HL Deb 23 May 1950 vol 167 cc465-71

7.12 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF CHICHESTER rose to call attention to the report broadcast from Moscow on May 4 to the effect that all German prisoners have now been released from Russia: and to the statement made on May 5 in Bonn by Chancellor Adenauer that 1,500,000 German prisoners of war were still unaccounted for; and to ask His Majesty's Government what steps are being taken in response to Chancellor Adenauer's appeal to the victor Powers to support by all means open to there the German request for an explanation from Russia. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I ask you to turn your attention for a few minutes to a very different but very urgent field. On May 4 the Tass Agency broadcast a statement from Moscow that, except for 13,532 war criminals or persons whose war crime cases were being investigated and 14 sick persons detained temporarily, repatriation of German prisoners of war from the Soviet Union was complete. The total number of those repatriated since capitulation was stated in the same Report to be 1,939,063. This statement, so sudden and so strikingly detailed, was received with consternation by the whole German people, and this consternation found immediate expression in a statement by Chancellor Adenauer at Bonn on May 5, in which he called attention to the difference between this total of some 2,000,000 and the original total of 3,500,000 given in an earlier Tass Report at the time of the capitulation in 1945. He and the whole Assembly spoke of the profound shock with which this claim of total repatriation had been received. The Tass Agency report, Chancellor Adenauer says, "in no way tallies with the facts,", and the fate of 1,500,000 German prisoners of war is in doubt.

It is not easy to determine the exact number, whether alive or dead, but the Tass statement of 1945 is separately confirmed by the Order of Marshal Stalin to the Red Army on the occasion of the German capitulation in 1945, in which he said that 3,300,000 German prisoners of war were in captivity, and by the War News, edited by the Soviet Embassy in London, which at the same time gave the number of German prisoners of war as 3,180,000. It is remarkable that in April, 1947, when the Ministers of Foreign Affairs met in Moscow, M. Molotov stated that the Soviet Union had a total number of 1,894,506 German prisoners of war, and of those, from May, 1945, to April, 1947, 1,003,974 had been already repatriated, leaving 890,532 still in captivity. There is an extraordinary coincidence here. If we look at the Tass statement of May, 1950, and subtract from M. Molotov's number of April, 1947, the number of German prisoners of war released from April, 1947, to May, 1950, we get exactly the number of 13,546 prisoners of war recorded in the Tass statement of May 5, 1950. That is to say, in the whole of that three years' period not a single prisoner of war in the Soviet Union can have died, a perfectly impossible state of affairs when we remember the very high rate of mortality in the Soviet prisoner-of-war camps. Imagine, therefore, the desolation with which innumerable families received the Tass statement. Where are the missing men—1,500,000, or fewer? A great number must be presumed to have died because of the high mortality rate which is found not in the general run bin in most of the camps, partly on account of the feeding. I think there must be very many alive: what has happened to them? I ask as a simple issue of humanity.

The claim of total repatriation is also to be linked up with the wholly new procedure adopted by the Russians regarding war criminals. Until last November, on the whole, sentence was passed on the individual war criminal in respect of a charge on which personal guilt was as a rule, I suppose, established. But in November the Russian courts launched out into group condemnations on a large scale. If a man belonged to an organisation, he is ipso facto condemned. This terrible change horrified those who had already been repatriated to Germany as well as relatives of those who remain. So far as can be established—and I have well-confirmed figures—there were during November and December between 45,000 and 46,000 supposed war criminals condemned and sentenced to between five and twenty-five years' forced labour. After such sentences, it is not likely that all but the 13,532 mentioned in the Tass statement have been released.

I remarked that the announcement was sudden as well as strikingly detailed. Up to May there had been an on-going, steady progress of repatriation, which was suddenly stopped. Yet, according to semi-official reports through Russian sources received at Geneva in the Prisoners-of-War Department of the World Council of Churches, and also in the Evangelical Churches Prisoners-of-War Department at Erlangen in Germany, repatriations were due to extend right through the summer up to September 1, at the rate of two transports a week of 1,000 to 1,500 each. During this month of May alone 60,000 persons were to have been repatriated in these transports. It is extraordinary that the whole on-going process of repatriation should have been so suddenly stopped. The hardship has been increased by the interruption, also in November, of all postal intercourse between German prisoners-of-war in Russia and their families at home.

What is the reason for this extraordinary step by the Russian Soviet authorities? I suppose that partly it is to be in exact line with Molotov's calculation of April, 1947; partly because of the great need of forced labour in Russia —Chancellor Adenauer said that hundreds of thousands of German prisoners-of-war were known to be still held for that purpose; partly also, I suppose, that they might be used as political counters to exert pressure on Western Germany in the current political situation. I am afraid that it is partly, also, because of the cynical desire to dash and raise hopes by turns, to spread terror one day and to offer presents and relief another day, and to do with prisoners-of-war in the mass what Communist agents have long been accustomed to doing with individual political prisoners charged with treason in their prison cells in Moscow, Sofia, Budapest or elsewhere.

The Russians as a people may be careless of human life, but they are not systematically cruel. On the contrary, the ordinary uncorrupted Russian is remarkable for his quality of pity, mercy, charity, as well as faith; and I am not suggesting that the Russian people are responsible for what is now going on. The soul of the true Russia is not to be found in the Kremlin; it is most surely found in religion, in music, in art, or in the great champions of humanity—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Gorky, and the old poets and story-tellers. The responsibility for the policy followed, and the motives behind it, lie with the Communist rulers, who must be totally distinguished in authority, character and manhood from the millions of ordinary peasants, workers and citizens of every kind under their sway to-day. I should like to add this remark. Now that we know the methods of the Russian Communist State in dealing with prisoners-of-war, does there remain very much justification for continuing to imprison German generals for failing to adhere to Hague regulations, which obviously did not apply to Soviet Russia?

This situation of the missing prisoners-of-war is an affront to the human conscience. Everyone here is glad that the Foreign Ministers on May 12 expressed their surprise and deep concern at what had occurred, and assured the world of their repeated and energetic efforts to secure a change. They agreed to take all possible steps to obtain information—that is the first thing. It would be very satisfactory if in this information the Russian authorities would publish a list of the dead, so that families may know their fate; it would be very good if there were a resumption of postal intercourse; and it would be very good if they would make known the names of those persons sentenced as war criminals, the charges and the punishment. A refusal to give information on such matters as these would give the impression that the Russian authorities had something to conceal.

But far and away the most important matter is the repatriation of those who are left, the release of all prisoners-of-war and internees, women and invalids as well. Be they many or be they few, that is what justice demands. I have no doubt that His Majesty's Government are foremost in their surprise and deep concern, and that they have made, and will repeatedly make, their own and the British attitude abundantly clear to the world. I appeal to the representative of the Government here to say that His Majesty's Government will work in every possible way with the other Governments concerned to secure release and repatriation for all those who can be reached and who survive.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the right reverend Prelate for calling Parliamentary and public attention to the question of the repatriation to Germany of the German prisoners-of-war from the Soviet Union. I agree that this is a matter of urgency, because five years have passed since the conclusion of hostilities in Europe, and it is one which has aroused, as the right reverend Prelate has said, widespread concern and anxiety. I am sure we all believe that the quality of our civilisation depends, in no small measure, on the maintenance of human rights and the observance of common human standards. It is, unhappily, true that despite international rules, human rights and standards are soon found to be numbered amongst the casualties of war when hostilities occur. That may be inevitable; it is certainly an unfortunate fact.

It is of vital importance, therefore, that as soon as war ends there should be a universal desire and determination that the damage inflicted in this respect should be repaired as speedily as possible. For my own part I can conceive of nothing that is of greater significance in the efforts to build up a new order of peaceful cooperation than the restoration of human rights and the renewal of respect for moral and spiritual values, and I would submit that one practical test of governmental conduct in this matter is to be found in the handling of the problem of the treatment and repatriation of prisoners-of-war.

So far as the Western Allies are concerned, they completed the return to Germany of all German soldiers in their hands by the end of 1948. But it was only in the early part of the present month—that is, over sixteen months later—and after having failed twice to complete the operation by specified dates, that the Soviet Government claimed to have repatriated the last of the German prisoners-of-war from the Soviet Union. That claim, as we all know, has caused consternation and shock in Germany and has produced a feeling of deep misgiving and concern in all free countries. The plain fact is that the Soviet statement is not, and cannot he accepted as, a true statement. It has not won public confidence. On the contrary, it has rightly produced a reaction of mistrust, of suspicion, of challenge. That the Soviet statement cannot be accepted as reliable, that it gives cause for justifiable anxiety, is evident from the fact that a very large number of German families are still awaiting the return of their captured relatives of whom they have had direct news during their captivity in the Soviet Union.

Moreover, there is the testimony of many repatriated prisoners-of-war, that large numbers of former German soldiers and deported civilians have been kept in Russia for forced labour. And as the Foreign Ministers stated in their recent declaration, the Soviet Government have failed to repatriate numerous nationals of German occupied countries who were taken prisoner during the war, as well as more than 300,000 Japanese nationals who still remain unaccounted for in Soviet territory. This represents human tragedy on a large scale, involving not only the prisoners-of-war and deported civilians themselves, bat also the parents, wives and children who are still denied the return of their captured relatives. Only a very callous mind could remain indifferent to it. The declaration of the Foreign Ministers to which I have alluded bears witness to sincere Western sympathy with the Germans in this issue.

That sympathy took a practical form, for the declaration ended by referring to steps, first to obtain more information, and secondly, to bring about repatriation in the largest possible number of cases. Noble Lords will recognise that the first step is an essential preliminary to the second. Instead of working on the basis of misleading or incomplete Russian figures, it will be necessary to approach the problem from the other end—that is, by way of working out details of missing persons from their relatives and friends in Germany and through reports of prisoners still in Russia given by returned prisoners.

As regards steps to bring about repatriation, it would be wrong of me to say anything that might raise false hopes. Noble Lords will, I feel sure, realise that it is too soon after the declaration was made for me to indicate definite decisions. But I want to make it clear that the three Foreign Ministers intend to press this question by all available means, and discussions are now taking place in Germany between the Allied High Commis- sioners, in consultation with representatives of the Federal Government. Having said that, I hope the right reverend Prelate, to whom we are all indebted for his helpful action in raising this matter, will agree that the discussion should be left at this point for the present.