How the most English of poems inspired a Scot to champion European Human Rights

After 10 months of forensic examination of Nazi atrocities, as David Maxwell Fyfe in his speech strove to conjure what might be built on the foundations of the Nazi Armageddon, he was inspired by the Rupert Brooke sonnet, The Soldier – a poem of sacrifice and reverie.

These are extracts from an article of the same name by Tom Blackmore, first published in the UK Human Rights Blog for the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2010, to provide food for thought to those who believe human rights were an invention of continental Europe.

In 1914 Rupert Brooke wrote :

If I should die, think only this of me:
   That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
   In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
   Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
   A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
      Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
   And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
      In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

This is what British Prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe quoted in his closing at Nuremberg.

By August 1946 he had spent the past 10 months in Nuremberg. He had led the British prosecution, had triumphed in his cross-examination of Goering and Ribbentrop, but had not had the opportunity to speak, as the opening and closing speeches for the UK had been given by Hartley Shawcross.

Many of the leading players had already left the scene, because the prosecution had moved on from the individual defendants and were seeking to prove the guilt of the Nazi organisations, the SS. This tricky prosecution would have a great impact on the trials of the members of those organisations in the years ahead.

After 10 months of forensic examination of Nazi atrocities, as Maxwell Fyfe in his speech strove to conjure what might be built on the foundations of the Nazi Armageddon, he was inspired by the Rupert Brooke sonnet, The Soldier. This was a poem of sacrifice and reverie.

The sacrifice was real, as the multiple massacres between 1914 and 1945 held testimony.

Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnets were published when Maxwell Fyfe was 14

The reverie of ‘an English heaven’ though imagined was equally vivid. A place of peace, gentleness and laughter, touching a communal memory of an England of legend. There was never such an England, but the idea that England should stand for such qualities was immensely powerful.

Maxwell Fyfe was a Scot. Recently discussing this reflection of England with another Scottish lawyer, a present judge at the Supreme Court, he assured me that he shared some of Maxwell Fyfe’s passion for Englishness. It is the passion of a foreigner, for in this respect the Scots are foreign – passionate, idealistic, reforming.

Only the outsider can embrace the myth. The English themselves cannot see it – it is part of their reserved  Englishness that for them the faults cloud the dream. Brooke himself was exceptional in being able to cast himself as an outsider in order to evoke and proclaim the English dream. Perhaps he had a foreboding of the 30 years to come, and the solace that would be needed.

At the other end of the 30 years of upheaval, in his Nuremberg speech, Maxwell Fyfe wanted to offer the world a vision of what could be, and so he stated that the heaven was’ not the prerogative of any one country.’ It was, he said ‘the inalienable heritage of mankind.’ It was a heaven for all. Brooke, in his sonnet Peace, from the same sonnet cycle was concerned that the whole of ‘mankind should come into its’ heritage.’

Maxwell Fyfe’s ambition was not, I think, simply a statement of British greatness, though he had a healthy conceit of British capabilities and leadership – for he was in many respects a post –imperial politician, unlike many of his colleagues. He yearned for the dream.

On his return to London, Winston Churchill asked Maxwell Fyfe to join the European Movement. From a first meeting at The Hague, where he joined the cultural committee that was discussing Human Rights, he moved on to act as rapporteur to the judicial committee established by the Movement, in which role he prepared a draft Convention on Human Rights. In this he worked closely with international lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht, who had also been at Nuremberg, as Shawcross’ adviser in writing his speeches.

Back home Maxwell Fyfe’s activity was not favourably received. The idea of law outside national boundaries was one that many found hard to embrace. However, Labour Foreign Secretary Bevan pointed out to his colleagues that there was nothing in the Convention that they did not believe, and it was Hartley Shawcross who saw the Convention through cabinet, and assured government support.

Clearly the European Convention was hatched in the shadows of the Universal Declaration, and it is a regional manifestation of a global movement. However, it was a legally enforceable treaty that created an international court to police the maintenance of basic human rights. For, as Nuremberg proved and recorded these rights were fragile and vulnerable.

For Maxwell Fyfe, the Convention was a small practical step towards the realisation of the ideals he espoused in his speech in Nuremberg. As he put it :

I do not want to be a boring ‘proud father’, but I think that I am entitled to be glad that I have done something positive as well as negative in regard to tyranny, which so many of my generation in the twentieth century have accepted without a murmur.

A Political Adventure, 1964

You can read the original blog in full here : How the most English of poems inspired a Scot to champion European Human Rights – UK Human Rights Blog

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David Maxwell Fyfe’s cross examination of Hermann Goering

“Then rose to cross examine Hermann Goering the British Prosecutor, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe…Fyfe’s skills in cross examination alone saved the reputation of the court”

This week sees the 75th anniversary of David Maxwell Fyfe’s cross examination of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy and head of the air force in Nazi Germany, at the Nuremberg Trials. Chatham House has called it “one of the most noted interrogations in history.” To mark it, we publish an excerpt from the transcript of the Trials.

“Then rose to cross examine Hermann Goering the British Prosecutor, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, his dark hair receding, his heavy face stern, his massive body impressive, his voice steady and controlled.  Ruthless as an entomologist he pinned the squirming wriggling German decisively to every point he strove to evade reducing his sudden spasms of legal quibbling, his spots of rhetoric to the hollow shams they were.  Fyfe’s skills in cross examination alone saved the reputation of the court”

Guy Ramsay, The Daily Mail 1946

FYFE (at the stand)   I want to ask you first some questions about the matter of the British Air Force officers who escaped from Stalag Luft III.  Do you remember that you said in giving your evidence that you knew this incident very completely and very minutely?  Do you remember saying that?

GOERING      No – that I had received accurate knowledge;  not that I had accurate knowledge – but that I received it.

FYFE           Let me quote your own words, as they were taken down, “I know this incident very completely, very minutely, but it came to my attention, unfortunately, at a later period of time.”  That is what you said the other day, is that right?

GOERING      Yes, that is what I meant;   that I know about the incident exactly, but only heard of it 2 days later.

FYFE           You told the Tribunal that you were on leave at this time, in the last period of March 1944, is that right?

GOERING       Yes, as far as I remember I was on leave in March until a few days before Easter.

FYFE           And you said, “As I can prove.”  I want you to tell the Tribunal the dates of your leave.

GOERING       I say again, that this refers to the whole of March – I remember it well – and for proof I would like to mention the people who were with me on this leave.

FYFE         What I want to know is, where you were on leave.

GOERING       Here, in the vicinity of Nuremberg.

FYFE           So you were within easy reach of the telephone from the Air Ministry or, indeed, from Breslau, if you were wanted?

GOERING       I would have been easily accessible by phone if someone wanted to communicate with me.

FYFE           I want you to help me with regard to one or two other dates of which you have spoken.  You say: “I heard 1 or 2 days later about this escape.”  Do you, understand, Witness, that it is about the escape I am asking you, not about the shooting, for the moment;  I want to make it quite clear.

GOERING      It is clear to me.

FYFE           Did you mean by that, that you heard about the actual escape 1 or 2 days after it happened?

GOERING       Yes.

FYFE           Did you hear about it from the office of your adjutant or from your director of operations?

GOERING       I always heard these things through my adjutant.

FYFE    You said the other day that you could prove when you were on leave. Am I to take it that you haven’t taken the trouble to look up what your leave dates were?

GOERING       I have already said that I was on leave during March. Whether I returned on the 26th or the 28th or the 29th of March I cannot tell you. For proof of that you would have to ask the people who accompanied me, who perhaps can fix this date more definitely.  I know only that I was there in March.

FYFE           Witness, will it be perfectly fair to you if I take the latest of your dates, the 29th of March, to work on?

GOERING       It would be more expedient if you would tell me when Easter was that year, because I do not recall it.  Then it will be easier for me to specify the dates, because I know that a few days before Easter I returned to Berchtesgaden in order to pass these holidays with my family.

FYFE           Well, I can’t give you Easter offhand, but I happen to remember Whitsuntide was the 28th of May, so that Easter would be early, somewhere about the 5th of April. So that your leave would finish somewhere about the end of March, maybe the 26th or the 29th;  that is right, isn’t it?

Now, these shootings of these officers went on from the 25th of March to the 13th of April; do you know that?

GOERING      I do not know that exactly.

FYFE           You may take that from me, because there is an official report of the shooting, and I want to be quite fair with you. Only 49 of these officers were shot on the 6th of April, as far as we can be sure, and one was shot either on the 13th of April or later.  But the critical period is the end of March, and we may take it that you were back from leave by about the 29th of March.

I just want you to tell the Tribunal, this was a matter of great importance, wasn’t it?  Considered a matter of great importance?

GOERING      It was a very important matter.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, the USHMM has made full sound recordings of the trials available online for the first time. You can hear the cross examination, newly mastered here.

Reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day

The record of Nazi brutality was transported to Nuremberg, where, from November 1945, the trial of the leading Nazis was being conducted. By then the document room at Nuremberg contained ‘over 5,000 collections, any of which might run into hundreds of papers.’

Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated on the day Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated. In this post, English Cabaret reflect on how film and documentary evidence was assembled and transported to Nuremberg for the War Crimes Trials which were held 75 years ago this year.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp was liberated by the Russian Army on 27th January 1945. The forces filmed all they found at the location – the condition, the remnants, and the survivors. 

First frame of film evidence

As the allies made their way across Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, they added to this evidence of brutality piles of incriminating documents left intact by swiftly departing defeated Nazis, discovered, as David Maxwell Fyfe recalls in his autobiography, ‘sometimes in a castle, sometimes down a salt mine.’  

In addition, they made reports on their findings, and took photographs. Altogether they comprised what Fyfe later called ‘an unscalable barrier of truth’ with which to confront those guilty of the crimes. 

This record of brutality was transported to Nuremberg, where, from November 1945, the trial of the leading Nazis was being conducted. By then the document room at Nuremberg contained ‘over 5,000 collections, any of which might run into hundreds of papers.’ 

From the footage they had shot at Auschwitz, the Russians cut a 19 minute film which was shown to the Nuremberg prosecutors for the first time, almost a year after the liberation.  

On seeing it, David Maxwell Fyfe, a principal British prosecutor wrote a letter home to his wife Sylvia  :   

‘I went to a pre-view of the Russian film in Auschwitz concentration camp. When one sees children of Mo’s age and younger in this horrible place and the clothes of infants who were killed, it is worth a year of our lives to help to register for ever and with practical result the reasoned horror of humanity.’    

David Maxwell Fyfe in a letter home

Mo was their daughter Miranda who was then 7 years old.

On 27th February 1946 this film was introduced into the courtroom by the Soviet prosecutor, Colonel Smirnov: 

‘Now we cannot yet name, or even number, many of the burial places where millions of innocent people were vilely murdered.  But on the damp walls of the gas chambers, in the places of the shootings, in the forts of death, on the stones and casemates of the prisons, we can still read brief messages of the doomed, full of agony, calling for retribution.  Let the living ones remember these voices of the victims of German fascist terror, who before dying appealed to the conscience of the world for justice and for retribution.  

As a last proof I submit to the Tribunal the script and the sworn affidavit of the persons who assembled and made this documentary film.  I beg the Tribunal to accept as evidence this documentary film.’  

Colonel L N Smirnov, Russian prosecutor Nuremberg Trials

January 27th was selected as the date for national and international commemoration of the Holocaust, so that we may never forget.

Forgotten : Post war hopes for a united liberal and free Europe

Yet I am haunted by some words from a song to which we used to listen in more carefree days :

“On fait des serments, et simplement, On les oublie.”

Having propounded high ideals in a defeated Germany, I feel the responsibility of doing my part to see that they are not forgotten by the victors.

On 23rd December 1947 David Maxwell Fyfe gave a speech in Brussels to the Union Belge Britannique of his hopes for how Europe might be shaped following World War II. Excerpts from that speech follow below.

Last year on the same day we launched The Human’s in the Telling commemoration project with a presentation – Forgotten – at Bar Topolski, once the studio of Nuremberg artist Feliks Topolski. If Fyfe was haunted that the lessons of war, and the reason so many had fought were forgotten in 1947, how much more are they now hidden out of sight in the collective unconscious.

You have been good enough to ask me to speak on a subject (Reflections of The Nuremberg Trials) which, whatever its greater significance, will always remain the most interesting and fascinating experience of my own life. It adds to that interest that today I am speaking 18 months after its’ conclusion, two and a half years after I, then attorney-general, took the first steps to set it in  motion, and therefore at a time when I hope one may have gained some objectivity and ability to set it in perspective. It is interesting in this aspect to look back to the first public defence of the trial for which I was responsible, and which appeared in a magazine in Paris nearly 2 years ago…

I think that I should get general acceptance for the 4 main reasons for preferring a trial to executive action.

1. It dispelled through proof out of the mouths of the Nazis  themselves the idea that the terrible actions attributed to them were mere propaganda myths.

2. … it confronted the apologist of the future with an impenetrable barrier of truth…

Transcript of David Maxwell Fyfe’s speech

3. Executive action would just have been a cover for the decision being made by ‘someone’ (that) the Nazis should be punished and put to death. In other words it would have meant that what must essentially depend on the consideration and weighing of evidence would have been done behind closed doors and without the criticism and support of public opinion….

4. It would have been an odd beginning for a world in which everyone hoped that internal and  international justice would play a greater part to have abandoned an attempt at justice on the first great question. I firmly believe that the differentiation in treatment of the various Nazis has convinced a great body of thinking Germans  that when we said we sought justice we also meant to abide by her decision…

The case for the prosecution depended in the main on captured German documents which were absolutely undisputed. The case against the defendants was made out of their own mouths… The German archives showed when, how and why each act which the prosecution said was criminal was carried out. No-one attacked the authenticity of those documents. It was impossible to create a false melodrama when a case was proved out of the admitted directives, communications and diaries. A countryman of mine once wrote :

‘Let me write the songs of a people and I care not who makes their laws.’

Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun 1655 – 1716

Except for a few of the less meritorious efforts of Baldur von Schirach few songs of the Nazis came my way. We could say, ‘let me see your secret files and I care not if your public speeches are pulped.’…

Today the clearance in Germany has almost been completed but we are still asking what must take its’ place. In the world of the atomic bomb mankind is still at the cross-roads which leads either to insanity or destruction. In one sense the Nuremberg Trial did express a triumph of the human spirit – to the extent that it stated  what humanity could not tolerate and, more gropingly, the things for which humanity stands.

Yet I am haunted by some words from a song to which we used to listen in more carefree days :

On fait des serments, Et simplement, On les oublie.”

Ne Dis Pas Toujours by Jean Lenoir

(We make promises and simply forget them.)

Having propounded high ideals in a defeated Germany, I feel the responsibility of doing my part to see that they are not forgotten by the victors. We must maintain that lying and cruelty are always wrong – utterly and everywhere. Whatever our uncertainties, that remains.

It is not fantastic to believe … that 1948, the anniversary of the European year of revolution, may prove another turning point in history, when a whole continent is given the opportunity of resolving its conflicts and moving forward to new opportunities of prosperity and freedom… We in Europe must demonstrate … our determination to rebuild a liberal, free and self-supporting economy in Europe. We have all our part to play in producing a world-wide standard of good order and good faith in commercial as well as political dealings…

Can there be any other solution than greater union between the nations who are ready to be good Europeans and to ensure that the stream of European civillisation does not end in a Germany which is left a permanent morass? We raise no barrier, and I stress that our only prerequisite is the acceptance of principles for whose absence we prosecuted the Nazis.

My final word is that I believe that the Nuremberg trial showed how many nations faced with a concrete problem could achieve success. In 1948 I believe that we shall be faced with another. I pray that its successful solution will be the recovery of the Europe to which the world owes so much.

Find out more about the event http://thehumansinthetelling.org/forgotten/

See reproductions of Fyfe’s script in December. Download your copy at http://thehumansinthetelling.org/book/

Hear Ne dis pas from Sue Casson’s song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom http://thehumansinthetelling.org/introduction/

Justice Robert Jackson’s Opening Statement

That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.

The International Military Tribunal (IMT) which is now known more widely as the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, opened on the 20th November 1945, just over 6 months after VE day. Here are excerpts from the opening speech of Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the American delegation. As he emphasises to the Court, the uniqueness of the Trials lie not only in holding war criminals to account for the first time, but in bringing together the Allies to arrange evidence and create a case in such a short space of time. 

The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world  imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate  their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. 

That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of  vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason. 

This Tribunal, while it is novel and experimental, is not the product of abstract speculations nor is it created to vindicate legalistic theories. This inquest represents the practical effort of four of the most mighty of nations, with the support of seventeen more, to utilize international law to meet the greatest menace of our times – aggressive war. It is a cause of that magnitude that the United Nations will lay before Your Honors. 

In the prisoner’s dock sit twenty-odd broken men… It is hard now to perceive these men as captives, the power by which as Nazi leaders they once dominated much of the world and terrified most of it… 

What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life… 

What these men stand for we will patiently and temperately disclose. We will give you undeniable proofs of incredible events. The catalog of crimes will omit nothing that could be conceived by a pathological pride, cruelty and lust for power. These men created in Germany… a National Socialist despotism… They took from the German people all those dignities and freedoms that we hold natural and inalienable rights in every human being. Against their opponents, including Jews, Catholics, free labor, the Nazis directed such a campaign of arrogance, brutality and annihilation as the world has not witnessed since the pre-Christian ages… the struggles has left Europe a liberated yet prostrate land where a demoralized society struggles to survive. These are the fruits of the sinister forces that sit with these defendants in the prisoner’s dock. 

In justice to the nations and the men associated in this prosecution, I must remind you of certain difficulties which may leave their mark on this case. Never before in legal history has an effort been made to bring within the scope of a single litigation the developments of a decade, covering a whole continent, and involving a score of nations, countless individuals and innumerable events. Despite the magnitude of the task, the world has demanded immediate action. This demand has had to be met, though perhaps at the cost of finished craftsmanship. 

To my country, established courts, following familiar procedures, applying well-thumbed precedents, and dealing with the legal consequences of local and limited events, seldom commence a trial within a year of the event in litigation. Yet less than 8 months ago today the courtroom in which you sit was an enemy fortress in the hands of German SS troops. Less than 8 months ago nearly all our witnesses and documents were in enemy hands. I should be the last to deny that the case may well suffer from incomplete researches and quite likely will not be the example of professional work which any of the prosecuting nations would normally wish to sponsor. It is, however, a completely adequate case to the judgement we shall ask you to render, and its full development we shall be obliged to leave to historians. 

Full transcript of the opening statement is published online as part of the record of the proceedings before the IMT, through the Avalon Project at Yale Law School – https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/11-21-45.asp 

An intimate tale of an epic event

There is something inexplicably mysterious about a story lost
that is subsequently found. The time capsule, the buried treasure,
the search for lost truth – all are the stuff of epic humanity.

The Human’s in the Telling has grown out of detailed research into the private papers of David Maxwell Fyfe over the last twenty years. Here his grandson Tom Blackmore remembers the moment the cache first came to light.

There is something inexplicably mysterious about a story lost that is subsequently found. The time capsule, the buried treasure, the search for lost truth – all are the stuff of epic humanity.

The rediscovery of the Maxwell Fyfe letters hardly falls into the same category – albeit that they were indeed stored in the vaults of the City solicitors Allen and Overy. The contact was mundane, a brief letter describing boxes of material left by David Maxwell Fyfe. A surprisingly large number of boxes as I discovered as I stacked them into the London cab.

Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe
The Viscountess Kilmuir, D.B.E
by Anna Zinkeisen 1901 – 1976

As a family we had known of these letters for some time. Without my having any real knowledge of the subject, the failure to find them had registered as a disappointment when my grandmother died in 1992. The assumption was that she might have thrown them away. For a woman who had spent her life close to public office, she seemed to have little desire to record for posterity. Or perhaps this was because she had spent her life close to public office.

Dying as she did when I was in my early thirties I had known her well, loved and admired her deeply. When I was nine years old she had collected me after my first sports day at preparatory boarding school, and had raced another family down the M1, and had won.

David Patrick Maxwell Fyfe
Earl of Kilmuir
Painted in his Lord Chancellor robes
by Harold Knight
1874 – 1961

This race was run only a couple of years after Maxwell Fyfe had died, so I hardly knew him at all, and have no coherent memories. Throughout my life I only knew that he had achieved greatly, and that, as his oldest grandson, I inherited not just the paraphernalia of his office, but also an unspoken and little understood responsibility to follow. He seemed stern, and gazed sternly down from his portrait by Harold Knight, bedecked in his Lord Chancellors robes, garters and all.

The traffic was grim as the taxi edged its way across London from the City; it took a couple of hours to make the journey. There was time enough to open boxes and glance at their contents. And I shook.

The letters were there, and within them was a story of a time, a place and two lovers separated for a year, discovering a purpose, fame and a moment of definition. I knew little enough about Nuremberg (the Oxford history degree of 1982 saw the post war period as current affairs), but the names of Goering, Ribbentrop and Doenitz were familiar, and here they were discussed in familiar terms.

It seemed to me at once that here was the discovery of something extraordinary, a little mysterious and if not an epic tale then an intimate tale of an epic event.

Actually, there were two things I did know about Nuremberg, over and above the fact that it was a trial held of the major war criminals after the Second World War. First, I knew that Maxwell Fyfe had conducted a successful cross-examination of Goering, and the second was that Albert Speer used to give my grandmother the eye when she visited the tribunal.

Envelope addressed to David Maxwell Fyfe

Maxwell Fyfe had started the task of sorting the letters out and had had the first two letters (those he later used in his autobiography) typed up on House of Lords headed paper. However, the sorting was only half done, and only his letters had been touched. Sylvia’s exchanges of letters were thrown into boxes in their envelopes. A brief glance at the letters revealed obstacles of handwriting, a lack of dating (many of the letters are identified only by the day
of the week), and the uncertainty of postal delivery. This last problem meant that replies to points raised in letters could not be dealt with until some weeks later. Other problems to the chronology were caused by Maxwell Fyfe’s three visits home and Sylvia’s two visits to Nuremberg, as well as their occasional telephone calls that became more regular as time went on. The whole story is not in the letters and this can be frustrating. However, their year is described in some detail.

Before embarking at all on the sorting of the letters I read Ann and John Tusas’ excellent general history – The Nuremberg Trial. This provided a sufficient description of events to create a framework in which to try and place them. As time went on, I read transcripts of the tribunal as well as other histories. Early on Maxwell Fyfe was quite meticulous in his descriptions, as though aware of the gravity of his mission. However, the pressures of daily obligations and
events prevented his letters from being a perfect record, and as the trial extended from its originally anticipated three months to ten, his exasperation flows into the letters, which become all the richer for their spontaneity.

Letters at Churchill Archives

During the ten months Maxwell Fyfe was separated from his family and alone, while Sylvia continued to manage the house and much more. He sometimes had
time to write at length, although this time diminished when he was busy. The key period of the crossexaminations of Goering and Ribbentrop is only lightly
covered, whilst Sylvia was present for his crossexamination of von Papen.

After sorting and typing the letters of Maxwell Fyfe, I turned to Sylvia’s exchange. These letters are more spontaneous, reflective and compelling. Not only did Sylvia run the house (with a lodger, Melford Stevenson, a barrister and judge advocate general for the armed forces) but the constituency in Liverpool, acting for the MP, and remaining in touch with Conservative Party leaders like Rab Butler. Later she was to become the first woman vice-chair of the Conservative Party, and clearly much of that groundwork was laid over this year.

The jigsaw of the letters began to form a picture of a year of loneliness and yearning on both sides, matched by drive and determination to do something important. But above all they painted a picture of two people very much in love well into their forties, and for their grandson that was marvellous. In the boxes, alongside the letters were other records of Nuremberg: Maxwell Fyfe’s speech concluding for the prosecution in the case against the Nazi organisations, other speeches and notes for speeches given about the tribunal on his return, articles covering the progress of the trial, and a Christmas supplement to the Liverpool
Evening Post, which included chapters of a children’s story he had written for his daughter Miranda.

This story, The Wishing Doll, figured quite prominently in the letters, as it was being written, read and giving delight. Also, it caught the attention of the press quite early on, and its existence was widely reported. Taken all together, an archive of strange merit had been bequeathed to our family.

WATCH, READ, LISTEN to the story at www.thehumansinthetelling.org

The personal papers of David Maxwell Fyfe are now permanently held at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. Find out more at https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/

2 anniversaries, 2 stories

It is extraordinary the way the great events of our world today have bounced back through time to shake up the story we are telling.

November 2020 marked TWO historic anniversaries in which David Maxwell Fyfe, a twentieth century British politician and lawyer played a significant role. To commemorate, a new generation of his family set out to share his story, only to find that it wasn’t an easy tale to tell. Here they take up the tale.

We were delighted when the then head of the Oxford History Faculty, Martin Conway wrote in 2017:

‘The more serious business of History too dances to the rhythms of anniversaries’

And we became determined to make our story dance.

For November 2020 marks the rhythm of TWO significant interwoven anniversaries linked by shared endeavour but separated by a period of 5 years. November 4th is the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Human Rights forged in Strasbourg and signed in Rome. November 20th is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, better known as the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

These two anniversaries sit either side of the Armistice, and both events form important landmarks as the world recovered after the Second World War. They share the expression of a deep desire to make things right.

David Maxwell Fyfe

Some characters took part in both events. One was David Maxwell Fyfe, and it is through his eyes that we see these anniversaries.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom : The Human’s in the Telling is the product of two decades of exploration of the papers of David Maxwell Fyfe. Fifteen years ago we staged Making History, a play based on the letters he had exchanged with his wife Sylvia from Nuremberg. Ten years ago we launched Kilmuir Papers with Under an English Heaven, a first pass at telling the story of Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

Every step taken to relate our tale over this time has proved far more difficult than you might expect: everything from the prevailing political climate, Maxwell Fyfe’s comparative obscurity, enthusiasm for Europe, and later social conservatism hampered progress and any chance of getting support. The argument about Brexit in the House of Commons was heating up as we began working on plans for our joyful dance of commemoration, and we are telling the story of a Conservative who wholeheartedly supported the European Project.

In fact we have been led on a merry dance. For as well as the canvas of Brexit, this story has now unexpectedly been told against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic. Like so many others, we have been denied the opportunity to fulfil our planned tour of performances, the centrepiece to our dance.

Perhaps more importantly, we are now living in a world where the rights and freedoms that had been enshrined in law post war, that David Maxwell Fyfe had championed and many of us have taken for granted, were summarily suspended at a stroke. The right to freedom of assembly, the right to a free trial, the right to worship, the right to marry, many would say the right to freedom of expression. All were removed so that we could protect ourselves from the virus.

Suddenly there were now two stories to match the two anniversaries.

It is extraordinary the way the great events of our world today have bounced back through time to shake up the story we are telling. We don’t know how our story will play out, but we are sure that Maxwell Fyfe’s story should be widely shared and remembered as we deal with the present missteps and misdemeanours and move forward into a post-Covid world.

Discover our commemoration for #ECHR70 and #NurembergTrials75 at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

Why Nuremberg?

On October 24th, I flew to Nuremberg. I did not think it would be nearly a year before I finally returned.

In the latest excerpt from his autobiography, A Political Adventure, David Maxwell Fyfe describes the immediate events leading up to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, which opened in November 75 years ago this year, and looks at the reasons why Nuremberg, rather than Berlin or Munich was the chosen city for the trials. 


The indictment was signed in Berlin on October 6th 1945 – that is 2 months after the Charter (setting out the composition, jurisdiction powers, and procedure of the Tribunal). Considering the immense scale and length of period of the crimes charged, and the difficulties of language and nationality, it was a considerable achievement. 

Volume I Record of the Nuremberg Trials

The defendants  were to be served with a copy of the indictment in their own language, and entitled to conduct their own defence or have the assistance of counsel, to cross-examine witnesses and give or call evidence in their own defence.  

The judgement of the Tribunal as to the guilt or innocence of any defendants was to be final. The Tribunal was empowered to impose sentences of death or such punishment as it deemed on persons convicted… 


The final matter was where the seat of the Tribunal should be and where the trials should be held. I think that the Russians first wanted both seat and trial in Berlin… The rest of us did not want to be shut up in Berlin, where the destruction had been such as to make court accommodation doubtful and prison and billeting arrangements almost impossible. We also wanted one trial of the major defendants.  

I had made a tentative suggestion of Munich, but (Robert) Jackson, after a preliminary tour and advice from General Lucius Clay, was strongly of the opinion that Nuremberg was the most suitable place. He very fairly invited us all to come out in his plane on July 21st … 

Nuremberg 1945

Although I had been through most of the bombing in London, it was only on that flight and when we arrived in Nuremberg that I realized what Germany had received in return… On each side of the main roads there were banks of rubble containing – so General Clay informed me – so many corpses that he feared for his water supply. The old walled town was a heap of ruins. Machine-gun cartridges littered the streets where a couple of SS divisions had made a stand. There were even some in the precincts of the courthouse and the adjacent prison. People peeped at us from bunkers under partly shattered houses, apathetic and wretched. The only sign of civilization was a succession of shabby, noisy, and crowded trams, which were still running. 

Preparing the Courtroom

For our purpose, however, the Palace of Justice, with numerous rooms in addition to the Court itself, and the adjacent prison, was obviously suitable. It meant that the prisoners and such witnesses as were in Allied custody could be brought to the court each day under cover, and it made the guarding and security arrangements much easier… On practical grounds, as well as from the ideological standpoint of being the place where the Nazis had held their Party Rallies, Nuremberg seemed a good choice…  

The Palace of Justice had received some bomb damage and required fairly extensive repairs. A more difficult problem was, however, the Court itself. There was a dark, solemn, and old-fashioned court room which had been big enough for local cases but was quite insufficient for this trial… The Americans found a radical solution to the problem. One wall was ripped out of the court room, and galleries (for the Press and public) were placed in the adjoining room… 


Interpretation presented an acute problem…  at Nuremberg… every question and answer – as every document – had to be rendered in German, English, French, and Russian. To counter this the system of simultaneous translation was inaugurated. IBM provided the equipment, which they installed without charge. 

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trials

Simultaneous translation is now so familiar and widely used that no description of it is necessary…  but in 1945 it was a wonder. Such was the speed of translation during a cross-examination that I have stopped Goering getting away with answering a question I had not asked before he had got out a dozen words. Without this system it is difficult to see how the trial could have been held. It had the disadvantage of inducing a certain slowness of diction in us all, and putting a premium on speeches prepared in advance… At Nuremberg this was not a heavy price to pay for what was called a justice in four voices.  

On October 24th, I flew to Nuremberg. I did not think it would be nearly a year before I finally returned.

Extract from A Political Adventure, Chapter 8, Prologue to Nuremberg, by David Maxwell Fyfe

Published 1964 Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Read more excerpts from A Political Adventure here.

Who is so safe as we?

In the light of the fact that many people now believe that the terror of world war is confined to history and could never happen again, there is an unacknowledged fragility to the peaceful bucolic picture Brooke paints.

In the last of her blogs describing how Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed, Sue Casson looks at the inspiration behind her setting of Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet II – Safety which was specially written for Human Rights Day 2013, and asks – ‘are we as safe as we think?’

When the Kilmuir Papers website was launched in the Conference Centre at St Matthew’s Church Westminster in 2013, the afternoon was given over to a series of talks and showings of the films that made up Under an English Heaven. With the beautiful Oxford movement church just next door it was decided that a fitting end to the afternoon, like a secular evensong, would be a short performance of the pieces that formed a soundtrack to the films, interspersed with readings from David Maxwell Fyfe. As the songs had originally been inspired by the sound of the Southwark Girls Choir, I was thrilled that its Director, Stephen Disley, ‘lent’ me a group of his singers, led by Lily, for this performance.

The Freedom Choir at St Matthews Church, Westminster

The event was held on International Human Rights Day, so I added a setting especially written to celebrate. It was to follow Maxwell Fyfe’s words describing how the concept of human rights had evolved and taken shape during the Nuremberg Trials.

I looked to Rupert Brooke, with whom I already knew he had an affinity, for inspiration, and his War Sonnet II – Safety seemed a good place to start, as Fyfe describes The European Convention on Human Rights, as

‘a simple, and safe, insurance policy’

For me these words of Brooke’s –

‘We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying…’

Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet II, Peace

evoked a musical setting akin to a hymn of thanks. They summoned a carefree natural world, where peace reigned, birds sang.

In Maxwell Fyfe’s story, after six years of wartime fear and uncertainty, they served as a paean of praise and relief that those years were over, and perhaps begged the question – how can such ‘blest’ peace be preserved?

I set the first four lines of his sonnet aside, (including the opening My Dear! which I wasn’t sure what to do with) and plunged straight in. ‘We have found safety’ – we’ve enjoyed it ever since the Second World War ended, and we don’t even stop to appreciate our luck. In Brooke’s sonnet his soldiers are dead – released from worldly cares. We’re living the dream. Brooke continues –

We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing.’

Sadly, in my reading this was much less certain. This ‘house of safety’, embodied by the ECHR, may very well be built on sand. Intended by Maxwell Fyfe and his team after the war to prevent, in so far as they could, such suffering every happening again, since the Conservatives had returned to
power in 2010, the Human Rights Act, incorporating the ECHR into British law, had been under threat of repeal. Ironic really, given that Maxwell Fyfe was a Conservative politician, and the ECHR was drafted and signed under a
Conservative government.

‘War knows no power.’

Rupert Brooke writes in the second half of the sonnet – a line that I had borrowed for There are Waters. In the light of the fact that many people now believe that the terror of world war is confined to history and could never happen again, there is an unacknowledged fragility to the peaceful bucolic picture Brooke paints.

‘Who is so safe as we?’

he asks, voicing the complacency of the dead. But what of the living? There is an unresolved tension at the heart of this celebration of a life that, as a generation so far from war, we have come to take for granted. As the verse closes, I literally introduce a questioning note, an unresolved cadence. To finish, it is resolved to perfection. Everything’s fine now. But I hope it leaves an underlying unease. Are we as safe as we think?

You can hear ‘Part IX – Safety’ from the new recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom here – http://thehumansinthetelling.org/part-ix/4594760796

Strasbourg : Past and Present

Having seen the beautiful old city centre with ancient beamed buildings and a vast cathedral, it was a shock to travel by tram out to the much newer European Quarter where these important institutions are housed.

The European Convention on Human Rights was signed in Rome 70 years ago this year. However, Strasbourg is where the Convention was drafted and houses many of the buildings essential to its function alongside European parliamentary institutions. Lily visited the capital of Europe in 2013 and here she describes her impressions alongside the photos she took...

We first visited Strasbourg in 2013 when there was barely a murmur about the UK removing itself from the European Union. Having grown up with Maxwell Fyfe’s story, it has been difficult for me to understand why people want to take us out of a union that has given us 70 years of peace, prosperity and freedom for all its members. The capital of Europe, Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg

Having seen the beautiful old city centre with ancient beamed buildings and a vast cathedral, it was a shock to travel by tram out to the much newer European Quarter where these important institutions are housed. Each of the buildings, though geographically close to one another, have a different character, as reflects their individual role within the European Union, and are a celebration of its rich modern architectural heritage.

Wandering amongst these imposing edifices of metal and glass in the brisk November air, symbols of openness and inclusiveness across borders, it made me wonder why they come across as impenetrable to a curious visitor anticipating a warm welcome. It seemed to me there was a lost opportunity for understanding the part these institutions play in the stability of our post-war peace.

Palais de l’Europe, Strasbourg, home of the Council of Europe

When the first Europeans came together in 1949, there was a sense of shared purpose in the need to stop the horrors that happened during WWII repeating themselves. When the ties that bind us are being stretched to breaking point, it is important that we, as the next generation, remember and understand the meaning behind these buildings that house so much of what we value – if we could only see it.