December 19, 2000


by Srdja Trifkovic

Lord Aldington, 86, a former British trade minister and Conservative Party vice chairman who filed one of Britain's most famous libel cases against a man who labeled him a war criminal, died of cancer Dec. 8 at his home in Kent, southern England. In 1989, Lord Aldington was awarded $2.2 million in damages after winning a libel suit against historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy, a distant relative of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who had written a pamphlet accusing Lord Aldington of war crimes. As a British army officer in Austria at the end of World War II, Lord Aldington — then known by his given name, Toby Low — oversaw the repatriation of thousands of Cossack and Yugoslav refugees. Many were subsequently killed or interned in prison camps. At the libel trial, Lord Aldington agreed that the refugees' fate was "ghastly" but said he had not known that many faced execution if returned to their homelands. (The Washington Post, December 9, 2000)

An obituary sometimes begs a thousand words. Well worth doing in this case, especially since it's been over a decade since we wrote about Aldington, Tolstoy, and one of the greatest untold tragedies of World War II (cf. "Writing in the Tolstoy Tradition" by Sally Wright, Chronicles, April 1989). This is a story of heinous crimes that went unpunished and establishmentarian conspiracies to cover them up, of miscarriage of justice, of one man's quixotic efforts to tell the truth and another's quiet campaign to keep it suppressed.

The story starts at Yalta in February 1945, when the return of all Soviet citizens that may find themselves in the Allied zone was demanded by Stalin — and was duly agreed to by Churchill and FDR. Accordingly, hundreds of thousands of Soviet POWs liberated by the Allies were sent back home, regardless of their wishes, and regardless of what Stalin had in store for them. In addition, in May and June 1945 tens of thousands of refugees from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union — unarmed civilians escaping communism, as well as anticommunist resistance fighters and assorted collaborationists — were rounded up by the British in Austria, and forcibly delivered to Stalin and Tito. Most of them were summarily executed, sometimes within earshot of the British. Forced repatriations were known as Operation Keelhaul — the "last secret" of World War II, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn called it. Men, women, and children were forced into boxcars headed for the Soviet zone in the east, or for Slovenia in the south.

Non-Soviet and non-Yugoslav citizens and Serbian royalists were supposedly exempt from the deportation order, but key military officials in the British chain of command surreptitiously included them, too. As a result émigré Russians waving French passports and British medals from the World War I were all rounded up and delivered to Stalin.

There was panic in the camps when the inmates realized what was going on. The British lied to some that they were to be taken to Italy, or some other safe haven; if the subterfuge didn't work they used rifle butts and bayonets as prods. Some refugees committed suicide by sawing their throats with barbed wire. Mothers threw their babies from trains into the river.  To its credit one British regiment, the London Irish, refused: they went to war to fight German soldiers, they said, not to club refugee women and children. (Americans proved willing to open the gates of refugee camps and look the other way as the desperate inmates fled.)

In late June 1945 the original policy of screening the would-be deportees was reinstated, but it was too late: most of them were already dead, or in the depths of the Gulag. The tragedy would have remained little known outside obscure émigré circles were it not for British historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy, who has dedicated his life to exposing the truth and identifying those responsible. This great-grand-nephew of Russia's famous novelist — and heir to the senior line of the family — has written three books on forced repatriations, each more revealing than the previous one, as more suppressed information came to light. In 1977 his Victims of Yalta was published, followed by Stalin's Secret War in 1981, and then his most controversial book, The Minister and the Massacres (1986).

In his books Tolstoy argued that refugees not covered by the Yalta agreement — émigré Russians and royalist Yugoslavs — were forcibly repatriated because Harold Macmillan, "minister resident" in the Mediterranean and later prime minister, wanted to advance his political career by appeasing Stalin. He persuaded a British general whose 5th Army Corps occupied southern and eastern Austria to ignore a Foreign Office telegram ordering that "any person who is not (repeat not) a Soviet citizen under British law must not (repeat not) be sent back to the Soviet Union unless he expressly desires."

Enter Lord Aldington, then a politically well-connected 30-year-old brigadier called Toby Low, who was the Fifth Corps chief of staff. He was also an aspiring Tory politician, hopeful of being nominated as a candidate at the forthcoming general election in Britain. Low had no qualms about acting upon Macmillan's suggestions. On May 21, 1945 he issued an order to 5th Corps officers as to how to define Soviet citizenship: "Individual cases will NOT be considered unless particularly pressed ... In all cases of doubt, the individual will be treated as a SOVIET NATIONAL." The émigrés' fate was thus sealed. Tolstoy named Aldington in his last book as the chief executor of the policy of forced repatriation on the ground, the man who went way beyond the call of duty in carrying out Macmillan's instructions, and who did so in contravention of orders.

The charges were serious, by British standards quite scandalous in fact, but Aldington was reluctant to sue Tolstoy over the book. He did sue one Nigel Watts instead, however, an obscure property developer who distributed a pamphlet — written by Tolstoy — in which Aldington was called a war criminal. The pamphlet included the following statements:

As was anticipated by virtually everyone concerned, the overwhelming majority of these defenceless people, who reposed implicit trust in British honour, were either massacred in circumstances of unbelievable horror immediately following their handover, or condemned to a lingering death in Communist gaols and forced labour camps. These operations were achieved by a combination of duplicity and brutality without parallel in British history since the Massacre of Glencoe ... The man who issued every order and arranged every detail of the lying and brutality which resulted in these massacres was Brigadier Toby Low, Chief of Staff to General Keightley's 5 Corps, subsequently ennobled by Harold Macmillan as the 1st Baron Aldington ... The evidence is overwhelming that he arranged the perpetration of a major war crime in the full knowledge that the most barbarous and dishonourable aspects of his operations were throughout disapproved and unauthorised by the higher command, and in the full knowledge that a savage fate awaited those he was repatriating ... a major war criminal, whose activities merit comparison with those of the worst butchers of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.

As the author of the text Tolstoy felt honor-bound to include himself as Watts' co-defendant. At the trial Aldington freely acknowledged signing the repatriation orders, but claimed that there was "no way" he could have known the refugees would be killed: "We were told that international law would be obeyed."

His mission in Austria accomplished, Brigadier Low returned to England on some unknown date in May 1945 to be selected as the Conservative MP for Blackpool — the beginning of the slow rise that would see him ennobled (by Macmillan!) and ushered into the boardrooms and elite gentlemen's clubs of Britain. The exact date of his return is highly significant: Tolstoy argued that Low did not leave Austria until after the key order on indiscriminate deportations was issued, and therefore it was he who — contrary to the orders issuing from Yalta — was personally responsible for the crime.

When the trial came it should have been possible, easy even, to prove the order of events and name the man who had issued the orders. The British are efficient administrators, and the Public Record Office should have contained the answer. Some of the relevant documents Tolstoy had copied when he researched his books, but when he went back he found that the old boy network had done its work. All key documents related to the case had been sent to various government ministries — notably to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence — and duly "misplaced." When Tolstoy's researcher asked for these documents, including reports and signals relating to Aldington, she was told they were "not available." Only after the trial had started was Tolstoy given a photocopy of the most important of the files, but four-fifths of the contents were missing.

Lord Aldington had no such problem: the files were not only readily available to him, but delivered to his office by government couriers. "Dear George," he wrote to George Younger, the (then) Defence Secretary, on March 8, 1987, "you are a friend who will understand my distress ... if the files can be brought to the Westminster area in a series of bundles, that would be very helpful." "Dear George" duly obliged. Aldington's mind eventually clarified as to the date on which he had finally left Austria — he gave three dates in three interviews — but there were no records by which these could be confirmed.

Heavily influenced by the trial judge, the jury found against Tolstoy and awarded Lord Aldington astronomic damages — a million and a half pounds sterling — in November 1990. Tolstoy, who declared bankruptcy, was denied the right to appeal. Aware that Tolstoy was penniless after the libel verdict, Britain's High Court ruled that he had no right to appeal unless he came up with almost $200,000 in advance to cover Aldington's legal expenses. The court further denied Tolstoy access to a $1m defense fund that had been set up in his name, and to which Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the late Graham Greene had contributed. The British establishment, and in particular the grandees who were friends of Aldinton — the man on first-name terms with ministers in every Tory government since the war — got the desired verdict. As far as they were concerned, a crank — and a foreign crank at that — had received his well-deserved comeuppance.

L'affaire Tolstoy proved yet again that British libel laws are flawed. The machinery of the British government seemed to tilt the scales of justice, and the state apparently interfered in a private court case. The Human Rights Court at Strasbourg ruled in a unanimous judgment that the failure to permit an appeal was "unfitting for a democratic society" and "constituted a violation of the applicant's right ... to freedom of expression."

A recent reminder of the travesty of justice perpetrated under British libel laws concerned two ITN journalists who successfully sued the LM Magazine (see "News & Views," April 20). Free speech was damaged both times, and — in the absence of the First Amendment equivalent — free speech is not so strong in Britain that it can take such damage. But, as Cambridge historian Michael Stenton points out, for as long as the rich have all the legal advantages, the chance of constitutional reform is poor indeed: "When historical truth becomes intensely politicized it is possible to get trapped on the wrong side of the factual fence by sympathies and first impressions. All we can do, and must do, is promise to climb over the fence if the evidence demands it."

Lord Aldington's remarkable claim that he had had absolutely no idea what the fate of these people would be was a lie. Everyone knew, and Aldington's awareness of the draconic nature of his orders was reflected in the official name of the operation — "Keelhaul." Keelhauling was a disciplinary measure on English ships in the old days: a seaman guilty of some grave offence would have a loop of a rope attached under his arms, to be thrown into the water and dragged all the way from the stern to the bow of the ship before being hauled out again. (This had the advantage that some of the barnacles would be scraped from the ship's bottom, but few survived such treatment.)

After Tolstoy's trial his Minister and the Massacres was banned from British libraries and universities. Although the British government would like to silence Tolstoy and any reference to forced repatriation, the issue will never go away. Ever the idealist, Tolstoy hopes that sooner or later it will have to come clean and apologize for the crimes of its agents in occupied Central Europe in that awful spring of 1945. He recalls that Prime Minister Tony Blair recently issued an apology on behalf of Britain for the 19th century potato blight in Ireland, "though many historians and members of the public found it hard to envisage in what way that tragedy could be regarded as a direct responsibility of the government of the day, let alone its late 20th century successor." He also points out that the British government "pressed consistently and successfully" for German and Japanese governments to compensate British victims of their wartime atrocities.

Lord Aldington won his court case thanks to the twisted British libel laws and thanks to the Kafkaesque nature of Britain's power structure, but wherever he is now he may be wondering if it was a victory worth having. That flawed man, disdainful of the suffering of such lesser breeds as Slavs, cynically manipulative and devoid of any capacity for moral distinctions, is beyond human judgment now; but one hopes that a much higher court will take a dim view of his life and times. May his name live in infamy.

Operation Keelhaul and the Bleiburg Massacres
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