HL Deb 17 May 1920 vol 40 cc335-9

LORD NEWTON rose to ask the Under-Secretary of State for War whether he can state what action is contemplated with reference to the German and Austrian subjects formerly resident in Palestine and now interned in Egypt.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a matter to which my attention has been called by the International Red Cross Society at Geneva. They have requested my assistance because it appears on the face of it to be a case of considerable hardship. It probably will be a surprise to a good many persons to find that now, eighteen months after the termination of hostilities and several months after the Treaties have been ratified, there are still a large number of persons in internment camps. These particular persons to whom the Question refers are not military prisoners at all; they are civilians. I am told that their numbers approach 2,000, and among these civilians are a large number of old men and women and chil- dren. They consist chiefly—though there are, I believe, a few Austrians among them—of persons of German origin who belong to a religious sect called, I believe, the Templars, who correspond more or less to the sect of Quakers in this country.

These people established themselves as colonists in Palestine about seventy years ago, and most of them have little direct connection with Germany at the present moment. When we occupied Palestine towards the end of 1917 and in 1918 these so-called German colonists were deported from Palestine and were interned in Egypt et the camps of Helwan and Sidi Beshir, and apparently the ultimate intention was to send them back to Germany, and Germany appears to have been the last country to which they desired to go, in view of present circumstances. In addition to that, as I have already explained, they had practically lost their German nationality already, and although they were German subjects all their interests and all their property were in Palestine.

According to the statements which have been made, these people were assured last year that the deportation to Germany would be suspended and that they would be allowed to return to their homes in Palestine. The allegation is now being made, though I do not vouch for the truth of it in the least—I sincerely hope it is not true—that these people are being kept in internment until they agree to go to Germany. I am informed that 190 German women and children arrived on May 9 at Stuttgart in a rather deplorable condition, inasmuch as they had no money, very little clothes, and many of the children were suffering from measles.

I confess that I find it a little difficult to understand the attitude of the British authorities in Egypt and Palestine with regard to this matter. If Palestine had been a British Colony it would be perfectly intelligible. As everybody knows, there have been cases in which the German residents in British Colonies had given evidence of enmity to this country and had made themselves objectionable in various ways, and the Colonial Governments, quite rightly, have in certain cases insisted on their deportation. If, again, Palestine had been a German colony there would be an equally good reason for deportating these people and for getting them to go back, because, as the House is aware, the question of the German colonies is speci- fically treated in the Treaty. Under (I think) Article 122 the Government which exercises the authority in an ex-German colony is fully entitled either to repatriate German subjects or to deal with them, their persons or their property, in any form that they think fit. But as a matter of fact, as everybody knows, Palestine has never been a German colony; it has never been a British Colony, and it is not a British Colony at the present moment. Palestine was a Turkish Province, and these people were inhabitants of that Province; therefore, however much they may have desired it, they had no particular opportunity of manifesting either their ill-will or their good-will towards this country.

But, apart from that, my information is that these so-called German and Austrian settlers in Palestine are perfectly harmless people and have made very good and useful colonists. I see opposite my noble friend Lord Lamington, who has recently been discharging public duties in that country, and he probably knows a good deal more about it than I do, and if he has anything to say this afternoon I expect he will bear out what I have just stated, that these people have committed no offence and were quite valuable in their way. It seems to me that in any case there ought to be some very convincing reason for keeping in internment a number of civilians—women, old men, and children—more especially in view of the fact that these unfortunate people have already passed one hot weather season in Egypt in an internment camp, and have now the prospect before them of passing yet another.

The record of this country and of this Government with reference to the treatment of enemy prisoners of war and of interned prisoners is one of which we have no cause whatever to be ashamed. I think that upon the whole our treatment will compare very favourably with that accorded to enemy subjects by any other Government. And, personally, in my experience I have almost invariably found that War Office action was actuated by humanity and good sense. It would be very unfortunate, in my opinion, if that record was in any way spoilt by what appears to be unnecessary harshness on the part of the authorities in Egypt or elsewhere, It is to my mind an additional misfortune that a case of this kind should be taken up by a neutral body such as the International Red Cross, and that a case of apparent harshness should be brought to their notice. I hope, therefore, that the answer which I receive will be one of a satisfactory nature, and that it will put a totally different complexion open the question.


My Lords, the noble Lord has referred to me as having been recently in Palestine. I was there last year. I gladly support him in his view as to the character of these German colonists. As is well known, the chief colonies are at Haifa, which is overshadowed by Mount Carmel, which has always been regarded as a particularly holy hill—in fact, it is generally known as "the Mountain of God"—not only by Christians, but by a certain sect of Mahomedans called the Bahais. These Germans went there originally because they believed that that was the spot where the second coming of Christ would take place, and at Haifa I never heard a word against the German colonists. I think the noble Lord was wrong in saying that the old men had been taken to Egypt. I spoke on the telephone to-day to a gentleman acquainted with this matter, and he said that the old men were left at Haifa to carry on the work of tilling the ground, and so on. I myself also saw a number of German women and children there. The whole basis of the colony is that of a religious order; and it therefore seems indescribably hard if, as represented by the noble Lord, there are still these German civilians interned in Egypt who are liable, not to go back to their own homes, but to be sent to Germany where they have no wish to return. I hope it will be possible, in the reply given by the Government, to show that the statements made have, perhaps, been exaggerated, but when the information comes from the source quoted by the noble Lord it looks as if it is only too true. Last year we were indebted to the work of Germans out in Palestine, but whether they were civilians or prisoners of war I am not certain. Owing to the demobilisation of our own men most of our repairs in connection with motor transport were done by Germans; in fact, we could not have gone on without them after demobilisation took place. It would be very unfortunate, if the facts are as stated by the noble Lord, that these German colonists should be treated in a way which would be distincty unfair if not rather vindictive.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Peel, who has to be present at a meeting of the Army Council, I have been asked to answer this Question. The position of German and Austrian subjects interned in Egypt, and the question as to whether they should be allowed to return to Palestine or whether they should be deported, is now under consideration by His Majesty's Government. I regret, therefore, that it is not possible to give any definite indication of the action which will be taken. Nevertheless, the speeches made by the two noble Lords will be noted by His Majesty's Government.


I confess that I am unable to regard the answer as in any way satisfactory. I rather think that it has been made before, and I beg to give the noble Lord notice that I shall repeat this Question at an early date.