HL Deb 29 April 1947 vol 147 cc226-31

7.50 p.m.

EARL HAIG rose to ask His Majesty's Government why Oberst Martin Hesselman was arrested at Stillen Friden on the afternoon of February 13, 1947, and what causes led to his subsequent death on March 22 last? The noble Earl said: My Lords, I have heard with deep concern of the death of the German Colonel Oberst Martin Hesselman, who was Commandant of a camp in which I spent some time as a prisoner of war. He treated me correctly, and I formed the highest opinion of him as a man. He was never a member of the Nazi Party and he belonged to a circle of religious Germans for whom special concern should have been shown. He was doing valuable work, at the time of his arrest, as a member of the Refugee Committee of the Evangelical Church.

I would like to put before your Lordships the following information about Oberst Hesselman which has come to my knowledge. On February 13 he was arrested by a British Intelligence captain, no reason being given for his arrest. He was imprisoned in a cell in the war crimes prison at Minden, without daylight, heating, or a mattress, and his coat and scarf were taken from him. Since he was chronically ill, Oberst Hesselman immediately made a verbal and written request to see the Commandant; but both those requests were refused. On February 18, his wife visited the prison chaplain, Pastor Puffert, who promised to lay before the Commandant two medical certificates, one signed by Dr. Uebmann and the other by the United States authorities, stating the seriousness of Oberst Hesselman's complaint. On February 10 Hesselman was medically examined. On February 23, ten days after his arrest and four days after the medical examination, he was removed to hospital.

By this time the damage had been done. In his wife's words: For four days he had been vomiting repeatedly. He was in a condition so weak that he could only walk in a crouching position. Every step was agony to him. On March 5, although they should have been fully aware of the seriousness of his condition, the British authorities allowed him to be moved out of the British Zone to Trier in the French Zone. He had still been neither interrogated nor charged. He was made to cover the journey of over 200 miles, which took two days, standing all the way in an open truck. He was vomiting repeatedly and he arrived at his destination in a state of mental and physical collapse, suffering from severe haemorrhage. On March 22 he died. His wife, who was allowed to spend the last few days with him, has written the following words: I know that, to the last, the uncertainty as to his fate weighed heavily upon him. He had in no way been interrogated and had received no communication as to the reason for his arrest. From a remark of the French Governor of Wittlich Prison at Trier, as a result of my bitter struggle to take my husband's corpse to his home, it was to be gathered that my husband had only been taken into custody as a witness. I would ask how a prisoner could be arrested in this way and not be charged, and how, in his state of health, he could be subjected to such rigours as he was, and then to be handed over to the French authorities when he was obviously suffering from a very serious internal disorder?

7.54 p.m.


My Lords, I confess I wish there had been more of your Lordships here to listen to the observations which the noble Earl has just made. I understand this is the first time he has addressed your Lordships' House, and I am sure we have noticed in his speech those qualities of modesty and gallantry which we should expect from one bearing his name. I think it is typical of a soldier's record that on his first appearance in this House he should ask a question, critically, regarding the treatment of one of our enemies. I will give such answer as I can, but the noble Earl will realize that I am able only to speak the words that have been put into my mouth in this matter. I have, of course, no personal knowledge of the facts.

I am told that very full inquiries have been made into this case. To take, first of all, the reason for Oberst Hesselman's arrest, I must explain that in one of the lists drawn up by the United Nations War Crimes Commission he was listed as being wanted in connexion with the murder of a French General, and an urgent application for his arrest was received from the French authorities on February 3. Whether he was guilty or not, I cannot say, but I think that our authorities—assuming that the man was fit—in view of the fact that he was so listed and that he was demanded by the French, would have no option but to deliver him. He was therefore arrested on February 13, and was conveyed to the war criminal holding centre at Minden on that same day.

There was no suggestion at this time that his health was weak, and at the time of his arrest he was in fact doing some agricultural work. It was not until four days later that he complained of sickness. He was then immediately examined by a German doctor, to whom it was explained that the patient was in transit and that it was proposed to send him to the French Zone. The doctor's diagnosis was that he had an old stomach ailment—in fact, an ulcer—but that his general state of nutrition was not bad, and the doctor did not consider that there was any immediate urgency or any danger to life. He did, however, recommend that unless he could be moved very soon he should be transferred to hospital. The French war climes liaison officer in the British Zone was informed of the doctor's opinion, and said he would arrange for Hesselman to be removed at once. On February 25 a French escort came to take him away in a private civilian car. The Commandant of the prison interviewed the escort personally, repeated to them exactly what the doctor had said, and emphasized that at the end of the journey the prisoner should now be taken into hospital. Oberst Hesselman's death, which occurred in a French hospital on March 25, was due to a duodenal ulcer.

7.57 P.m.


My Lords, I will not detain the House for more than a very few minutes. We have listened with deep attention to the reply which the noble and learned Viscount has given us, and which he told us very frankly had been put into his mouth. I hope he will not take it that there is any personal criticism or any criticism of the Government in the remarks which I am about to offer. I have no special know- ledge of conditions in Germany, or indeed of this case, apart from the evidence I have seen. I intervene because I feel very strongly that in cases of this kind the honour of our country is deeply involved. Through no wish of our own we have perforce to administer as conquerors a large part of Germany. It is a situation which must be embarrassing to a people such as ours, who have a long history of just dealing and of love of liberty. I realize that anything we say in this House is liable to misinterpretation, and I do not wish to bandy about accusations of the Control Commission or of the military authorities in Germany. I feel, however, that this is a matter of importance, and that the facts which have been revealed by the noble Earl, or the facts as presented to him, require the most careful investigation.

May I repeat, and perhaps amplify, what he has said? This German colonel (to whose conduct, at any rate in part of the war, the noble Earl has testified) was, according to the information we have, not engaged in murderous pursuits of that kind, but engaged with some of his co-religionists in a Refugee Committee. The British officer who arrested him, according to this information, did not tell him that he was being arrested as a war criminal, but merely that he wanted him for a day or two in order to answer some questions. He was taken to Minden, which is agreed. When he was there he was taken to a prison cell; that was in the depths of the coldest weather of a very cold winter. It is alleged that his fur coat and scarf were taken from him, and they were returned to him, only after his protest, in three days' time. It is also alleged that he was put in a cell where there was no mattress and only a bare board for him to sleep on. His wife traced him after three or four days, saw the prison chaplain, a German, and put in his hands two medical certificates, one from the Oberst's own doctor, and the other from the United States prisoner of war medical officer, both showing, as I understand, that this man was suffering from a duodenal ulcer.

In the meantime, the prisoner had demanded to see the Commandant of the prison and to be told the reason for his arrest. We have been informed, whether rightly or not, that he had no satisfaction from his demand. He was then taken off and placed, as I understand, in a French Military Mission prison, or conclave, within the British Zone, and was then moved, in the depth of winter, not, according to our information, in a private car, but in an open truck. When he gat to his destination some 200 miles away he was in a very poor state of health indeed. He had internal haemorrhage, and finally died. It does seem to me that it is our duty in this House to inquire very carefully into the circumstances of this man's death. If the noble and learned Viscount would be good enough to make inquiries, and possibly at a later date inform the House, I should like him. to let us know upon whose warrant this man, or indeed any wanted German citizen, was arrested. Who issues the authority? How are what we conceive to be the normal rights of a citizen in a civilized country preserved? Must the prisoner be told within a specified time the reason for his arrest? Is there any formal charging or, as the control in Germany is divided among four Allied Powers, is there anything corresponding to what I believe is called the extradition procedure? Does a prima facie case have to be made out before our authorities will release a man, or is a mere certificate from an Allied Power to the effect that he is wanted sufficient?

In that case, if it is at the behest of an Allied Power, is the prisoner informed of the nature of the charge which he will have to face when he falls into the hands of that Allied Power? In particular, what are the rights of a political prisoner of this sort to see the commandant of the prison where he is incarcerated? What is the system by which a prisoner's state of health is inquired into at reception at a camp? I would have thought it would be a normal routine for every prisoner, whether political or civilian, to see a medical officer when he enters prison. I believe that to be the normal routine in our own prisons. I would ask, further, whether the report of the German doctor who did eventually examine him—as I understand from the noble and learned Viscount's reply—confirmed that he was suffering from a duodenal ulcer? If so, were the certificates given to the prison chaplain by Frau Hesselman taken into consideration, and was it taken into consideration that, as we are informed, when he was living in his home he was having special diet? All these matters appear to me to be of great relevance in this inquiry. I feel sure that the noble and learned Viscount will not feel affronted if I say that we are not satisfied with his reply. I certainly have no wish to make this in any way a political or partisan matter. I repeat that my sole concern is for the just administration by our country of a conquered people.


My Lords, of course the noble Lord is pushing at an open door when he raises any question concerning the administration of justice, and the question of proper and humane treatment of prisoners. So far as I am concerned, as I have told him, I have no knowledge, and therefore I cannot say anything in reply to his questions now. But I will undertake to see that the questions which he has raised are brought to the notice of the proper quarter —I think my noble friend, Lord Pakenham—and I will see that the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, in due course looks into them and communicates with the noble Lord. If it is then considered desirable, I have no doubt that it can be arranged to have this matter referred to in the House on some future occasion. Further than that, I am afraid I cannot add anything.