HL Deb 17 March 1976 vol 369 cc310-55

7.23 p.m.

Lord HANKEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the one-sided accounts which have been given of the arrangements for the exchange of prisoners between the USSR and its allies at the end of the Second World War and whether they will ask the Official Historian to investigate the matter. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have thought it desirable to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper because it seems to me that the facts have been considerably misrepresented by the Press and other media during the past year, with little regard to the historical background.

First, let me explain why I know something of the facts from my own experience. I was at the Yalta Conference, and although I did not personally handle the agreements about the repatriation of civilians and liberated prisoners I knew a lot about the background. I was Counsellor at our Embassy in Poland from mid-July 1945 to March 1946. There were many British prisoners-of-war and others who had to be repatriated under the Yalta agreements. I personally witnessed the massive return of Soviet military and civilian personnel from Germany to Russia. The soldiers marched by, six and eight abreast, almost every day for two or three weeks, or perhaps longer, singing magnificently. The unfortunate civilians still looked half-starved but were obviously anxious to go home. From March 1946 until the end of 1949 I was head of the Northern Department of the Foreign Office, which dealt with the USSR and Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Scandinavia, and with this question of repatriation in co-operation with other Departments.

I should therefore like to give a brief documentary statement of the facts. In the total confusion which reigned in Europe as the allied victory was won, the enormous numbers of liberated prisoners-of-war and displaced persons were a great embarrassment. They had to be fed and looked after, but there was little food and the destruction of houses and communications was tremendous. They just had to be sent home to their own countries as soon as possible. The situation was much the same in the East as in the West, as the prisoners from the Western allies had largely been kept in camps in Poland and Eastern Germany. Thousands of liberated prisoners and displaced persons were evacuated from the United Kingdom and the United States of America to Russia, and from Russia to the West, even during 1944. It was clear that as soon as the allied armies entered Germany itself the problem would be on such a scale that formal and internationally co-ordinated arrangements would be found to be essential.

After much diplomatic preparation several agreements with the Soviet Government were accordingly signed at Yalta. One was signed by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Anthony Eden (now the noble Earl, Lord Avon) in the name of the United Kingdom as well as of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India, all of whom were very much concerned. A similar agreement was signed by the Americans. These agreements provided for the care and speedy repatriation of all liberated persons of the nationalities concerned, and for the authorities on each side to be assisted by officers and doctors from the other side. The policy had, of course, been approved in advance by our own Cabinet and by the Governments of all the Commonwealth countries concerned. The British-Soviet agreement was published in full in the Daily Telegraph on 13th February 1945, and a full summary was published in The Times. The official text is in State Papers of 1947.

On the same day a second agreement was also signed by our Foreign Secretary, in order to settle detailed problems of legal jurisdiction and discipline over liberated Soviet citizens in the United Kingdom. They had to be fed, housed and looked after. They could not be left running free in a Britain heavily engaged in the desperate warfare of early 1945. Many of the people concerned had been captured in Germany, and even in SS uniform. They were of many different races, and almost none spoke English. So the second agreement provided for the application, under United Kingdom law, of Soviet military discipline to liberated Soviet citizens. These Soviet citizens could thus be treated as allies, as the Soviet Government strongly requested, and yet they could still be kept in good order. The arrangement was embodied in the Allied Forces (USSR) Order No. 166 of 22nd February 1945, issued, as others had been before, under the Allied Forces Act 1940. So there really was no concealment.

The second agreement itself, however, was not published at the time, as it was thought (perhaps, as it has turned out, over-cautiously) that some question might conceivably arise of its interpretation under United Kingdom law. The text was made publicly available with the Foreign Office archives concerned some years ago. However, the fact that it was previously withheld has given rise to some misunderstanding and misplaced Press criticism. But, as I have made clear, these arrangements were made and carried out publicly.

Of course, it is well known that difficulties arose in the execution of this policy. At least 32,000 Soviet citizens were repatriated from the United Kingdom even before the end of June 1945. Well over a million were repatriated from Germany, and over 50,000 from the British Zone in Austria. But a considerable number, especially those taken in German uniform, did not want to go, and some force had to be used. There were a number of suicides. The Americans had precisely similar difficulties, both in the United States and in their zone of Germany. In Austria there were some terrible scenes, notably among the Ukrainian or Vlasov troops and their families. These have been graphically described by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, whose extensive personal research is contained in his book, The Last Secret. In parenthesis, your Lordships will see from what I have said that the title is rather a misnomer.

In the light of these difficulties, policy was carefully reviewed in August 1945 and confirmed by the new Secretary of State, Mr. Ernest Bevin. Some months later, first the Americans and then the British defined their policy more precisely so that only three classes of people would be repatriated, by force if necessary: first, Soviet citizens captured in German uniform, because prima facie they were traitors; secondly, former members of the Soviet armed forces, because prima facie by then they were deserters, and thirdly, Soviet citizens who had rendered aid and comfort to the enemy—each case to be proved individually. Your Lordships will observe that even under this formulation the Vlasovite Cossacks would have had to be repatriated.

The media and the Press have been inclined to attack the Foreign Office, and even the noble Earl, Lord Avon, personally, for inhumanity in adopting the policy they did. Just for a few minutes before I sit down, I think it is necessary, therefore, to look at these accusations in historical perspective, because this is really the nub of my Question to the Government. First, the Soviet Government and authorities were insisting that all their nationals should be repatriated. They were even making this a condition of our citizens being repatriated from Eastern Europe. There is good evidence that the Russians in fact delayed the repatriation of some of our prisoners until they were satisfied that they were getting theirs back. The Americans were in just the same position. Mr. Averell Harriman, the then United States Ambassador in Moscow, records in his book, Special Envoy, at page 416, Eisenhower and his staff were fearful that if they did not send back the Soviet prisoners, the Russians might seize upon one pretext or another to hold up the return of American prisoners from Eastern Europe".

My Lords, no Government and no Foreign Secretary could afford to fail or neglect to get our own men home as soon as possible. The Government would have been subjected to an irresistible storm of criticism, especially when it was known that many, if not most, of the really hard core of unrepatriated Russians, who were the cause of the dispute, had been captured in German or even in SS uniforms, whatever the circumstances in which they had been made to get into those uniforms. By comparison with this major British interest, I really do not think that humanitarian sympathy for those unfortunate people, who were clearly afraid of what would happen to them in Russia, could possibly have been given overriding priority at that time.

All the same, I must recall my very deep regret that in the heat and utter turmoil of the summer of 1945, with 7 million civilians of many nationalities, in addition to all the prisoners-of-war, being repatriated from Germany and Austria in only 20 months, it was impossible for the military authorities, British or American, to weed out all individual cases. The noble Lord, Lord Bethel, identifies some sad mistakes. But I must add that although his book is generally balanced, it is not quite fair to the Foreign Secretaries of that period, especially the noble Earl, Lord Avon, or to the Northern Department, of which I was the head from March 1946 on. I can personally certify that the members of that Department were then, and still are, most humane men, and in no way lacking in human sympathy. It is no fault of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, that the media have gone further and distorted the Foreign Office attitude in a way which is quite unfair to the noble Earl, Lord Avon.

My Lords, in assessing these events, your Lordships must cast back your minds to the situation of 1945. A really desperate war of survival was only just being won, with the Russians as very essential allies not only in Europe to clear up the German problem, but elsewhere as well. In the first half of 1945, the war with Japan was still expected to go on for two years. Hardly anyone knew of the atom bomb project, and no one knew whether in fact that scientific curiosity would turn out to be effective. Where could one hope to send and to settle large numbers of Cossacks and other Russians? All Ministers were agreed that we could not do anything about them in Britain, where a recession like that of 1920 was expected to occur. We had our hands absolutely full as it was, with many Polish and other allied Servicemen who had also fought most gallantly against the Germans.

To sum up, I do not think that either of our Foreign Secretaries of Governments at that time had any real alternative to pursuing the policy which they did. All the Commonwealth Governments and the American Government did the same. They could not all have been wrong, or lacking in humanitarian sympathies, as the media have suggested. If mistakes were committed in applying the policy—as, indeed, some bad ones were—that was deeply regrettable, but perhaps understandable in the terrible circumstances of the time. If there is any serious doubt about this, then perhaps the Official Historian should be asked to examine the points at issue. I would be most grateful for the Government's considered judgment in the matter.

7.38 p.m.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, is doing a service to your Lordships' House and to the interested members of the public in raising this matter this evening. The debate should enable more light to be thrown on the facts and upon the unenviable decisions with which the wartime Coalition Government were confronted. I watched the television programme on this subject. In the comparatively short time of such a programme, and given the theme running through it, I felt that full justice might not he being done to individual Ministers who had to take responsibility for exceedingly disagreeable and distressing decisions in wartime. The primary reason was that the first priority in wartime was given to winning the war. Further, there was an essential requirement which applied in this case, and to which the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, referred, to get our prisoners-of-war in Eastern Europe back as soon as possible after hostilities in Europe had ended.

I have also read the book by my noble friend Lord Bethell. I have it here beside me. The accounts there of what happened to groups of Russians who had been in German uniforms are properly placed, I believe, in the perilous context of a world war not yet won. He has gone to great trouble to get firsthand accounts, and the book is, if I may say so, well and movingly written. But as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has said, it is the short versions which have come out in the media, and the truncated reports, that may well give false impressions. Any reader of my noble friend's book who did not himself live through that period, as a member of the Armed Forces or in some other adult capacity, could be excused if he were to isolate the agreement made with the Russians about their nationals from other very difficult and unpleasant matters that had to be decided by the War Cabinet. Such a reader might also be excused if he were to magnify this into a post-war humanitarian problem. But it arose long before the war in Europe was over, and action was expected on it long before the war with Japan was over.

Decisions in a world war are governed by the overriding consideration, what is most likely to conduce to win it. Decisions had to be taken; they could not be put off, as sometimes in peace time it is possible to do. Sir Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet had to make other decisions of a similar kind. This was not an isolated case. There was no way of avoiding them. Their primary aim, totally supported by the British people, was to win the war and to help our own Forces.

For example, decisions to that end were taken which entailed the killing and maiming of thousands of non-combatants; for example, the bombing of cities and the killing of thousands of civilians. When this happened in Germany the casualties were mainly enemy civilians, but none the less a most distasteful decision had to be taken and was taken in order to win the war. When it came to bombing French towns this was an even more difficult one, but it was bound to be essential to bomb certain centres of communication, railway installations and other strategic targets. Leaflet warnings were dropped beforehand, but it was known it was impossible to avoid killing and wounding French civilians, allies in occupied territory. It was known that women and children would be maimed or blinded as a result, as the effects of decisions—wholly abhorrent effects of decisions which had to be taken. Would any of us at the time have taken different decisions from the War Cabinet? That is an example of the hideous kind of choice that had to be taken by those who were leading our country. They bore an almost intolerable burden in taking those decisions. I myself saw the bombing of one French town, the town of Caen in Normandy, from only two or three miles away. It was almost flattened in the summer of 1944.

That brings me to this point. It was in Normandy that we, the British Forces, were first aware that we were capturing Russians. Poles and Czechs in German uniform in some numbers. Your Lordships will understand why I shall have no hesitation in recalling my personal recollections of those days, from Normandy to the end of the war with Japan. It is necessary to remember what was happening, the world-shaking events, to put the Russian prisoner of war question into perspective. To me those recollections are as vivid as if they had happened last month, and I can only explain this by saying that I think when one is living through life or death incidents almost every day one's faculties are sharpened and no doubt one remembers these things clearly.

It is not as a former professional diplomat that I am seeking to make a contribution to this debate this evening. There are other speakers, including Lord Hankey, who will be doing that—and also as a former Minister in the Foreign Office. I did not join the Foreign Office until November 1946, after taking the exam on emerging from hospital, because I spent a year and a half in hospital after being wounded. I did then for three years deal with Eastern Europe, chiefly with Yugoslavia and Trieste, and that was long after the events of 1945 which are the subject of this debate. From Normandy to the Elbe, where I received a bullet through the middle in the assault crossing, I was in a Scottish Division fighting its way across Europe. So in June and July 1944 I was one who, being interested in foreign languages in those days, was aware that the prisoners we were taking in Normandy in German uniform were by no means all Germans and Austrians. It was clear that they were in the stationary ill-equipped units who had been manning the coastal defences; they were not in the Panzer Divisions and the other first-line German formations which arrived to try to repel our invasion once it had started. None the less, British and American Forces in the bridgehead were being shot at by roving bands in German uniforms. Of course, the rule that had to be followed was that someone in enemy uniform was an enemy. Once he became a prisoner he was treated correctly and humanely. Of course, that rule was carried out.

Again later in the war, in March and April 1945, when we were crossing Germany, I became aware of many nationalities and a mixture of categories. It was difficult to separate or define them. There were varying degrees of paramilitary services, or simply forced labour, but most of the people in them were not German. Besides a great many displaced persons, there was a shortage of food and many were already suffering from malnutrition; and there was, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has described, great confusion. I did not leave the scene until the early hours of 29th April, which was the day before Hitler committed suicide, and the resistance in Europe ended only three or four days after that. But the war with Japan lasted until August, and, as the noble Lord said, most expected it to last much longer.

What was happening at the time of the British-Soviet repatriation agreement which was reported in the Press on 13th February? The Yalta Conference had been taking place in January and February. There had been a setback in the Ardennes offensive, by the Germans, in December and January. The British Army group made their assault on the Siegfried Line on 8th February, near Cleve—a date I am very unlikely to forget. So the Yalta Conference was taking place when we were still at the Siegfried Line and there was still the Rhine crossing to come late in March. The Russians had been advancing rapidly in the East and were over-running the prisoner of war camps in Poland and later in Eastern Germany, where our prisoners and the American prisoners were. My noble friend's book indicates that we and the Americans were at that time alerted to the possibility that the Russians would not quickly return the British and American prisoners of war; indeed they were dilatory in dealing with the first ones they found. They were very much left to fend for themselves. This was an overwhelmingly powerful reason for the British to reach an agreement. In any case, there were doubts, it seems, as to whether the British Government possessed legal rights to decide the future of allied citizens.

The alternative, if the Russians concerned had stated that they did not wish to return and we accepted this, was that in principle we would be ready to receive tens of thousands and grant them political asylum, presumably in the United Kingdom. Even if it had been practicable to absorb numbers on that scale, was it a policy which Britain could adopt towards the Soviet Union, a military ally, before we in the West had even broken through the Siegfried Line. Apart from other ways in which the Soviet Union might have ceased to co-operate, there was a threat to our prisoners of war, the threat that they would not be released and not able to return. I have no doubt that there would have been a public outcry in Britain if return of our prisoners had been delayed and it transpired that this was because our Government were declining to sign an agreement on the return of Soviet nationals.

I make no apology for returning to a personal note, because I think it helps to convey the climate of those times. My brother was thought to be a prisoner of war at that time. He was a Spitfire pilot and had been seen to land by parachute in Italy a year earlier. Nothing else was heard from him after that. He was missing. There were many British families in a similar position. They did not even know where their prisoner-of-war relations were. When hostilities in Europe were over they were not willingly going to accept delay. I should complete my own story, because the news was eventually bad. It was discovered in due course that my brother had been shot and killed while escaping.

Should there be any doubts in anyone's mind concerning the likelihood of the Russians carrying out their threat, or veiled threat, of delaying the return of British prisoners-of-war, let us look at what happened to their German prisoners-of-war. They kept them in the Soviet Union for several years. For example, the present German Ambassador in London was not released until about 1949, or later, and for a long time his wife and family had no idea whether or not he was even alive. This is the background against which this decision ought to be judged. Those who may be critical of Ministers and of the Foreign Secretary of that time—my noble friend Lord Avon—or of the agreement of February 1945, should ask themselves: would they, in those conditions and in his position, have taken a different decision? No one can be happy about some of the results of that decision; but was there an alternative? I hope that other speakers in this debate will, if they think they would have taken a different decision, tell us.

There has been criticism—and I think that this was justifiable—that the screening carried out in the summer of 1945 was, in many cases, rough and ready, and unsatisfactory. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, described there were several million displaced persons in different categories; and there was complete chaos. There was not enough food and shelter; and winter was coming. The speed with which the screening was done, unfortunately, gave rise to some errors. That many people had to be forcibly repatriated against their will—those who had been in German uniforms in the German Army and feared the consequences—was a distressing result of this agreement. The United Kingdom felt bound to carry out the commitment while doing their best to be fair in individual cases, and the Labour Government followed the previous Government in the same policy. My noble friend Lord Avon's personal concern about individual cases is illustrated on page 52 of Lord Bethel's book. Here he records the case of a Russian and his wife and child, who were not returned through a personal decision by Anthony Eden. My Lords, in the summer of 1944, Russians in German uniform were shooting at us at Normandy. Some of the different ways in which they had arrived in that situation remind us of the ruthless cruelty of Hitler's régime. Deprived of food, and with a few shot as examples, it is clear that some were propelled under great duress into a German uniform. But it was the overriding aim of the British and United States Governments to overcome that régime, to defeat Hitler's tyranny. In order to achieve that aim, very unpalatable decisions had to be taken. Without doubt this was one of those unpalatable decisions.

7.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has taken the line that he has, because it seems to me that just to put this very emotional issue in its right perspective goes far to answer many of the criticisms against this action in general and against the noble Earl, Lord Avon, in particular. It is on that rather narrow point, while respecting the deeply held feelings on this subject, that I wish to talk tonight. Some of your Lordships know that I was Lord Avon's Parliamentary Private Secretary for some years, and I have enjoyed his close friendship for 20 years. During this time we have discussed this and other matters. Also, of course, your Lordships know that the noble Earl, Lord Avon, is the last man in the world who would want, or ask, anyone else to fight his battles for him or to defend his position. Had he been in this country, I have not the slightest doubt that he would have defied all possible advice and been in his place in your Lordships' Chamber tonight. As it happens, however, he is in America convalescing from a serious illness, and even then he considered making a special effort to get back for this debate, but was dissuaded from doing so.

It is quite inappropriate for me to seek to debate any points in Lord Bethell's book, or indeed in the particular TV programmes or newspaper articles which it inspired. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, some of whose books I am happy to say my publishing concern has been proud to publish, has always been most courteous to me, and indeed I believe it was through me that he first approached the noble Earl, Lord Avon, on the subject of this repatriation of prisoners. That the noble Earl, Lord Avon, decided not to discuss or correspond over this issue was, in the first instance, because of ill health, but it was also because of a conviction that he really had nothing to add to what he had already written on the subject in his book. The same considerations apply to approaches made to him on behalf of the media.

As your Lordships will understand, it is impossible for him, in terms of energy and time, to comment on every book, TV programme, or article which covers events in which he himself was personally involved. This especially applies, as in this case, when he is sure that his course, however disagreeable it was, was the right one, and for the reasons which he has already publicly explained. I make this point because it is being said by some who ought to know better—although not of course by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, himself—that Lord Avon's silence indicates an acceptance of the episode as it has been presented by the media. This is far from the case.

In the introduction to Lord Bethell's book, Hugh Trevor-Roper, in the first paragraph, writes two sentences which I should like to quote. The first is: In war one great aim obviously overrides others, and gives for the time an absolute validity to the lesser decisions which it entails. And then a sentence or so further on: The comfortable after-wisdom of the historian "— and, he might have added, the TV producer— is a luxury. He has no responsibilities. He can afford to be wrong. That brings me back to the context in which this decision on the repatriation of prisoners was taken. It was taken, as my noble friend has just indicated, before the fighting had ended. It was implemented, at least in its first stage, long before the dust of war had settled, or begun to settle. For years before that, for 10 years or more, the Germans—certainly the Nazis—had been recognised as the enemies of civilisation. For six years before that, the German people, with their European and Eastern allies, had been waging war against us with the utmost ferocity and had committed many fearful atrocities from Rotterdam to Singapore. One does not, of course, want to fan embers that are now nearly dead, but the Germans and their allies, and all who fought and supported their cause in the war, were, by the time it ended, held in complete contempt and loathing by those who had won the war. This hatred of all that Hitler's Germany stood for was part of the inspiration and strength of the Western Allies, and it seems to me to be totally unreasonable to expect that this would evaporate overnight with the ending of the war, or that it could fail to embrace all those who had fought for or supported our enemy. A highly sensitive and much respected man who is very much in the public eye now told me that when, in his prisoner of war camp, some Russians who had been fighting for the Germans were discovered hiding, he had neither hesitation nor compunction in arranging for them to be turned over to the Russians; this man, a man of great culture and sensitivity, was influenced by the conditions and atmosphere of the time.

There was then, as many of us in this Chamber of course remember, no inclination at all to take a charitable view of the Germans or those who helped them. In fact, had such an inclination existed or been expressed, I think it would have caused a far greater outcry then than has been raised today from a feeling that, looking back from 30 years on, we may have been insensitive or indeed inhuman in this issue. So many of those who protest today seem to forget that, villainous though Stalin may now appear, even with that hindsight he was never so totally evil as Hitler and, anyway, at that particular time he was an ally, an ally to whose support and those of his very brave armies we almost certainly owed our survival. Whatever may have happened later, at the time of the repatriation of these prisoners, Stalin was not an enemy; he was still an ally. It was not only the general climate of opinion which had to be considered by the Government of the day; there were many other realities of the political and social situation which had to be faced.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred to the question of the refugees and the economic chaos. Lord Campbell also mentioned the clearly expressed determination of Stalin that those who had fought for the Germans, thereby betraying the millions of Russians who had died in the defence of their country, should not escape the, albeit brutal fate which he felt they deserved. I would remind your Lordships that even in this country we sought retribution from those of our citizens who had given comfort to the enemy. Stalin of course in this, as has been mentioned, had strong cards to play in the shape of the allied prisoners of war in areas liberated by his armies, and he was not afraid to play those cards. I have spoken to one prisoner of war at whose camp there arrived a convoy of American armoured vehicles to take them back across the Elbe into the American zone. The Russians immediately surrounded the convoy with armed men announcing that anybody who attempted to board it would be shot. It was explained later that the Russians were taking this action because they wished to have the repatriation of their prisoners settled satisfactorily, from their point of view, before they would release the British and allied prisoners there.

This intransigence, of which this particular example is an illustration, was, as has already been said, well known by the Americans and all the Commonwealth Governments and I have seen the strength of the pressure that was put upon the United Kingdom Government, and on the Foreign Secretary particularly, from those sources to reach a settlement over the question of the repatriation of prisoners. It was at this time that Lord Avon put a note on a document to the effect that we could not afford to be sentimental about these people. This has been, not by the noble Lord, taken out of its context of time and really made to give the impression that Eden was a man of no feelings at all. But anybody who knows the noble Earl will realise how he agonised over this decision. Nevertheless, he has said that then, and for that matter now, he believed and believes that no other option was open to him.

The fact is that in war or even in the immediate aftermath of war one cannot afford to be sentimental about anything. Indeed, there is a requirement to be unsentimental. The admiral, general or air marshal who sends his forces into action cannot afford to be sentimental, even though he knows the risks they are running; he cannot afford to be sentimental any more than can a statesman who is dealing with things on a much bigger canvas, but with lives equally at stake on both sides.

I will end by reading two short paragraphs from a letter written to me by my noble friend Lord Barber, who was involved in this matter and who would have spoken tonight had it not been necessary for him to be out of London. He wrote: I myself was one of those aircrew who were held by the Russians after the end of the war in Europe. We realised at the time that we were being kept as hostages until the return of Russians who had been liberated by the British. If the Government had refused to return the Russians, I do not doubt that most of us would have accepted our unhappy lot as being a necessary consequence of the aftermath of war. In the event, a different decision was taken. The point I want to make is that it is all too easy for armchair critics who themselves have never had to take major decisions involving life and death, not to mention the wider international considerations; to moralise, generations later, about what should or should not have been done. I well remember at Dunkirk how we looked in vain for cover from the RAF. Many were killed on those beaches as a result of the decision not to risk our aircraft, yet that decision was undoubtedly the right one". He ended: The winning of a war and the issues of peace were not quite as easy as the critics now pretend.

8.8 p.m.


My Lords, I put my name down to speak in this debate on the supposition, which I believe to be correct, that what we in this House are trying to do is to put on record a proper perspective of this tragic matter. We have heard highly rational explanations from noble Lords who have spoken, of why what was decided had to be decided, and I think that they are explanations with which nobody can disagree. I will try to take the discussion in one respect on to an even deeper emotional level than has been reached hitherto. I do this partly because, unlike noble Lords who have spoken so far, I was at the time when all this was happening totally unconscious that it was happening. Thus, I have no particular interest or point of view to defend. I speak partly for that reason, partly because I have come across this story—the story of the Ukrainian Cossacks—at first hand, in Austria, and partly because I saw the BBC film. In Austria one encountered the story which I fear still tends to be related there as the normally chivalrous British entertaining their guests and then sending them off to their death. It is good to know the completeness of how this came about even if it is of little consolation.

I would not blame the BBC for putting on that particular film. I think it was a courageous thing to have done. But of course where the film went wrong was in its subordination to present-day tastes and techniques; things happen, and that must be because somebody blundered or made a mistake or there was a wrong recommendation. What was wrong with the film was the evident effort to convey the impression that not only the noble Earl, Lord Avon, but also certainly one colleague of mine had made an inhuman, illogical and basically erroneous recommendation. That was entirely wrong and has been partly responsible for the necessity for this debate. One wishes that people could realise that real tragedy like this is not a sort of cops and robbers business, where the cop happens to be wounded or the robber killed. The real tragedy here was that it was what I would venture to call a tragedy of inevitability. It was not a thriller; it was a tragedy of the nature of Oedipus, or Hamlet. There was nothing in the circumstances of the time which could have prevented it.

Noble Lords who have spoken have given many reasons of policy and of the waging of war as to why these cruel things must happen. I am surprised that nobody has yet mentioned Hiroshima. There is one aspect of our discussion which no speaker has mentioned, however, though the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Kilmahew, came near to it. I came home in February/March 1945, somewhat ironically, to prepare for the Charter of the United Nations, and my memory is as vivid as that of other noble Lords as regards contemporary matters. I refer to the state of public opinion in Britain. All public opinion knew about our Soviet allies was that the Communist Russians had done to Hitler what the Czarist Russians had done to Napoleon. That seemed an absolute miracle. If one knew nothing of the difficulties of dealing with our allies, one's attitude was bound to be completely uncritical, and so it was.

The thought that the British publio—quite apart from the question of British Ministers—could have understood or stood for a decision by which we accepted Russian anti-Soviet Government refugees at this time shows how politically inconceivable it was to take any decision other than that which was taken. That is what I call a tragedy of inevitability. There was in fact no choice. Going past Lienz, where the Cossack tragedy happened, as I have done since, all I could feel about the situation was that, if I had been there, I hope I should have allowed one or two people to escape in order personally to salve my conscience. Apart from that, I do not see what any British Government could have done.

I have only one more thing to say. It is a perhaps slightly unorthodox contemporary warning about this episode. One noble Lord after another has described—and has done so absolutely correctly—what would have happened to British prisoners if they had been held as hostages. I know a German and an Austrian both of whom were held in the Caucasus for four years. That may be attributed by some to the excesses of Stalinism; but, if anybody thinks that, may I remind him that, after the departure of Mr. Khrushchev from the political scene in the Soviet Union, the whole political and ideological effort inside the Soviet Union for the subsequent decade has been directed towards the rehabilitation of Stalin. So I leave your Lordships with the warning that, while what happened was inevitable, there will be the danger of recurrence of comparable incidents so long as there survive systems of Government which are without compassion.

8.15 p.m.


Here comes controversy, my Lords! However, by way of opening this speech on a harmonious note, I should like to begin as I shall end, by expressing complete support for what I take to be the purpose of the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, in asking this Question—that is, that the Official Historian should investigate this horrendous matter. It has become clear that this whole issue would never have been brought to debate were it not for the book written by my noble friend Lord Bethell entitled The Last Secret and for the television film based on that book, which between them performed the most valuable task of bringing the matter to the public notice. These, together with consequent correspondence in the Press, are explicitly the "accounts" to which the Question refers; but the form of the Question invites me to quote the closing sentence of the measured and penetrating introduction to that book by Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper. He said: This is not a book which calls for judgment: it calls, as good books do, for reflection. It is therefore the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, who is instigating or inciting judgment by using that somewhat trigger-happy term one-sided "in reference to my noble friend's book and its consequences. It is he who has fanned the embers, to pick up a phrase already used this evening. If anything, I was impressed by my noble friend's restraint. In deploying the case, after careful research, he leans over backwards at quite an angle to excuse the diplomats, if possible, by remarking that they were out of their depth. He said: Accustomed to handling matters of State and regarding it as their duty to bring nations together by negotiation, they were confused by the problems which involved life or death of actual human beings and they were aghast at the idea of breaking a solemn treaty in order to protect individuals. At various points of the book, my noble friend seeks to exonerate those who were carrying out orders repugnant to them, though he does not conceal the fact that the orders emanated from Mr. Anthony Eden, as he then was, towards whom the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Allan of Kilmahew have shown touching and very proper solicitude. Solicitude is all very praiseworthy but would have been better deserved, in my esteem at least, if Mr. Anthony Eden had applied an ounce of such solicitude on behalf of those—particularly women and children—whom he was sending to their death. We know that approximately 2½ million men, women and children—by no means all Russians—in the hands of the Western Allies towards the end of the war were forcibly and in justified terror despatched to Soviet Russia, some by the British and some by the Americans. Of those 2½ million, it is estimated that between 10 and 15 per cent. only were permitted to live in a highly restricted and punitive form of freedom, which we should not call freedom. The overwhelming majority were shot or sent to a living death in the camps so graphically described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn has referred to, this action of the Western Governments. This massive handing-over of ordinary Russians to retribution and death". Even in this telling indictment, I wonder whether the translator has done justice to the facts. The normal reading of "retribution" is "a recompense for, or requital of, evil done". Scarcely any of those condemned had committed any evil at all, unless we accept the Soviet indictment of simply being abroad, whether willingly or not, as a category of evil.

I now come to a passage in my speech for which, I confess, I have little stomach. But I hope that the source and strength of my compulsion will be accepted. Some of the best, bravest and most far-sighted compatriots I have known in the course of a fairly well-travelled life have given their careers to the Foreign Service of this country and have made a greater contribution than most of us can to the influence of our country. It is therefore all the stranger, sadder and more dispiriting to find on many occasions that the attitude and operation of the Foreign Office as a whole, functioning as an institution, fills me with something close to a sense of despair. That is when that body sets out, skilfully, deliberately and, to my mind, deplorably, to conceal and even obliterate the truth and to continue to do so when the acceptable purpose of such concealment has long since passed. When concealment is impossible, there is often an effort to obscure and confuse the options presented. This is such an instance. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, claimed that there was no concealment because the whole thing was announced in some obscure Army order, but who reads Army orders except staff officers? The noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, on his own witness, did not read this one.

We have heard this evening some of the trumpets of the apologia. I wish that I could have been more impressed. I do not consider that a counter-case has been made to the array of facts provided by my noble friend in his book. I have heard no note of evidence, not even a piccolo among the trumpets, convincing me that my noble friend's account was "one-sided".

The apologia has rested upon three unequal bars; that is, that the consequences have been exaggerated, or, as some kind of alternative, could not be foreseen at the first. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, is unquestionably sincere in the defence he presents. Over the years I have had every reason to regard him as considerate, engaging and indeed, benevolent in personal interchanges. His benevolence was never more evident than during an encounter yesterday when we met in the Library, where he was studying a volume which I was seeking, and he courteously passed it to me for my own contradictory purposes within a minute or two. That particular document was the Agreement between the United Kingdom, together with the other Commonwealth Powers on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other hand, relating to prisoners-of-war and civilians liberated by the Forces operating under Soviet Command and Forces operating under British Command, signed at Yalta on 11th February, 1945.

The key article is Article 1, which refers to all Soviet citizens liberated by the Forces operating under British Command. There is only one faintly ominous provision in that article, and that is ominous only if interpreted in the most callous and inhuman manner. It provides that such liberated persons, will, without delay after their liberation, be separated from enemy prisoners-of-war and will be maintained separately from them in camps or points of concentration until "— here we come to the casuistical opening— they have been handed over to the Soviet or British authorities, as the case may be, at places agreed upon between those authorities. That is, inevitably, the compulsion which the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has invoked. Yet there is nothing which I, as a reasonably observant, careful and humane layman, can read which prescribes that the period of technical "liberation" shall be circumscribed, or that one form of cruel bondage shall be exchanged forcibly for another equally cruel, or for execution. There is nothing to say that these liberated citizens must be handed over against their will and in terror of death by the British authorities to the Soviet authorities. The phrase, "as the case may be", is meaningless, because it does not compare like with like. In the inconceivable event of British prisoners not wishing to return to Britain, was there a question of Her Majesty's Government insisting on the implementation of a non-existent undertaking? Of course there was not.

The second bar of the apologia is the fear that British prisoners-of-war in Soviet hands would never have been returned unless we had forced the Russians to return as a sacrifice. This is where I am perplexed by the phrasing of the noble Lord's Question. Exchange of prisoners is, as I understand, a specific and recognised term in international law, incorporated into the Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention; in particular the Regulations annexed to that Convention concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, and the exchange of prisoners captured by the enemy. In every document I have been able to find, the law and obligation regarding the exchange of prisoners is related to an exchange between enemies, and is nowhere concerned with Allies. It appears to me, especially in the light of the only relevant wording in the iniquitous Yalta Agreement, that the onus of proving that the freeing of British prisoners-of-war was ever endangered or used as a lever by the Russians, lies upon those who made the pitiless decision to surrender the "hostages", as they have to be considered, hostages by the million, including civilians, women and children.

The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, said, and I listened with respect, that there was evidence that this was so. Well, I have searched—others have searched more diligently—and have not been able to discover such evidence. My noble friend behind me gave an instance, and I am certain that he believes in that instance. I invite him to show me evidence of it, and to show me, if he can, that it was anything more than isolated if, in fact, his information was correct—


My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for a moment? The noble Lord, Lord Bethel], quoted two case in which the Russians threatened to do this, one by General Ratov at New-land's Corner, and another at a diplomatic level.


My Lords, nothing produced by my noble friend, by the noble Lord asking the Question, or by my noble friend Lord Allan of Kilmahew, suggests that this was a general order, or a general likelihood of an order, from the Russian High Command, or the Russian rulers.

The third bar of extenuation is the claim that we could not know what the consequences would be. Alas! this does not survive scrutiny. For instance, as only one instance, in November 1945, Sir Isiah Berlin, serving in the Moscow Embassy since 1942, spoke to a Soviet general who informed him frankly that all those being forcibly or voluntarily returned were being placed in the hands of the NKVD. There were cases where the accompanying British officers, after crossing into Soviet territory with batches of victims, saw them being marched off under armed guard. There were even cases where the executions took place within earshot, if not in sight, of the British officers.

Mr. Anthony Eden himself made reference in a Cabinet Paper dated 3rd September 1944, to the, …probability that if we do what the Soviet Government want and return all these prisoners…whether they are willing to return or no, we shall be sending them to their death. The whole policy was governed by that other phrase of Mr. Eden's, "We don't want them here."

The number of enemies of Britain we disposed of by this method of proxy execution must have been minimal. The non-Communist Russians had no wish to fight against us. There were numberless cases where a batch of Russian prisoners, soldiers, or civilians, was lined up and ordered to put on German uniform. If one man refused, he was shot where he stood. If a second refused, he was shot. If a third refused, he was shot; all on the spot. After such examples, reluctantly they gave in to save their lives. In this way countless Russians caught by Allied troops in German uniforms were wearing those uniforms only to save their lives.

It was clear that many of them deserted to the Allies at their first opportunity. No distinction whatever was made for them. I wonder how many noble Lords are aware that many thousands of these Russians deserters, after escaping, fought with great bravery with the Allied Forces against the Germans. They were packed off to their deaths with the rest. There were many who had never been Soviet citizens, never lived within the Soviet borders, let alone owed allegiance to that Government. They included the elderly General Krasnov, who bore a British Military Cross, and who was hanged in Russia in 1947, after forcible deportation by ourselves into Soviet hands.

Much is made, and has been made today, of the cruelty of the Cossacks. Mr. Anthony Eden used this pretext, as recorded in my noble friend's book, by classing all Russians taken in uniform as serving in German formations, whose behaviour "has often been revolting". That was to generalise so sweepingly as to equate the behaviour of anyone who bore arms against us, willingly or unwillingly, with the repellant SS. This was at best rough justice. Any soldier accused of offences against civilians is permitted a court-martial. These were condemned without trial of any kind and, most grotesque of all, their wives and children were condemned with them.

What kind of military regulation, or penalty, can cover that? The onus of proof rests on those who condemned and sentenced by expulsion to Russia. Some proof is not hard to find, but it shows that only a fraction of the Cossacks themselves were guilty of such behaviour, and they were explicitly obeying the orders of the Nazis, whose characteristic and ferocious purpose it was to convince their own subjects that this was typical Russian behaviour, and thereby stiffen, or inculcate, the spirit of resistance against the advancing Soviet armies. No Cossacks ever bore arms against the Western Allies, and this is a point worth recollecting. The pretext must be specious in any case, since all Russians, those who were suspected of behaving savagely, those who were never accused of this, those who fought, and those who did not fight at any moment, were all treated equally. They were handled wholesale.

None of us who have joined, or who will join, in this debate are likely, I think, to be classed with that Gilbertian figure: The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone. All centuries but this and every country but his own. That is a description borrowed, I think, from Canning many years earlier. We are more likely to be teased as somewhat old-fashioned patriots, and I do not shy from that definition as explaining why I do not wish the blemishes of our past to be artificially concealed. There is no lack of magnaminous example to compensate.

We are as one in the central purpose of this question, as I understand it; namely, that the Government should ask the Official Historian to investigate this whole matter. I am all for that. I had already supposed, although the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, did not confirm it, that by "the Official Historian" he referred to Sir Llewellyn Woodward, the fourth volume of whose Documents on British Foreign Policy, Second World War was brought out by the Stationery Office last week, bringing that history up to 1943. It is no secret that there are three large files in the archives dealing specifically with what I regard as this ugly matter, and he will have bountiful material upon which there could be a temptation to draw sparingly. I hope that temptation will be resisted.

It is also the case that before the end of this year another book will be published by Hodder and Stoughton, a great deal longer and still more comprehensive than that of my noble friend, discovering and describing greater horrors and closer connivance between our own Foreign Office and the Soviet authorities—a connivance in cold-blooded, massive-scale slaughter. My Lords, I realise that these are strong words. The term "connivance", in particular, is not casually employed. The unhappy fact is that, whatever extenuating factors may be invoked for what was done, it cannot be denied that it was done knowingly; that decisions were made forcibly to repatriate these millions of men, women and children in the full, unquestionable awareness that they were being sent to death or inhuman forms of imprisonment.

There are many noble and honourable countrymen who will not see the justification for this harking back to past horrors. It was the same with Katyn. They will say, as they have often said, "It is done with; it is behind us". In this instance they will further claim that necessity demanded such action in the national interest; indeed, as has been so claimed this evening. Yet a great English statesman who was well versed in matters of national interest in peace and war had this to say on the subject. Speaking in another place on 18th November 1793, reported in Hansard, Vol. 23, col. 1209, Mr. William Pitt, demanded: Was not necessity the plea for every exertion of power, or exercise of oppression? Was not necessity the pretence of every usurpation? Necessity was the plea for every infringement of human freedom; it was the argument of tyrants; it was the creed of slaves". In the matter we are debating, an infringement of human freedom on a tragic plane was effected, and decisions made by a Government of this country were responsible. It behoves us, I believe, to examine ourselves.

My Lords, before closing I feel compelled to refer briefly to a matter analogous to this. The Minister cannot be expected to make reference, since it is disconnected from the Question itself, but it makes credible by example what I have described as the stubborn determination, on occasion, of the Foreign Office, for reasons which I am certain they consider patriotic and a matter of compelling professional duty, to obscure certain distasteful events, whether or not they may have the faintest responsibility. In 1940, 15,000 Polish officer prisoners were assassinated and buried in a mass grave by the Soviet authorities. In a debate in this House in June of 1971 the then Conservative Government were persuaded by the Foreign Office to put up a pretence that the facts were in doubt because it might make life diplomatically difficult with the Russians if they did otherwise. I will not go into the deceptions of that debate, in which my noble friend Lord Aberdare was an innocent spokesman.

Since then, a committee has been striving to set up a monument to those otherwise unrecorded allied officers. I have the honour to be a member of that committee. The Foreign Office has used every scrap of influence it possesses to exclude us from any site in central London. Despite its efforts, and with the gallant support and patronage of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a site has been found and the monument will be erected. Now, my Lords, at this stage, the Soviet Embassy is having the effrontery to write bullying, almost threatening letters to the officers of the royal borough. Here is interference by a foreign Power in the affairs of local government of this country, of this capital. With the British Foreign Office and the Soviet Foreign Ministry against us, it will be something of a triumph over odds when the memorial is erected in Gunnersbury Park in September of this year.

My Lords, if we who feel worried by this are asked, as we may be, why we are so persistent over issues which cannot conceivably be corrected, I think we would answer as my noble and much missed friend the late Lord Conesford once said on this matter: that truth for its own sake has an intrinsic and essential value. I have in mind the Essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson on "Intellect"—a theme which he combined inseparably with the theme and substance of Truth: God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets…He gets rest, commodity and reputation; he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat…He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being". My Lords, in this very real sense, in calling upon the Official Historian to investigate, the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has declared himself a candidate for truth. I hope that, with me, he calls for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, however ugly, however sinister, even to the point of shame, that truth may reveal itself to be.

8.35 p.m.


My Lords, for good or ill, I shall not attempt to scale the heights of passion, eloquence and pugnacity which were reached by the noble Lord who has just sat down. I listened in awe to his accusations and the moving recital which he gave of terrible events. I would not agree with all of what he said, and one of the aspects of this will come out later in my speech. The two points to which I should like to address myself are, first, the accusation of one-sidedness in so far as it is directed against the book written by my noble friend Lord Bethell, The Last Secret; and, secondly, the idea which seems to run through this Question that any defects which that account may have, or which any other account based on it may have, should be corrected by action taken at an official level.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, in his introduction, concentrated his attack mainly on the television broadcast which he had seen, rather than on the book written by my noble friend. I did not see that broadcast. Knowing the medium, it would not surprise me if it left out subtleties or qualifications which appear in the book. Nevertheless, it was based on the book; and if the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, did not mean the book to be a target of his Question, then I think this could have been made plainer in the Question itself. To me it does not seem right to call the book one-sided. Certainly my noble friend Lord Bethell makes judgments, but they are not facile judgments, as our most distinguished contemporary historian, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, in his foreword, to which other noble Lords have referred, makes plain. In his view, these are not facile judgments. My noble friend Lord Bethell gives facts, he gives all the facts, he gives terrible facts; and I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, was inclined to attempt to refute the facts given in that book—and certainly my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy did not do so. Indeed I have seen no really successful attempt to refute them.

Also, I think that in that book my noble friend gives the background to the decisions of those times; and he also gives the arguments and a description of the political necessities of that time, which can be used and which have been used to defend the policy which the British Government followed then. My noble friend himself remains critical of that policy—at least, that is my interpretation of his position, and he is here to correct me if I am misrepresenting him. Others may feel that the awful necessities of that period make criticism inappropriate. That, surely, is a matter for personal judgment; it is not a justification for calling the book one-sided. But even if it had been one-sided, and even if the televsion programme was one-sided (which I tend to doubt, particularly following the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, although the broadcast may very well have given a much harsher and more simple judgment than given in the book), what role can there possibly be, I wonder, for official action?

Freedom of expression is one of our basic values, and is it not the right course for anyone who disapproves of these accounts to provide their own account without calling on official assistance; in the case of the television programme, to make their own public protest without calling on official assistance? Without wishing to cast aspertions on the Official Historian, whatever or whoever he or she or they may be, I am mystified by the supposition that the correct account of historical events is best provided by official sources. I should be most eager to hear philosophical justification for this attitude from the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, if he takes the line that I think he is going to take, for he himself is a very distinguished Parliamentarian and the son of a Prime Minister.

My Lords, we are dealing with events in the twilight between history and current affairs. The link that binds them to current controversy is the survival of some of the participants, even some of the principal participants. Were that not the case, I doubt whether the Question would have been tabled; but somewhere in the privacy where this resolution derived its motivation I think I see the shadows of another anxiety. It seems to me that this resolution may draw part of its inspiration from a dislike felt in some quarters for the new rules which have made available to historians for publication attributable comments and advice given earlier in their career by public servants who are still alive and even, in some cases, still in office.

If that is the case, then the author of the Question was not selective enough in his target. I myself have considerable misgivings about the new rules. I think they have been adopted with far too little thought for some of their implications. If the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, were at some future moment to choose to fight a battle on that ground he would receive a broader basis of support than he has achieved today. I think that in such a situation he would also get something that his Question today can hardly get for him, and this is a constructive result.


My Lords, before the noble Lords sits down, may I ask one question since he was good enough to refer to me? Would he not agree that in looking at the balance of the film—and I am not referring to Lord Bethell's book at all—the overwhelming visual presentation of one side of the tragedy did overwhelm, in the nature of the medium itself, the rather perfunctory explanations of the decision of the Government and its somewhat personal allusions to individual people?


My Lords, with respect, I am at a disadvantage for, as I said at the beginning. I was not myself able to see the programme. Notwithstanding that, I think that the right course for anyone is certainly to make a protest with respect to that; but I do not think that constitutes, even if it is true, sufficient grounds for calling for official action.

8.43 p.m.


My Lords, I feel embarrassed to talk about this subject and I will not go into the arguments in my book or in the television programme in very great detail but will speak briefly and try to mention one or two matters which were raised by one or two speakers in the interests, I hope, of truth and the avoidance of one-sidedness. In one respect, I think that this debate is bound to be one-sided in that this House contains a considerable number of people who took part in the decisions made on the British side in 1944–45, particularly former members of the Foreign Service and also one or two former Ministers of those years. This House, however, does not contain any representatives of the victims of the policy which was decided by the British Cabinet in September 1944 on the recommendation of the Foreign Office of that time. I probably have some advantages over other noble Lords in that I have over the past two or three years spoken to between 100 and 200 of these victims and I feel that their case should be put, however briefly, and that judgments should be made on the basis of what they decided, what they did and what happened to them after the decision was taken.

The first point that I want to make clear, because it was raised by several speakers, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was the equation of people who were forcibly repatriated with people who were captured in German uniform. My researches seem to me to indicate that such is not justified; that these two categories of persons cannot be equated. It follows, of course, that those Russians or Ukranians or Cossacks who were captured in German uniform were less likely to want to return to the Soviet Union than others, to put it mildly. But those who were so captured form a small minority of the 2 million or 3 million people whom we are discussing who were sent back irrespective of their own wishes, and by force if necessary.

Here I think the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, made an error when he said, if I quote him correctly, that many or even most of those sent back by force were captured in German uniform. I do not believe that this is the case, The majority of those repatriated were either prisoners of war from the Red Army who had fallen into Nazi German hands or forced labourers who had been taken by Nazi Germany from Russia to Germany, to France or to Austria to work. These people, many of them, resisted the threats and blandishments offered to them—which for many of them were the only way they could save their lives. It has been decribed how such threats were made which would perhaps make all but the strongest of us turn to some resource that might save one's life rather than carry on in the inhuman conditions of Nazi German camps. But many resisted and many stayed in the conditions of the service of Nazi Germany at that time or in the camps for Russians which I need hardly remind your Lordships, although I must, bore very little resemblance to the prisoner-of-war camps in which British and American prisoners found themselves. The survival rate was not very high among Russian prisoners in those camps. Let us make it clear that the vast majority of those who were forcibly repatriated as a result of the British decision, which was subsequently confirmed by a decision of the US Government, were people who remained loyal to the Soviet Government and who were not guilty of treason, even by the harsh Stalinist code.

Another point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, which I want to mention briefly is the suggestion that The Last Secret, the title of the work that I wrote, was a misnomer. It is a quotation from Solzhenitsyn. I should like to make it clear that while it is true that the agreement about the exchange of prisoners was printed in the Daily Telegraph in 1945, no mention was made in that Daily Telegraph report of the fact that all Soviet citizens were to be repatriated, irrespective of their own wishes and by force if necessary. Here I think is the case for saying that a mistake was made.

Before I go into that, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not think the decision was easy. I do not think that Anthony Eden or the Foreign Office or other Ministers or the Prime Minister—Mr. Winston Churchill at that time—who reached that decision had an easy task, by any means. I am sure that they thought about it carefully; although I have not been able to speak to any Member of the Cabinet at that time. With one exception they are all dead. The unfairness, if there is unfairness, must be relative and we must try to judge it as best we can after 30 years. The BBC programme has been criticised by many speakers. I saw it and contributed to it. It inevitably put a slightly different emphasis than other people who have written about this subject because it is much harder to encapsulate in 90 minutes of screening what someone else may write in 200 or 300 pages of a book. Perhaps it was a subjective account as are almost all good television programmes.

It is an emotional subject. The death of 1 million people by a decision of our Government must surely be an emotional subject. Let there be no doubt about it, of the 3 million or 4 million which were sent back as a result of our decision, at a very conservative estimate 1 million of them perished, either immediately executed or through cold and hunger in Stalin's labour camps. One can understand how various people who approach this subject do so with emotion; whether their emotion is one-sided is perhaps a contradiction in terms because emotion has no side. Whether the BBC was right to put it out is something which under our constitution we must leave to the BBC to decide. Personally, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, that it was a courageous decision to put it out. I thought that the film was in the highest traditions of the BBC and this opinion is borne out by the reactions of the audience research department whose remarks about that film have been, on balance, extremely positive. Since a number of noble Lords criticised that programme and thought it was one-sided, perhaps I ought now, in the interest of fairness, to read a letter which was sent a few days ago to the Director General of the BBC by Mr. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who some of us saw on television two or three weeks ago. He writes to Sir Charles Curren: Dear Sir, During my stay in London, I had the opportunity of seeing your BBC television film 'The Last Secret' (producer Robert Vas). Even though with great delay, this film recreates in some degree the sharp pain of our Russian suffering—the suffering of millions of people betrayed and handed over to a certain death by the British administration of the time (some of these people perished in front of my eyes). Far from being exaggerated, the terrible dimensions of the actual events, and the involvement of those who were responsible for them—both the British statesmen and the military personnel who carried out their decisions—are considerably toned down in the film: those who took such decisions bear the responsibility for them to the end of of their life and before posterity those who carried them out, when faced by film cameras, have no other justification to offer than, 'I acted on orders'. Let us remember that this was the argument used by all the Nazi war criminals, and that it was never accepted as a mitigating circumstance. I would go even further: what happened then was a dire miscalculation of British foreign policy, a miscalculation whose terrible consequences for Britain are only now becoming manifest. This is precisely why the showing of this film to the British public is extremely important and may yet serve as an object lesson. I remain, Sir, Yours faithfully, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I am not saying I agree with everything contained in that letter; it must be considered in the light of a debate on a matter on which it is very difficult to say anything which is not one-sided, such painful and tragic issues does it raise. One must appreciate the reactions of other speakers such as the noble Lords, Lord Hankcy, Lord Gore-Booth and Lord Allan of Kilmahew, who are well acquainted with the noble Earl, Lord Avon, and no doubt the reaction of the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine (who will speak when I sit down). They are understandable; and while I understand, I hope, why it was Mr. Anthony Eden (as he then was) felt obliged to take this decision and put certain considerations before others at that time, I hope we also agree the reaction of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is also understandable, and the reaction of the Russians—many of whom I have seen in the past couple of years—is also understandable, and that reaction is one of horror.

Let us not delude ourselves, this is not a dead issue by any means. This may be the last secret in the United Kingdom, but among Russians, whether in emigration or among the former population of Stalin's labour camps, a population which in the 'forties—the time we are discussing—ranged from between 10 million and 20 million, this is not a dead issue. There are many millions of people still alive throughout the world who remember with horror the decision that was made and the result it had on themselves, if they survived, or on their relatives, friends and dear ones.

One extremely valuable result of this debate has been that for the first time I have been able to obtain a reaction about this matter, albeit indirectly, from the noble Earl, Lord Avon. I did, as the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Kilmahew, mentioned, attempt not once but three times to contact the noble Earl in order to discuss the matter with him. It would have been in the interests of history and a greater understanding of this problem if the noble Earl had agreed to see me. I addressed him courteously, and had he agreed to see me I would have discussed the matter courteously with him. Likewise, the BBC approached the noble Earl with a long, detailed and courteous letter asking him to participate. If the film is one-sided, this is mainly because no member of the Foreign Office agreed to participate in it. The noble Earl, Lord Avon, and several others, were invited to do so and they all refused.

This may well answer the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, that this is why perhaps only one side of the picture was emphasised, although I think the producer of the programme made a credible effort to put what he understood to be Lord Avon's point of view. But of course he had to guess at it, he did not have the benefit of being able to discuss it with the noble Earl or any Foreign Office officials who served with the noble Earl in the Foreign Office at that time. The producer, Robert Vas, did his best to put himself in the position of the noble Earl. This must have been difficult for Mr. Vas since he is a British subject of Hungarian origin who had to leave his own country in October 1956.

In conclusion, my Lords, I want to do something which I have not had the opportunity of doing before—something which I wish other speakers had done a little more often during this debate—that is, to express my deep compassion and sympathy, and not shame but responsibility, for what happened. There can be no doubt that, as a result of a decision taken by a British Government, terrible things happened and great injustices were done. I do not, of course, include in those injustices the punishment that was meted out to Russian, Cossack or Ukrainian war criminals who committed bestial acts against their own people, or against Yugoslavs, Poles or Russians—people who voluntarily took up sides with Nazi Germany out of opportunistic motives, in order to gain power or reward of some kind or another. My sympathy is not with them, and in most cases I feel that by being repatriated, if necessary by force, to the places where they committed their crimes they got their just deserts.

But my sympathies are with those who were forced by starvation—and I mean real starvation—and by duress, by which I mean a pistol pointed at the head in the knowledge that the man holding it will pull the trigger if he gets the wrong answer, to do such things as dig a German anti-tank ditch or, as many women did, wash clothes for a Nazi German officer, or some such service, but who, of course, were immediately convicted of collaboration as soon as they returned to the Soviet Union. My sympathies are also with those who committed no collaboration of any kind with Nazi Germany even on that petty level, those who sat it out in the camps, who starved almost to death but who managed to survive and went home, hoping that they would be greeted as loyal citizens, as of course our prisoners were when they returned to this country, and as American prisoners of war were when they returned from Nazi Germany to their country; hoping and expecting, as was their due, that they would be greeted with a turn-out, with a celebration, because they were coming home. But then, instead, they were leapt upon by the terrible men of Stalin's NKVD and shipped in trains to the Far East of Russia, where the vast majority spent 10 years of horrible imprisonment and where the survival rate was low—certainly less than 50 per cent.

I hope that these remarks do not fall into the category of what the noble Lord, Lord Barber, called, in his letter to my noble friend Lord Allan, armchair criticism. I repeat again that I do not feel that the decisions made at that time were easy, and I am extremely glad to hear from my noble friend that they were agonised over by the noble Earl, Lord Avon. However, I feel it is right, years after such a tragedy has happened, that people should study such questions and reflect.

This is not the only one, of course, on which there has been similar criticism. I recall that a number of studies have been made of, for instance, the bombing of Dresden by the RAF, and a number of people have felt that that was wrong on humanitarian grounds, even granted the military necessity and other considerations. This question has been discussed and some people feel one way, while others feel another way, but I think it is right that the question should be discussed. Likewise, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is another question. Some justify it; others feel that it was something which should not have been done. This, I feel, is the trade of the historian—not to judge, not to make accusations, not to sit back in an armchair and attack people who lived in difficult times and who were hard-pressed, and could hardly have the time to give every matter the consideration which it deserved. The historian should not judge, but he should give people pause for reflection.

9.5 p.m.


My Lords, I think for the first time in my life I have really understood the meaning of that term "the generation gap", and it is almost impossible to bridge it in this case, and for those who were living through these experiences to make those who were not living through them understand in the very least what they were. I do not say that in criticism of my two noble friends, if I may so call them, for what they have said. I say it just as a statement of what I believe to be the fact. I do not think any of us, whatever our age, whatever our responsibility in these matters may have been, can look at the picture without a feeling of infinite sadness and horror. But I must say that I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, when he said that we were caught up in a tragedy of inevitability; and that, after all, is the characteristic of tragedy. George Meredith wrote: In tragic life, God wot, No villain need be! Passions spin the plot"; and I have a very strong feeling, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, shares with me, that we were caught up in a situation in which what we did, and the decisions which we had to come to, were inevitable.

I do not want now to enter into any criticism of my noble friend's book, The Last Secret. There are many criticisms that I could make of it and perhaps I shall have the opportunity of making them to him personally, but I do not want now to go into that. I prefer to go back to the question put by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, who asked what those who criticised the decisions that were taken then would have done if the decisions had been theirs to take. Neither my noble friend Lord Saint Oswald, nor the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, nor the noble Lord, Lord Reay, has answered that question.

It seems to me that there are two separate issues. The first question is whether or not the agreement that was reached at Yalta and published the day after it was signed should have been made. The second question is: it having been made, were we or were we not bound to observe it? First, let me say a brief word on the first and the crucial question: should that agreement on the repatriation of prisoners-of-war and civilians, because that is what the agreement covered, have been made? The agreement was signed on 11th or 12th February 1945. In reply to a Question in another place the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg, on 13th February, said that he calculated that there were 60,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners-of-war either in camps which had already been overrun by the Soviets or in the direct path of their advance, although he qualified what he said by adding that the Germans had been at great pains to evacuate as many as they could before the Russians got there. And he qualified that again by saying, But in spite of that, it is almost certain that they will be overtaken by the Russians". It was the view of the Government of the day that those men were in mortal danger. The danger did not stem so much from fear of what the Soviet military authorities would do. Although they would probably have behaved with harshness and severity, the chances are that they would have behaved with correctitude, by their standards of correctitude. The real danger to our prisoners-of-war came from what would happen in the wake of the battle. As the Russian troops advanced further into Germany and as all the ragtag and bobtail followed the victorious armies, they would find these prisoners, who evidently were not Russian, who spoke a language which sounded like German, and who looked like Germans; and there was a very real danger that they might have been massacred. The only way of guarding against that danger was to come to an agreement with the Russians that there should be repatriation of those prisoners as speedily as could possibly be arranged.

That agreement was arrived at. In one sense it was an equal agreement because it covered both sides equally. In another sense it was unequal because, as noble Lords have indicated, there were so many different categories of Russian prisoners-of-war and displaced persons. But if the Foreign Secretary had refused to try to reach that agreement he would have been gambling with the lives of between 40,000 and 60,000 prisoners-of-war from Britain and Commonwealth countries. I cannot conceive that any Foreign Secretary in that position could have taken that gamble. I think he had to consider, first, the interests of his own fellow countrymen in Eastern Europe.


My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to interrupt him, I wonder whether he has any evidence which I do not know about which would suggest that the Foreign Secretary or the Foreign Office in 1944–45 would have been seriously gambling with the lives, or with the long-term liberty, of British subjects if we had refused the request to repatriate by force all Soviet citizens—men, women and children—because I am obliged to say that after a lot of research I have not found any such evidence.


My Lords, I know my noble friend takes that view. I do not know what evidence he looked for; I do not know whether he expected to find a letter from Marshal Stalin saying: "Unless you do this, I shall murder your prisoners", or: "Unless you do this, I shall turn them loose and they will be overrun by those who follow". As a Member of that Government it seemed to me that the only argument the Foreign Secretary could use was the argument of probability, and there was a very strong probability that unless an agreement was come to there would have been disastrous consequences for our prisoners-of-war. It was a gamble. The Foreign Secretary may have been wrong, but it seems to me that he had to play safe in this respect and assume the worst, and not light-heartedly say: "Oh well, perhaps the risk is not so great after all. We will take a chance. Perhaps nothing will happen." I do not think that would have been right.

But apart from the question of prisoners-of-war there were operational considerations of very great importance at the time. As the allied forces were advancing the whole of Central Europe was a seething whirlpool of displaced persons of every nationality, some of them armed, some of them undisciplined, some of them highly dangerous to security and to the advance of the allied forces. It seems to me that from that point of view also it was essential for those responsible—the War Cabinet in this country and the President of the United States in the United States of America—to arrive at a solution as quickly as they could.

Now we come to the question as to whether, if, as I believe, the agreement was the right agreement to reach, we would have been justified in breaking that agreement. I do not think we would have been. There has been a lot of talk about Soviet propaganda and its effect upon public opinion here, but the plain fact of the matter is that if the Soviets had not stood at Stalingrad, if they had not reversed the tide of Hitler's invasion, the war would have been lost; and as my noble friend admits in his book, even at that time it was by no means clear that the war had been won. If we had then involved ourselves in a kind of private war with our allies, in addition to the war against the common enemy our difficulties might have been very severe indeed.

In this context, I think we might remember just one thing, that from the Continent London was still under bombardment by the V2 missiles. The sites had not then been cleared. But not only was the question whether or not we should win the war still a live one; there was the further question of the Japanese war, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, so clearly pointed out. It was necessary, in the thinking of the United States of America particularly, and in our thinking, too, that the Russians should continue in the war until the defeat of the Japanese.

There was yet another consideration, and perhaps this was unduly idealistic. I confess the consideration was very much in my mind that if we were to make a tolerable world after the war, we had to have Russian co-operation in world reconstruction. We did not get it, but I think we were bound to act in the belief, or in the hope, that we would get it. We could not again take a gamble on the whole thing, and say: "Oh well, reconstruction does not matter. Probably the Russians will not help anyway, and we will just have to fight the thing out now". That is quite apart from the old-fashioned prejudice which we have in this country, of keeping an agreement when we have come to it even if it works out in a way that we do not particularly like.

I was not only a Member of the Government of that day, and therefore in my small way taking some share of the responsibility for this dread decision, but, like my noble friend Lord Allan of Kilmahew, I have been a very close friend and associate of the noble Earl, Lord Avon, for a period of nearly 40 years—in the dark, harsh days before the outbreak of war; during the war, first as his Under-Secretary and then as his colleague in the Churchill Government; and in particular in the last 20 years, when he has had to battle endlessly with illness and physical disability. I am certain of two things about him. One is that he is a man of extreme sensitivity. What happened in Europe—matters with which my noble friend Lord Bethell deals—I am quite sure filled the noble Earl, Lord Avon, with as much horror as my noble friend himself would feel. But he is also a man of quite extraordinary courage. He was prepared then to take decisions which he believed to be necessary in the interests of his own people, in the interests of the alliance, and in the interests of a new and reconstructed world. He was prepared to take these agonising decisions. If he had not been so prepared, I am not clear in my mind that we would have won the war, that we would have been sitting here arguing out these things in peace and quiet. If we had got involved in an internal war with our Soviet allies as well as in the war we were fighting against Germany and Japan, as I have said, no one could say what might have been the consequences.

9.24 p.m.


My Lords, I shall be very brief. We have had a debate in which all the speeches have been temperate and tolerant in relation to one of the most emotive issues to be raised in this House in recent years. The debate has certainly illustrated the daunting hazards of decision that beset Ministers and public administrators. As the years pass' and the records are revealed, the historian, the polemicist and the producer examine them, select from them, pass judgment on their success or failure, and even on their morality or otherwise. In doing so, of course, they are bound to miss all but a faint echo of the anguished doubts which attend so many Governmental decisions, particularly in war. Nevertheless, in a free

and democratic society this is how it must be. If we denied to historians and others freedom of access to the record and the right to comment on it and to interpret it, then indeed we should have no right to call ourselves free.

A quite different matter, however, is raised in the Question put to Her Majesty's Government by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, who asks that the Government should instruct the Official Historian to investigate the arrangements for the exchange of prisoners between the USSR and its allies at the end of the Second World War. My Lords, I would ask: what is the function of the Historical Adviser to the Foreign Office, in a free and democratic country? Is it to record or is it to judge? To ask the question in a democratic assembly is to receive the answer. There surely can be no serious doubt that in a free society like ours the function of an Historical Adviser is to record, not to judge; to ensure that the record is true and complete, and available to whoever wants to come along and accuse or defend. It may be otherwise in other countries, where totalitarian Governments arrogate to themselves the exclusive privilege of writing their own histories and pronouncing finally both on the facts and on the moral merits of a question. But that is not, and cannot be, the function of an Official Historian in a democratic society. His duty, I repeat, is to see that the record is complete and available to those who think the record will bear one interpretation or another.

The records are available in this case, as they are in cognate cases, after a lapse of 30 years. The papers are public. In fact they are held in accessible form in the Public Record Office, and have obviously been accessible and have been studied and interpreted already in book form or in broadcast programmes. There may be other books interpreting the same record, which is available to all, and perhaps completely controverting the interpretation which the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has presented in his own book. I am sure that he would be the last to complain. It is certainly not the function of Government to lay down an official interpretation. It is their duty to preserve records, and to preserve them in their entirety, and then, within reasonable rules, to make them equally accessible to all who wish to consult them and to interpret them. It is no function of the Government of 1975 to pronounce portentously on the decisions of the Government of 1945, any more than it is the function of the Government of 1976 to pronounce officially on the morality of the actions in 1776 of George III and his advisers in North America.

So, my Lords, not entirely to the surprise of my noble friend Lord Hankey, whose opening speech I admired very much for its temperate balance as well as its cogent nature, I am unable to accept his request. But there is nothing to prevent any individual, and indeed groups of individuals, from positively invading the Public Record Office and producing their own version and their own interpretation of what is made freely available in a democratic society, and what never was made freely available—if I may venture to criticise for a time other countries and other systems in this atmosphere of somewhat vehement criticism of this country for what it has done—to the citizens of any totalitarian States, whether Communist or Nazi. We should feel proud that it is possible for a citizen of this country, or indeed from any other country, to come here with a confidence that the full, true record, even of our mistakes, is fully available to them, and that we only ask—we do not even demand—that the record should be consulted meticulously and quoted unselectively so that an objective account is given sustaining whatever interpretation is chosen.

Having answered the question contained in my noble friend's Motion, I have only one or two observations to make. I respond gladly to what, among others, the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, has said about those involved in this harrowing decision in 1944–45. My association with the Foreign Office, latterly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and with those who serve there, is now fairly considerable. I have found them to be, individually and collectively, men and women of the highest principle, of the utmost dedication and of deep humanity. Moreover, as a political opponent of his over many years, I feel it right to say from this Box, and from this side of the House, that I wholly agree that all who know, and have known, the noble Earl, Lord Avon, know him as a man and statesman of courage and humanity in peace and in war.

All decisions, certainly in war, are a matter of choice. Many of the decisions of peace involve the impossible task of achieving irreconcilable objectives. This was the case in regard to the exchange of prisoners of war. If there were not a book today about the inhumanity of handing over, by inadvertence or in the climate or turmoil of the time, innocent people to the Russians—if the decision had gone the other way—there might have been a book and a programme about the inhumanity of having consigned thousands of British and allied prisoners of war to harm, hurt and even death.

The decision in this kind of context is always a choice. It is like that of the surgeon who has to make up his mind whether to save the mother or the child. It is no good saying that he must save both; he has to make his choice. If he saves one, those who disagree with him can accuse him of inhumanity or even malpractice. Equally, if he saves the other, those who disagree with him on that score might accuse him for an equal but equally partial and partisan reason. Thus, while in a democracy it is utterly right that the records should be made available and that interpretations should freely be made, we really must bear in mind always that no interpretation is fair unless it bears within it a realisation that all decisions in contexts such as these are choices and, almost always, agonising choices.

It is true that those who make decisions cannot escape the consequences of them. None of us can, either in public or in private life. But when the criticism is made, those who are criticised have the right to demand that the record is punctiliously used and that the conclusions are drawn with scrupulous scholarly precision. I am not totally confident that that could be said of the productions, the form of programme, dealing with this incident. There is also a right of those who are criticised, the right of refutation. It is easy to refute a book or an article; the weapon of print is available to everybody. But it is not so easy—here I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth—to ensure that there is an answer by television; that is, another programme setting the other interpretation. Who is to do it? Where is the producer to be found? In this case a producer was found who had an understanding of Eastern Europe and who therefore produced this programme with efficiency, but there are certain difficulties about answering a programme on television.


My Lords, the noble Lord has been so fair up till now that I hesitate to interrupt him, but does he accept the point which I made in my speech that people who took part in the decision-making on the Foreign Office side in 1944 and 1945 were given the chance to state their point of view in the BBC film which he mentioned and decided not to take it?


My Lords, the noble Lord tells me that they were. I must accept what he says.


My Lords, is it really an obligation on members of the Foreign Service to attempt to build up a sensational television programme? It would seem not.


My Lords, we are hack in the field of interpretation and I am almost inclined to appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, who, in a notable speech, put his finger on the main truths of the matter. I agree with so much of what he said that I wish I had more time to deal with it and to enlarge on many of the points which he raised.

Here again, we are in the field of interpretation. What I am anxious should come out of this debate is not a judgment but a modus. How do we comport ourselves, whether in this House, in print, on television or on radio, in regard to questions of this kind? Some of the principles on which publicists and parliamentarians operating in a democratic society might operate have been eloquently described in this debate. I subscribe to them and I hope that, on a reading of the record of the debate, further help may be available to those who feel bound to investigate the record and to interpret history to posterity.

I have only one more observation to make. There is of course no Member of this House or anybody outside who does not recoil in horror from the enormity of the consequences of many of these inevitable decisions. I do hope that we shall leave this debate reminding ourselves that the fundamental enormity is the enormity of war itself.