HL Deb 06 March 1919 vol 33 cc575-88

VISCOUNT WIMBORNE rose to ask His Majesty's Government what steps, if any, they propose to take to relieve the food situation in Central Europe.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I have put down the Question which stands in my name in the hope of eliciting from the Government some information on this subject, as to the facts of which there is deep and I think well-grounded concern. A statement on this subject would be welcome if, and in so far as, it is possible in the public interest to make it. For a long time we have seen reports in the Press and elsewhere as to the food situation in Central Europe. It has been depicted as being serious for some considerable time, but a good deal of uncertainty naturally has existed because all these reports, as far as I know, have been unofficial newspaper reports.

But this week evidence of a more substantial character has come to hand. Sir John Beale, who, as the House will remember, was the British representative on the Inter-Allied Food Distribution Organisation in Paris, has recently resigned for reasons which are not quite clear, unless, as it seems to be at first sight, it is due to a protest on his part as to the inaction of the Allies in dealing with the subject. The House will remember that Sir John Beale was for the two most critical years of our food condition chairman of the Wheat executive, and therefore he is a gentleman who obviously can speak with great authority on this subject. In an interview which he accorded to The Times newspaper, reported yesterday, speaking of the situation he said that there would be difficulty to prevent widespread famine even if the most vigorous measures are immediately adopted. I would remind the House that he is not here referring only to Germany or Austria, but also, and very much so, to Poland. Then on Monday the Secretary of State for War, speaking in another place, said that from the special sources of information which were open to him he was convinced that Germany is very near to starvation. I suppose, therefore, that we must conclude from these two important sources of information that the earlier reports with regard to the growing scarcity of food in Central Europe have not been exaggerated.

I presume that this situation is due, in the first place, to disorganisation of the transport system in Central Europe, but also—and I dare say mainly—to the maintenance of the Allied blockade of the Central Empires. The effect of this situation has also been described in recent observations which have fallen from various Ministers. Mr. Churchill, in the speech to which I alluded, declared that Germany was in danger of collapse. Mr. Bonar Law only yesterday spoke of the danger of Germany falling into Bolshevism; and the Prime Minister, addressing the Executive Committee of the Industrial Conference, I think on Wednesday, spoke of the possibility of this old country being entrusted with the duty and privilege of saving civilisation. Events that have recently taken place in the city of Munich and also in the city of Berlin go a long way to confirm the possibility of such an internal condition arising out of a shortage of food, and I think that it should be remembered that this Bolshevist germ becomes very infectious in countries which are suffering from food shortage. There is, I think, a fear that the whole of the vast area East of the Rhine may gradually sink down under the menace of that terrible scourge.

I would like the House to bear in mind in this connection that it is not only the enemy countries which are concerned, but Poland and Bohemia and the other new States that we are hoping to set up in Eastern Europe. The fact is that there is a grave risk if this state of affairs is allowed to go on and develop, as it may, of our being cheated of the possibility of making the peace which we hope will end the situation through which we have been passing; because it may easily happen that we shall not find any Government in Germany or Austria competent to sign a peace, and we may find that we are confronted with a situation which is graver and more terrible than that from which we have only just emerged.

I am quite aware that the whole question is of a delicate and complicated character, but the danger is so imminent and so appalling that I think I shall not be going too far if I invite the Government to give us some more coherent and exhaustive statement of their policy than that which we are allowed to pick up from the Ministerial obiter dicta to which I have alluded.


My Lords, I should like to say a word in support of the appeal which may noble friend beside me has just made for further information upon this grave subject. I confess that I look with the utmost dismay upon the condition of things which prevails in Central Europe at this moment. It seems to me that we are approaching—I am afraid rapidly approaching—a catastrophe which may prove to be one of the most disastrous that has ever occurred in the history of the world. That catastrophe may be inevitable, but at any rate I think we in this country ought to feel sure that we are at least doing what we can to avert it; and certainly that we are not standing in the way of any measures which might be taken to alleviate the pressure of adversity in these regions.

As to the facts, I do not think there is any doubt. My noble friend beside me has sketched them. We cannot pretend that we have been unprepared for these events. We were warned of them in the autumn of last year by Mr. Hoover, who, your Lordships will remember, made a very important report shortly before his return to America in that month. Summed up briefly, what Mr. Hoover had then to say was that of some 520,000,000 of people whose case was present to his mind, there were only 40,000,000 who had the prospect of getting enough food to carry them to the harvest of this year—that is so long as imports were prevented from reaching them; and that is a very important reservation.

More lately than that we have had, for example, the remarkable statement which appeared a few days ago in the columns of the Daily Telegraph, written obviously by some one who had had special opportunities of carefully studying the German situation on the spot. We also had the report made by fourteen officers who were specially sent out to investigate the condition of things. All these reports have told us the same story. They all tell of rations sufficient perhaps to keep body and soul together but not sufficient to nourish a human being, of scarcity of fuel, of the break-down of transport arrangements, of the impossibility to get clothing, and—following upon all these things—of the terrible debility and inertia which is spreading amongst the sorely afflicted population. Then there are old diseases, such as tuberculosis, and new diseases engendered by extreme privation; children dying in numbers, many born dead; and with all this a steadily growing despair which seems to bring closer every day the spectre of Bolshevism which threatens all these countries.

My noble friend referred just now to a very striking contribution to the literature of this subject made two or three days ago by no less an authority than the Secretary of State for War. I would like, if your Lordships will permit me, to dwell for a moment on that statement, which seems to me to be one of the most significant that has been made for a long time. Mr. Churchill dwelt upon the fact that the greater part of Europe and the greater part of Asia are plunged in varying degrees of disorder and anarchy: vast areas in both these continents inhabited by immense and once thriving populations are convulsed by hunger, bankruptcy, and revolution. The Minister went on to urge the importance of the speedy enforcing of the peace terms upon Germany. He said— We are holding all our means of coercion in full operation or in immediate readiness for use. We are enforcing the blockade with rigour.… Germany is very near starvation. All the evidence I have received from officers sent, by the War Office all over Germany shows, first of all, the great privations which the German people are suffering, and, secondly, the danger of a collapse of the entire structure of German social and national life under the pressure of hunger and malnutrition. Here is Mr. Churchill's conclusion— Now is, therefore, the moment to settle. To delay indefinitely would be to run a grave risk of having nobody with whom to settle, and of having another great area of the world sink into Bolshevik anarchy. Mr. Churchill felt, as he was speaking, how odious it must be for any Englishman to contemplate the free use of such weapons. He declared that it was "repugnant to the British nation to use this weapon of starvation (which falls mainly upon the women and children, upon the old, the sick, and the poor) after all the fighting has stopped," one moment longer than was necessary to secure the just terms for which we have fought. That is a conclusion which I venture to think no one will dispute.

Now, my Lords, we may ask ourselves, How long is this process of turning the screw, of using the weapon of starvation, likely to last? It is apparently intended to use it until Germany has accepted the terms which we desire to impose. What I rather hope to gather from my noble friend who will reply presently is whether by that is meant that we are to go on with this policy of blockade and starvation until a final and complete settlement of all outstanding claims has been reached. If that is intended, then I venture to say that the prospect before us is indeed a most disquieting one. A final and complete settlement would mean, let us remember, not only a settlement as between the Allies and the Central Powers, but a settlement of a number of questions, some of them very controversial, between the Allies themselves. We are, as far as can be judged, making good progress at Paris in regard to great questions like the League of Nations, like the question of disarmament, and so forth; but I have not been able to see any accounts tending to show that in regard to the acute territorial questions which must necessarily form a part of the final settlement, much progress has been made. If we are to go on with the starving policy until all that welter of difficult international questions has been cleared up, I am afraid we shall find, as Mr. Winston Churchill feared, that there will be nobody left with whom to come to terms at all. He spoke, further on in his speech, of the danger of "starving everybody into Bolshevism." That is the danger of which I am afraid.

I am aware that I have touched upon a very delicate and difficult question, and I quite understand that my noble friend may find it impossible to give me anything like full and complete information with regard to it; but I should be more grateful to him than I can say if he were able to utter a few reassuring words which would show the country that we have not embarked upon this ruthless policy except with the idea of bringing about a rapid and satisfactory arrangement upon certain main points, leaving others to be decided deliberately and in a more leisurely fashion here after.


My Lords, before the noble Earl replies I should like to add a word or two on what appear to me to be the terrible conditions on the Continent as regards food supplies. We have not only the statistics that have been referred to and published, but there is also a Committee in this country which has obtained much information from persons who themselves have visited what I may call the afflicted districts; and I am sure that nobody who has studied this question at all can think that there is any over-statement in what was said by the Secretary of State for War in his speech on Monday, and no graver statement, I think, could possibly have been made by any responsible Minister.

I may, perhaps, allude to two matters which have already been referred to incidentally, in order to emphasise them. Rumania is our Ally. There were statistics published the other day that actual starvation to a considerable extent was going on from day to day in Bucharest; and I believe that Rumania is not the worst case. Portions of Poland and Macedonia are living under conditions even worse than those obtaining in Rumania. As regards Germany, I hope that most of the members of your Lordships' House read and carefully considered the Report, to which the noble Marquess referred, made by fourteen perfectly independent British officers with regard to the conditions in certain parts of Germany. What did that Report come to? It came to this, that wherever they went those officers found that the populations were on the verge of starvation. Not only did they say that they were on the verge of starvation, but that conditions were rapidly getting worse owing to the want of employment and to the impossibility either of an adequate food supply or of producing commodities which might be exchanged for an adequate food supply.

Let me give one statistic—I am speaking from memory, but I think I am perfectly accurate—in reference to the Bolshevist movement to which the noble Marquess has referred. These officers stated that from their inquiries they found that there were 200, 000 unemployed in Berlin, and that the rate of unemployment was increasing—I do not want to exaggerate, but I think it was about 5,000 a day, or some figure of that kind. They reported further that, as regards the possibility of the distribution of a food supply amongst the afflicted districts, there was an entire inadequacy of transport facilities with regard to both trucks and engines, and they gave specail statistics as regards the conditions in Hanover. The statistics were specially given with regard to Hanover, with an indication that similar conditions prevailed in other parts of the Continent. What was the, result? That the provision of railway wagons and railway engines was totally inadequate for the distribution of food in the Hanoverian district.

I should like to emphasise what the noble Marquess has said as regards the horrors of a possible catastrope. There has never been a great war at a time when the food supply of the world has depended to the same extent that it now depends upon transport facilities. Huge populations are collected in industrial centres which have never been collected together in the same numbers in the case of previous wars, and those populations can be protected against wanton starvation only by what has become the artificial system of inter-communication which has been produced, of course, by the gradual development of our railway system. Therefore you have at the present time, without any question, large populations—I need not go into the very large figures quoted by Mr. Hoover—admittedly on the verge of starvation, admittedly unable to obtain food, admittedly with increasing unemployment, and, as far as I can see, with no immediate prospects of any improvement.

I am anxious to indicate shortly three way in which I think we are creating an artificial addition to the natural horrors of the situation. Your Lordships are aware that we found during the course of the war what was called the "strangling blockade" one of the most efficacious weapons against our enemies. I do not question for a moment either the justification of its employment or the decisions which have been given that the "strangling blockade" was certainly allowable as a reprisal order against the steps taken in connection with the submarine warfare by our German enemies. What I want to ask the noble Earl is this. Can be give an answer which may suggest the hope that this blockade may be brought to an end or relaxed as soon as possible? The noble Lord has referred to what is of extreme importance—namely, the settlement of the peace terms. But before the peace terms can be settled, is there not a case for relaxing the blockade of the Allies? What does it mean? Has not every observer said that unless this blockade is relaxed we are bringing the horrors of actual famine home to millions of people on the Continent? It would be the most fearful crime in history if it were brought home to any country that they encouraged a result of that kind. I know perfectly well that we in England would naturally at all times do what we could to relieve conditions of this kind. But you cannot relieve them merely by temporary measures. You must reinstate as soon as possible the ordinary trade conditions. Whatever you may do in a temporary way, you can never permanently deal with the terrible conditions as they exist at the present moment; and I hope the noble Earl will be able to say that now that the actual conditions of warfare are over and that the reasons for the reprisal order, on which these strangling blockades were justified, have gone by, there may be an immediate chance of some relaxation.

The second point that I wish to make is this, and I will quote from memory, because I had not intended to speak on the subject, what was said by Marshal Foch. There were demands made as regards the delivery up by Germany of trucks and wagons, and it was suggested that he had not, under the terms of the Armistice, enforced to the utmost the giving up by Germany of their transport wagons and engines. On that he was interviewed about three weeks ago by the representative of a French newspaper. The result of the interview was this, that both Germany and Austria were on the verge of starvation, and that any further interference with these transport facilities might have the most terrible results. Therefore I want to make certain, as far as the attitude of this country is concerned, that nothing will be done to increase either the area or the difficulties of this great famine question by insisting on the delivering up of transport wagons, and engines, without which no food supplies can really be distributed in the distressed districts. I must say that I think the question of starvation is one which goes before all others.

The last question I wish to put no doubt raises a rather wider question, but there are two great difficulties from which Central Europe is suffering at the present time. One is unemployment, and the other is the want of productive commodities which, as soon at any rate as the blockade is raised, might be exchanged for food supplies. You cannot deal with this matter artificially. These huge populations must either be in a position to supply themselves with food or to produce commodities which they can exchange for the food supplies which they desire and demand. What I want to ask the noble Earl is whether he can give any intimation on the point of interference with what I may call the natural course of trade, and more particularly with the supply of raw material. What is going to happen, apart from temporary measures in the next six months, so that these normal industrial conditions may be revitalised and in order that in the normal industrial manner a great misfortune of this kind may be averted? You cannot do it artificially. You may make up for a time for want in particular districts, but the areas are too large and the difficulties too great, and what we want to do is to encourage industrial reconstruction and general industrial production in Central Europe at the earliest possible moment. At least what I plead for is that nothing should be done to put any artificial restrictions on reconstruction of that character. This is a matter which those who have looked into it carefully feel very deeply. They do not believe that there is any desire in this country except to use our national resources and our national influences to prevent this great catastrophe of a European famine, and I urgently hope, as I have no reason to suppose the contrary, that the Government will look upon this as a great and pressing matter and will do what they can in the real cause of humanity and of suffering.


My Lords, I have been asked to make a comprehensive statement on the general position, but this Question only appeared on the Paper this morning, and during the debate it has been enlarged into a discussion on foreign affairs of first-class importance. I regret that I can only answer your Lordships in very general terms. I think Lord Wimborne is aware that the British Government does not act alone in these matters, but that the arrangements for the relief of distress in Europe are in the hands of what is called the Supreme Economic Council, now sitting in Paris, on which Lord Robert Cecil is the British representative, and of which Mr. Hoover is, or up to perhaps a day or two ago was, what is called Director-General of Relief. These matters, therefore, are not settled in London or by the British Government.

As regards the statements made this afternoon, there is no concealment of the fact that the situation in Central and South-Eastern Europe gives cause for grave anxiety. The Question only refers to Central Europe, which presumably would mean Southern Germany, Bohemia, and Northern Austria, and so on. But what I say applies to Northern Europe as well as Southern Europe, notably the Balkans, equally. I say the situation throughout Europe is very serious. I do not mean to convey to your Lordships that since the Armistice nothing has been done to relieve distress. On the contrary, at the present moment Austria is being fed partly from British Army resources, partly from supplies advanced by Italy and by Switzerland. Effective steps have been taken both from this country and from the Supreme Council in Paris to send food to Rumania. As regards Germany itself, 30,000 tons of bacon are on their way there, or are due at Rotterdam for German account by the middle of this month, and very large quantities of condensed milk are likewise on their way to the same destination. Arrangements have been made to assist the Serbian position, and steps have also been taken with regard to distress in Lithuania, Esthonia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Montenegro, and Finland, and I think I am correct in saying Bulgaria also, but I am not quite sure about Bulgaria. I wish your Lordships to understand that what one of your Lordships referred to—namely, the internal difficulties of the country—may be such as to paralyse, if not to eliminate altogether, the employment of relief from outside the country. The Russian case I quoted to your Lordships a few days ago. Russia is starving. People are starving in Russia by the thousand, owing to the new dispensation of politics. But it is no good our sending foodstuffs to Russia, because those foodstuffs cannot reach the suffering population. That equally applies to other countries as well, transport having collapsed in some cases and everywhere having been seriously impaired.

Although arrangements such as I have described have been made and are still being made, it is no use suggesting that they are adequate to meet the needs of the situation. They are not. One must, in the first place, remember the technical fact that it is difficult to relieve countries which are bankrupt—very difficult, especially when internal distribution is such that their transport (as I described it) is worse than it has been ever before, after several years of war; and, finally, when one has to make these arrangements with Governments which are apt to change from month to month. In the case of Germany there is this particular difficulty—and I invite the very special attention of your Lordships to this fact—that the tonnage, the mercantile marine of Ger- many, which has been demanded by us from her ports in order to relieve distress is not yet forthcoming. It is a most significant fact. I do not pretend to explain it. I do not know how much German tonnage there is, but I doubt not it is a couple of million tons. Yet, although in the first terms of the Armistice (which I read to your Lordships on November 11 last) the Allies expressed themselves as ready to do something effective for relieving German distress, from that day to this we have not got one ton of the German mercantile marine delivered in Allied ports. That puts an entirely new complexion on the whole situation of Central European distress, and it is one to which, when the supreme body in Paris is blamed, attention should in fairness be given.

Lord Lansdowne asked when the blockade was going to be raised. I am afraid I cannot possibly answer a question like that except by consulting the supreme authority in Paris, and clearly I could not even then reply without obtaining from them a most carefully written and considered Note to communicate to Parliament. But in view of what I said to your Lordships just now about tonnage—that Germany has failed to surrender any of this tonnage—I imagine that fact is taken into account by those, Marshal Foch and others, who take the view that the time is not yet ripe for completely raising the blockade. I would ask your Lordships to take note of this point, that so far as our own Allied requirements are concerned we have only just sufficient tonnage to meet our own needs and those of our Allies. This tonnage is not sufficient in quantity to give us a free choice of market. It is still inadequate in bulk to allow us to choose our markets for foodstuffs, to go, if you like, to the most distant markets for grain. We ourselves simply have not got enough tonnage to pour food into enemy and ex-enemy countries. We fed a great part of Europe throughout the war, and we are not in a position to feed the whole of Europe immediately after the war. So far as tonnage is concerned we shall have, for the moment at any rate, to look largely to the efforts of the United States of America for providing deficiencies.

In conclusion, I repeat that the Supreme Economic Council in Paris is fully aware of the profound seriousness of the whole situation, and it is hoped that during the course of the next few weeks, pending the transfer of the German mercantile marine, it may be possible to concert some emergency measures which may stave off an impending disaster.


My Lords, I cannot help rising to express my surprise at one suggestion made by my noble and learned friend on the other side in his final remarks as regards the restoration of manufactures and the means of employment in Central Europe (as I understood him). Not one word of sympathy came from the noble Lord as regards the state of affairs in Belgium and France.


I mean generally.


What has Germany suffered? Her factories have not been destroyed. Her capacity for turning out munitions has not been destroyed by any enemy, unless it be on the borders of the country which our aeroplanes were able to reach. She ought to be in full capacity for turning out material. But what of Belgium? I rise only for this reason, that I happened in the course of business to interview quite recently a gentleman from Belgium. He had returned from two years internment in Germany, and he had arrived in Belgium. His description of it to me was: "There is not one single thing in Belgium; absolutely nothing to be got. I wanted a suit of clothes, and had to go to England to get it." Belgium wants very urgently—and I imagine Northern France also—


Hear, hear.


Belgium and France want the means to restore their factories, the actual buildings, but they cannot do that because they have not the transport. The lines have been destroyed. All they have is the river transport. The canals have been destroyed, the railways have been destroyed, and the roads have been destroyed; and until these are restored they cannot get the material to rebuild their originally thriving factories. Surely, they come far before Central Europe! Belgium is endeavouring now to make arrangements in this country which will enable her to buy the machinery without which it is impossible for her to start any of her industries. Even then, until the interior means of communication can be restored, it is impossible for her to re-start her factories. There is the real difficulty, and there the country that is suffering; and I must say that I am surprised that the noble and learned Lord should speak in such sympathetic terms of Central Europe, which ought not to have suffered, and should have not one word of sympathy for the country which was first outraged.


May I say one word by way of explanation? I had not the slightest desire not to express my most intense sympathy with the conditions in Belgium. All I said was—and I did not know I had limited it—that I hoped there would be no interference upon securing the essential conditions which I think are necessary in order to reconstruct the industries—the very point to which the noble Lord has referred.


My Lords, I agree entirely with Lord Harris, that our first duty is to our despoiled and maltreated Allies before we think of the communities of Central Europe, and I hope and believe that this is the view of the great authorities in Paris. I confess I am appalled at the amount of human suffering which we are witnessing at this moment, and I was very much gratified to hear my noble friend the Chancellor of the Duchy say that it was very much at the heart of His Majesty's Government to do what they could to prevent the awful catastrophe of general starvation befalling these unfortunate people. Although our enemies have behaved wickedly to us, and although we have deep reason to complain, yet we cannot but be deeply sorry for the women and children and the poor who may be reduced to these awful straits. In anything that the Government can do to relieve this misery, let me assure them they will have the sympathy of the great mass of our people. We are not vindictive as a people, and speaking as an Englishman to Englishmen—and may I say as a Christian to Christians?—we must do what we can, consistently with the other great obligations upon us, to relieve the misery even of our enemies. I am greatly gratified that this is also the view of His Majesty's Government.


Perhaps I may be permitted to say that in using the expression "Central Europe" I included all that part of Europe which lies east of the Rhine, and which embraces not only the country of our enemies, but the country also of friendly races, such as Poland and Bohemia. I was not thinking only of our enemies but of the general conditions of Europe, to which the Chancellor of the Duchy in his reply has alluded. I should like to say how much I thank him for his statement, which I think is on the whole of a very satisfactory character. I quite realise the immense difficulties, the enormous complexity, and the almost superhuman task which the feeding of Europe involves, but in view of the statements which have fallen from Ministers during the course of the last week or so I thought that it would be an advantage to give the Government an opportunity of making the sort of statement which has fallen from the Chancellor of the Duchy to-day.