HL Deb 15 November 1934 vol 94 cc495-511

LORD MARLEY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have been in communication with the French Government with regard to the recent statement of the late M. Barthou, French Foreign Minister, concerning the approaching plebiscite in the Saar Territory; whether any representations have been made to the League of Nations regarding the desirability of a definition by the League of the "status quo," so as to include the possibility of a further plebiscite in the future; and if not, whether the matter has been considered by the Government with a view to instructions being given to the British representative at the approaching Session of the Council of the League of Nations, to press for the immediate publication of such a definition; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for bringing forward this very important question, because it is fraught with the gravest possible dangers to the peace of the world. I do apologise for bringing it forward at this late period of the Session. I did so only because the Council of the League of Nations will be sitting on the twenty-first of this month; that is to say, next week before the new Session of Parliament commences. Therefore I was unable to put it off as I had hoped. The question is a very delicate and very difficult one, and I think I should say that I am speaking from a personal point of view, although the line I shall take will, as a rule, have the support of the Party to which I belong. May I begin by reminding your Lordships of the immensely grave responsibility of the League of Nations in this matter of the Saar territory? The League of Nations has the power of appointing and removing all members of the Saar Governing Commission, and the Saar Governing Commission have all the powers of government in the Saar, and therefore the Council of the League of Nations is ultimately responsible for the work and activities of the Saar Governing Commission.

The Saar Governing Commission have immense responsibilities, because under Article 30 of the Annex to the Covenant, which is, I may say, an inherent part of the Covenant and accepted by Germany and France, they are responsible for the protection of persons and property in the Saar, and are also responsible for the creation of administrative and representative bodies, as they may deem necessary, in the Saar. The League has this heavy responsibility, and when we remember the partial failure of the League to deal adequately with the Manchurian difficulty some years ago, and the blow to the prestige of the League of Nations which resulted from that failure, I think it becomes extremely important that there should be no failure on this occasion. In the case of the Manchurian difficulty there was the excuse of the very great distance to Manchuria, and the great difficulty of operations by the League at such a distance, but there is no such excuse in the case of the Saar, which has been continuously under League control ever since the separation of that territory fifteen years ago.

Therefore the League has had every opportunity of considering every aspect of this important question, and it is of vital importance, because a wrong move may precipitate actions which, we cannot deny, may even bring us to the verge of another world war. The vital importance of any such danger needs no underlining by me. At the same time the League must consider its responsibility, realised, accepted and foreseen fifteen years ago, to a very important minority of inhabitants in the Saar, and under Article 30 the Governing Commission, and therefore the League, are responsible for 'the protection of persons and property in the Saar basin. They have a further responsibility under Article 29, to secure 'that persons shall be able to deal with their property and receive a fair price.

The position as it stands is that certain persons, certain minorities in the Saar, are suffering not only grave economic difficulties, and not only grave economic injustices, by boycott and so on, but are suffering from physical attacks, attacks on religion, and even from more serious dangers. I do not need to remind your Lordships that, of course, when the Saar was constituted a separate territory under the Treaty of Versailles it was agreed that in fifteen years time the inhabitants of the Saar should have the right to vote, by plebiscite, on three main questions: whether they should go to Germany, whether they should go to France, or whether they should remain under the status quo, and the League had the responsibility of preparing for this plebiscite, and ensuring that the people should have a free, just and clear opportunity for voting.

The Saar basin is clearly almost entirely German, and the vast mass of the inhabitants want to be reunited to their Fatherland, and up to a couple of years ago, there is no question, a vote; had it then been taken, would have resulted in 95 per cent. of the inhabitants voting for an immediate return to Germany. The inhabitants, who number about 600,000 or 700,000, still love their country, and still want to go back to their coun- try, but there has been a change of Government in Germany, and some of these inhabitants fear that if there were a return to Germany at the present moment there might be inflicted upon them a certain repression of religion such as has been applied to their co-religionists in Germany. Certain of them, belonging to political Parties opposed to that political Party which is in power in Germany, fear that they might suffer physical disabilities, imprisonment, concentration camps, or even death, were they immediately to return to Germany.

Again there are a certain number of Jews living in the Saar, and they fear that the policy of repression of Jews might be applied to them in the event of an immediate return to Germany. There is one other section of the population now living in the Saar which has grave reason to fear an immediate return to Germany, and that is composed of the many thousands of refugee emigrants who have fled from Germany to avoid persecution, who are now living in the Saar, but whose position would be clearly quite intolerable were there an immediate return of the Saar to Germany. The position of these refugee emigrants would make extremely difficult the task of the High Commissioner appointed by the League of Nations to deal with refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, coming from Germany. The High Commissioner, Mr. James G. McDonald, has his headquarters in London, and at the last meeting of the Governing Body it was pointed out that he was dealing with something like 60,000 to 70,000 refugees, the large majority of whom were unable to obtain a living in the countries of their temporary adoption, and this number would be enormously increased were the refugees now in the Saar forced to flee from that country into France or adjoining countries.

The fear even now existing in the Saar is no chimera. I happen to have come into personal contact with a number of men and women, some of whom I visited in hospitals, some of whom were still bandaged from wounds they had received in attacks by persons politically opposed to them. In all cases this physical terror which is being applied in preparation for the plebiscite is found to be extraordinarily difficult to deal with by the Saar Governing Commission. It is reinforced by a moral terror applied to the Catholic population. Three-quarters of the inhabitants are Catholics, and their organisation for the protection of the religion which is dear to them is being bitterly attacked and rendered very difficult under the conditions of the moral terror which is being applied to them. The moral terror also takes the form of warning people that the Nazi organisation in the Saar, the Deutsche Front, will know how they have voted and will deal with them if they vote for the status quo. The term used is "Wait till 1935," and the new calendars issued say, "Only seventy-four more days," or whatever the number may be; and this is interpreted as a threat to prevent a free vote by the inhabitants of the Saar.

The Chairman of the Governing Commission, Mr. Knox, an Englishman, in his last Report to the League of Nations—a Report of very, very grave significance—indicated his discovery of the existence of a private Nazi police force, of widespread persecution, boycott applied to families and the shops of persons known to have political opinions other than those of the Nazi group, and espionage, especially among the Catholics; and he brought out the fact that even his own butler had reported to the Nazi organisation the private conversations which took place at his own dinner table in the house occupied by himself as Chairman of the Governing Commission. One other serious fact he reported, and that was the organisation of plans to kidnap refugees who, having fled from Germany and taken refuge in the Saar, were now threatened with the possibility of being seized illegally and taken back again. A vote cannot be free in these circumstances, and the League of Nations has this heavy responsibility, and assuredly it is necessary that our country, which from time immemorial has had thought for and tried to aid minorities, should in the Saar reinforce the authority of the League for the protection of these poor people.

The preparations for the plebiscite, which takes place on January 13, 1935, have, I think, been left very late. But I am convinced that the voting will, in fact, be absolutely secret. I have interviewed and discussed with great care the plans of the Commission appointed by the League of Nations to prepare the plebiscite. The presiding officers will be foreigners, who can be relied upon, I fully believe; and I hope very much that it may be decided by the League—and I also hope very much that the Government will instruct our representative on the Council to press for this—that the votes, when they have been put into the boxes in the various polling districts in the Saar, may be taken unopened to Geneva to be counted, because that would give considerable confidence to the voters that nobody in the Saar could know how they have voted. That is a technical point, and one in regard to which there is no difficulty of fulfilment. It would have the effect of giving very real confidence to the voters that their votes are secret.

I said that the voting had to be for return to Germany, for being joined to France, or for the status quo. As regards the vote for France, we can put that aside. An infinitesimal minority only can possibly vote for such a decision, and we can leave it entirely on one side. Therefore it amounts to this, that the voters have to vote either for return to Germany or for the status quo, and here the voter is in a great difficulty, because he does not know what is the meaning of the status quo. It has never been defined by the League of Nations. The late French Foreign Minister, M. Barthou, whose death is so profoundly regretted by members of your Lordships' House who knew him and appreciated the work he did, and who in his death did so much to prevent the outbreak of serious ill feeling between two European countries—M. Barthou in a Memorandum on behalf of his Government indicated the need for a definition of the status quo, and I hope very much that our Government were associated with him in that Memorandum and that request, because of our desire to help the voters in their task in the Saar. The League has, I believe, a clear duty to define the status quo and that duty is, I submit, inherent in Section 35 of the Annex to the Treaty of Versailles which is, according to Article 50 of the Treaty, "an integral part of the present Treaty" and Germany declares her adherence to it.

Section 35 says this: The League of Nations shall decide on the sovereignty under which the territory is to be placed, taking into account the wishes of the inhabitants as expressed by the voting: That means to say, as I interpret it, that the League of Nations must decide what will be the régime which will be established should a vote for the status quo be numerically large enough to have an effect on the League of Nations in accordance with that sentence. It goes on: if, for the whole or part of the territory,— and that gives the League power to divide the Saar territory— the League of Nations decides in favour of the maintenance of the régime established by the present Treaty and this Annex,— And may I remind your Lordships that that means the régime laid down in accordance with the powers given to it by the Governing Commission, a régime which has varied in the past, which has varied from time to time to suit different conditions, and which will of necessity vary in the future should the status quo be continued—then: It will be the duty of the League of Nations to take appropriate steps to adapt the régime definitively adopted to the permanent welfare of the territory and doe general interest. That means they have a duty to vary the régime according to the interests of the inhabitants.

But what is the good of leaving that until after a vote has taken place? Surely, inherent in this paragraph is the duty of the League to give a lead as to what they mean by the status quo before an actual vote takes place, so that people may know what they are voting for? That seems to me to be elementary, and I hope very much our Government feels that that is a necessary simplification for the voters before they have to make their momentous decision. If this is a duty, then a decision that the status quo does not preclude another vote at a subsequent date will influence those who fear an immediate return to Germany but who may succeed in the wish that is so dear to their hearts and go back to their own country when conditions are such that they need not fear persecution.

A mere suggestion by the League, even a passing reference, even a speech of someone in authority, would be sufficient to indicate that there could be another vote in ten or fifteen years—whatever the period may be—or even if in the régime defined by the League of Nations it were made clear that the present autocratic rule of the Governing Commission would be succeeded by democratic rule, in which the inhabitants of the Saar could themselves vote for another plebiscite when they were ready—that would be sufficient to reassure many who are afraid, particularly among the Catholics and those of political Parties opposed to the Nazis. It would give them a chance for voting for the status quo without appearing to be voting against their own country. That seems to be elementary justice and, if carefully carried out, it would not he interpreted by Germany as an affront, because the League could prove it was only carrying out its clear and bounden duty.

There are statements being made of the danger of armed intervention in the form of a pu[...]sch by Germany should there be a fear of the plebiscite going against Germany. The League of Nations has a responsibility for the safety not only of the inhabitants but of the Governing Commission, and in particular we are concerned with the safety of the Chairman, Mr. Knox, as an Englishman. Naturally I do not know what danger there is of a putsch, but I am convinced that should such an occurrence happen, the Governing Commission having the right and the duty to call in aimed forces from the other side of the frontier, from France, a very grave situation would arise under which there is a threat to world peace, for we must not forget that we have commitments under Locarno which might involve us in any such dispute.

It has been suggested that, instead of recruiting foreign police as authorised by the League of Nations to keep order within the Saar, there is something to be said for drafting to the Saar trained and disciplined units to be used as police. It is very hard to get discipline from a body of foreign police not speaking the language and composed of Dutchmen, Englishmen, Luxembourgers, Italians—a mixed lot—but it is possible to consider the advisability of drafting, say, a couple of thousand trained disciplined troops—two British battalions, for example—to be used purely as police, which might have the effect of warning any who contemplate armed intervention of the serious attitude of this country. I am only throwing that out as a suggestion which has been made, and it is possible and worth considering that some such suggestion might actually have the effect of preventing an outbreak of war.

The Government have given no clear lead whatever. We had a very brief intervention in the House of Commons by Sir John Simon on November 5, and it would seem from that reply that he really had no realisation of the immense responsibilities of this country in this matter and of the immense dangers which we are facing. The Prime Minister, with his customary lucidity, dealt with the matter on November 12, last Monday, but the whole policy seems to be one of hushing up the difficulty and dangers in the Saar, of skating over these dangers as though they did not exist. The whole policy seems to be to say as little as possible and to do as little as possible, and never to give a clear lead as to the line this country must take in support of the League of Nations in carrying through its responsibilities.

We have now in this country a considerable number of agents of the Nazis who are attempting to influence public opinion in one direction in this country. I make no objection to that. The Government have a perfect right to allow these visitors to our shores, but if they allow the protagonists of one side in this disagreement to come in, why not allow those who support the other side to come in? I have received a complaint from two or three young people representing Catholic and Socialist organisations in the Saar that they landed at Dover and were turned back, and sent out of this country, because, in the first place, it was said they had not enough money under the regulations; and when the money was provided by Catholic and other organisations in this country they were then turned back without reason given. Two have gone back to the Saar, and one is still waiting at Calais in the hope that there may be a change on the part of the Government. I do not expect the noble Earl who will reply to deal with that aspect of this question, although I did give him notice that I would raise it.

I submit that in the interests of justice, in the interests of our people and in the interest of the protection of minorities we should allow both sides of these problems to be heard. We have always been concerned with the minorities in all those countries which have signed the Minority Treaty under the League of Nations—the minorities in Poland, minorities in Hungary and minorities in other countries—and we have a still greater responsibility with regard to the minority in the Saar, coming as they do under the League of Nations to which we give support. I submit that the Questions I have put down have a very real bearing in connection with the carrying through of that responsibility. I beg to move.


My Lords, whatever we may think of the point raised by the noble Lord who has just spoken, there cannot be any doubt about the great seriousness of the situation as it exists to-day. I think the noble Lord was quite right when he suggested that His Majesty's Government, as a Member of the League of Nations, is partly responsible for the adequate provision of means for maintaining peaceful conditions in this territory during the time of the plebiscite. I feel sure that His Majesty's Government do recognise their responsibility in this matter, because the League of Nations is obviously part of the collective system to which the Lord Privy Seal and other members of the Government have told us from time to time that we as a nation are prepared to stand by. As I understand it, the responsibility in regard to the policing of the Saar territory has been laid upon the local police force or constabulary, supplemented by a certain number of persons who have joined the international gendarmerie during the last few weeks or months. We are told by persons who come from that territory that so far as the internal policing is concerned, these arrangements will probably suffice, but that there is always a danger, as the noble Lord, Lord Marley, pointed out, of pressure being exerted from across the frontiers—pressure coming not only from the other side of the Rhine but also from France—and that in the event of excitement and rioting the French troops may be suddenly rushed across the frontier.

If there were a reinforcing agency it could stand by and reinforce the police and gendarmerie. Assuming that the gendarmerie and the police within the territory are sufficient to meet the needs arising within the territory, I would ask what steps do His Majesty's Government propose to take, in case there is a putsch from one side or other of the frontier, to prevent such action from succeeding, and to reinforce the constabularies already on the spot? I think it is quite clear that there are two Members of the League of Nations who are directly interested in this matter—France and Germany—and, therefore, so far as possible, they should be precluded from taking any action at all in providing for the sanctions or in providing any forces which are necessary for the maintenance of law and order. They should be kept as far away as possible from the field of trouble. That appears to me a strong reason why the Government should say quite candidly and boldly what they intend to do, and that they should take the lead with other Members of the League who also occupy a neutral position. They should declare that they are prepared, if necessary, to send reinforcements of troops to assist the local constabulary in case of need.

Unfortunately, it is the traditional policy of this country always to sit on the fence until the last moment, not to make up our minds as to what we are going to do until the crisis has arisen. That is what we did in a much more important crisis twenty years ago. This may be a small and insignificant event in comparison with that crisis, but the same principle applies, and we should unequivocally state what our attitude is going to be before trouble arises, and not afterwards. Therefore I beg the Government to make our position perfectly clear. I understand that we have not put any obstruction or hindrances in the way of recruitment for the Saar gendarmerie. Your Lordships, I have no doubt, will be glad to know that that is so, but I do beg of the noble Earl who is to reply for the Government to take very carefully into consideration whether it is not better to prevent any kind of trouble happening by saying clearly that we are out to back up the Commission. We should say quite definitely and clearly that we intend to back up Mr. Knox, to back up the Commission and, if necessary, to reinforce the constabulary who are already under their instructions. The Council of the League, we are told, is to meet in the course of a few days. I venture to suggest that it would. be well on that occasion to clarify the position as far as this country is concerned, to tell the world that we are prepared to assume the responsibility which we have undertaken in the Covenant owing to our membership of the League, that we are prepared to back that responsibility and also the collective system. I must apologise for introducing a point which does not appear in the Notice on the Paper but it is a very important point connected with the settlement of this Saar problem which we all hope will be reached in a. peaceful and orderly manner.


My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has put three Questions on the Paper and he was good enough to give me information of one or two points which he intended to raise. With regard to the Questions on the Paper, I presume that the noble Lord refers to a statement that was made by the late M. Barthou at the League Council meeting on September 8, when he suggested that the Council should consider the question of defining, before the Saar plebiscite is held, what is meant by "maintenance of the present régime" for which the Saar electors are entitled to vote. The noble Lord will remember that that was contained in a Memorandum from the French Government; which came before the meeting of the Council on that date, was considered by the Council and was eventually referred to the Committee of Three which was established to go into the whole question of the Saar and to report to the Council. Therefore this is not a matter for discussion between His Majesty's Government and the French Government, but is entirely one for the League Council, who, indeed, have, as I said, referred it to the Committee of Three, which is sitting at this moment under Baron Aloisi to deal with questions affecting the Saar generally. Their Report will come before the Council next week. That Report has not been received by His Majesty's Government and it would be improper for them to express an opinion upon it until they have had an opportunity of considering it in full. I am not aware that any representations have been made to the League regarding the desirability of a definition by the League of the status quo so as to include the possibility of a further plebiscite in the future, and it is not proposed to instruct the British representative at the meeting of the Council in the sense suggested by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord dealt at some length with the responsibilities of the League. I am quite sure he will realise fully, as I am sure the House does, that we are one Member of the Council and therefore it is impossible for us to assume responsibility apart from that membership. He made a suggestion that the ballot boxes should be taken to Geneva. I will certainly bring that suggestion before my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and I am sure he will give it full consideration. With regard to the question of using troops in the Saar, I would point out to him that the police who are at present in the Saar are able to speak German and, I think, French. That, of course, places them in a very different position to that which would be occupied by any body of troops, particularly those who came from this country, who would probably know neither German nor French. Your Lordships may remember that my right honourable friend made a statement in another place—it was, I think, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Marley—in which he said that there never had been any question of the use of British troops and that nothing of the sort on our part was contemplated.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies—as thought when I saw him coming armed for the fray—could not resist making another attempt to bring forward what he calls his International Police Force. I am a little surprised that he should have done so because I think he should realise the implication that can be taken from this suggestion. We have always thought that an International Police Force—apart from other difficulties which, as he knows, are numerous—might be found inadequate for the occasion and might have to be reinforced by troops from other nations, who would then become involved in war. That is exactly the thing he has put before us. He suggested that the International Police Force in the Saar at this moment might prove inadequate and other nations might be called upon to provide troops who would, of course, be brought into the turmoil and, as the noble Lord, Lord Marley, correctly said, might possibly become involved in war. Therefore the possibility of an International Police Force for larger matters than the Saar is one which most of us would look upon with considerable apprehension.

The noble Lord opposite referred to the safety of Mr. Knox. I need hardly say that His Majesty's Government have given that matter earnest consideration for some time past and as Mr. Knox is not only a British subject but also a member of the Government service—although of course he has been seconded for service under the League of Nations—we decided that it was our duty to provide such protection as we could. We felt that the best form of protection we could offer was the protection of officers from the Secret Service branch of Scotland Yard; so we made an offer, which has been accepted, and for some time past officers from Scotland Yard have been on duty in the Saar to afford such protection as they consider best.

The noble Lord also referred to the refusal of entry to three gentlemen from the Saar who were anxious to come to this country. I understand that they make it quite clear that they wished to rouse public opinion in this country in regard to one particular form of voting in the Saar, that they wished to suggest that a particular vote was the right one to give. That, I understand, was the reason why they were refused admission. We hold very strongly that this is entirely a matter for the Saarlanders themselves to decide. It is, in fact, a very obvious case of self-determination. Therefore we were anxious not to take any kind of side one way or the other in regard to this matter. Indeed, we felt that in common with other Members of the Council of the League we are in the position of a returning officer, and that our duty as such is to see that a perfectly free vote is given, that the voting should be carried out in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, parts of which the noble Lord opposite quoted, so that the plebiscite should give a real indication of the views of the inhabitants of the Saar.

The noble Lord will realise that many of the questions which he has raised in his speech are questions which will have to come up for settlement when that vote has been given, because, as I understand it, the present form of government will go on after the vote has been given and until the matter comes before the Council under the section of the Annex which he quoted. He will remember that it is provided that: The League of Nations shall decide on the sovereignty under which the territory is to be placed, taking into account the wishes of the inhabitants as expressed by the voting. That of course means after the voting has taken place. Therefore, as I have said, being in the position of a returning officer we do not feel that it is the duty of this country to make any statement at this moment as to what may happen as a result of that voting. We think that that world be grossly improper, and therefore we are awaiting the Report from the Commission of Three to the Council of the League next week. After that we shall see what is recommended to the. Council and what line we as a Member of the Council, and the Council as a whole, ought to take.


My Lords, I am very much obliged for the full reply which has been given by the noble Earl, and also for the intervention by a noble Lord on the Liberal Benches, drawing attention to one very serious aspect of this problem. Of course, I realised that the Commission of Three, sitting, I think, in Rome, would have to report before any official answer could be given, but I was very anxious to know whether the Government had given any instructions to our representative at the Council, and I am very disappointed to hear that no line of policy has been indicated as one which this country will follow in certain circumstances. That seems to me to lend point to the complaint which has so often been made by the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, that this country never will lay down a policy in advance but will always, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, sit on the fence until the thing has happened and then come down on one side or the other, but always—or too often—too late. I am very much obliged to the noble Earl for promising to carry through the suggestion about the ballot boxes. I think that would be a helpful point for the voters.

With regard to the police, I do not think it was made clear by the noble Earl that there is no intention that foreign troops used as police in the Saar shall be going about like the policemen of this country, walking about the streets, directing the traffic and so on. The idea of the Governing Commission is, as I have understood it, to maintain these organised police in barracks only to he used in case of need. There is no question of their coming in contact with the inhabitants. Th[...] idea is that they should be a disciplined and trained force to be called in by the Governing Commission in case of need rather than calling in French troops who are on the boundary and whose entry might be the cause of very wide and dangerous repercussions. As anybody who has been connected with the Army will realise, the recruiting of individuals from various countries cannot create a disciplined and controlled force. That takes months and even years. Therefore there is something to be said, though I throw out the suggestion with a good deal of hesitation, for the use of organised and trained bodies drawn from various countries—I do not say from one country only—rather than recruiting individuals from this and that country for such a delicate and difficult task.

I am obliged to the noble Earl for his reply to me about the three visitors from the Saar who were not allowed in. My information was that they were not here to advocate one way of voting, but that they were here to advocate that public opinion in this country should support my suggestion, for example, that the League of Nations should define the status quo before the voting took place so that the people would know what they were voting for. I can only leave the matter by saying that I cannot conceive how we can consider a vote to be free, and on an issue clearly placed before the voters, when one of the points upon which they must vote has never been defined and when it can have no meaning to the majority of those inhabitants. I think that is a matter of very profound concern to this country, and will be a profound disappointment to those minorities who are in danger and who are looking to this country to do something to protect them. I have on the Order Paper a Motion for Papers. I understand that the Report of the Commission of Three will be published?


I am not sure, but I imagine that it will be.


Assuming that the report of the Commission of Three is published, that of course will furnish all that I can hope to obtain, and therefore I would like permission to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.