HL Deb 11 July 1946 vol 142 cc377-401

5.53 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF SHEFFIELD had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government how many prisoners of war are held in this country and in the Commonwealth overseas; what is its policy in regard to their employment on civilian work and with regard to their repatriation; and move for Papers. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, in asking your Lordships to consider another large subject at the end of a very hot afternoon I fear I am being rather anti-social, but I shall try and be as brief as a rather difficult subject allows. May I begin by saying that in moving this Motion I make no criticism or complaint of the Prisoners of War Department or its personnel at the camps. From all the information which I have received—and I have received a good deal—they are doing their work fairly, firmly and well, not unappreciated by the prisoners themselves, and I think they ought to be warmly appreciated by members of this House. I could amplify that statement with a good deal of detail, but as time rather presses I am not going to do so, and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, in replying will be able to give a good deal of information of that kind. I should also like to say that his Department and those responsible for the camps, broad and large, have been most co-operative with those concerned with religions ministrations.

The only suggestion I would like to make is that if they could supply more interpreters then it would be possible for more English clergymen in the parishes to minister to prisoners in camps where there is no German pastor. It is also I think worthy of our notice that the Department in several ways has gone beyond what is required by the Geneva Convention: for example in the provision of places where religious ministrations can be carried on and in the setting up of a camp school where a considerable number of prisoners can pursue their studies as teachers and also, I understand, as theological students, though naturally the number is small compared with the large number of prisoners, It is not the fault of the personnel of the Department if in spite of their good work there has been a decline in the moral of prisoners in recent months, and it is to the effect of that decline that I would first draw your Lordships' attention.

Those of us who visited camps some months back were greatly impressed by the moral of the camp and by the keen appreciation of the educational services given, and all that kind of thing, but latterly there has been a change and the temper has become more sullen. There has been an increase of bitterness, even among men who before were reasonable. I am going to leave it to the Bishop of Lichfield to develop that point a little, but it is that fact which prompted me to put this Motion down for consideration. Evidence comes from all parts with regard to this decline in moral and the increasing sense of hopelessness among these men. Why, one asks, is there this rather disappointing change? It has been suggested that it may be partly due to the large influx of prisoners from across the Atlantic who possibly honed they were going to travel, farther than these shores, but it is cheery due surely to the fact that many prisoners have been separated from their families for a very long period of time. There is, as we all know, a good deal of evidence of the kind of psychological disturbance caused by these long separations both on serving men and especially, of course, upon prisoners. A psychiatrist who has done extraordinarily good service for our own men wrote to me recently and said this: Whether one is thinking of troops overseas or of men in prison camps it is equally true that the breakdown rate and the delinquency rate (and of course the same is reflected in the indices of bad moral), go up after eighteen months separation to a peak at about three years, and come down slightly and then go up again. Then he goes on, after discussing possible differences between German and British prisoners: Long separation must play its part and we shall eventually return to Germany a lot of men who are less fit and less adaptable to their surroundings than they would have been. He concludes: There is a case for investigating the matter more fully. It is, of course, common knowledge that prisoners, be they offenders or prisoners of war, are kept sane and reasonable by hope, and the immense number of prisoners of war in this country are losing hope. They have, after all, no Government to speak for them and to protect them. I am told that the reasonable ones realize the obstacle to their speedy return in the condition of their own country. They must also see that the unfortunate disagreements of the Allies, in deferring the settlement of Europe are also delaying matters. Again, they must be conscious of the way they are being used to make good the labour shortage in this country. Beyond all that, there is the immense amount of sheer human suffering, increased, possibly, rather than lessened, by the better communications and correspondence facilities between themselves and their families in Germany.

I wish to suggest to your Lordships that it is, possibly, the absence of any clear declaration of policy from the British Government which is adding to their hopelessness. And, certainly, while there is in the country at large a good deal of apathy about this subject, there is an increasing uneasiness on the part of a good many people in this country. It is being voiced also from outside the country. Some of your Lordships will, no doubt, remember, how His Holiness the Pope expressed himself rather freely on the subject about a month ago. The British Council of Churches inquired of the Secretary of State whether the Government had formulated any plan for the repatriation of these men, or whether their detention was to be for an indefinite period. The reply referred them to a reply to a question in another place, which I must say rather evaded the issue and ended up with words to the effect that prisoners who are unfit for work and anti-Nazis who can be of use in Germany are repatriated at frequent intervals. The voice, presumably, was the voice of the Secretary of State for War, but I find it hard to believe that it expressed the heart and mind of Jack Lawson, whom we have known in the North. I feel that he would have been among the first to exclaim against thinking of men and treating men of any race or in any predicament just as so much material for a labour pool. I confess I find it a little surprising that a Government with the antecedents of the present Government should, on the ground of economic expediency, be so reluctant, apparently, to give these men some kind of firm hope on which to set their feet. I recognize, as indeed we all must, that the Geneva Convention is not fully operative. Its regulations never contemplated a situation in which prisoners of war would have no protecting government because their State had completely collapsed. So it is that these German prisoners are completely at our mercy—and they know it. I suggest that it is at our mercy they should be, and not just at our convenience. And does not "mercy" in such a context mean justice tempered by humanity, and guided by psychological and political good sense? I have been informed that it has been also said in another place that schemes are on foot to consider repatriation. One is very glad to hear it, but what one is pressing for is that they should be declared.

My plea is that the time has come for a policy to be declared, not just by a Department, or by several Departments acting in concert, but by the Government themselves. If this were done, and both prisoners and public informed, it might do a great deal to restore this decline in moral, and reassure the growing moral uneasiness of a good many people. It is for the embodiment of what I am quite sure are the perfectly fair and good intentions of the Government in this matter in a declared policy that I am pressing at this time. That being what is needed, it might seem something of impertinence on my part even to suggest what might be the ingredients of such a policy. But those who feel as I do on this matter have given a good deal of thought to this subject, and it does touch upon our moral principles. I, therefore, make bold to suggest one or two points for consideration, and in doing that I hope that I shall not be thought to be thinking more highly of myself than one who has no political responsibility ought to think, or of under-estimating the moral sense of those who have that responsibility. Would it not be possible to have a policy which allowed that those who have been longest in captivity—assuming, of course, flat their conduct is satisfactory—should be repatriated first and without undue delay, and with them married men whose families are in the British zone? Quite obviously, precise dates and numbers could not be given. Then, ought not a distinction to be made between reparations in the form of labour, which is no doubt needed, and the indefinite detention of prisoners of war and their use as forced labour—a thing which some of us find very hard to defend on moral grounds? In the meantime—and this is my third point—could not trustworthy prisoners be given just a little more freedom, and could not the excellent though very limited provision for the training of prisoners in their trades and professions be extended, especially to the young men of 18, 19 and 20?

Then, I would ask, is the Department making sufficient use of our best psychiatrists and men of real pastoral discernment and educational skill? I would suggest that the psychical disturbances which captivity and separation cause, and the sheer human suffering, should be taken with the utmost seriousness. I would like further to ask whether the Department might not consider setting up some system of independent inspection of camps and working conditions. I believe—I speak subject to correction—that they would have to if the Geneva Convention was operating. I do not think that we have anything to fear in the matter, but it might have an extraordinarily good psychological effect upon the men and would reassure opinion outside.

Lastly, at some time or other, I think soon, we have to make up our minds what we are going to do with the fanatical Nazis. It is a little simple to expect that by keeping them behind barbed wire, giving them no hope of release for an indefinite period of time, that they will be susceptible to re-education and will presently become docile little democrats. In conclusion, may I say that I realize that members of the Government, especially members of the Cabinet, have a great deal on their plate. I also realize that the number of good, far-sighted decisions that any body of men can make in a day is limited. But I would reiterate that the issue has become one for statesmanship and for a declaration of policy on the highest level as the matter is becomingly increasingly urgent. I also believe that, once the issues involved have been fully considered, their conclusions will commend themselves to the moral sense of right-thinking people. There is in this country—and I say it in all humility—a wide census of opinion that in issues of this kind what is ethically sound and psychologically good sense will prove in the long run to be politically wise. I beg to move for Papers.

6.13 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with some diffidence to support my brother Bishop but I take comfort from the thought of the accustomed tolerance that is accorded to those who address your Lordships for the first time. I rise to speak on this subject because I have what the Quakers call a concern for prisoners—perhaps because Quaker blood flows in my veins. Because I look after the whole of Staffordshire and Shropshire, where there are a large number of prisoner-of-war camps, I have been in personal touch with the men, and because, through my clergy, I hear pretty frequent reports, I endorse entirely what my brother Bishop has said about the way the cancer runs. I do not want to take up your Lordships' time by elaborating that point, because I think it can be taken for granted. I have been very much impressed by the way in which camp commandants and other ranks discharge what must be an uncongenial duty and I think that the camps are run with real fairness and firmness, and with broad humanity. At the same time I must underline what the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Sheffield, has said about the decline in moral. I think there is no doubt at all that there has been a considerable difference in the last six months due chiefly no doubt, as he has intimated, to the prolonged uncertainty and acute anxiety about repatriation.

What I gather is that a large number of these men, rightly or wrongly, feel that the spirit, if not the letter, of the Geneva Convention is being ignored. I understand that their detention here is not unconnected with reparations. I do not attempt to express an opinion on that question, which probably has a complicated legal international side. But I think that this feeling is shared by a number of people, and I am conscious of considerable discomfort and uneasiness that human beings should be concerned at all with reparations. It is uncomfortably like what happens in Germany and Russia, and it is not consonant with the type of thing for which we have been fighting. These men are told that they cannot be sent back, partly because of food conditions in Germany, and partly because of a lack of means of transport. They feel sceptical about that answer, and they say that they would give anything just to be with their people, however bad the conditions in Germany. All they ask is simply that they should be allowed to go there and share whatever conditions there are.

The result of that feeling, as the right reverend Prelate who preceded me said, is that there has been a considerable deterioration in moral and a terrible feeling of hopelessness. There is also, I am sorry to say, a growing bitterness—in some cases, even hatred. I hate to think that men should go from this country bearing sentiments of that kind. As your Lordships know, many of these men have completely lost hope. They are becoming what is sometimes called nihilistic. There are thousands of people in Germany and on the Continent, including quite a number in prisoner-of-war camps, who have abandoned belief in anything or anybody, and who have nothing left to hope for.

If I may detain your Lordships for a moment or two longer, I am bound to say that I think this whole problem of the treatment of our prisoners of war is tied up with the problem of the future of Germany. The two cannot be considered in isolation. I cannot believe that any sane man does not look in the future for some kind of renewal of faith and some reconstruction in Germany. I think it is obvious that a considerable part in that reconstruction might well be played by those who have been prisoners of war in this country. There has been, and I pay tribute to it, considerable educational effort. There have been great schemes of lectures and we have done our best to give the men some conception of what we mean by democracy—and even by Christian democracy. But I am afraid that quite a number of them are now becoming disillusioned. It would be little short of a tragedy if these men ultimately go back to Germany completely disillusioned about the things for which we stand. Surely we all desire to send them back as ambassadors of the way of life in which we believe. This is especially true, if I may say so, of the younger ones. I have been in touch lately with a lady who has done a good deal of lecturing in these camps, and who knows the German language and the German people intimately. She has told me that she is constantly faced with this kind of question from the younger ones: I am seventeen years of age. I joined the Party when I was twelve, for not particularly bad reasons but because everybody else did. I am now exiled in a strange country. I hear now for the first time that all that the Nazis stood for is evil and bad, and that I presumably do not know right from wrong. Would the lecturer tell me two things: how if we only have lectures every few weeks, and only a few books to read, I can learn what is the truth about life? Secondly would the lecturer tell me how long will it be before I can get rid of the stigma which has come to me through having made a judgment at the age of twelve? What can I do to free myself of this? I think that is a fair representation of the attitude of mind of a great many of the younger prisoners of war. I think it is disastrous. I throw out a suggestion which I suppose might be dismissed as purely idealistic. I should like to see quite a number of the young Nazi prisoners sent to harvest camps with picked young men and women and boys and girls of our own. I cannot help but think that such an experiment would be abundantly justified. I would only add, if I may, that surely this rests on our whole English tradition of care for the oppressed, of care for the human personality, of tolerance, of fair play and of the decencies for which we all believe we have been fighting in this war. It is for that kind of thing our men died. We know perfectly well that it is only the survival of values of that kind that will make possible any kind of reconstruction in Europe or anywhere else. If these cannot prevail, we shall most certainly be left with a slum in the centre of Europe, and that would indeed be absolutely tragic. I only hope and trust—and this is behind the plea which is being made from these Benches—that having consideration for these values for which we have consistently stood, we may make some attempt to apply them.

It is more than three thousand years ago when after a little war—miniature by the size of the global wars in these days—at the end of the fighting it was said: Must the sword devour forever? knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end? Well, the sword has done a bit of devouring these last thirty years. I think that we should do everything in our power to mitigate bitterness, to rekindle hope and to rebuild the ruins in human life as well as the ruins in brick and mortar, and so make some kind of beginning at any rate for the building of a better and saner world.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, I must offer an apology to your Lordships for addressing you this evening since I have already spoken once to-day in this House. I can assure your Lordships, however, that my observations on this occasion will be exceedingly brief, but it is essential that some voice should be raised from these Benches in support of the plea made by the right reverend Prelates who have just addressed us. I am the more able to abbreviate my remarks as the case has been so fully made out so far as the facts and proposals are concerned, and it is necessary for me to say only a very few words in support of the general and important principle that is involved. We welcome the speeches made from the Episcopal Benches. Perhaps I may be allowed to express—what I know is the feeling in the minds of your Lordships—our thanks to the right reverend Prelate who has just addressed us for the first time. He has spoken with cogency, clarity and eloquence, and with brevity as well; I feel sure that we all greatly appreciate his speech, and trust that he will often in future take part in the discussions of this House.

Here is a matter which affects about half a million German prisoners of war, most of them in this country, and a certain number overseas, in Belgium, Italy and the Middle East. They have been a very long time in confinement, and the question is how long this is to continue. It not only affects those half million but, of course, their families in Germany, or wherever they may be situated. According to international law, we are fully entitled to keep them here. That is so, because there has been no peace treaty with Germany. Why has there been no peace treaty with Germany? Partly because Germany has been divided into four zones; there is no Government functioning in Germany as a whole, there is no one with whom to negotiate. It is not the fault of these men who are prisoners that the Allies through their dissensions hake not been able to set up a central authority in Germany. They are not responsible for their dissensions and delays. I ask: Is there any precedent for a war having ended for more than a year when not even the beginnings of a negotiation have been undertaken for ending the war by means of a peace treaty?

If it is said that we must keep them here because of the food shortage in Germany. Well, if they were sent back, the additional food consumed by these men there would be balanced by the less food that would be consumed by them here. If it is said that there is a severe shortage of labour in this country, and that therefore we are obliged to keep them for the sake of our agriculture, I would ask: Under what provision of international law is such a doctrine as that advanced? We may expect to get reparations from Germany in the form of materials and machinery, and possibly of money, but, as one right reverend Prelate said this afternoon, has there ever been any proposal that reparations should take the form of compulsory human labour? Prisoners captured in the field are not by civilized nations put to death. They have to be prevented from again taking up the fight; therefore they are kept in confinement, and being kept in confinement are fed, clothed and housed. It is reasonable and proper that they should be required to labour in order to provide the cost of their own maintenance.

But how long is that to last when the fighting is once over? It is legitimate to make it last until the war is over. When is that considered to be? According to law, when the peace is made. Yet here we have a state of things in which the war is over, but the peace is not made. How are we to deal with a situation such as this? Some may say that the Germans are so bad as a nation, that they have done so much mischief, for which the whole people must bear the responsibility, that nothing that happens to any of them could approach what they deserve. But that is a doctrine of indiscriminate reprisals, a doctrine of ruthlessness. That is the Nazi philosophy in reverse, and, since we condemned that philosophy, and fought against it, now that we are victorious ought we simply to imitate it? The present situation is legal but it is not, therefore, just. Law should be the servant of justice and not justice the servant of law.

6.39 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene in the debate at this stage because for reasons of public duty it will be impossible for me to be here to-morrow, when I understand it has been arranged for the debate to be resumed. I join with the noble Viscount opposite in congratulating the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Lichfield, on his maiden speech in your Lordships' House to-day. Let me pay him the greatest compliment that is in my power, by saying that, with the general principles which he has so eloquently enunciated, the Government, of course, find themselves in agreement. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Sheffield, for having introduced this debate to-day. The subject of prisoners of war is one upon which the Government is bound to be sensitive to public opinion. As the right reverend Prelate has pointed out, there is no governmental authority in Germany, and consequently the whole responsibility for doing what is right and just rests upon His Majesty's Government. We are conscious of that responsibility. Let me say at once that, although the right reverend Prelate seems to question the application of the Geneva Convention, it is on the basis of the Geneva Convention that we found ourselves in our treatment of prisoners of war.

The right reverend Prelate, in his question on the Paper, asked for the number of prisoners of war, and it might perhaps be convenient at this stage if I give that information. As at 31st May there were 520,000 German prisoners of war in the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and in the charge of the Army on the Rhine. Of that number 373,000 were in the United Kingdom. The number in the United Kingdom at 30th June was 385,000. As regards Italian Prisoners—to whom I do not think any reference has been made in the course of the speeches today—as at 31st May there were 152,000 in this country and the British Commonwealth, of whom 30,000 were at that date in this country. The number of Italian prisoners by the end of the present month should be reduced to zero if our anticipations are justified. Consequently it will be realized that although in the case of Italy no treaty has been made, nevertheless His Majesty's Government have seen to it that in a relatively short time (it should be completed within the next few weeks) the whole of the Italian prisoners of war will have returned to their homes. When I say "the whole of the Italian prisoners of war," I perhaps ought to add that there are a number of them who have been so appreciative of the treatment which as prisoners of war they have received in this country, that they have expressed a desire to remain in this country, and I think some 1,200 are remaining in this country to fulfil the functions of citizenship in the ordinary way.




I am obliged to the noble Viscount. I should have said, they are remaining in this country to fulfil civil functions in the ordinary way. I think that is interesting, and perhaps I might tell your Lordships of an experience of my own in my Ministerial capacity. Some Italian prisoners of war had been directed to be repatriated, and I had letters from certain Members of Parliament, writing on behalf of their constituents, asking if I could arrange for their repatriation to be cancelled. That request was made not only on behalf of their constituents, who were for the most part farmers, but also on behalf of the Italian prisoners themselves. In one case I well remember that after the Italian had returned the farmer wrote: "My prisoner has returned, and I am as glad to have my prisoner back as my prisoner is to be back here with me." The term "my prisoner" had become a phrase which he used as meaning "my friend who used to work upon my land," who was now back as a free man.

I need scarcely say that prisoners of war are used only on work of national importance for which suitable British labour is not available. Of the 385,000 to whom I have referred as being in the United Kingdom on June 30, the total number of employed is 338,000, of whom 160,000 are at the service of the Ministry of Agriculture, particularly in relation to the harvest. It must not be thought that in this work the prisoners of war are not treated in full conformity with the precise provisions of the Geneva Convention. They are being paid as prescribed by the Geneva Convention, and they work for no more hours than those permitted under the terms of the Geneva Convention. It has been suggested that there has been a decline in moral. I have made very careful enquiries from a number of sources, and whilst I would not dissent from the statement that there has been a decline in moral, I am told that it is not of very significant dimensions; that it reflects itself, for the most part, in a certain degree of apathy; and in so far as general willingness, co-operation and discipline are concerned there is no decline at all. But there is evidence of a certain apathy, the reasons for which are doubtless the kind of reasons which have already been mentioned by the right reverend Prelates who have spoken.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their friendly and appreciative words about the way in which the War Office carries out its responsibilities. The War Office regards those responsibilities as involving the exercise of great discretions of a most formidable character, and it certainly feels that it has upon itself the responsibility of dealing with prisoners of war, as with anyone else, with all the humanity that circumstances make possible. I was glad that a tribute was paid to the steps that are being taken in regard to the education of prisoners of war. It is sufficiently interesting, I think, for me to mention that a medical academy has been formed for prisoners of war in association with the University of Hamburg, so that students may study here for their medical degree in association with that university in their own country. The teaching of English is general, and prisoners of war have the privilege of reading any daily paper they choose.

The education which is carried on is very largely re-education. The prisoners are given instruction in the democratic way of life by way of reference to the political and social practices of this country and other democratic countries of the world, and very real and heartening progress is being made. Many of the lectures and discussions are initiated by the Germans themselves, and a great deal of the educational activities are in fact conducted by the prisoners themselves. If the representatives of any recognized public body (and I do not mean public body in a limited sense, but rather in the sense of any responsible body) wish to visit any of the camps, arrangements will readily be made for them to do so, so that they may see for themselves. I believe I am correct in saying that representatives of a number of religious bodies have had ready access to the camps; therefore what is being done is open to the public gaze.

I do not think the right reverend Prelate mentioned it, but when he was good enough to indicate to me the subjects he was likely to raise he included fraternization, and I should like to say a word about it. The rule is non-fraternization. There have been no prosecutions of German prisoners for fraternization, and on the whole their behaviour has been good. By far the greater number of German prisoners are, of course, in camps or hostels of one kind or another, but quite a large proportion (I think about 18,000), are billeted on farms, where they live as part of the family. They are not allowed to go outside the farm, or at all events more than a mile radius from it. That is the rule, but I have no doubt there are instances of fraternization. Indeed, I see in to-day's Daily Mail that in a single column there are given, by some curious chance, two instances of fraternization. In one case it is said that the men throw kisses to the young ladies, and great complaint is apparently made about that. In the other case, it is said that the young ladies throw kisses at the men, and there is complaint about that. Indeed, a member of the local council in one of these cases says it is intolerable that this behaviour by Germans should be allowed to go on, and it is time it was stopped.

The right reverend Prelate was anxious, as I understood him, that there should be an increase in fraternization, or a modification of the rules as to non-fraternization, but I would suggest to him that if we leave the rules as they are just for the moment, human nature being what it is the thing will work itself out not too badly. Reference was made to use of psychiatrists in dealing with German prisoners of war. I am one of those who believe that psychiatrists have rendered, and are capable of rendering, invaluable services; but the effective use of psychiatry demands that both the psychiatrist and the subject should speak the same language, both in the sense of the same tongue and in the sense of having the same general outlook and background. Otherwise, it would be impossible for them to get on to those terms which are the inescapable condition of the successful practice of psychiatry. The general psychological processes are, however, brought into full play by those of the Political Intelligence Department who are charged with the duty of dealing with many of the aspects which concern the education and the mental rehabilitation of the prisoner of war.

Each noble Lord who has spoken has referred, and very naturally, because it is a matter of the first importance, to the question of repatriation. I ought perhaps to say that there is an Imperial Prisoners of War Committee, which was set up at the beginning of the war, co-ordinating policy regarding prisoners of war throughout the Commonwealth. The Dominions and India are represented on this Committee, whose recommendations are transmitted, either through military channels or through High Commissioners, to all the Governments concerned. The noble Viscount opposite was, of course, correct when he said that the conclusion of a peace treaty had in the past been the precondition of the repatriation of prisoners of war, and he was equally correct, of course, when he said that not only had there been no treaty of peace with Germany but no one at the moment could say when such a treaty would eventuate. The general proposition must, therefore, be that if there are any prisoners of war remaining when the treaty of peace is actually formulated, ratified and in operation, their disposal will no doubt be dealt with under the terms of that treaty. But it would be a mistake to think that the repatriaion of German prisoners of war is, as a matter of policy, being held up until there is actually a peace treaty in existence.

Already a certain degree of repatriation has taken place. It has not been of a general nature, and that is partly because in dealing with German prisoners of war, in contra-distinction to other prisoners in this war and to the prisoners of earlier wars, there is a matter—I was almost going to say a factor—to be taken into account which has not hitherto existed, which I might refer to as the political aspect of the problem. After screening, German prisoners of war are classified as "whites," "greys" and "blacks." The greatest number of them come within the category of "grey"—grey of varying shades. So far as the "white" prisoners of war are concerned, a degree of repatriation has already taken place. When specialists are called for by name, or when special services are required to be filled in Germany, as, for instance, the police services, and there are "white" German prisoners here with the particular qualifications required, then a number of them are sent to Germany to fill that need. Similarly with regard to the needs of the mining community in the Ruhr, arrangements are on foot under which an appreciable number of "white" German prisoners of war will at the earliest moment be repatriated. Therefore it would not be correct to say that there is no repatriation, and still less would it be correct to say that His Majesty's Government have, as a matter of policy, reached the determination that there shall be no repatriation until a treaty of peace has been concluded.

I anticipate that there will be a measure of repatriation constantly proceeding, having particular regard to the special requirements which may from time to time evince themselves in Germany, and having regard to the political colour, "white," "grey" or "black," of the prisoners of war who may be available in this country to fill the vacancies in Germany. Therefore it is likely to be a continuing process. How long it will take until all German prisoners of war have been repatriated, or the pace at which repatriation will take place, I am unable to state to-day, but I am concerned to make it clear to your Lordships that, far from the Government having set its face against repatriation, there is already a measure of repatriation proceeding and it would be wrong to think that that repatriation would be brought to a sudden end. On the contrary, I believe that noble Lords may rest assured that before any treaty of peace has been concluded the number of prisoners of war left to be dealt with under that treaty will be very much less than I think the noble Viscount opposite anticipated.


Does it come to this: that we are to understand that the prisoner of war camps are to be turned into internment camps for those German soldiers over here who we think are politically undesirable, and if so what authority is there for that?


Everything that His Majesty's Government is doing is within the provisions of the Geneva Convention, and practically all the things of which I have spoken to your Lordships are gratuitous concessions lying outside the requirements of the Geneva Convention. They are granted and will continue to be granted by His Majesty's Government because the Government has in mind those considerations which have been presented to it by the speakers who have addressed your Lordships' House.

6.52 p.m.


My Lords, my special interest in this matter lies in the fact that I have a large prisoner of war camp in my park in Nottinghamshire. The camp in question is surrounded by a flimsy fence of barbed wire, and the officer in charge has been at pains to assure me that the barbed wire fence is not there for the purpose of preventing the prisoners attacking me but of preventing me from attacking them. One hundred of those prisoners of war are engaged in doing excellent work. There has been a great deal of damage in my park during the war, owing to the tanks which have been stationed there and to other military operations. Trenches have been dug and roads have been made. The prisoners are now engaged in mowing the bracken round the munition shelters in case there should be a forest fire which would send the whole lot up. They are filling up holes and making cart tracks through the woodlands.

The other night there was a concert given by the Young Men's Christian Association and, defying all threats of fraternization, I ventured to make a speech to those prisoners through their very excellent German interpreter. I thanked them very much for the good work they were doing and I told them that, in spite of that good work, I should not do anything to keep them in this country for one day beyond the time when it was reported that Germany was fit to receive them. That is a point which I have not heard referred to in this debate. I understand that there is at the present time a large drifting population in Germany who are called displaced persons. The housing situation, as we all know, is bad enough in this country, but it is still worse in Germany. I hear that there are a number of large towns which are heaps of rubble in the centre surrounded by a fringe of suburban villas which used to house one family and which are now housing three families. The housing situation in this country is bad, but the housing situation in Germany is much worse, and the question is, how far it would be improved by sending back a large number of prisoners.

Then there is the problem of transport. As your Lordships will be aware, during the last six months of the war we were perpetually engaged in destroying railways, bridges, canals and rolling stock. All those will take tune to build up again, and though some of the prisoners are patriotic and think their labour should be used for restoring their own country, not even they can work unless the materials are supplied to them, and I understand that repair materials are sadly lacking and that there are a large number of unemployed in Germany at the present time for that reason alone. The food situation is not too good, owing chiefly to distribution difficulties, which again are due to the destruction of the railways. There is the question of crime. There is a large and flourishing black market in Germany, and it is possible that soldiers, if they got back to their own country and found themselves starving and with nothing to do, might take to robbery. As regards politics, Nazism is of course frowned upon, but I hear that in spite of that there is a gang of Germans who have the badge of the eidelweiss with the letter "8" on it, and that they are in the nature of a secret society which is being watched very closely by the authorities.

So far as I can see, the prisoners here are being very well treated. Nazism, as I say, is not smiled upon. Education and religion are attended to and it is reported to me that the chapel attendance is very high. They have their own clergyman—I myself have seen his unmistakable collar—and they have a hut fitted as a chapel. I am told the services are very well attended. There is also the question of tracing the relatives. They are, of course, exceedingly anxious about their relatives, and a mail system has been set on foot. Writing paper and envelopes are supplied and they are encouraged to write to Germany for news of their friends and relations. I am told that if they were sent back to Germany at this time they would lose the services of that organisation and they would probably spend their time in making a futile search from village to village, trying to find relations whom they have lost.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, has spoken about the treaty. I am not sufficient of an international lawyer to know exactly what the position of released prisoners would be before the treaty of peace has been signed. It must be recollected that the war criminal trials are still going on, and it is rather a question of what would be the position of any Nazi who made his appearance in Germany from this country at the present time. The other day it happened that I was travelling up to London and I saw on the opposite side of the railway carriage a young Air Force officer. Acting purely on impulse, I said to myself, I will ask him what he knows about German prisoners of war, and see if he can give me any information. I did so. The young man said: "Well, sir, I am afraid that all I can tell you about prisoners of war is that I was a prisoner of war myself in Germany for four and a half months at the beginning of 1945." This struck me as interesting, and I decided to pursue the conversation a little further. I asked the young man how he had been taken prisoner. He said that he had been flying over Stuttgart in a Lancaster, and the machine had been shot down by German fighters. The machine had, in fact, blown up, and four of his companions had been killed. He himself was in the nose of the aeroplane. The nose was blown off, and he found himself in mid-air, supported by his parachute, at a height of some 15,000 feet. I asked him how long it took him to reach the earth. This he did not know, but he said his descent was not vertical; there was a wind blowing, and in landing he injured his knee. Eventually he was picked up by the German Home Guard, and escorted to the Town Hall. He made his journey there with his arm round the neck of a member of the Home Guard. Your Lordships will be pleased to hear that my young friend looked very well, in spite of what some of us would have considered an alarming experience. He went on to tell me that he was removed from the Town Hall to a prisoners' camp at Barth on the Baltic, and there he remained for four and a half months. I asked him how he was treated there. He replied: "We had nothing to thank them for, but we could have been worse treated." He remained at Barth until the camp was eventually overrun by the Russians. The Russians kept him and his companions for another three weeks, and then made the amiable suggestion that they should march fifty miles to the nearest British headquarters. The officer in command of our men told the Russians that they were airmen, and suggested that if the British Commander were told of this fact, he would send an aeroplane to an adjoining aerodrome to take them away. This was done eventually, and my friend and his companions landed safely at Worthing.


May I, with great respect, interrupt the noble Earl in order to point out that the Motion before us is with regard to the duty of the British Government towards German prisoners of war in this country? I know that other noble Lords wish to speak in this debate, and I therefore appeal to the noble Earl to keep as closely as possible to the subject before the House.


I am very much obliged to the noble Viscount. I am just arriving at my point now. I asked this young man, before I left him, if he was able to form any opinion as to what his treatment in Germany would have been if the Germans had won the war. I did not think he could answer that question, but he answered it quite promptly. He said their captors had told them that they would have been treated as war criminals. I hope the noble Viscount will agree that that is relevant. I am not suggesting— and I am sure that if I did the right reverend Prelates would not agree—that we should practise any barbarity of that sort in this country. I want to say that I personally would not countenance any barbarity of that or any other kind being practised upon our uninvited but not unwelcome guests.

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I have only a few remarks to make, but the subject is so important and so urgent, and the crux of the matter has not, in my opinion, been dealt with from the prisoner-of-war point of view by Lord Nathan in his speech that I feel I must venture to intervene. Lord Nathan spoke of certain alleviations which the Government were making in the material conditions of the camps and in the treatment of the prisoners. These are welcome, but what he said on the subject of repatriation, which is really the crux of the matter, is most disappointing. Lord Nathan said, in so many words, that repatriation will not beheld up until the Treaty of Peace has been signed and ratified that the Government had not adopted a policy that there would be no repatriation until the Treaty of Peace had been enacted. That statement, kindly as it was meant, leaves the position in the same impenetrable darkness it was in when this debate began. And I venture to plead with the Government that they will pierce that darkness with some more definite light. I have personal knowledge of different camps, and I have had correspondence not only with prisoners of war but with their relatives, and I know of repercussions of all kinds. I echo the tribute which has been paid to the Commandants and to the staffs. I have no criticism to make of the way in which, prisoners generally, are being treated, but it is the absence of all information and the unlimited captivity to which the prisoners are doomed that is having that deteriorating effect to which reference has been made. This impenetrable darkness, this unlimited captivity, affects—there is on doubt at all about it; noble Lords in this House could testify to it themselves if they would—the labour output. The German prisoners of war are much better at agriculture than the Italian prisoners were, but output is going down; heart is being lost. And the conditions of which I have spoken affect re-education. I have conversed with some of those most talented men who are dealing with reeducation in many camps. They tell me that re-education is now meeting with extraordinary difficulties, because a policy of unlimited captivity is in conflict with the democratic principles for which we are standing. The question asked is: Will the last man be sent home by the end of 1946, or the end of 1947, or the end of 1948, in the next two months, in the next two years? At any rate let us know where we are.

Remember that after the first World War, all the prisoners of war in the United Kingdom began their repatriation on September 24, 1919, and concluded it by November, 19, 1919—that is just a year after the Armistice was signed. Remember also that all the German soldiers who were taken prisoner in Germany after a certain date in April, 1945, are free men. The S.S. men were screened and detained, but the great hulk of the German Army which was taken prisoner in April or May, 1945, was set free. If I may say so, it is imperative that a definite scheme of release should be not only fixed but announced. Naturally, political reliability must be the paramount consideration; anti-Nazis should be let out first. The adoption of that principle to a very small extent has been attempted by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. Fathers of families must also take a high place among the men to be released. I believe that what really lies behind this extraordinary lack of information about a repatriation scheme is the attitude of what I may call the user Departments—the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Labour, and the Office of Works—to which very little reference has been made. Their attitude is "We want this work done. We need the labourers to do it" I am not disputing the issue of compulsory labour by prisoners of war, within limits, but it is dangerous to use that argument for too long. Will the user Departments say that this German soldier labour must be retained indefinitely? Of course they will not. But unlimited captivity without a word as to the date at which release may be expected is, after all, a form of serfdom which was condemned by the Allies when the Germans behaved like this with the French after 1940. Now the Germans are criticizing the action of the Allies.

The German prisoners get 1s. pay for a day of eight hours. The farmers pay the Ministry of Agriculture 1s. 6d. an hour. The minimum wage, of course, is sent in to the War Office. It is extraordinarily short-sighted to allow the user Departments to have this complete control over the prisoner of war situation. In the long run the Departments themselves will suffer and we are sacrificing ideals for a very small return. I would beg the Government to consider the whole question of the framing and the publication of a system of release, with a much greater sense of urgency. And I hope that the considerations which have already been advanced will be borne in mind. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, said about volunteers for the mines in the British zone. It is a great step forward, of which too little has been stated, that advertisements should have appeared in Great Britain asking German prisoners to go out and make their contribution to food production in Germany after the completion of the harvest in this country. That is a most important point, and a valuable precedent.

There are one or two other points I should like to add, dealing with conditions. First, I would ask the Government seriously to consider the removal of the military status of prisoners of war, and giving them something which is more of a civilian status. The war is over; the German army has been abolished; and the only Germans who are officially soldiers are prisoners of war. That is somewhat absurd. While the prisoners have military status they are involved in military restrictions. If they had a civilian status the whole situation, psychologically and in other ways, would be altered. Then I would ask the Government seriously to consider the transfer of responsibility for the prisoners of war from the War Office to the Home Office. I know what a difference that action meant in 1940, in the case of the internees in the Isle of Man.

Prisoners of war have small earnings. Something should be done to allow small sums to be sent home. A plan has been drawn up, but it is not yet fully effective. Something should also be done to allow prisoners of war to take their earnings back with them when they do return—not merely certificates that they have earned so much. They should be allowed to take real vouchers which they can cash, with a proper provision for exchange. At the present moment the few prisoners of war who have earned money in this country and who are repatriated cannot take their money with them.

Another factor in the matter is that prisoners of war are worried about their families in Germany. There have been recent suicides and attempted suicides, partly because of the news from home, and partly because of their despair. I would like the Government to direct the attention of the Control Commission in the British zone to the need for giving protection to the wives and children of prisoners of war, with a view to influencing the German authorities in different parts of the British zone to see that their needs are met. These are secondary but important points. The most vital point of all is the devising and announcing of a scheme, with dates, for release.

7.17 p.m.


My Lords, I rise for only one moment to register my disappointment at the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. In answering for the Government, he did not refer to what I thought was an extraordinarily constructive suggestion of the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Lichfield, about allowing seventeen-year old Nazis to work in the harvest fields with some of our own boys of the same age. I regret the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, who has temporarily disappeared from view, but I would appeal to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House to give us a promise that at least that suggestion will be considered in the proper quarter.


My Lords, may I express appreciation of the courteous way in which the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, replied to some of the points which we on these Benches tried to make. To be frank, I thought that the burden of his reply justified the thesis of my remarks, namely, that the Department with which he is associated is careful and sympathetic in the handling of prisoners of war but that there is an absence of anything which one might call a policy. I will not take up the time of the House at this late hour, partly because the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Chichester, has said some of the things which I might have said in reply. I will content myself by asking leave to withdraw my Motion.


My Lords, I will give an assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, that I will specifically direct the attention of my colleague to the point raised. On his behalf I would add that it was only real necessity that compelled him, with great reluctance, to leave the debate when he did.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.