Holocaust Victims (Compensation)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:16 pm on 12 November 1996.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coe.]

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South 10:19, 12 November 1996

Recent events have reminded the world of the depravity of Hitler's Germany and the evil that was the holocaust. But the litany of shame engulfs civilised countries such as Switzerland and Austria, as well as Germany.

The holocaust was unparalleled in its ferocity, and mere headline numbers of those who were killed do not show the extent of the depravity. Homes were looted, property was transferred to the Germans' lackeys, paintings and valuables were confiscated, wedding rings were melted down and the gold teeth of holocaust victims were removed from dead bodies and transformed into gold for the Germans to use. It has been estimated that by the end of the war the Germans had looted £550 million.

No depravity was too wicked for Hitler. The record of some so-called neutral countries was less than distinguished. The Swiss used confidentiality laws to squirrel away many millions of pounds. During the pre-war period, there was apocryphal evidence of future victims depositing money in Swiss banks. After the war, when the dependants of those victims claimed their inheritance, they were denied access to those accounts.

Secrecy was used to camouflage the selfish exploitation of the dead by the Swiss. Only now is the matter being thoroughly investigated. It is a scandal of the highest proportions. Many people who could have benefited have died, and those who stand to benefit are in the evening of their lives. Given that, are the Swiss moving with speed to investigate those accounts? No. They said that it would take two or three years, during which time many of the potential beneficiaries will pass on.

Photo of Mr David Sumberg Mr David Sumberg , Bury South

Is not the nub of the matter that innocent men and women placed their trust in the Swiss banking system, and that system totally failed them? If the Swiss have any sense of honour and decency, they will disgorge those assets without being pressed or nagged, and do what is right and just for the people who died in the holocaust.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

My hon. Friend is right. It is scandalous that more than 50 years after the end of the war, the Swiss have still not disgorged those ill-gotten gains. Many of the individuals concerned have lived traumatic lives, and they may be financially pressed. The least that the Swiss can do is to honour that debt from the past. It is a scandal that the Swiss Government and Swiss bankers have put greed before conscience, and money before principle. Their sleight of hand since the war is nothing compared with their activities during the war.

During the war, Swiss banks were happy to accept deposits from the German authorities. Part of the proceeds were used to find havens for war criminals towards the end of the war. Where did the money come from? As early as 10 August 1942, Professor Urner warned the Swiss national bank that the money coming from Germany was looted money: it did not belong to the German people; it was stolen money. In 1943, the allies warned the Swiss that they were receiving looted gold— partly from melted-down teeth and wedding rings—and not money that belonged to the German pre-war gold reserves.

The Swiss have a shameful record. They had no conscience about receiving stolen money or selling stolen goods. They closed their eyes in war; their consciences should be opened in peacetime.

The gold that was given to the Tripartite Gold Commission in 1946 included much stolen gold. Will the Minister give me an assurance that before the residue of that gold is distributed, the Government will insist that its origins are checked closely? The gold in that pool that was taken from individuals should not be returned to the Government, but should be given to those who are still working for the refugees from the last war. Receiving stolen gold is an offence; receiving this stolen gold is a particularly offensive crime.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

It is indeed.

The lethargy that has characterised Austrian and Swiss dealings with the matter since the war is unacceptable in this country. As I said, a delay of two to three years is involved, and the immediate descendants of those who placed the money in Swiss banks before the last war may not be alive in two or three years' time. Is that what the Swiss want? Historically, Switzerland has been regarded as a principled democracy, but this record of procrastination and delay threatens Switzerland's position in the world, and it risks becoming an international pariah. I ask the Swiss Government to order the Swiss banking system to expedite the inquiry as a matter of urgency.

Austria, however, joins Switzerland in this litany of shame—

Photo of Mr Tristan Garel-Jones Mr Tristan Garel-Jones , Watford

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me some of his time. I ought to tell the House—my hon. Friend may be unaware of this —that I work for a Swiss bank. I declare that interest before making my observations.

Will my hon. Friend urge the Minister to tell the House exactly what the Government's view is of their dealings with the Swiss—whether they have been co-operative—and what is the Government's view of the demands now being made of the Swiss commercial banks, as opposed to the national bank, to pay further moneys in addition to those that were paid in 1946?

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to do that. There is no doubt in my mind that the money paid over by the Swiss in 1946 was inadequate: it was regarded as the best that could be got in an effort to sort out a mess. There is also no doubt that Switzerland did very well out of the war, rather like the Conservative Members of Parliament who, in 1918, looked as if they had done "rather well out of the war". There is no doubt that Swiss banks, including the one employing my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), did rather well out of the war. They should hang their heads in shame. Not only did they get the gold; the Swiss unquestionably sold many looted paintings and other valuables that had been taken from people in the occupied parts of Europe. Switzerland has a record of which it can justly be ashamed—and my right hon. Friend is working for an organisation that should probably be ashamed of what it did as well.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

My right hon. Friend may not be ashamed of it, but most people would be.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

No. I have given way once, and my right hon. Friend declared his interest. I will not give way again.

Another country with a record of shame is Austria. In 1955, Austria was given a pile of paintings and other works of art and instructed to return them, or to try to find the rightful owners. Only in the past few days have the Austrians held an auction of those paintings. They squirrelled them away in the Mauerbach monastery from 1955 until 1996. Only when the catalogue of that auction was published did a lady in Israel see it and say, "Those are two paintings that were in our home in Vienna before the war."

For years and years, that lady assumed that the paintings had disappeared. For years and years, she would have loved to have them in her own house. Instead, they were in a monastery in Austria where she had no access to them. No wonder the Austrian Chancellor has apologised —but the Austrians should do more than apologise: they ought to be willing to make reparations to those who would otherwise have benefited.

Let me now talk about Germany. I recently met constituents who were slave labourers during the last war. The only hope that people had of surviving the death camps was to work in the factories of Nazi Germany. They were exploited; they received no pay and little food. The prisoners knew that, if they ever faltered in their work, they were liable to be killed the next day. They knew that if their health gave way, their lives would give way as well. They were literally working to survive. All those prisoners had suffered a loss of close relatives.

The other day, I met a constituent who was a slave labourer for just over two years. During that time, he was in five camps and had to march from Auschwitz to Austria. No one needed a map to see the way ahead because it was littered with bodies. Every time someone faltered on that march, German soldiers killed that person.

That was the reality of being a slave labourer in Germany from 1939 to 1945, but there was one thing that slave labourers did not receive. No one paid any insurance for them, so everyone who worked in Germany from 1939 to 1945 is entitled to a pension, except people who worked as slave labourers. That is iniquitous in the extreme and I call on the German Government to right that wrong. All they need to do is to impute insurance contributions for the time that people worked as slave labourers so that they may receive a pension. One of the people who got in touch with me had worked in a camp for 56 months as a slave labourer. Surely, any decent person would say that that lady was entitled to a pension, as well as substantial compensation for what she had to go through.

Victims of the holocaust include not only people who lived in the camps and survived, but all the children who came to England in 1938 and in 1939 through the Kinder transport system, who said goodbye to their parents in Berlin, never to see them again, and who were the only members of their family to come to Britain and to survive.

I am told by one of my friends, who is an expert on the matter, that those people are entitled to a pension, provided that they had a child before 30 November 1949. This constituent of mine secured a pension for someone who had a baby on 30 November 1949. If that child had been born on 1 December 1949, no pension would have been paid. That is bureaucratic madness and unkindness to an extreme Germanic extent.

I call on the German Government to fulfil their debt of honour to all the people who suffered under the Hitler regime, so that slave labourers and people who had to come to Britain to secure their future life and freedom are compensated by Germany. No money or financial payment can be enough to compensate them, but at least the German people should compensate them as much as they can.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West 10:32, 12 November 1996

I thank the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), who is my local Member of Parliament, my pair and my friend, for many personal kindnesses in rough times and for securing the debate.

On Monday, I will travel to Switzerland with the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) at the invitation of the Swiss Foreign Minister to discuss with him and others many of the matters that have been raised by the hon. Member for Hendon, South. I shall take a copy of his speech because it is important that the Swiss Government and people should understand the depth of feeling among hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I ask the Minister to do only these things. First, will he express the Government's feelings about the 1946 agreement? The Swiss sent 40,000 mainly Jewish people back from the Swiss border to their death, but accepted readily enough the gold from their teeth, which was melted into bars and sent to Switzerland by Germany. Under the agreement, the Swiss kept some $220 million of gold, providing only $60 million to the Tripartite Gold Commission. They should now make amends and renegotiate the agreement. I hope that that is the Government's view and that they will say so.

Secondly, I hope that the Government will express the view that, while awaiting the results of the commissions that they have rightly set up, the Swiss—as a Government and a people —should make a substantial gesture to help the Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazism.

Thirdly, the Tripartite Gold Commission—the United Kingdom, the United States and France—has almost finished its work. It is about to distribute the last tranche to Albania. It will then have a residue. Some 5.5 tonnes of gold will remain in the Bank of England. I ask the Government to say that they will not agree to the distribution of that residue unless and until the origins of that gold have been researched and investigated. It is stolen gold, robbed from individuals; robbed from the bodies of the dead. I am sure that the Government will agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House that in so far as it is individuals' gold, that proportion should be returned—if not to the individuals who lost it, at least to their families and successors, who are still living in need and poverty as a result of the Nazi looting and the Nazi holocaust.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:35, 12 November 1996

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) for raising this subject. If I am unable to reply to all the points raised in the debate, I shall write to hon. Members.

The series of events that my hon. Friend has called to our minds is one of the darkest episodes in the history of the European continent. The question of compensation for survivors of the holocaust is one that it is right for us to review regularly, although as the German Government stated in 1988: No matter how large the sum, no amount of money will ever suffice to compensate for National Socialist persecution. In this, the Federal Republic of Germany, its Western allies and responsible independent organisations have always concurred.

A provision of the treaty that effected the transition of the federal republic from occupied territory to sovereign state in 1952 required the new state to make restitution. Later the same year, following a conference on Jewish material claims against Germany, an agreement was signed in Luxembourg under which Germany agreed to pay DM3 billion to the state of Israel and DM450 million to various Jewish organisations that had been represented at the conference. The payment to the state of Israel was in recognition of the huge financial burden that that young nation had assumed in accepting so many victims of Nazi persecution in Europe.

Since then, the German authorities, at federal and state level, have continued to make available substantial sums to individual victims of Nazism. Such payments have been made both in single sums and in continuing pensions. The most recent figures issued by the German Government show that up to May 1996 they had disbursed DM97 billion for those purposes and that their continuing pension obligations were likely to bring that total up to DM124 billion. About 80 per cent. of the pension payments have been made to people outside Germany. In the case of the United Kingdom, under a bilateral agreement concluded in 1964, lump-sum payments were made to more than 1,000 people then living in the UK who had been held in concentration camps or comparable places. These averaged about £1,000 at 1965–66 prices—about £10,000 at today's prices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South drew attention to the residue of the monetary gold pool held by the Tripartite Gold Commission in the UK and the USA and to the proposal by the World Jewish Restitution Organisation that this gold should be made available to compensate individual victims of Nazism, instead of being distributed to the Governments whose monetary gold was looted by the Nazis during the second world war. There are formidable legal and practical difficulties in the way of that proposal and with the permission of the House I would like briefly to outline the background.

Under the Paris agreement on reparations of 1946, the western allies agreed that gold and other valuables recovered from the Nazis should be allocated in two separate ways. Monetary gold—gold that had been looted or improperly removed from the gold reserves of occupied countries—was, as far as possible, to be returned to those countries. The Tripartite Gold Commission was set up for that purpose by the British, French and United States Governments. Non-monetary gold, together with a sum of $25 million in cash, was to be used to assist in the resettlement of persons displaced at the end of the war who could not be returned to their homes. That was done.

Countries that had had their reserves of monetary gold looted by the Nazis were invited to lodge claims with the Tripartite Gold Commission. Ten countries did so: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia. The commission then adjudicated the claims in bilateral negotiations with each claimant country, and with help from financial experts.

Monetary gold recovered by the allies after the war, with a cash contribution of 250 million Swiss francs from the Government of Switzerland, amounted to about 60 per cent. of the adjudicated and agreed claims. Most of the gold was distributed to claimant countries in the years immediately after the war, but in some cases distribution was delayed by counter-claims, two of which were taken to the International Court of Justice. Albania received its principal share of the gold pool only last month.

As has correctly been stated during the debate, a residue remains, which has been kept by the commission, because of the technical and practical difficulties of exactly dividing quantities of monetary gold. The legal position now is that the British, French and United States Governments, and the commission on their behalf, have a clear legal obligation to distribute the remaining gold to participant countries. Agreement would be required of the parties to the 1946 Paris agreement, and of the claimant countries themselves, if the residue were not to be distributed to claimant countries. There are also practical difficulties, one of which is that two of the recipient countries—Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia—have ceased to exist in their previous forms.

The Government are, however, extremely sympathetic to the idea of benefiting individual victims of Nazism in the final distribution of the gold pool, if a method can found of doing so that has a reasonable prospect of success. Therefore, we are consulting the French and US Governments about the matter. We are in close touch with the World Jewish Restitution Organisation and with the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) about how that might be achieved, and about how individual victims of Nazism who might benefit from such an arrangement could be identified.

The World Jewish Restitution Organisation has recognised that it would be appropriate for a mechanism to be set up to compensate non-Jewish victims of Nazism. We shall examine that possibility. I assure the House that any arrangement we reach will be fully in accordance with our legal and moral obligations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel—Jones) has raised the issue of whether the Swiss Government should contribute further to the funds available to the Tripartite Gold Commission. The position is that the Swiss Government—after negotiations with the war-time allies—agreed in Washington, in 1946, to make available 250 million Swiss francs to form the basis of the commission's monetary gold pool. That was in response to the allies' contention that the Swiss national bank must have known during the war that some of the monetary gold that it was buying from Germany had been looted from the monetary gold stocks of occupied countries. The allies expressly accepted that payment as a final settlement of any claims that they might have against Switzerland in relation to German gold.

Following expressions of concern in several countries about Switzerland's financial dealings with Nazi Germany, and the handling of deposits in Swiss banks that might have been made by holocaust victims, the Swiss Government announced, in September, a new and comprehensive expert inquiry into the entire course of Switzerland's financial exchanges with the Third Reich between 1933 and 1945. The law establishing the inquiry, which is currently passing through the Swiss Parliament with all-party support, will enable experts to override banking, legal and other professional secrecy rules. The Swiss Government have said that when the inquiry produces its report, which will be made public, they will give the findings appropriate consideration.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

At the same time, another inquiry under the former US Treasury Secretary, Paul Volcker, is investigating the details of dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks, and the Swiss foreign ministry is looking into the question of post-war agreements with other countries on the bilateral settlement of claims. We are satisfied—following talks in September, in Berne, between the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Swiss federal councillor, Flavio Cotti—that the Swiss Government are conducting all the investigations in good faith. To answer the question of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West, I cannot provide a time scale, but we are determined to uncover as much of the truth about these dealings as can be revealed after the passage of half a century.

In those circumstances, I believe that it is right to await the results of those inquiries before considering what further action ought to be taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South has referred to suggestions that some non-monetary gold might have been wrongly included in the monetary gold pool administered by the Tripartite Gold Commission. I have already described the arrangements, made under the 1946 Paris agreement on reparations, under which monetary gold and non-monetary gold were to be treated separately and used for different purposes. In the light of the suggestions referred to by my hon. Friend, we are conducting a study of the available documents to try to establish as best we can after 50 years how thoroughly the task of dividing the gold was carried out.

From the documents we have so far found, it looks as though those concerned tried with great care and in good faith to allocate only monetary gold to the Tripartite Gold Commission's pool, working from descriptions submitted by the claimant countries of what had been in their gold reserves before occupation. It is relevant that the total amount of gold assembled in the monetary gold pool was enough to restore to the claimant countries only about 60 per cent. of what they had lost. We shall be looking into the matter further.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider giving restitution to organisations that help victims of the Holocaust, as well as to the victims themselves?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I have already mentioned that non-Jewish victims must be considered. I am certainly willing to investigate the issue that my hon. Friend has correctly raised.

As a matter of fairness, it is right to acknowledge that successive German Governments have tried to make amends for the heinous crimes that were carried out. Since the establishment of the federal republic, the German Government have tried to make some reparations to victims of Nazism in Germany and in other countries.

Immediately after the second world war, the occupying powers in Germany enacted laws designed to restore property confiscated by the Nazis to its original owners. Thereafter, one of the first acts of the new federal republic was an official expression of intent to make restitution for loss of property, for personal damage to the victims of Nazi persecution, for physical and psychological suffering, for unjust deprivation of freedom and for injury to people's professional or economic potential.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South, the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and others have reminded the House of the horrors that occurred in the Holocaust. Those matters can never be put to rest and must never be forgotten. The House must be grateful to those hon. Members who remind us time and again of what can happen, even in Europe.

I hope that I have been able to show that the Government take seriously the questions raised by my hon. Friend. We may not be able to give answers on the specific timetables available, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept in good faith that the Government are giving very serious consideration to the important points that he has raised—points not of history, but of crucial importance to us and to generations to come. We must never forget them.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Will the Minister assure the House that, when he says that the Government will consider the moral and legal implications before allowing a residue to be distributed, he means that they will not undertake a distribution until they have investigated where the residue came from? Please.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I think that I have made it clear that we intend a proper investigation. As I have said, we shall consider not only our legal obligations but what we regard as our moral obligations. That makes the point clearly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.