‘It was for this that we fought.’Bob Cooper, The Times
This was the observation of Bob Cooper, a correspondent for The Times, about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials which he attended for the vast majority of the year long sitting. And it was a much-loved quotation of David Maxwell Fyfe, one of the leading British prosecutors at the trials.
Every year in November we properly and respectfully we remember those who fought and died in the two world wars and in wars since. Those who fought and those who gave their lives must be remembered.
November 2020 provides a unique opportunity to explore why they fought, as Armistice shares November with two other significant anniversaries, that of the opening of the War Crimes Trials in 1945 and five years later the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Second World War was fought in defence of a series of vital ideas; it was fought for the protection of what it was to be human – in the face of a regime that was rapidly degrading humanity in its’ relentless pursuit of power. Those who fought did not want to share, or their loved ones to share that plight. They were fighting for the maintenance of order, to protect peace and security, for freedom under the law, and for justice.
I was once told that a bank thronging with customers is at peace if it is sure that sufficient funds are stored in its vault. In the same way, a nation is at peace – as long as its’ citizens are confident that their fundamental rights and freedoms are respected and protected.
After the second world war and the profound continental disruption in rights and freedoms it was necessary to reset the lock on protecting them.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials began within six months of the end of hostilities. Thousands of documents of evidence were analysed, twenty-three defendants were cross-examined and tried, and most awoke to their guilt, and were sentenced. It was a flawed but glorious exercise in natural justice, and a public declaration of the restoration of the principles of the order of law. And it created a record of the barbarity of tyranny, and the failure of totalitarianism.
It was for this that we fought
The European Convention on Human Rights was a regional instrument, or off-shoot, of the Universal Declaration. Forty-nine sovereign nations are signatories to this treaty and subject to the Court of Human Rights. Any individual, in any of those countries, can take their government to this court if they believe their fundamental rights and freedoms are being undermined. It remains a flawed and glorious exercise in natural law, which has played, and continues to play, a part in the maintenance of civic harmony across the continent. And it creates a bulwark of protection against the return of dictatorship.
Council of Europe at the Hague 1949
It was for this that we fought
At a time seven decades on, when the tectonic plates of rights and freedoms are shaking, if not shifting, in 2020 it is worth sharing the commemoration of those who fought and died – with the consideration of why they fought and what they fought for.