Orders of the Day — Austria.

– in the House of Commons on 2nd March 1938.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Hope.]

11.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I desire to raise the question of the recent Austro-German agreement. The issues raised by this agreement have been somewhat overshadowed by the recent political crisis in this country, but none the less hon. Members will agree that very serious issues are raised by this agreement. Unfortunately, the agreement made at Berchtesgaden between the Austrian and German Chancellors was surrounded by so much secrecy—incidentally, I think it exemplifies secret diplomacy at its worst—that we have not proper information at our disposal, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week informed the House that from information received from Austrian sources an agreement was reached, the main point of which was: The Austrian Chancellor will take far-reaching and conciliatory measures with a view to furthering the internal pacification of Austria."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1938; col. 6, Vol. 332.] If the Austrian Chancellor had freely, voluntarily and of his own accord decided to take the measures he has taken in his own country no one in this House could object, but was that the case? I read in the "Times" of 16th February an account which was sent from Vienna by their correspondent, and I do not think anyone will accuse the "Times" of being particularly unfriendly to the German Government. This is what it said: Herr Hitler used the plainest language in stating his demands, and it is understood that he indicated grave consequences if they were not accepted. According to credible report he referred to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland two years ago, pointing out that the dangers attendant upon that enterprise were greater than any that confronts Germany to-day. It is understood that he recommended compliance to Herr Von Schuschnigg in the most emphatic terms, and expressed the view that the Austrian Government had no backing to hope for in any third quarter if they were obdurate. The presence of three German generals … gave a suitably impressive background. Is not that evidence that the Austrian Chancellor was faced with an ultimatum, that he was coerced into making an agreement, in circumstances which seriously compromised the sovereign independence of his Government. The Prime Minister stated on Wednesday of last week: The measures so far taken by the Austrian Government in consequence of the discussion at Berchtesgaden do not appear to be a breach of the obligations which Austria undertook."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1938; col, 730, Vol. 332.] Surely it is not enough to consider the steps taken internally by the Austrian Chancellor but it is also necessary to consider how the agreement came to be made. In this connection I venture to refer the House to the provisions of the Geneva Protocol of 1922 which was signed by the British, French, Italian, Czechoslovakian and Austrian Governments. In that protocol, the Austrian Government undertook, in accordance with the terms of Article 88 of the Treaty of St. Germain, not to alienate its independence, and it also undertook to abstain from any negotiations—I notice that the Prime Minister used the word "discussions" and I hope that there is to be no fine distinction drawn between "negotiations" and "discussions"—or from any economic or financial engagement calculated, directly or indirectly, to compromise the independence of Austria. Therefore, I suggest the test must surely be this: has the Austrian Chancellor, at the behest of the German Chancellor, undertaken to conduct the internal affairs of his own country as required by the German Chancellor? I imagine that on both sides of the House there will be common agreement that it is only too evident that he has.

I should like now to address two questions to the Prime Minister. First, have the legal advisers of the Crown considered the various legal aspects of the agreement and the circumstances in which the agreement was made? Secondly, will the Government indicate that they reserve their right to raise the matter in the League Council? Hon. Members will remember that in 1931, when the proposed Austro-German Customs Union caused so much excitement in Europe, the question of the legality of the proposed Customs Union was considered by the League Council, at the suggestion of the then British Foreign Secretary, whose attitude and action were endorsed hy tbe late Sir Austen Chamberlain. It was finally submitted to the Permanent Court of International Justice, and it was decided, in September, 1931, that the proposed agreement was contrary to the treaty obligations of Austria.

Finally, I would remind the Prime Minister of the recent declaration by the French Foreign Minister that the independence of Austria is an essential element of European peace. Will not the Prime Minister take this opportunity to endorse that courageous declaration by M. Delbos? If he does so, and if he will agree that His Majesty's Government will use all their diplomatic power and influence to achieve the end referred to by M. Delbos, namely, that the independence of Austria is essential to European peace, I believe he will give a great deal of moral encouragement to the people of Austria in their struggle to maintain their independence and also a measure of hope to the other small nations of Central Europe.

11.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neville Chamberlain Mr Neville Chamberlain , Birmingham, Edgbaston

The matter which has been raised by the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson) was raised by him originally in a question which he put to me. It was because he deemed my reply to be of an unsatisfactory nature that he has raised the matter to-night. The hon. Member's original question was whether the agreement which was made at Berchtesgaden between the German and Austrian Chancellors was inconsistent with the provisions of the Treaty of St. Germain and the Geneva Protocol of 1922. As regards the Geneva Protocol, I can only point out that, as the hon. Member himself said, it has special reference to economic and financial engagements. He also alluded to Article 88 of the Treaty of St. Germain, which reads as follows: The independence of Austria is alienable otherwise than with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations. Consequently Austria undertakes in the absence of the consent of the said Council to abstain from any act which might directly or indirectly or by any means whatever compromise her independence, particularly, and until her admission to membership of the League of Nations, by participation in the affairs of another Power. The hon. Member has put to me again the question whether juridically the agreement which has been concluded is at variance with this provision of the Treaty. I have already said that in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, founded on the advice given by their legal advisers, there is no ground for saying that juridically there has been any violation of this provision. What has happened has been that two statesmen have agreed to certain measures being taken with a view to improving relations between their two countries. They include a general amnesty for all political offenders, including Socialists and Communists; and there were various other provisions into which I need not go in detail. I may remind the House that, apart from the appointment of Dr. Seyss-Inquart as Minister of the Interior, there were other changes in the Cabinet of which the most important was the promotion of Dr. Schmidt, who was previously State Secretary, to the rank of Minister for Foreign Affairs. Dr. Raab was appointed Minister for Commerce and Communications and Dr. Adamovich Minister of Justice. Neither of these two appointments, apparently, was urged upon Herr Schuschnigg by Herr Hitler. It hardly seems possible to maintain, from the juridical point of view, that because these two statesmen agreed that certain internal changes in one of their two countries were desirable in the interests of the relations between their two countries, the one country had alienated its independence to the other.

I think those who have read the speech which the Austrian Chancellor made on 24th February—a speech which excited a widespread popular response in Austria—will agree that in that speech, in which he emphasised the independence of Austria, there was nothing to convey the impression that he himself considered that the independence of his country had been yielded up to another country. So much for the juridical aspect of the case. It still remains to be seen what the practical effect of the agreement might turn out to be. In this connection, I may say that His Majesty's Government obviously cannot disinterest themselves in events in Central Europe, if only for the reason that the object of all their policy is to assist in the establishment of a sense of greater security and confidence in Europe. That object must inevitably he helped or hindered by events in any part of Europe. I have read in that connection with great interest the observations of M. Delbos on this question in his speech in the Chamber last Saturday.

I consider that it is at present too early for His Majesty's Government to estimate the effect of the recent arrangements made between Germany and Austria. In order to estimate the effect of this agreement we must know better what will be the manner in which the various undertakings assumed under the arrangement are implemented by the two parties concerned. I am glad, and no doubt hon. Members will also be glad, to note from the speech made by the German Chancellor on 20th February that these arrangements are to be considered as an extension to the framework of the Austro-German agreement of 11th July, 1936. That agreement, I need hardly remind the House, provided, among other things, for the recognition by the German Government of the full sovereignty of the Federal State of Austria. There, I think, we must leave the matter for the present, but His Majesty's Government will continue to watch what goes on in Austria with the closest possible attention and interest.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.