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War Criminals, Germany

Volume 441: debated on Wednesday 6 August 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

10.2 p.m.

I rise to raise a very important and serious case of what I and all others who know this case believe to be gross maladministration of justice in Germany. Before I go into the details of the case, I wish to make it quite plain that I am not making a general plea for anything in the nature of an amnesty for war criminals, or anything of that kind, but I feel it is right to hold that the more war criminals there may be about in Germany, the more essential is it that justice, and absolute justice, should be done in every case.

There are several questions I shall ask the Minister and they concern the death in Germany of Oberst Hesselmann, Hesselmann was Commandant of a prisoners-of war camp at Koenigstein. I have good reason to know what sort of man Hesselmann was because, amongst the prisoners of war for whom he was responsible, was my brother. Now this man had under his charge during the war officers of several different nationalities, British, French, Dutch and American, and I would like to read out, before I describe what happened to Hesselmann after the war was over, the sort of thing that was said about him by those officers for whom he was responsible. This is merely one of several typical statements. It is signed by several Dutch officers who, goodness knows, had every, reason to be hostile to the Germans. It was written in March, 1947. They say this about him:
"We, the undersigned do certify that we were prisoners of war for two years in Offiag IVB Königstein where Colonel Hesselmann was in command.
This Colonel behaved himself towards us extremely correctly and was, in our opinion, a resolute opponent of the Hitler regime.
He did all he could to render our captivity more supportable."
Then there follow a good many signatures.

Apart from that, Hesselmann certainly saved the lives of my brother and one other officer whom he categorically refused to hand over to the Gestapo towards the end of the war, when ordered to do so, and he even went so far as to show my brother and his friend where they could hide in the event of the Gestapo forcibly breaking into the prison camp. Now we come to the time immediately after the conclusion of hostilities. Hesselmann was engaged in work on one of the refugee committees, and was working on a scheme concerning the spiritual renaissance of the Germans under the famous Pastor Niemoeller, who has himself testified to Hesselmann's fine Christian qualities.

I would like to read the account by Hesselmann's widow of his arrest. One realises, of course, that, as it must inevitably be, this is, prima facie, a biased account, but investigations have satisfied those of us who have inquired into this case for a good many months that what she says in that account is subtantially correct. She says:
"On the afternoon of 13th February, at 1.25 p.m., an English captain came to my house and asked for my husband. He said, approximately, 'We must talk to him in Bad Oeynhausen and Minden, perhaps for one or two days He made me drive with him to Stillen Friden where my husband was taking part in a session of the refugee committee of the Evangelical Church, and bring him out. On the way, I asked him for what reason my husband was wanted. The captain replied that he did not know. My husband returned home in five minutes time, in order to take away with him things for the night The British officer again repeated to him that it was only a question of one or two days interrogation in Bad Oeynhausen and Minden Everything else I only know as the result of the few words which my husband spoke during his last days and from the two letters from Minden."
I should pause at this point to say that, in fact, Hesselmann was arrested—inevitably and quite properly, so far as the actual arrest was concerned—at the request of the French, in connection with the murder of a French general who had been taken out of the prison camp by the Gestapo during the war. Although it is beside the point, those who know most about this affair believe Hesselmann to have been completely innocent of the charge. His wife then goes on to explain how he was treated immediately he was arrested:
"He was brought into the British military prison in Minden and there his fur coat and scarf were taken away, and, without further explanations, he was put into a cell. The prison was unheated and the cell had, apart from a pasted window-lead, no daylight."
I will not weary the House with all the details, but, after three days of complaint, and as a result of pressing personal requests he got back his coat and scarf. One knows of course, that the taking away of the coat and scarf is a regular part of the routine to prevent possible suicide. The account goes on:
Since after seven days I was without news of my husband, I went to the Intelligence Service at Bielefeld where they very politely looked into my husband's papers. They knew nothing about his arrest, and a reference to higher authority there was also without success. In the afternoon of 17th February, I learned from the Charity Organisation of the Evangelical Church of the whereabouts of my husband, and, on the morning of the 18th, I drove in a car belonging to this organisation to Minden, to the prison chaplain, Pastor Puffert.
"He told me it was impossible to visit my husband, neither could he arrange for an interview with the Commandant of the prison. I gave to Pastor Puffert a certificate signed by Dr. Uebmann that my husband had been under medical attention since the beginning of December."
That is true. He had duodenal trouble, which is what eventually killed him.
"This stated that my husband since the beginning of December had been treated on account of his stomach trouble,"
and she goes on to describe the details of that trouble.
"On the 19th of February he wrote to me that he had been transferred to a hospital. About the 21st February two German doctors were with him. My husband wrote in his second and last letter on 23rd February that he hoped to go to a British hospital on the '24th. Instead, on the 24th he went to the French Military Mission at Bad Salzuflen … A letter which he wrote to me there did not reach me, neither was the personal request to the French for a drive through Bielefeld to inform me about his illness granted."
He was then taken by the French to Wittlich.

Those are the facts of this case. That officer was arrested by the British at the request of the French, and, as I say, under the terms of the agreement, the British authorities were bound to surrender him to the French for purposes of this interrogation. But up to the time that he was handed over to the French to be taken to their zone, he had never been told why he was arrested. He had never been charged. He died in French hands on 22nd March, a very short time after he left British hands, still with no charge whatever having been brought against him. Those are the plain facts of the case. It has in it all the elements of the most tragic sort of case of this kind. We have the arrest of a man who risked his life to befriend British officers from the Nazis. He was arrested without charge, and his widow was kept in ignorance of his whereabouts and the reason for his arrest, and he died.

As the result of various inquiries made by myself and others, His Majesty's Government looked into this matter. A rather significant suggestion was made by the French afterwards; they suggested that this man had committed suicide. Of course, I know that is not His Majesty's Government's responsibility, but it is all part of the case. That charge was subsequently withdrawn. That fact should not escape notice. After Hesselmann's death, the assets which he left to his widow were blocked and, as far as I know—and this is one of the points on which I would like an answer from the hon. Gentleman—those assets are still blocked. Frau Hesselmann is without any subsistence at all, because her husband's assets were blocked on the suspicion that he was a war criminal, but he has not been tried because he died. She still has not got any money at all. I want to know whether this is the usual custom, and, if it is, whether it is not about time that justice was observed in these matters. I would also like to know whether Frau Hesselmann will at once be given these assets where are hers by right. That is one question I ask the hon. Gentleman specifically.

The other question concerns arrest without charge. As a result of inquiries that I made, I was told by His Majesty's Government that it was not usual in these cases to make a specific charge against those who were arrested because so many had to be arrested on grounds of suspicion, that it was inevitable that some time must elapse before the evidence was sifted, and so forth. That, in my submission, is just not good enough. If the organisation in Germany is not capable of observing the rules of justice as we in Britain understand them, it is about time the organisation in Germany was changed. There are the two question which I ask—and had already asked—the hon. Gentleman to be good enough to answer.

All I wish to say in conclusion is, that I have tried to tell the story of this case without any attempt at the dramatic. I have simply given the facts. I feel very deeply about it all the same. I feel deeply about it, naturally, because, as I have explained to the House, my brother and another owed their lives—not less than their lives—to Hesselmann, who risked his neck by disobeying the instructions of the Gestapo to hand my brother over. I feel deeply about this case because I believe it to be one of conduct absolutely contrary to the essentials of justice as we understand them. When one contrasts the humanity and fairness of the treatment which Hesselmann meted out to those prisoners under his charge with the inhumanity and un-kindness of the treatment he received during the time he was in prison without any charge, and kept in those uncomfortable conditions in the cell, and finally passed on to the French in whose hands, and under whose callous treatment, he died—when one contrasts these two examples of treatment—then I think that one hangs one's head in shame and humiliation. Hesselmann is dead. Nothing more can be done for him in this world. But his widow lives, and all I ask now is that she, at least, should be relieved of the sadness and sense of insecurity under which she is now so unfairly and unreasonably labouring because what is hers by right has been denied her by the clumsy hand of badly administered justice in Germany.

10.18 p.m.

I am sure that Members of the House will appreciate the deep feelings of the noble Lord in this matter, especially in view of the wartime experiences of a member of his family; and if it is true, as it well may be, that this man was innocent, and a brave anti-Nazi, then it is indeed sad that he died under arrest on the list of the United Nations war criminals. But, as the noble Lord himself said, the guilt or innocence of this man is not relevant to the conduct of the British authorities in the matter. Whether he was guilty or innocent, it was our duty to arrest this man and hand him over to the French. A great deal of the noble Lord's speech, in which he spoke of the anti-Nazi work of Hesselmann and of his work for the Refugee Committee, was, therefore, irrelevant to the issue we are discussing, and might tend to prejudice the minds of hon. Members against the British authorities in Germany.

The circumstances of the arrest were as follow. As hon. Members know, the United Nations War Crimes Commission was set up in London on 20th October, 1943, to bring to trial people accused of war crimes. Hesselmann was listed by the War Crimes Commission as a war criminal in connection, as the noble Lord said, with the murder of a French general. The Committee of the War Crimes Commission examines every case brought to it by a member of the Commission, and decides whether a prima facie case can be made out for the arrest of the person concerned. In the case of Hesselmann, the Committee unanimously decided that there was a prima facie case against him. Therefore, through our war crimes liaison officer in Paris we received a request from the French Government to arrest Hesselmann. He was arrested on 13th February at Bielefeld and sent to the War Crimes Holding Centre at Minden.

The fact of his innocence or guilt—if he is guilty—could have made no differ- ence whatever to our actions in this matter. I want to make that quite clear. Had he been the darkest of war criminals, or the best anti-Nazi in the world, we should have treated him in the same way, and rightly so. Thus, all we can be accused of in this matter is, I think, unnecessary suffering caused to Hesselmann during the period of arrest. I do not object to the testimony of a widow. From what I heard, even though she be a widow, I did not think her statement was a substantial charge against the British authorities. The noble Lord did not give us all the details; perhaps if he had done so he would have conveyed a better impression of what he was charging us with. But the few facts he did mention did not seem to me to constitute a substantial charge, even if they were true.

I thought I had made perfectly clear that the charge I was levelling against His Majesty's Government was that this man was arrested and put in prison without any charge. Surely to goodness that is enough suffering for a man, let alone what he goes through in the cell.

I will come later to the charge on which he was arrested. The noble Lord implied that unnecessary suffering was caused to him in prison. If that is not so, I will not bother to state my case. The facts are that he was treated humanely, and with fairness and sympathy. He complained on 16th February of feeling ill and was seen by a German doctor on the same day. The doctor's report says:

"He can stay where he is for about a week, provided he is kept warm and lying down and given special food. No immediate urgency, and no danger to life."
The doctor said that he was suffering from an old stomach trouble, for which Hesselmann said he had been treated, on and off, for 10 years, and had refused an operation. Immediately following the doctor's report, Hesselmann was provided with eight blankets instead of four; he was given a specially prepared diet of bread and milk, and was in receipt of American food parcels. His coat and scarf were removed from him, as the noble Lord said, as a routine procedure, and were compensated for by the special arrangements in respect of the blankets. Now, in the twentieth century that is not hard or cruel treatment of a prisoner at all. The truth is, as hon. Members know, that in the treatment of prisoners our military are probably the best, the kindest and the gentlest in the world, and I want to remove from the minds of hon. Members any suggestion that Hesselmann was treated in any way other than humanely and considerately.

On 25th February, according to our duties and rights, we handed him over to the French, not for conviction but simply for trial. He was taken away in a private car, he sitting in the back. The noble Lord gives no evidence of ill-treatment by the French, and there is no reason to suppose that he was ill-treated by the French.

The noble Lord did not bring any specific evidence of ill-treatment by the French. If he has no specific evidence to bring I think that these unsubstantiated charges are most unfortunate, and I entirely resist any suggestion that he was ill-treated. If he was not ill-treated by the French, and if the noble Lord has no evidence to bring, he should not make that charge. That is quite clear.

Did the Under-Secretary say that my noble Friend did not bring any charge of ill-treatment by the French?

I said so, and the noble Lord then interrupted me to say that they had let him die.

"They let him die" implies that they in some way ill-treated him, but no specific evidence has been produced.

I am sorry to interrupt, but the Under-Secretary provokes me to say this. I told him and the House about the first suggestion the French made, namely, that this man had committed suicide—a suggestion which they subsequently withdrew. I am quite content to leave the conduct of the French in the hands of the House on that basis. I do not want to press that because I know it is not the responsibility of the Under-Secretary. It is part of the whole case, that is all.

We will leave it then, and come to the question of whether he was told what was the charge. He was told that he was to be arrested and questioned in connection with war crimes. He was not told the specific detailed charge on which he was arrested. Our procedure is, and it is the right and proper procedure, to leave the framing of the specific charge to the Government in whose country the man is to be tried. That must be so. The French Government in this case have the responsibility for charging him, and for investigating his case. Clearly, we cannot take on ourselves the responsibility for making these specific charges, and we have the right not to make a specific charge but to arrest him in connection with war crimes.

I come now to the only other point of substance, namely, that of the blocked account. The position under Law 52 which is valid in the British zone, is that the accounts of those on the list of war criminals are blocked. The normal procedure is that an account is unblocked after acquittal, but this is the first case of a man dying while being held in custody. The first feeling of most hon. Members will be immediately to unblock his account. I have arranged for urgent inquiries to be made whether that is possible or not. We do not yet know whether the account is in the British zone, but we are finding out, and if it is at all possible, we will immediately unblock it.

Surely, until a man is proved guilty he must be presumed innocent, and therefore this account should at once be unblocked?

One could equally say not until he is proved innocent, because it might not otherwise be possible to make a claim on his assets. For that reason, I cannot give a firm undertaking that the account will be unblocked.

Can we find out exactly which way the junior Minister is speaking? He says, first of all, that the account will be immediately unblocked, and, secondly, that he will make inquiries and if it is all right the account will be unblocked.

I carefully did not say that we would unblock it. I would like to say that, but if he were guilty, there would possibly be claimants against his assets. Therefore, I cannot, before making inquiries, unblock the account. Meantime, it is true that the wife can, if she wishes, draw from the account to the extent of 300 Reichsmarks a month. I would end by saying that the evidence the noble Lord has produced about the character of this man is strong, and since we all agree that if he is innocent it is tragic that he should remain on the list of war criminals, I will send the evidence immediately to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, and ask them to reconsider the case.

Can the French Government take any action to prevent the unblocking of this account?

Do we immediately clear ourselves, under this procedure, of responsibility of seeing how prisoners are dealt with the moment we hand them over?

The answer to the first question is that that is one of the things we would have to consider. For example, if the French could not prove innocence, they could, no doubt, in legal theory, make a claim for part of the assets for the damage the guilty man had done. To that extent I imagine there is a case, and that is the kind of thing I shall immediately order an inquiry into. The answer to the second question is that when we have handed over these people the receiving Government is then, under our agreement, responsible for them.

I should need notice of whether the United Nations Commission could call for a report.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Ten o'Clock.