Assistance to Greece.

Part of War Situation. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th May 1941.

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Photo of Professor Douglas Savory Professor Douglas Savory , Queen's University of Belfast 12:00 am, 6th May 1941

I understand that it is your custom in this House to accord a certain amount of indulgence to those Members who have the honour of addressing it for the first time. In that most excellent book by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister called "Great Contemporaries," he refers, in one of his most distinguished articles, to the great French statesman M. Clemenceau, and after attending a debate in the Chamber of Deputies he writes that he believes the secret of M. Clemenceau's success was that he adopted the conversational tone. The Prime Minister goes on to draw the conclusion that that is also the tone best suited for this House. He says in his article that this House, being so small in size and the benches being placed opposite one another and not forming a circle, as in the French Chamber or the German Reichstag, the conversational tone is the one best adapted to this Assembly. I propose to take the advice of the right hon. Gentleman, because I believe that it is sound, and I think that anything like a set speech is not one that is acceptable to the Members of this House.

If I understand this Motion aright, it covers two distinct items; first, an approval of the conduct of His Majesty's Government in sending aid to our Allies in Greece, and, secondly, and more especially, a Vote of Confidence in the general conduct of the war. In what I am going to say I should like to mention this fact, that since I have had the honour of sitting in this House since last November what has struck me more than any thing else is the toleration that is shown by Members to speakers on the opposite side, that they are willing to hear opinions which run diametrically counter to those which they have formed themselves. I am afraid that what I am going to say will not be pleasing to the majority of this House, but I have always observed that when convictions are sincerely held the House is willing to listen to them with respect.

My point is this that if we felt obliged to carry out our guarantee to Greece it was because we had, as the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has reminded us, thought fit in May, 1939, to give that guarantee to Greece. It seems distinctly germane to the argument to ask this question. Why were we obliged to give a guarantee at that time to Greece? My hon. Friends here, who are strong supporters of the League of Nations, will say, "After all, you had Article 10 of the Covenant, and under Article 10 Greece was entitled to claim, if any attack were made upon her territorial integrity, the assistance, not merely of Great Britain, but of all other members of the League of Nations." Why, therefore, was it necessary to give such "a guarantee, seeing that the guarantee was already included in Clause 10 of the League? I ask to be allowed to trespass upon the indulgence of the House if I go back, and take the House back with me, to the period immediately after the Armistice. What was the demand made at that time by Marshal Foch the greatest general which France had produced since the time of Napoleon? In November, 1918, Marshal Foch, with his becoming modesty, received the news of the collapse of the German armies with these words, quoting the 115th Psalm from the Latin version of the Vulgate, which was so familiar to him: Non nobis Domine, sed tuo nomini dagloriam. Now Marshal Foch was absolutely convinced of one most important fact, that France— and with France I can associate the whole of Western civilisation — could only be defended on the Rhine; and by a miracle we held the Rhine. The great Marshal took the trouble to come over specially to London in order to convince the then Prime Minister that the Rhine should not be abandoned, that the Rhine was absolutely essential to the defence of France. And not only that, for Marshal Foch went before the Supreme Council of the Allies — the Big Four— with exactly the same argument. He persisted further in going before the Council of French Ministers. Fourthly, last but not least, he insisted on going before the delegates of the Allies as a whole. I am the fortunate possessor of the facsimile of the statement written out by Marshal Foch with his own hand and what he said was this: Once you sacrifice the Rhine no other obstacle exists which can withstand the onrush of the German Armies.

If we read this statement of Marshal Foch, with those repeated and persistent memoranda, in the light of the events of May and June, 1940, it must appear to us to be absolutely prophetic. Once we had abandoned the Rhine he described exactly what would be the advance of the German Armies. He said that Paris would fall a victim within a very few weeks; and we saw in May and June, 1940, that neither the Mouse nor the Somme nor even the Marne held back the German attack for more than a few hours. It is a calumny to say that Marshal Foch desired the annexation of the left bank of the Rhine. He was entirely opposed, and so was President Poincaréto the incorporation in French territory of those 5,000,000 Germans. What he said in each of his four memoranda, and repeated with constant re-iteration, was that you must make the left bank of the Rhine into a buffer State and give it exactly the same autonomy that you have given, by a long period of international usage, to Switzerland. The left bank of the Rhine would have been a buffer State and would have maintained its independence, as Switzerland has maintained hers to the present day. That was the argument of Marshal Foch, the greatest military expert of the age, but the advice was rejected, unfortunately, by the politicians, with the disastrous consequences of which we are all aware.

France was promised some compensation. She was given a guarantee by the United States and Great Britain The United States failed to honour the signature of its President. The Senate of the United States refused to ratify that Treaty. Although this House of Commons and the House of Lords unanimously gave the guarantee, yet in accordance with the Preamble of the Treaty, our guarantee also fell to the ground with that of the United States. One thing was left. We had promised France to maintain for five years the bridge-head at Cologne, for 10 years the bridge-head at Coblenz, and for 15 years the bridge-head at Mainz. Before the time had elapsed, in 1930, France was induced to sacrifice the last of those bridge heads, at Mainz, and no further protection was left, except that we had insisted that the left bank of the Rhine, and a zone of 50 kilometres on the right bank, should, under the Clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, be a neutral and demilitarised zone, into which Germany could neither bring her armed forces nor introduce fortifications.

Hon. Members will understand that I am not raking up these past events simply in order to bring blame upon our own Governments; I have been much impressed, in recent weeks, in seeing the attacks that have been made upon a series of seven broadcasts, published and circulated under the title "Black Record" throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom. Having read those broadcasts, I can speak from personal experience as one who was for many years a student in Germany and actually held a post as lecturer in a German university, and can say that every word contained in those broadcasts is the barest truth. Because those broadcasts are called into question, I feel bound to make the statement which I am now going to make. [Interruption] I refer to seven distinguished broadcasts published in a pamphlet which has received wide circulation.

France felt that she was entitled at least to the guarantee of the demilitarised zone. As late as May, 1935, Hitler renewed the guarantee. What he said in May, 1935, in that respect, was that, while Germany could hardly be expected to observe treaties which had been imposed upon her by force, she was always ready to maintain any treaty to which she had agreed of her own free will. The Chancellor specifically mentioned among those treaties the Pact of Locarno which had been voluntarily agreed to and which had been introduced on the initiative of the German Government themselves. Hitler was waiting until the question of the Saar was settled. It will be admitted that France most honourably and correctly carried out all the Clauses of the Treaty of Versailles with regard to this matter. There was an international commission, and we know that the Saar Plebiscite was held under the fairest conditions that could be agreed to at that time. The whole of that district of the Saar was peaceably transferred to Germany. Hitler was waiting only for that consummation to carry out a step which he had long foreseen and for which he had long been prepared.

On 7th May, 1936, we were presented with an extraordinary coup d'état. The rumour was spread that the Germans had violated the demilitarised zone and that large forces had entered Cologne and been received in triumph. The French threw the blame for the action, or rather in action that took place at that time upon the British Government. I said frankly to my French friends: '' You cannot always make the British Government the scapegoat for all your faults. You yourselves neglected to take the necessary action." I was informed in Paris on the highest authority at that time that the French general staff was unanimous in recommending the French Government to go forward and, in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, confirmed by the Treaty of Locarno, to occupy the Rhine bridges. If the French Government did not do so, it was not merely as a consequence of pressure brought to bear upon them by the British Government, as has been so often alleged, but because the Prime Minister at that time, M Sarraut hesitated, though he fully desired mobilisation to impose his will on the pacifist members of his Cabinet.

I know that the House of Commons sometimes likes to hear personal experiences. Being in Paris at that time, I was so convinced of the absolute necessity of the British Government's taking some step that I came here and interviewed my friends in the House of Commons. I did everything in my power. My influence was very small, of course, but my conscience is clear. I asked my friends to press the British Government to take that necessary and essential step. All that happened was a mild protest, and a questionnaire drawn up by the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, addressed to Herr Hitler, to which, I believe, Hitler has never to this day condescended to reply.

What were the consequences of this neglect to take the vital action? We have only to look at the map, as the Belgian Government looked at it at that time. They saw that, the Rhine having been conceded and the invasion of the demilitarised zone having been allowed, there was no protection for Belgium. The consequence was that as early as October of that year, 1936 the King of the Belgians made his very important declaration under which he asked that Belgium should be allowed to renounce the Clauses in the Treaty of Locarno, and that Belgium should revert to a system of neutrality such as existed before the Great War. In other words, while we were to give an unilateral guarantee to go to the rescue of Belgium, that country was not bound to co-operate with us in any way. I am told by my military friends that that position was one of the principal reasons for the terrible disaster of May, 1940. Up to that time, so strictly had the Belgian Government observed their neutrality that there was no negotiation or arrangement of any kind between the Belgian and French general staffs I am told by those who know much more about these things than I do, that that was one of the principal causes of that disaster.

I go further. Having now dug himself in and having behind him the invincible barrier of the Rhine, Hitler was able, less than a year later, to march into Vienna. What was the reaction among the Allies? Did they realise that the whole European situation was being strategically turned to their disadvantage? The French Government received the most definite warning of what was going to take place, but it is alleged in Paris by those who know— and I believe it to be true— that the French Government carefully arranged a Ministerial crisis. There was no adverse vote in the Chamber, but the Government resigned, and the consequence was that when the French Ambassador in Vienna telegraphed to his Government to know what was to be done in reply to the appeal of Chancellor Schuschnigg there was no Government whatever in Paris, and no answer could be sent to his urgent appeal. The domination of Austria at once placed Italy under the control of Germany. For the first time the German forces advanced to the Brenner, that great pass by which so many armies in past history have poured down into Italy. Yugoslavia was placed under the heel of Germany and brought into contact with her through Hungary, and, last but not least, the strategical position of Czechoslovakia was made almost untenable.

Going still further forward, Hitler determined on another stroke. In spite of the assurances given after the annexation of Austria— assurances given by Marshal Goering in person— that the position of Czechoslovakia was absolutely secure, we know what took place, and I will not weary the House by going over circumstances with which the House is extremely familiar. But here again, if I might introduce a personal touch, I can only say that, having gone over the Sudeten district of Bohemia, up and down, through all the villages and towns, having spoken myself to the inhabitants, I was not able to discover any single grievance. They enjoyed their language, their schools, colleges and university. After the Munich decision, when I felt it my duty to protest in two letters to the '' Times '' against the slanders of the German Government against our troops in Palestine, quoting the exact German words which I had heard from Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Berlin, then it was that I received scores of letters from Sudeten Germans, telling me that all the statements and slanders with regard to the persecution by the Czechs of the Sudeten Germans were with out any foundation whatever. They wrote to me that they laughed at the broadcast statements which they heard from Leipzig, the nearest station to Czechoslovakia. They told me that those statements were ludicrous, because at the time it was alleged that the persecutions were taking place, they were actually carrying out their harvest festivals with every kind of freedom and rejoicing.

It is not for me at this stage to insist upon the disgrace of handing over hundreds of thousands of Czechs to German domination without any plebiscite what ever, but I would insist on the fact that a very large number of German-speaking people— Sudeten Germans— who detested the Hitler movement were, in spite of themselves and without any consultation, handed over to him. No sooner had the Munich Agreement been signed than Hitler once more plotted, by stirring up trouble in Slovakia, to break through the agreement to which he had so solemnly given his word. We know that on 15th March of the following year German troops marched into Prague. That great country of Bohemia, that marvellous stronghold which Bismarck had said was the greatest natural fortress in Europe, with a frontier which had remained intact for 900 years, that country which had never formed part of the German Reich was annexed to Germany.

Not a week had elapsed after the entry of Hitler into Prague when still further aggressions were carried out. An ultimatum of four days was addressed to Lithuania, which was threatened that in case of any appeal to a foreign Power Hitler's troops would immediately advance upon it. The Memel-land was now annexed to Germany. I wish to call attention to this fact, because it is absolutely essential to my argument: at that time neither the Council nor the Assembly of the League of Nations was consulted, with regard either to the annexation of Czechoslovakia or of the Memel-land. Therefore, as 1 said at the beginning of my speech. Clause 10 of the League of Nations Covenant, to which we had attached such immense importance, and the guarantee which we had given under Clause 10 of the integrity of the frontiers of every nation which had subscribed to the League, was absolutely null and void. Nobody even thought it worth while to appeal to the League of Nations on either of those two important questions.

It was then that Poland, seeing that Germany, by yet another breach of League of Nations agreements, was over throwing the constitution of Danzig, and was in possession of Prague, began to realise that she was selected to be the next victim. Suddenly, on 31st March, 1939, the Prime Minister came into this House and gave a guarantee to Poland. Italy, feeling that her position was being undermined, realising that the balance of power in Europe was being overthrown, determinerd to carry out her coup, and on that sad Good Friday, in spite of the Anglo-Italian Agreement for the maintenance of the status quo in the Mediterranean, in spite of assurances given the day before by Count Ciano to Lord Perth in Rome, in spite of assurances given by the Charge Affaires in London to the Foreign Secretary that only a small punitive expedition was intended, annexed Albania, which became part of the Crown of Italy, and Greece herself was threatened. It is known now, although it was denied at the time, that Italy had her eyes on Corfu. There is no need to remind the House that as far back as 1923 Corfu had already been bombarded by the Italians, and innocent Greek and Armenian refugees had been murdered. Then it was that we felt obliged to give that guarantee, to which the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State has alluded, to Greece and also to Rumania. But I think I have demonstrated my case that the whole of these difficulties go back to the fact that in 1918 we neglected to take the very strong advice of Marshal Foch and maintain the barrier of the Rhine, which, as I have already said and as Marshal Foch repeated so often, had by a miracle fallen into our hands.

We are asked, in the second part of the resolution before the House, to show our confidence in the Government. My own belief is that it did not require even the very lucid and convincing demonstration of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to convince this House of the absolutely necessity— the obligation of honour and the practical necessity— of going to the help of Greece in this crisis. Just as we were bound in 1914 to go to the help of Belgium, so we were bound in 1941 to go to the help of Greece. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister foresaw the events of which I have given such a rapid resume. We have before us, I am glad to say, in permanent form that series of wonderful speeches in which he prophesied these events and protested against the solutions adopted at the time. That is one of the principal reasons why at the present moment he inspires such immense confidence. Last week I went over to Belfast, to sympathise with my constituents in the terrible misfortunes which have befallen them. I was delighted to take with me and to lay before the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland himself the beautiful message which was given me by our Home Secretary, who said that Ulster lay very near his heart.

I can only tell you, speaking with a knowledge of the Ulster people, of the tremendous enthusiasm which they feel for the person of the Prime Minister. We have forgiven, though not forgotten, the events of 1912, because Ulstermen have long memories. Even the year 1914 has sunk into history. The names of the Curragh and Lamlash are no longer heard on the lips of Ulster. On the contrary, it is impossible to exaggerate the confidence which the Prime Minister in-Spires among Ulster people. I was in Ulster when that marvellous broadcast of last Sunday week was heard there. The effect was absolutely electric. I went on foot all through the devastated districts. I spoke to those whose houses had been completely destroyed. Their one concern was to ask me when I got back to London to tell the English people that they are prepared to share with them all the sacrifices and perils of this war. They said, "We are with the English people to the end. It is not we who are withdrawing our ports from the service of the United Kingdom. On the contrary, Ulster is handing over every creek and every cove, as she did during the last war, for the service of your trawlers and your minesweepers." Let me tell you one brief, and true, story. I spoke to a dear old woman of 75. This old woman, when a bomb fell on her house, picked up the bomb in her skirts— I am glad to say that they were the voluminous skirts of olden days, and not the modern kind— stamped on it, and, saving your presence, Mr. Speaker, shouted out, "To Hell with Hitler." That is the spirit in which the Ulster people are approaching this war.

In my lifetime, I cannot remember any Minister who has inspired such confidence and enthusiasm as our present Prime Minister. Nearly 50 years ago, I had the honour of sitting under the clock behind the Bar and listening to the father of the right hon. Gentleman making his onslaught on Mr. Gladstone and the Home Rule Bill of 1893. For a long time, I have felt that the Prime Minister is the one man who should be at the head of affairs in this country. He has genius and the power of inspiring enthusiasm. Looking back on the past, I find that I have to go over the whole period of the 19th century to find a statesman who can be compared with him I have to go back to the younger Pitt, who, by his resource and his energy, inspired the victory which he did not live to see. I have to go further back in order to find that dynamic force, that driving power, that magnetic attraction for the crowd—to the younger Pitt's still greater father, the Earl of Chatham. I firmly believe that, under the auspices of our Prime Minister, we shall overcome such difficulties we shall extricate ourselves from such dangers, as never faced even the younger or the older Pitt. If I may be allowed to prophesy, I will say that it is my firm belief and conviction that the biographer and descendant of the great Duke of Marlborough will live to bring about something which neither the Treaty of Paris of 1763 nor the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 ever succeeded in creating— a just and durable peace.