Nearly a year after the end of World War II, a large number of German prisoners of war (POWs) were still being detained in post-war Britain. In March 1946, angry that the government had not announced when they could be repatriated, the Labour MP Richard Stokes said the Germans were entitled to know their expected date of release. It was an affront to their human rights and therefore a betrayal of British values, he said. Although ex-enemies, Stokes insisted German POWs had “human rights” which Britain, as a foremost guardian of them, had to respect.
By September 1946, more than a year after the end of World War II, 402,000 German POWs were still being held in camps stretching across Britain. They were set to work on tasks including road repair and brickmaking. POWs swept up the rubbish after VE day celebrations and helped construct Wembley Way for the 1948 Olympics. In March 1947, 170,000 were working in agriculture, helping farmers bring in the harvest.
International law stipulated that POWs should be repatriated after a peace treaty was signed, but with Germany occupied, a peace treaty was a remote possibility. So Britain kept its German POWs – who were proving useful as a labour force – without announcing when they might be sent home. The practical issue of arranging transports hindered plans; at the same time, repatriating ardent Nazis among the POWs was considered imprudent.
In May 1946, the politician and writer Harold Nicolson argued that the repatriation of German POWs should begin immediately. His point was that as war-ravaged Europe looked for leadership and while the Soviet Union had ample physical strength, Britain, in contrast, had “enormous moral power”. Through proper demonstration of democratic principles, he said that Britain could gain “the willing cooperation of many millions” across Europe. Unjust behaviour would, however, undermine this power. It was imperative that Britain “practise[d] what it preache[d]”. For Nicolson, the treatment of German POWs was an example of this damaging hypocrisy:
That we should treat human beings in this manner while proclaiming aloud our belief in the sanctity of human values, [is] more than wrong, it is blind and stupid.
The British public registered similar disapproval in letters to newspapers. Retaining POWs indefinitely tarnished Britain’s image; the freedoms for which the war had been fought were being denied the German POWs. Treating the defeated in this way was cruel, behaviour expected of the Nazis had they been victorious. Even convicted criminals knew the length of their sentences.
Public dissatisfaction was formally expressed in August 1946 when Save Europe Now, a post-war pressure group, sent a petition to then-prime minister, Clement Attlee. Attlee soon announced that 15,000 POWs would be repatriated per month. While this was celebrated, criticism of the slowness of repatriation continued until it was completed in 1948.
A United States of Europe
People hoped that German POWs, having experienced the British way of life, would become ambassadors for democracy. A government led reeducation programme for POWs in the UK tried to re-orientate them towards democratic values after years of Nazi propaganda.
But preaching the virtues of democracy while keeping the POWs detained in Britain was thought extremely hypocritical – an inconsistency not lost on the captives. If Britain wanted to disseminate its values to Europe, those like Nicholson argued, it had to demonstrate that it was sincere about them. Retaining POWs for so long after the war undermined this intention, and damaged Britain’s international image.
In the context of the emergent Cold War, post-war politicians encouraged the creation of a strong vision for Western Europe, built around shared history and values. Despite the ambiguity of his vision, Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe”.
Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe, an organisation Churchill endorsed, aimed to promote greater European unity. The first piece of legislation drafted within the council was the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This international treaty safeguards human rights in Europe and established the European Court of Human Rights. Another British Conservative politician, David Maxwell-Fyfe, played a leading role in the drafting of the ECHR and described the ECHR as a “beacon to those […] in totalitarian darkness”. While there were concerns within the Labour government that a European court might override British sovereignty, the UK ratified the convention as an example to others.
These issues are starkly relevant today. In 2016, Theresa May said Britain must withdraw from the ECHR. But in its manifesto, her Conservative Party said it would wait to do so until after the UK leaves the EU.
If Britain were to eventually withdraw from the ECHR, it would reverse a wider trend in place since the 1940s that has seen protection of human rights handed to European institutions. In 1946 the argument was that German POWs had inalienable rights, whatever their status, which Britain must respect. Foreigners would not be guaranteed these rights if Britain were to eventually pull out of the ECHR.