HL Deb 17 May 1944 vol 131 cc805-10

LORD VANSITTART has given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Govern-men what steps have been taken to segregate Austrian and so-called Sudeten, that is German-Bohemian, prisoners of war from the ordinary Teuto-Prussians; and whether any such salutory measures are being applied to the German-speaking prisoners of war taken by the Armed Forces of this country and merely held for convenience in the United States or Canada.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the question that stands in my name, and before considering any further comments on the matter it would be only reasonable to hear the reply I am about to receive. I say this with the greater alacrity in that I understand that, anyhow, I should be out of order in making a speech at this point.


My Lords—


Order, order!


I understand my noble friend beside me is quite in order in discussing this matter.


I do not wish to do anything out of order.


My Lords, the noble Earl is quite in order in speaking, although there is no Motion.


I just want to add a word or two on this question of the segregation of prisoners of war into racial groups. I should like to suggest to the Minister who will answer the question that, instead of the racial division which is proposed in the question, it should rather be a political division, because in practice we must all recognize that this is a war of ideologies rather than a war of races. In fact we see among the Austrians that Adolf Hitler is a great exponent of the Nazi ideal. In any prison camp, as in any community, there must be a large proportion of followers, led and ruled by a small minority of leaders. I think you must find in any prison camp a small percentage of Nazis dominating the other prisoners and forcing Nazi ideals down their throats, and in my view you should segregate these unfortunate or misled Germans. If not, they may become more confirmed Nazis than perhaps they were when they were captured. I want to emphasize that it should be a political division—not a segregation of the Anti-Nazis from the Nazis, but rather a segregation of the violent Nazis from the mass of prisoners.

Perhaps also it would be possible for the noble Lord to say what proportion of members of the Nazi Party there is roughly among these prisoners, and what has happened, for instance, to the 999 Division captured in Tunisia who were all Anti-Nazis detailed for most dangerous and unpleasant work. I do not want to continue further, but I would like to suggest that perhaps some Commission of inquiry might be appointed to go into this subject of the prison camps because there have been unpleasant stories in the papers. Particularly I refer to what happened in Canada where two unfortunate Anti-Nazis were bullied and then murdered. One would be greatly relieved in one's mind if some Commission, taking evidence in camera, investigated this matter.


My Lords, as the noble Earl's speech entirely misrepresents the question that is on the Paper, I should like to reply to it right away. There is nothing racial whatever about my proposal. The plain fact is that Austria and the so-called German Sudetenland are going to be taken away from Germany, and it is on that basis that I wish the prisoners to be segregated. I differ entirely, as a matter of fact, from the last speaker in considering this an ideological war, in that I consider it a war to defeat the German lust for world domination. I do not think that is ideological at all. In the case of Austria, her destiny has been settled by the Moscow Declaration. It is on that basis that I ask that the prisoners be segregated. As regards the so-called Sudeten German, there is, as a matter of fact, "no such person." The so-called Sudeten Germans are merely German Bohemians who have invited themselves to live in Bohemia. Your Lordships may remember that in the 'nineties there was a bit of a campaign by the Hohenzollerns to detach these areas from their Hapsburg allies. There was nothing racial about that. It was ambitious and nothing else. The campaign was a flop, but that does not matter. It is well known that these Sudeten Germans or, as I prefer to call them, German Bohemians, have given a great deal of trouble, and this time they have either to behave themselves or go home. That is well recognized by the Party to which the noble Earl belongs. In the Report of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party it is said that all Germans living outside the postwar German frontiers, unless they are willing to be loyal subjects of the States in which they find themselves, without claiming any special privileges, should go back to Germany. There is nothing racial about that, and that is the basis on which I ask that segregation should take place.


My Lords, as I indicated when I was invited to express my opinion, it was competent for any noble Lord to offer some remarks on this question. My noble friend was probably aware in asking his question that he was entitled, as usual, to make a speech on the question. Perhaps I should say it is unusual, after deciding not to make a speech in asking the question, to make a speech later. I only mention that with great deference because I believe that is the custom in your Lordship's House. My noble friend will forgive me if, first of all, I try briefly to answer the points made by the noble Earl opposite. He suggested that prisoners should be segregated into political divisions. That is not a subject that I have been able to take counsel about. It is not included in the question. I would only say, as on reflection my noble friend will probably agree, that there might have to be a very great many stages to be gone through if we attempted to practise segregation in this form. But I am sure the noble Earl's view will be taken note of when the debate is read. Then he asked a question as to what proportion of the prisoners are Nazis. I cannot answer that question at present, but I should be very glad to ascertain the information if possible.

With regard to the question on the Paper by my noble friend Lord Vansittart, the Joint Declaration issued at the Moscow Conference made it clear that it was the desire of the three signatory Governments to see re-established a free and independent Austria. His Majesty's Government have considered it a logical consequence of the Declaration to segregate Austrian from German prisoners of war. Hitherto Sudeten Germans have not been treated in this way. His Majesty's Government are, however, prepared to consider the question of the segregation of Sudeten German prisoners with a view to deciding whether it is either desirable or practicable. I should like to make it clear, however, that it is at present by no means certain that it is either desirable or practicable. As regards the Austrians, the policy I mentioned has been carried out as far as it is administratively practicable to do so. In North Africa and in the Middle East, where considerable numbers of the German prisoners are held, the segregation is complete: that is Austrians and Germans have no contact with one another. In other respects the Austrians are treated in the same way as other prisoners of war. The number of German prisoners held in this country, as my noble friend will be aware, is relatively small and the number of Austrians is of course much smaller still. It is therefore not in all cases administratively practicable to make the arrange- ments which are necessary in order to separate Germans and Austrians.

As the noble Lord indicates in his question German prisoners are held by the United States of America and in the Dominions. But the terms of the noble Lord's question are perhaps somewhat misleading in this connexion. All Allied Governments, and this includes the Dominions, share the burden of providing accommodation for prisoners of war captured by the Allied Forces. Each Government is separately and independently responsible under the Geneva Convention for these prisoners of war it holds as Detaining Power. It has been suggested to the Canadian and Australian Governments that they might consider taking measures similar to those taken by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. I should emphasize, however, that this is entirely a matter for those Governments.


My Lords, I do not want to take advantage of the fact that I have a right to speak and the noble Lord, Lord Vansittart, has exhausted his right, so I will not reply to his provocative remarks to my noble friend beside me. But I would like to express my sympathy with my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State for War, because, although quite rightly as I consider, my noble friend beside me raised the real crux of the matter, that was not in the printed question and naturally the noble Lord, Lord Croft, did not have notice of it and could not make the inquiries.

I should, however, like if I may to put this argument to him. The information which reaches my noble friends on these Benches is rather disturbing. Quite apart from the question of the Austrians—and I personally agree with the segregation and with the arguments put forward by Lord Vansittart for segregating the Austrians—I believe the administration of the camps on the political plane does require more attention. The camp commandants are mostly retired officers, men with very distinguished careers but of a certain age, who, to put it quite plainly, do not want trouble. They look after the health and other interests of the men, but if they can arrange for the prisoners in the camps to run themselves they allow that to happen. The same thing of course takes place in Germany. In the prison camps there, at any rate where the British and American prisoners are, you have the same state of affairs. Prisoners will look after themselves and keep order and peace. The elderly German commandants are only too glad for that to be done.

The same thing occurs here; it is only human nature. But what happens in the case of the German prisoners? In practice it means that the ardent Nazis rule the roost. They keep order and take very good care to suppress, and in sane cases oppress, their fellow-countrymen who have seen the error of their ways. My noble friend quoted the cases of murder in Canada, and I am sorry to say I hear of bullying in this country of Anti-Nazis carried out by these Nazi thugs. The suggestion we wish to make from these Benches—and my noble friend is not alone in this matter—is that great care should be taken to separate these dyed-in-the-wool Nazis, these strong party men who are probably incorrigible, from the others. We think they should be put in separate camps so that the others may have some chance, by discussion, reading, listening to the wireless and other experiences, of seeing the evils of the régime which they have hitherto served.

In this connexion I must say I think the United Nations and our country in particular, have been unenterprising in using prisoners who are favourable to our cause. If the Germans can get any recalcitrant Poles, Czechs or Indians, they promptly put them into fighting units and make the greatest use of them both for propaganda and military purposes. If we can find prisoners who are willing to help, prisoners who have seen the evils of Nazism, I think we ought to use them. That is the suggestion we wish to make to my noble friend. I am sorry he was not given notice of it but I am sure he will be sympathetic. I assure him there has been a lot of uneasiness at the policy of drift with regard to these German prisoners of war camps, with perhaps evil results, and it has been suggested that at the end of the war the only convinced Nazis left will be prisoners of war.