 cc45-53

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it was possible to make public any official information which has been obtained as to the condition of destitution, and even famine, which is said to prevail in some parts of Europe and the Near East.

The most rev. Primate said: My Lords, I shall not detain you for many minutes with this Question. We have heard with regret that the noble Earl who leads the House is unable to be here to-night, but I understand that it is not contrary to his wish, or the wish of those associated with him in responsibility for these matters, that I should put the Question and receive an answer to-night. I feel that the country at this moment fails; to realise the gravity of the famine conditions which are prevailing, as we are informed, in a great many parts of Europe. We have grown so accustomed during the last few years to reading of horrors and sorrows and trials of all kinds that we do not adequately measure the gravity of the statements which are made about distress such as is now prevalent.

In addition, what we are puzzled by is how to discriminate between exaggerated statements which are made on one side or the other, or the truth which may lie half way between. Therefore it is of the highest importance that we should obtain such official information as is possible. Just a month ago the noble Earl the Leader of the House wrote as follows on the subject— It is difficult for our people to realise the extent of suffering which still prevails in those countries" [in the Central parts of Europe] "even at the present time, more than six months after the Armistice.… In many cases, and especially in the large towns, the distress is appalling; not only grown-up men and women, but hundreds and thousands of small children are in daily want of many of the necessities of life. The effects of such a state of affairs are visible in a scale of mortality that can hardly be measured, in a shocking increase of crime, and in the progressive enfeeblement and deterioration of those who ought to provide the population of the future.… It is no exaggeration then to say that the Western world is faced in the present with destitution, disease, and despair, to a degree unprecedented in modern times, and in the future with a prospect of the full consequences of these misfortunes—namely, physical inefficiency, paralysis in national life, social, political, and industrial unrest, and all the evils that cannot fail to flow therefrom. In view of these very grave statements in a letter from the noble Earl, Lord Curzon, the Church of England—and I have no doubt; other denominations too—have been doing what is possible to raise funds for the alleviation of that distress in different parts of the world.

But I have been met several times with the statement., "You are speaking in-generalities. What we want is some specific, knowledge of where it is that the need is so formidable. What investigations have been made into it, and what are the statistical or official facts which can be put before us?" It is with a view to understanding whether any inquiry has been made by His Majesty's Government into the matter or rather—because I know official inquiry has been made—to ascertain whether or not the results of that inquiry are capable now of being made public, that I ask the Question. I believe that the vast mass of the people of this country are most anxious to be helpful where help is most needed, but they are at present in ignorance of the detailed facts, or even the general facts, as to the character, the incidence, and the topographical region wherein the need is greatest. It is because I hope that with these facts before us we may evoke from the people of this country really substantial aid to meeting the appalling distress which, as the noble Earl has told us, is at present prevailing that I venture to ask the Question, and to hope that the answer may be such as to give us the sort of information which will relieve the perplexities that at the present time prevail.


My Lords, I desire to add a few words in support of the appeal which has been made by the most rev. Primate, especially dealing with one part of the wide region included in his Question, and that is the Asiatic Near East. There is, I can assure your Lordships—and His Majesty's Government know it already—the greatest possible distress in many parts of the interior of what is or was the Turkish Empire, particularly in the eastern parts from Syria northwards. In one spot there are from 300,000 to 350,000 refugees starving and suffering from disease. They are together upon the borders of what were the Russian dominions—Russian Trans-Caucasia and Russian Armenia. These people fled from before the Turks at the time of massacres. They have been living or dying, supported by charity, ever since in great numbers, and now they are crowded along the frontier all the way eastward from the Black Sea to the Caspian, endeavouring to return to their homes where they would again begin to till the soil, and where they might hope to reap a harvest next year if it were not for the threatening masses of Turks who are gathered there, and in the face of whom it would be dangerous for them to enter their own country. This is one of the places where the need is greatest.

The need is partly met by subscriptions from this country, and on a still larger scale by the enormous Relief Commission sent out from the United States, which took relief there to the extent of something like £5,000,000 or £6,000,000. The greatest possible help was given to this Commission by His Majesty's Government, As I have frequently heard from the members of this Commission their desire that an acknowledgment should be made of that, I venture to make it to your Lordships on behalf of the members of this Relief Commission, who say that all that could have been done was done by those who represented His Majesty's Government in the Black Sea, and along the railway which runs inland from Batum to Tiflis and the Caspian. The need there is very great not only of food but still more of protection. These unfortunate refugees might avert famine for next year if they could get back to their own fields, but they are prevented from doing so by the menaces of Turkish forces. I hear from the best possible source—that of a very eminent man who has made a long journey through Anatolia and Armenia—that the Turks are at present being stirred up in the interior by the remnant of the Young Turkish Party, the infamous Committee of Union and Progress, which still holds a great many adherents in the country, and which unfortunately has been stimulated to further action, and has found material ready to be stimulated, by the conflict which has recently arisen at Smyrna between the Greek troops and the Moslem population there. In these circumstances, if relief is to be given and if those sufferings to which the most rev. Primate has referred are to be reduced, it is essential not only that relief should be sent out, but that protection should be given to the people in order that the relief may reach them and in order that they may be able to return to their homes.

I would therefore seriously appeal to His Majesty's Government not to withdraw any troops from these regions. There has been a rumour that British troops were going to be withdrawn. I earnestly hope that is not the case. Of course I will not press the Government to make any disclosure of their intentions beyond what they may desire to do, but I do express with some confidence, based on the information that I have received, that nothing would be more unfortunate than that the British Forces should be reduced there, because without them you could not get the relief to the people suffering, and because the likelihood of further massacres would be still greater. There is, I am afraid, very serious reason to fear further massacres. The legal Turkish authorities, who take their orders from Constantinople—and of course Constantinople is now under our influence—are, I am told, unable to maintain order. The Armenians and the Young Turk ruffians who desolated the country before with their massacres are still powerful, and they are more powerful in many places than the constituted legal authority, so nothing can prevent further disturbance and further massacre except the action of European troops.

I venture, therefore, respectfully to press upon His Majesty's Government the very great need that exists for providing all the protection and safety that can be ensured to the Christian population there, and I believe that that will not only be the best thing for the general welfare of the country, but it is the only means by which the urgent and pressing dangers of famine can be averted.


My Lords, I should like to say a word upon this question of famine and destitution, and particularly to express my agreement with what was said by the most rev. Primate—that it is of extreme importance that we should have careful statistics, and that there should be no exaggeration of what is undoubtedly a very difficult situation.

Only two days ago I saw a series of letters from Vienna written by persons who were quite detached from political bias of any kind, drawing in very dark terms indeed a picture of the conditions of distress which exist in that city at the present time. But, apart from private letters of that kind, I think it is of importance that we should bear in mind what has been said on this very serious question by members of the Government who have had special opportunities of obtaining the true facts. No one, probably, has had, bad a better opportunity than Lord Robert Cecil, whose work at Paris has gained the respect and approval of every thoughtful person. Speaking the other day he made this statement— In large parts of Central Europe, including some parts of Germany, the babies are dying for want of food and clothing. I should like to ask Lord Newton, if he is going to reply, whether, according to the information he has got, that is accurate or not. Then, let me quote again what was said by General Smuts, also a member of the Supreme Economic Council, and also a statesman who has had special opportunities of ascertaining the conditions. He said— We witnessed the collapse of the whole political and economic fabric of Central and Eastern Europe. Unemployment, starvation, anarchy, war, disease, despair stalked through the land. Unless the victors can effectively extend a helping hand to the defeated and broken peoples a large part of Europe is threatened with exhaustion and decay. I should like to ask His Majesty's Government whether they concur in that statement made by General Smuts, which, if true, is one of the most serious statements -that could possibly be made.

The most rev. Primate, when he was addressing your Lordships, referred to what was said by the noble Earl the Leader of the House, whose absence we all regret this evening. Let me add one or two quotations from what Lord Curzon himself has said. He appealed in one of his letters or speeches (I forget which) to the philanthropy of civilised and Christian mankind—an appeal, he said, which was essential in order to deal with the terrible conditions which exist. And then he is reported to have said this— He estimated that the post-war conditions in Germany and in Austria are in some cases even more terrible than those of war itself. According to private information which I have obtained from persons in the district that statement of the noble Earl is in no sense exaggerated. Of course, it is not likely to be exaggerated, coming from a person in his position, and with his knowledge. But, at the same time, the statement is so serious that one would like to know what the Government have to say upon it, in order that the people of this country may really know what the conditions are.

May I make a further quotation front the National Food Journal, which is an official organ of the Government Every one must know that Mr. Roberts, the Food Minister, has made very strong statements indeed as regards the conditions of starvation and destitution. He has used the word "appalling" more than once. He has pointed out that the raising of the blockade is in itself by no means sufficient to deal with the terrible conditions which prevail in Central Europe at the present time. Now let me read what is said by the National Food JournalThe mere lifting of the blockade will not save Europe. If Europe is to is be saved from Bolshevism and anarchy far more than a mere negative act will be necessary. As Lord Hubert Cecil pointed out in his speech in the House of Commons, a supreme effort will be needed on the part of the Allies, and it is useless to suppose that anything worth having can be accomplished except by sacrifice. I should like to know again whether His Majesty's Government concur in the two views first, as regards the appalling conditions which exist, and secondly in the statement, "it is useless to suppose that anything worth having can be accomplished except by sacrifice"; and to ask another question, namely, whether the Government have any policy or settled plan by which, even if sacrifice is necessary, the situation may be saved.

I have before me also private letters written by persons who are now in Vienna, and who have gone there with the sanction and approval of His Majesty's Government. I can only say that the statements in those letters are truly terrible—tuberculosis, starved children dying of rickets, new forms of disease coming to the front, similar to those which were known in the East in times of famine; and there is a general statement that unless something is done, however bad the conditions are now, they will probably be much worse ("ten times worse" is the statement of an impartial person), particularly, as far ahead as next March, that is to say, when the poor harvest (because it is a poor harvest) will have been exhausted. No doubt the Government are perfectly well aware of the Report made by a Commission of neutral doctors. They were perfectly impartial. They approached the matter, as I think it ought to be approached, from the medical standpoint. They pointed out, in words which engraved themselves on the heart, I think, of every one who read them, how terrible the conditions were.


In Austria?


Yes, in Austria. The conditions are bad in many parts of Central Europe and in Armenia, as was pointed out by the noble Viscount Lord Bryce. But I believe that the conditions in Austria are more threatening than in any other part of the Continent. I have been told that they are nearly as bad in parts of Poland and some parts of Macedonia. Speaking from the information I have obtained, connected with the Council winch desired to obtain accurate information on points of this kind, those are the most threatening places, but the worst is Austria. In fact, some people have gone so far as to say that, unless very drastic steps can be taken, the whole future of the manhood of Austria is at stake.

It is not my purpose to attempt to paint things of this kind in dark colours. Judging by statements made by members of the Government, these reports must be accepted. I am not now throwing the blame on anyone, except to say that the conditions are the result of the prolonged war conditions. I do not say that they were our fault: they were the fault of the war conditions. The blame is primarily upon those who brought about these terrible war conditions on the Continent. But there is an enormous responsibility upon civilised Europe. We cannot stand still and allow these babies to perish of hunger. We cannot stand by and allow Austria (taking that as the worst part) to be practically decimated and to have the whole manhood of its population lowered. And therefore I hope that His Majesty's Government, being aware, as I am sure they are, of the conditions to which I have referred, will be able to indicate some possible method of alleviating this great danger.


My Lords, I much regret that, as has already been explained, my noble friend Lord Curzon has been prevented by sudden indisposition from answering this very important Question, and I am afraid that the reply that I am instructed to make will be considered one of a somewhat inadequate nature. The most rev. Primate will readily admit I hat it would be a difficult task in any circumstances to review, in answer to a simple question, the activities of the various Associations which have been set up by the Allies since the Armistice in order to avert famine and to alleviate the distress which was bound to follow the cessation of hostilities.

Perhaps for the moment it will be sufficient to say that Europe as a whole has been saved from starvation; and this, we must admit, is largely due to the money and the supplies provided by the United States Government, and to the energy and ability shown by Mr. Hoover, the Director-General of Relief. At the same time, I think it will not be assumed that the whole of the credit of this relief is to be attributed to the United States; because, as far as our resources are concerned, impaired as they were by four and a-half years of warfare, His Majesty's Government and the Dominions have taken their full share; and I think that Mr. Hoover would probably be the first to admit the invaluable nature of the work which has been performed by British relief organisations and by British missions. I am speaking off-hand, but I am under the impression that a sum of well over £12,000,000 has already been expended by this country in providing foodstuffs. There has been the closest co-operation as regards finance, shipping and administration between ourselves and the United States Government as well as with France and with Italy, with the result that there is no immediate danger of starvation anywhere at the present moment, except, unfortunately, as regards Armenia. With regard to the matter mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, I am afraid that I am not in a position to state what the policy of His Majesty's. Government is with regard to the retention or the retirement of our troops at present in that neighbourhood.

It is unfortunately the case that while this immense system of relief—which in its magnitude almost corresponds with the war itself—has averted actual starvation in Europe, it has not eliminated privation. It must also be admitted that it has naturally failed to eradicate another evil resulting from the war—namely, the disease which especially attacks growing children, many of whom it is to be feared will never recover from the effects of three years constant under-feeding. Looking generally at the South and South-Eastern Districts of Europe as a whole, and not differentiating for economic purposes between neutral and ex-enemy countries, I think it must be evident that no measures of simple relief will solve the problem. Relief is merely a temporary solution, and it must be patent to everyone by this time that a permanent solution can be found only by reconstructing the trade of these countries not only with ourselves but with our Allies; and with this object in view the British representatives on the Supreme Economic Council are exerting every possible effort. I have nothing more to add except that I cannot help thinking that the most rev. Primate is mistaken in his view that the country does not realise the importance of this question, and I have to inform him that a Report on the position in Europe and the work which has been conducted by British Missions is now in course of preparation and will shortly be published.

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