July 11, 1999 LETTERS
dirty little secret
By PETER WORTHINGTON
cleansing was called "forced repatriation"
after World War II
chilling phrase of our times - ethnic
cleansing - has different meanings to
different people, but at its most benign
it is forcing people to become refugees,
as happened in Kosovo and, before that, in
Bosnia. Britain and Nato have said it was
Yugoslav President Slobo
Milosevic's alleged plan to
"ethnically cleanse" Kosovo of its
Albanian population that ostensibly caused
the Nato/U.S. air strikes.
Nato's daily press briefings during the
78 days of air strikes, via the ubiquitous
working-class accent of Britain's Jamie
Shea, seldom failed to mention the
horrors of "ethnic cleansing."
A cynic might have noted that it was
Britain itself, after World War II, which
escalated "ethnic cleansing" into state
policy - only in those days it was called
after World War II, tens of thousands
of refugees, possibly hundreds of
thousands - prisoners of war, escapers
from communism - were forcibly sent
back to Stalin's Soviet Union and
Tito's Yugoslavia and certain
Britain instigated the policy, which
the U.S. echoed, giving it the cynical
code name Operation Keelhaul. This
shameful policy has been dubbed by
Alexander Solzhenitsyn as the "last
secret" of World War II, in violation of
every tenet of decency and justice.
British troops forced men, women,
children into boxcars headed for the
U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia, using rifle butts
One British regiment, the London Irish,
refused, saying their duty was to fight
German soldiers, not club refugee women
American soldiers were more inclined to
open the gates of refugee camps, and look
the other way as they fled.
Forced repatriation was a humanitarian
and political abomination - a war crime
every bit as much as the ethnic cleansing
by Serbs of Albanians.
No one has worked harder or done more
to expose Britain's shameful secret than
British historian Count Nikolai
For some 25 years, he's dedicated
himself first to exposing the policy for
the world to see, second to perhaps
identify those responsible.
He's succeeded admirably in the first,
failed wretchedly in the second - and
Tolstoy is the great grand-nephew of
Russia's great novelist (War and Peace)
and humanitarian, Count Leo
Tolstoy, who repeatedly put his body
on the line against injustice.
Nikolai has written three books on
forced repatriation, each more revealing
than the previous one, as more suppressed
information came to light. Britain has
embargoed files pertaining to the
In 1977 his
Victims of Yalta was published,
War in 1981, and then his most
The Minister and
the Massacres, 1986, in which
he named names, was sued, and lost a libel
case that I consider a travesty and which
has been condemned by the Human Rights
Court at Strasbourg.
Periodically, Tolstoy visits Toronto,
usually to be feted by grateful Slovens,
Serbs, Croats, Russians, Cossacks, etc.,
whose relatives and countrymen died by the
tens of thousands when the British forced
them back to Stalin and Tito and
Britain's Lord Aldington, formerly
Brig. Toby Low, successfully sued
when Tolstoy identified him as a key
figure in implementing the policy.
Aldington acknowledged signing the
repatriation orders, along with others,
but said there was no way he could have
known the refugees would be killed, and
that if he had known, they would not have
been sent back.
"We were told that international law
would be obeyed," he said at the time.
A jury found against Tolstoy and
awarded Lord Aldington nearly $3 million
in damages in
declared bankruptcy, was denied the
right to appeal. He was in Toronto this
spring and is anything but subdued. He
says he hasn't paid anything, won't
pay, can't pay, and has a book in the
works about his trial.
So far, there's been no serious attempt
to collect damages and he feels the courts
are embarrassed by the whole process.No
Forced repatriation was such an
appalling policy that even Winston
Churchill omitted any reference to it
in his Nobel Prize-winning history of
World War II.
While muted, the issue is far from
dead. The European Commission on Human
Rights in Strasbourg has supported
Tolstoy. A semi-retired American lawyer,
Charles O'Neall, living in
Switzerland, was so offended at the trial
that he offered to represent him, pro
bono, at the prestigious Strasbourg Human
Rights Court. The mystique of British
justice has been mauled.
Also named in the
The Minister and the
Massacres along with Aldington were
the late British prime minister Harold
MacMillan and the late Thomas
(later Lord) Brimelow.
Soldiers the like of Field Marshall
Alexander and Gen. Keightley
opposed the policy, but obeyed orders.
Some of the displaced people being sent
back to communism committed suicide by
sawing their throats with barbed wire.
Some mothers threw their babies from
trains into the river. Panic reigned.
After Tolstoy's trial his
Minister and the
Massacres book was banned from
British libraries and universities.
"Interestingly," Tolstoy told me, "it's
begun to re-appear on library shelves." To
him "the policy was a war crime that fits
the definition of war crimes at
A couple of Canadian officers attached
to the British army at the time did their
best to short-circuit the policy.Saving
Maj. Herb McFarland of Toronto
refused to obey the forced repatriation
orders and risked court martial, while
Maj. P.H. Barre of the Royal
Montreal Regiment worked tirelessly to
save the victims. Because Tolstoy was
broke after the libel verdict, Britain's
High Court ruled that he had no right to
appeal unless he came up with about
$250,000 in advance to cover Aldington's
legal expenses. The court denied Tolstoy
access to a defence fund set up in his
name. Although the British government
would like to silence Tolstoy and any
reference to forced repatriation, the
Internet has proved an invaluable outlet.
Anyone interested can go to Yahoo
on the Internet and search "Tolstoy,
Nikolai" and see an account of events that
is chilling to those who think British
justice is pure and fair.
After the trial, the BBC ran an
excellent TV documentary on forced
repatriation, which explored why and how
Britain could be involved in such a policy
- especially when Churchill expressly
forbade sending unwilling people back to
There's even evidence that British
officers attached to Tito
participated in the execution of these
Serb, Croat and Sloven victims.
collapse of the Soviet Union, President
Boris Yeltsin has ordered that
Tolstoy be given access to Russian
files. Tolstoy says he's amassed
hitherto unknown details that will
appear in his next book.
I've periodically written about forced
repatriation ever since being based in
Moscow over 30 years ago when I heard
tales of the policy which, frankly, I
Before Tolstoy's experience, I wouldn't
have believed an appeal would be denied
anyone in Britain, or that a British trial
could be as bizarre as Tolstoy's was.
Some people thrive in adversity - that
is, their character sustains them in
crises or when times are tough. Nikolai
and Georgina Tolstoy and their three grown
daughters and son could be called
adversity's children. And they stand
Others stand with them. The school of
one daughter suspended fees, and others
came forward to help financially. Just as
Tolstoy has stood up for the victims of
Stalin and Tito when no one else did, so
survivors and their kin now stand up for
Tolstoy urges British apology for forcing
thousands back to death in Soviet Union