HL Deb 16 May 1923 vol 54 cc188-98

My Lords, I beg to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs the Question of which I have given Notice—namely, what decision has been reached with regard to the definition of the Eastern frontiers of Poland, and their recognition by the Allied Powers. I am conscious that the Question is a somewhat belated one. Returning last autumn from a stay of some weeks in Poland I was inclined at once to put a question of this kind to the noble Marquess had occasion offered, because I came back full of the impression of the urgency of some decision in reference to the matter of these frontiers of that country. But political events in this country intervened. They were followed by a time of severe stress for the noble Marquess, in which I certainly would not have thought of adding by the smallest featherweight to the heavy burden of anxiety and responsibility which rested upon him and has rested upon him for the last six months. I am glad that I waited, because the presence of the noble Marquess here, to-day, notwithstanding that this is a time of very great anxiety to him, fills me with confidence that I can ask for a record of something achieved. It is far better than entering upon an inquiry which might appear to be dictated by a critical spirit or a spirit of recrimination.

I do not propose therefore to take up much of your Lordships' time in referring to the past history of the Polish frontiers but to pass on to the most recent stage—namely, that which followed the events of the summer of 1920—and to ask the noble Marquess to give your Lordships such information as he can afford of the present state of affairs. I may remind your Lordships that this country is undertaking—I speak, of course, subject to correction by the noble Marquess if I am wrong—in common with the other Great Powers certain responsibilities as to the setting up of the independent State of Poland. That alone gives a certain importance to any question concerning the boundaries of that State. But that a State thrice dismembered in the course of 150 years in the interests of autocracy, should reappear in the comity of European nations as a united independent and democratic State is certainly an event of very great importance. The influence of such a State and the part it may be called upon to play in the future peaceful development of Central and Eastern Europe is assured by its position on the extreme limit of western civilisation and in the midst of the fragments of Russian, German and Austrian imperialism. With these few words I have conveyed to your Lordships, I think, that which to my mind gives importance to the question of the boundaries of that State.

The Treaty of Versailles and the instruments connected with it did no more than set up an independent Polish State. The Prime Ministers of Great Britain, France and Italy, in 1918, jointly declared that the creation of a united and independent Polish State with free access to the sea constituted one of the conditions of a solid and just peace and the rule of right in Europe. I think we may assume that this declaration describes one of the purpose" with which those three Powers went into the Conference of Versailles and that purpose was carried out to a limited degree; that is to say, such a State was set up but its frontiers have to this day, or until recently at least, never been clearly defined. Article 87 of the Treaty of Versailles empowered the principal signatories of the Treaty to define through their representatives at some future time what those frontiers might be. In other words, representatives to be appointed at some unspecified time would at, some unspecified date declare what certain statesmen had in their minds when they decreed the creation of a united and independent Polish State with free access to the sea.

Your Lordships will readily conceive that it is a matter of some difficulty and some delicacy for those who might be called upon to perform that duty. The minds of politicians are not easily fathomed, and after the lapse of five years, during which some of those politicians may have exercised the common right, which we all have, of changing our minds, it became increasingly difficult to ascertain what was really intended. And it became the more delicate, inasmuch as upon the results of this investigation of politicians' minds depended the establishment of a solid and just peace and the dominance in Europe of the rule of right. Difficult as the task no doubt has been, it has been confined happily to the hands of skilled diplomatists, and they have accomplished their task. I read in the month of March last in The Times that the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris had signed a Protocol dealing with this question of frontiers and my purpose to-day is to ask that your Lordships may be informed as to the scope and character of the decisions arrived at and recorded in that Protocol.

I have said that the frontiers have remained for a long time undefined. Neither official geography nor international diplomacy could in the last five years have given anyone any accurate information as to where Poland began or ended in the East. I hope this condition of things has now been brought to an end. After the events of 1920, to which I alluded just now, and the defeat of the last Soviet raid into Poland, the Polish Government entered into negotiations with the Soviet authorities, and concluded with them an Agreement in the following year by which the Eastern frontier was laid down in general terms. When I was in Poland last autumn I was able to ascertain that a very considerable part of that long frontier had already been demarcated by a Joint Commission from the Soviet and the Polish Governments. It is a long line and it has several sectors, each one of which divides the territory of Poland from that occupied by one of the peoples who are included to some extent in what was formerly the Russian Empire.

It is difficult to explain the condition of things where a huge country exists that cannot be said to have any regular government. This Polish territory is divided from that of the Lithuanians, and from those also of the Little Russias, White Russia, the Ukranians and the Rumanians, and in all these different sectors different problems arose which had to be settled more or less on the spot. But one thing about which I was able to satisfy myself completely was that whether the frontier was demarcated or not by frontier posts, whether it was recognised or not by the great Powers signatory to the Treaty of Versailles, Marshal Pilsudski had realised his conception of a moral frontier extending throughout this region, on the eastern side of which there was nothing but rapine and chaos, whilst on the western side there was law and order, peace and protection for life and property. Of that I can speak from my personal knowledge.

In these circumstances, I have said enough to assert the importance of this question in general politics, and I will only add a few words to express my ardent hope that our Government has been able to take up a firm and comprehensible attitude in regard to Poland. That did not exist previous to the events to which I have referred as occurring a few months ago. I was very much struck by the extraordinary development that has taken place in a country which I knew well some thirty years ago, when it was no longer a nation—the development, that is, which has taken place in the short period that it has existed as a free and independent State. The Government, which has been submitted to a great deal of criticism both here and abroad, has certainly shown wisdom in its general lines of policy, that of conciliating the minorities which exist within its boundary, of setting up that which did not exist in the former days to which I have alluded, a thoroughly national system of education, and of developing and restoring its old system of internal communications which had been wrecked during the war. That is a very notable record for a Government which has only existed for two years with peace. A little more than two years ago she was subjected to that raid to which I have referred.

Another remarkable thing was the zeal and earnestness with which all classes were working for the reparation of the destruction caused by war—the reparation of a devastated condition the like of which I have not seen in any country in Europe, not even in the most devastated regions in France. One could not fail to realise that for a nation which had set itself to its task so nobly peace was the great condition of success, and that peace could only be assured when the frontiers of the country were established and guaranteed by international compact. From her geographical situation Poland lives constantly subject to a great menace and she is obliged to prepare against it. She is obliged to maintain military forces perhaps in excess of what might be considered desirable in her financial condition. But those forces are necessary so long as this condition of uncertainty and menace continues. For the reasons that I have imperfectly endeavoured to put before your Lordships I have considered it desirable to ask the Question which stands in my name.


My Lords, with reference to the opening remarks of the noble Lord, and the consideration which he was good enough to remind us he has always been willing to extend to the labours and anxieties of the Foreign Office, I can assure him that his intervention in our proceedings has never added any perceptible weight to a burden which is admittedly heavy. And for this reason: His interpositions in our debates are rare in number; they are never inopportune, and they are always concise in dimensions. It is true that the noble Lord, in the course of the remarks to which we have just listened, spoke somewhat disrespectfully of politicians and drew an unfavourable contrast between our activities and those of the diplomatists. I might, in ordinary circumstances, be disposed to take up that challenge, but inasmuch as this afternoon I am not so much a politician as I am speaking for the diplomatists. I must allow the gibe which he passed upon me in one respect to pass unnoticed in view of the compliment which he paid to the class of able men for whom, for the moment, I am speaking here.

The noble Lord said with truth that it was perhaps just as well that a delay had ocurred in the making of his speech, because had he spoken when he returned from his journey last year I should not have been able to give as definite a reply as I can to-day. The circumstances have advanced since then. He knows well what the present position of the frontiers is, and undoubtedly any representative of the Government speaking to-day may-adopt a more confident and more definite tone than he might have been able to do six months or a year ago.

The question of the frontiers of Poland is one, as the House knows, of the utmost complication, partly for the reasons named by the noble Lord—namely, that the Polish State is coterminous with a large number of other States with differing populations, partly because the determination of the new frontiers has, in addition to its own inherent difficulty, been delayed by commotions and disturbances, and sometimes even by fighting, in the regions concerned. The Polish frontiers might be dealt with, if I had been asked to do so, in quite a number of sections, but the Question of the noble Lord upon the Paper is confined only to the Eastern frontier of Poland, and if is to that branch of the subject that his remarks have been exclusively directed. Therefore, it is with that alone that I feel called upon to deal in my reply.

I said that the question was complicated, and I would like to bring the present position of affairs before the House by indicating, quite briefly, the various stages through which, in the last few years since the war, it has passed. As everyone knows, the settlement of the Eastern frontier of Poland has turned almost entirely upon the solution that was to be given to the question of the future of Eastern Galicia. Eastern Galicia is a territory where the principal towns and what are commonly called the intelligent[...]ia of the population are in the main Poles, while the majority of the people inhabiting the country districts are Ruthenians. This area of Eastern Galicia was a part of Poland up to the, partition in 1772, and then it passed to the domination of Austria and in that position it remained until the Treaty of So. Germain, signed in September, 1919. When the Austrian Government ceded all her rights over Eastern Galicia to the principal Allied Powers to be disposed of by them as they might think best.

Meanwhile, in the later stages of the war, the Ruthenian inhabitants of Eastern Galicia had seized the country and joined the Ukranian Army. At the same time the Poles were fighting a series of battles against the Bolsheviks until at length, in May, 1919, the Poles launched a vigorous offensive against the enemy, defeated the Ukranians in battle and occupied the whole of Eastern Galicia. That was the turning point in the situation. The Supreme Council, representing the Great Powers who had fought and won the war, confronted with a fact which they had no means of disputing or disturbing, recognised, provisionally, the occupation of Eastern Galicia by Poland, and after several unsuccessful attempts to fix the future frontiers decided, in view of the local commotions that were existing, to postpone the examination of it until a rather later date. This examination, owing to the many pre-occupations that beset the Governments of Europe at that time, never took place, and, accordingly, a settlement devolved upon the Ambassadors' Conference at Paris, who were charged by the Powers with the duty of interpreting and executing the various Treaties of Peace.

In the course of this interval to which I have alluded the Poles concluded, in 1921, the Treaty of Riga, by which they fixed, so far as they were concerned, their Eastern frontier with the Soviet Government and with that of the Ukraine, leaving the whole of Eastern Galicia to Poland. In May, 1921, Poland set up a scheme of administration for Eastern Galicia involving a certain degree of local autonomy, and in September, 1922, they followed this up by passing a provisional law of autonomy in the Polish Diet. That scheme was submitted to the Governments of the principal Allied Powers. I went very carefully into it at the time, and I was rather doubtful as to whether the scheme of autonomy contained in the proposal was altogether adequate, but the other Great Powers appealed to, and concerned, raised no objection. Therefore, it was not only undesirable but impossible for us to stand alone.

Meanwhile, the long uncertainty upon this frontier was telling so heavily upon both parties that all were anxious to arrive at a solution, and accordingly the matter was finally referred to the Ambassadors' Conference in the early part of this year. A double question was referred to that Conference, that of the frontiers between Poland and Lithuania involving the fate of Vilna—to which the noble Lord has not referred and which was settled in a sense upon which I need not now dwell by the Ambassadors' Conference—and that of the Eastern frontiers which is under our examination this afternoon. This Conference discussed the matter and settled it, and on March 25 this year publicity was given to the decision.

It was as follows. They recognised the line which had been laid down in the Treaty of Riga, thus incorporating Eastern Galicia in the Polish State, subject to the condition which I have already indicated, and which was recognised by the Polish Government, that an auotonomous régime, should be established in that territory. This solution has found critics in some quarters, but I think your Lordships will see that in the circumstances of the case it was inevitable. It would have been impossible for many reasons—political, economic and strategic—to place Eastern Galicia in the borders of the Russian State, and there was the less necessity for considering any such solution because the Russian and Ukranian Governments had themselves disowned any such settlement and had ceded any claim they might have been held to possess. That alternative therefore could be dismissed. The second alternative was to leave Eastern Galicia to stand alone. Anybody who is at all familiar with local conditions will at once recognise that so small a State, divided in the manner that I have described, could not possibly have acquired such stability as would enable it to maintain an independent existence.

Consequently, the third alternative, which was adopted by the Ambassadors' Conference—namely, to incorporate it in the Polish State subject to safeguards for an autonomous provincial régime—was in the circumstances of the case the only practicable course. That decision, arrived at, as I have said, by the Ambassadors' Conference in March of the present year, has been accepted by all the Allied Governments concerned, and the latest reports from our local representatives are to the effect that it has been on the whole accepted by both parties, that matters are settling down and that the clouds are lifting in that rather troubled part of Central and Eastern Europe. That is the decision which the noble Lord asked me to explain this afternoon.

When he went on to say that our sympathies ought to be enlisted on the part of the Polish State, and that now that her frontiers are fixed and, as time passes, the institutions of her new life are becoming more solidly grounded, our sympathies ought to lie with her in her endeavour to build up a strong national existence in that part of the world, he was expressing a view with which everyone in the House will agree. I am myself strongly hopeful that under the conditions which I have described this afternoon a brighter future, a future resting upon surer foundations, lies before the Polish State than could have been predicted a few years ago, and the friends of Poland, many of whom are seated in this House—notably, the noble Lord himself—can now, I think, look forward with reasonable confidence to the future.


My Lords, I am sure that the friends of Poland, of whom, as your Lordships know, I have sometimes shown myself to be one, have listened to the speech of the noble Marquess—not only to the sympathetic spirit of that speech but to the evidence it showed of the care which he has given to the subject—with much satisfaction. I have ventured to ask the noble Lord by a private notice which I sent him if he could include in his reply any information which could properly be given without embarrassing negotiations, or otherwise having any detrimental effect on the public service, as to the one outstanding factor concerning the Polish frontiers which, I believe, still remains. I refer to the future of the common frontier between the Polish State and the Czecho-Slovakian State.

I believe it to be still unsettled, and such geographical authorities as one can consult give one very little information. They do show, however, that there seems to be a natural mountain line between the two States, and I am bound to say that it is not possible to point to any particular great centre of industry on one side or the other of which the new frontier could be made to fall. Nevertheless, it is evidently a subject of anxiety to the rulers of the Polish State, because I find an assertion by the Polish Foreign Minister, in March last, to the effect that he hoped that during the approaching visit to Warsaw of the Czecho-Slovakian Minister it would be possible for him to make a gesture which would bring about the possibility of an arrangement. He said that Poland asked for the sacrifice of one commune, and was prepared to cede two others in return. Any information which the noble Marquess can give us will perhaps afford even further satisfaction to those who have heard his speech with so much pleasure this afternoon.


My Lords, I can speak again only by leave of the House, but I gladly respond to the request of my noble friend, which reached me a little while before I came down here. As he has been good enough to recognise, the question of the frontier to which he refers is not directly raised in the Question on the Paper, but ho is quite entitled to ask for such information on the subject as we may possess.

The question that he has raised relates to only a small section of the frontier between Poland and the Czecho-Slovakian Slate. The dispute has arisen about one small district upon this contemplated line, bearing the name of Javorina. I will tell the House and the noble Lord in a few sentences how this has come about. The frontier between Poland and Czechoslovakia was laid down originally by the Paris Agreement of July, 1920. It was then agreed that this frontier should be defined by a Boundary Commission which had a certain liberty to suggest minor modifications of the line. It was while the frontier was thus being traced by the Boundary Commission that a, dispute arose between the Poles on the one hand and the Czecho-Slovakians on the other with regard to this little area in the neighbourhood of Javorina. It was hoped for a while that the matter might be settled by negotiations between the Polish and Czecho-Slovakian Governments, and an Agreement was concluded between them with a view to arranging for such a settlement. The two Governments failed, however, to arrive at an agreement, and the matter then came back to the Ambassadors' Conference; and undoubtedly it is in the power, and would in the last resort be the duty, of the Ambassadors' Conference to prescribe a line.

The main difficulty that has arisen has sprung from the attitude of Dr. Benes, the very energetic and capable Foreign Minister of the Czecho-Slovakian State. He has declared the impossibility from his point of view of giving away the position which he has taken up, and there the matter for the moment rests. Meanwhile, the Ambassadors' Conference have, in the hope of arriving at a peaceful settlement, deferred their final decision until the spring of this year; that is, until now, in the hope that the two Governments concerned might arrive at some friendly understanding before that date. Failing such an understanding the Ambassadors' Conference must be trusted to decide upon the best line available, after due consideration of the evidence of the Boundary Commission placed before them, and with due regard to the interests of the two Powers principally concerned. That is a duty which will presently devolve upon the Ambassadors' Conference, and they must be trusted to discharge it with the impartiality and desire for peace which has so far characterised all their proceedings.


My Lords, I only wish to say a few words in order to thank the noble Marquess for the statement he has made in answer to my Question, and to assure him that I feel certain that such a statement, showing such a mastery of the situation and such a sympathetic view with regard to it, cannot but produce a very admirable effect upon the countries most affected. I beg the pardon of the noble Marquess if, by anything I said, I seemed to east any slur upon such a politician as he is, for I have never myself decided whether I should consider him as a politician or as a diplomatist, as he combines the good qualities of both.