HL Deb 09 February 1967 vol 279 cc1549-56

8.50 p.m.

LORD RUSSELL OF LIVERPOOL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are of the opinion that Rudolf Hess should still be kept in prison and, if not, what efforts they have made to try to persuade the U.S.S.R. to agree to his immediate release. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I suppose I should regard it as an occupational hazard, but whenever I rise to speak in your Lordships' House I always seem to be doomed to be on the night-shift. However, on this occasion, as on other occasions, it is due to circumstances entirely beyond my control; and although I should like to apologise for keeping your Lordships still further, I am sure your Lordships realise that it is not necessary for me to do so. The only reason why I put this Question down as an Unstarred Question was in order to be able to tell your Lordships very briefly why I feel that Rudolf Hess should by now have been released from prison.

Of the 22 accused at the Nuremberg trial of major war criminals, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging and 10 were sentenced to terms of imprisonment varying from life to 10 years. Of these 10, only Hess still remains in prison. There are a number of reasons why I think he should have been released before now. In the first place, there were certain factors which should have been taken into consideration in mitigation of punishment at the time of the trial. One of them was that he made an effort—a genuine effort, although it was not successful—to bring the war to an end at the time of that dramatic flight he made to Scotland.

But, apart from such considerations, there is one point which I think is of extreme importance. All the other accused who were sentenced to terms of imprisonment were found guilty on either or both the third and fourth counts in the indictment, which alleged the commission of war crimes and of crimes against humanity, whereas Hess was found guilty only on the first and second counts (which, until the Nuremberg Charter, were not crimes against international law; they became crimes for the first time then) which were the planning and waging of aggressive war. As I say, Hess was acquitted on both the serious counts, the third and the fourth. There would therefore appear to me to be no just reason why he should be the only one still left to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, when all the others have been released.

My Lords, there are three distinguished Members of your Lordships' House who I know feel very strongly about this. None of them can be here to-night. I have been advised that, as I have their permission, I may say that they are in agreement and I may read short extracts from letters which they have sent me. The first is the noble and gallant Earl, Field Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis; the second is the noble Lord, Lord Shaw cross, who your Lordships will remember was the chief prosecutor for the British at the Nuremberg trial of major war criminals and the third is the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who was Commandant in Berlin between 1949 and 1951. They have all given me permission to say that they feel very strongly that Hess should by now have been released.

May I read very shortly from the letter of the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Alexander of Tunis? He says: I entirely agree about that wretched man, poor Hess, and I am so glad that you propose to raise the matter in the Lords. I feel sure that if we alone had been responsible for his fate he would have been released a long time ago—but I fancy the Russians think otherwise about his future". In a second letter he says: You may certainly say that I feel very strongly over the case of Hess. How is it that other Nazis who committed far worse crimes than Hess have now been released? The letter from the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross, says: I do agree with you that Hess should be released… I am afraid, however, that I shall be away. You may, however, say, if it is any help, that you know I have publicly expressed this view some time ago". Lastly, my Lords, the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, says: I strongly support your contention that Hess should be released. It would not hurt anyone, or divert the course of justice. When I was the Commandant in Berlin in 1949–51 I tried hard to get our Allies to move all seven prisoners out of Spandau, particularly on the grounds that it was cruel to keep only 7 men in a prison made for 300. (H.M. Inspector of Prisons agreed with me but it was turned down.) How much more cruel to keep one man alone in the same prison. I saw Hess regularly on my visits to Spandau and considered him even then a special case to be treated with mercy because of his deranged mind. Sixteen years later the case for release is even stronger". My Lords, I do not know whether it is true, but I believe it to be the case that the U.S.S.R. is the only one of the four Powers responsible for the retention of these prisoners which has refused to release Hess, and perhaps the noble Lord will tell me in his reply whether that is so. In that event, I should like to ask what steps have so far been taken by our- selves, either alone or in conjunction with France and the United States, to persuade the U.S.S.R. to change their mind about this. And is it too much to hope that before our distinguished visitor who was here this afternoon returns to Russia Her Majesty's Government might take the opportunity to make their views on this matter quite clear, if they have not already done so? In any event, I trust that even at this late hour Her Majesty's Government will publicly dissociate themselves from the decision which has been made to keep Hess in prison. My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

8.57 p.m.


My Lords, I have felt it my duty to attend this debate this evening at this late hour in order to give my support to the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, in asking this Question, because I had a personal responsibility in the matters with which it is concerned. The Nuremberg Commission sat under the authority of the Allied Control Commission for Germany, and I was the Deputy Military Governor at the time. We had a responsibility for confirming the sentences, and in particular for carrying them out, and that included the arrangements for the imprisonment of the men who were imprisoned at Spandau.

If the noble Lord, Lord Strang, were here this evening he would be sitting on my right, I think, as he generally does. Twenty-one years ago he and I sat together at Nurernberg and listened to the sentences, and we studied the faces of those 22 men who were accused. We saw the brazen, truculent face of Goering, and the self-satisfied face of Von Papen who to the indignation of his colleagues got off. All those faces were interesting except one. There was one man there who never lifted his face, but who looked down at his knees or his boots and paid not the slightest attention to what the judge or anybody else was saying, whether to him or to any of the other accused. That was Rudolf Hess, sentenced to imprisonment for life.

Twenty-one years have passed and all the others have gone. They have died or have been released on completion of their sentences. He alone remains, feebleminded, useless, dangerous to nobody. He is kept there still. It is pointless; it is inhumane. I support the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, most fervently, and I particularly support his proposal that our Prime Minister should take the opportunity offered by the presence of our distinguished guest to mention this fact to him and to ask him to bring the matter to its proper conclusion.

9.0 p.m.


My Lords, I entirely support the two noble Lords who have spoken on this matter. The question certainly comes vividly to my mind because I visited Spandau Prison two or three years ago. I understand that Her Majesty's Government feel that it is very necessary to keep the Four-Power Agreement that we have in Berlin; but it is not very edifying to think that it is maintained because of Hess—for that is what it really amounts to. If we press too hard, the Russians will not give way. I still think it is not what we should do; and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will make some effort to bring this matter before Mr. Kosygin, so that something can be done as soon as possible.

9.1 p.m.


My Lords, when we and the Russians were fighting as allies against the Germans we were being, led by Sir Winston Churchill, some of whose words are particularly relevant to the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, has brought to our attention. Your Lordships will remember that at one time Winston Churchill said: In peace, good will; in war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity. I must say that I join with all noble Lords who have spoken so far in feeling that, after twenty-one years, justice in this matter should give way to mercy.

9.2 p.m.


My Lords, I shall be brief. I shall not add to the history of this case which has already been set out most adequately by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. I might just add one or two facts which have not yet been mentioned in this short debate. Three prisoners from Spandau have already been released before the end of their sentences on the grounds of age and ill-health: von Neurath in September, 1954; Raeder, in September, 1955, and Funk, in May, 1957. As to what we have done about this in the past, I may say that in 1964 and again last year Her Majesty's Government, together with the French and United States Governments, made representations to the Soviet Government for the release of Hess; but without success.

If, indeed, Hess is to remain in captivity, then there are, at any rate, compelling arguments for arranging a cheaper, kinder and more humane system of detention. As we have heard, the prison buildings at Spandau are on a scale to hold 500 prisoners. At present—and I think all these facts are relevant—the maintenance and running costs of the prison and the wages of the prison staff, paid for by the German authorities, amount to about £36,000 a year. The military guard, provided by each of the Four Powers in turn, consists of one officer and 28 soldiers to man the watch towers and to provide a guard on the main gate. Five prison warders are provided by the Americans and British, six by the Russians and four by the French. Each of the Four Powers provides a governor and a medical officer. British expenditure on Spandau gaol, in which there is one man in captivity, is almost devoted to the wages of the British warders; and in the last complete financial year it amounted to over £6,000.

The proposal that we should in some specific way reopen this case at this particular moment may be met by the fact that in the autumn of last year the Western Powers again returned to this case and made certain proposals to the Soviet authorities about the conditions of Hess's further imprisonment. The Soviet authorities agreed to discuss these proposals and Four-Power discussions are now in progress in Berlin on this part of the subject. The future of Hess, as the noble Lord pointed out, and the future of the gaol are matters for decision by the Four Powers. As the discussions at present going on in Berlin are confidential, I do not wish to prejudice their outcome by going into details of what the Western proposals were. But we hope that, although it is true that the Soviet Government have hitherto been unwilling to agree to the release of Hess, it will be possible at least to reach agreement on a less elaborate and more humane method of detention.

Your Lordships will not expect me in this short debate to go into details about Hess's mental and physical condition, but I have to say that the general state of his health is not such as to justify pressure for release on these grounds alone. He receives careful medical attention whenever necessary. But I should still like to make it absolutely clear, in answer to the question put by the noble Lord, that Her Majesty's Government are not of the opinion that Rudolf Hess should still be in prison. In our view, there are strong humanitarian and practical grounds for releasing him after more than 25 years. But this, I must again say, can be done only by agreement among the Four Powers. This is one of the cases where good will and the action of the British Government alone are not sufficient. Here we must have agreement between ourselves, the United States, France and the Soviet Union.

House adjourned at seven minutes past nine o'clock.