Sachsenhausen

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th February 1968.

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Photo of Mr David Ginsburg Mr David Ginsburg , Dewsbury 12:00 am, 5th February 1968

Policy and politics. He has been concerned to examine the administrative processes whereby Ministers, and, in the circumstances of this case, particularly the Foreign Secretary, reach their decisions. Quite rightly, the Commissioner does not—this is important—pass judgment on Ministers. One ought to have in mind the precedent of Lord Denning and the Report of the Profumo affair in saying that that is surely for us in this House. But, having said that, we as Members of Parliament have a duty to say things about Ministers, and to say them frankly but, I hope, without any vindictiveness.

I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary is not in his place at the moment, because there are some things which I want to say about him and his colleagues. Despite the question of maladministration which the Parliamentary Commissioner rightly brings out, he was not set up to question the judgment of Ministers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby said. I was amazed at Ministers' judgments in this case. As the hon. Member for Abingdon indicated, none of us was making party points. None of us was seeking a Ministerial scalp. All that hon. Members were saying, for months and indeed for years, was that we believed that a mistake had been made. We simply asked for an inquiry, and we asked for it time and time again.

I have here letters from the Secretary of State, as well as letters from the Under-Secretary of State, who is in his place. The Under-Secretary of State will remember that on 6th March, at the Foreign Office, with the hon. Members for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy), I specifically put to him a suggestion that even at that very late hour someone from the Judge Advocate-General's Department, within the Government machinery, responsible to the Lord Chancellor, could examine this case. He will recollect that suggestion, and he knows that, subsequently, the answer was, "No". The point came up again in the letter from the hon. Member for Abingdon to the Prime Minister, and once again the answer was "No".

Ministers were warned in letters and orally, time and time again, by many hon. Members—and the Under-Secretary of State will remember the time that the hon. Member for Abingdon and I spent with him—that on the facts, their advisers were wrong. I should like to read to the House a personal letter which I wrote to the Foreign Secretary. I also submitted it to the Parliamentary Commissioner. Although it was written in almost indecipherable handwriting, I wrote to him because I wanted him to read it instead of it going through his official machinery. I wrote: I am indeed grieved that we seem to be on a collision course over the Sachsenhausen affair. May I earnestly put the following item to you. Squadron Leader Dowse has stated that he was in the Cell Block ' for some time —the neighbouring cells were occupied by Thällman (leader of the German Communist Party, allegedly killed in an air raid but presumably murdered by the Nazis) and the Bishop of Munster, arrested by the Gestapo for his anti-Nazi sermons and made a cardinal before his death, in recognition of his suffering and courage. Surely incarceration with such people must constitute Nazi persecution as defined in the Notes for Guidance. These are the crucial words: I do not know whether you were aware of this fact but would be glad if you would give it full weight. I still hope you will see your way to appointing someone to conduct an independent inquiry as to the facts in these cases which are in dispute. I received no personal reply from the Foreign Secretary but I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State in which the point was totally ignored. In his reply, the Under-Secretary of State made one extraordinary statement to which I must draw the attention of the House. On the subject of the Notes for Guidance he said: Our legal advice is that the Notes for Guidance upon which the distribution of compensation was based were administrative instructions authorised by the Foreign Secretary at the time. As such they were not creative of rights and only the authority issuing them is competent to say what they mean. I am frankly staggered that the Minister could sign a statement of that kind, at least without satisfying himself that no mistakes were made. I have today been re-reading the regulations and notes for guidance. They are so complicated that it must have entered Ministers' heads that it might be possible for errors in the rules to have arisen. Why did not the Minister, even at this very late stage, insist that the officers be interviewed?

The hon. Member for Abingdon, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North and I were so staggered at the obduracy of Ministers—at their conviction that they were right—that, in the end, we began to think that perhaps the Government had some hard facts and information which we did not have and that perhaps we had weighed the whole thing up in the wrong way. At one interview, in the interview rooms downstairs, we spoke to three of these gallant officers. It could not have been pleasant for them because we went over their statements as if we disbelieved them. However, at the end of the interview, we had no reason to doubt their words. When we saw the interrogation reports at the Foreign Office—on which that Department was resisting the claims—we saw very little by way of inconsistency but very much to confirm what these gallant men had told us and were telling us.

Many interrogation reports were compiled after the war. They were essentially intelligence documents and were never used in evidence in war crime trials or at courts-martial. They were, so to speak, pointers or clues to be followed up; and that follow-up work had to be done by the appropriate judicial processes and interviewing. We still do not know why interviewing was not done by the Department. Once we wrote to the Foreign Secretary and he knew that there had been no interviewing—we wrote to him about this and told him of it on enumerable occasions—he should have given firm instructions for it to be done.

To sum up on the Ministerial aspect, although one is pleased at the outcome in this case, this has been, in a sense, an unnecessary crisis because I still believe that the Foreign Secretary could have saved the day far earlier by ordering an inquiry. I am not saying that, unaided. the Foreign Secretary would necessarily have detected subtle acts of maladministration by his officials, but that there was no need for the matter to have got as far as it did.

As for the officials concerned, I will not say much about them tonight, except that I was disturbed at some of the tendentious—I use the word advisedly—material emanating from the Foreign Office. I say with regret that the facts in this case were being over-manipulated to make out a certain case. Perhaps in a controversial matter that might sometimes be excusable, but it cannot be excused in this case.

I recall that after 1 asked Questions in the House, in November 1966, I was sent a memorandum by the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White)—I have given her notice of my intention to raise this matter tonight—arid I feel that she, apart from the officials, must accept a degree of responsibility. She wrote to me a short letter and sent me a memorandum on the case in question. The memorandum was not sent to the hon. Member for Abingdon, presumably because, by that stage, he was regarded as being past redemption. Perhaps I was not so regarded.

I was surprised at the picture of a concentration camp which appeared in the words of that memorandum. Considering the experiences of these gallant officers, the memorandum referred to Red Cross parcels, cigarettes, music, walks, bridge and so on. The examples were quite fantastic. There was no reference to the atmosphere of fear, of sudden death, in which these men lived all that time. Anyone looking at the memorandum would agree that it should not have been drawn up in quite that way; and that the Minister concerned should not have sent it out.

Again, using Parliamentary gamesmanship, in order to try to make our case I put down Written Questions which were answered by the Minister of State. In regard to Group Captain Day, I asked her specifically … by what branch of the German armed forces he and his colleagues were administered when to Sachsenhausen concentration camp • The argument was that where they were in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was not a concentration camp. That was the Foreign Office argument, and the reply that was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East was that the Sonderlager was administered by units of the Waffen SS, a part of the German armed forces. In my opinion, that was special pleading.

The point is that neither the Sonderlager nor the main camp ever came under the German armed forces at any time, and the Foreign Office Ministers should have known it. The concentration camp, as many hon. Members know who have experience of the matter, came under Himmler and under the senior officers serving under him who were concerned with these matters—first, the Lord President of the Council will remember, Heydrich and subsequently Kaltbrunner.

The SS units concerned were subordinated to the State Security Organisation. And even, of course, if it is true that many SS men served in fighting formations, the Waffen SS, and even if it is true, as the Parliamentary Commissioner reports: The Waffen SS absorbed the…Death's Head units… what the Minister was trying to say was totally academic. All concentration camps —whether Sonderlager, Zellenbau or the main camp at Sachsenhausen, or any of the others—Dachau, and Buchenwald were all guarded by these Death's Head units. So if it is argued that the guards of the Sonderlager which guarded these men were part of the German armed forces then, too, it would follow that the guards of all the concentration camps were part of the German armed forces. I put it to the Ministers that that, of course, would make nonsense of all their arguments and rules that they have applied in the notes for guidance.

I believe that there has been maladministration—the Commissioner says so—and it cannot be a very happy story. But we should be charitable. The compensation fund was inadequate. Let us say that officials got into a muddle and were never able to make a fresh start. They just got deeper and deeper into this administrative mess. Perhaps, therefore, we can hear a little more from my right hon. Friend of what the Foreign Secretary has in mind in the administrative instructions he has given.

I urge the Government to conduct an administrative review. Let them appoint someone who would command respect, not only at the Foreign Office but outside the Foreign Service. In due course, that gentleman could report to the Foreign Secretary, and his administrative report could then be available to the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Select Committee. As other hon. Members have said, the Committee must retain the right to crossexamine officials—that is a vital safeguard for our administrative process —but I do not believe that the House wants any scalps that those who fought the case so hard did so to get redress and to vindicate the honour of some gallant men. This has been done, and we are well content.