August 28th and 29th this year are the 75th anniversary of the only speech given by David Maxwell Fyfe at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Tom Blackmore writes about the ‘deeper magic’ of Natural Law, which Fyfe extols in this speech, and underpins the Convention he was later to draft and champion in the Council of Europe.
Nature is a revelation. And as just now we are seeking to protect our environment, we must at the same time protect the best of our nature. Wherever and whenever humans have roamed the earth, they have carried with them an instinct for rightness and fairness, a respect for the freedoms and rights of others. This instinct can be swamped by others, instincts for brutality, power, and control through fear. But that finer instinct remains and has been named natural law, which like a stream, is a mutable constant.
There are countless streams of natural law.
On Instagram this summer, we have been exploring just some of them -capturing the rivers that run through the great Magna Carta cities, which saved and preserved copies of that early testimony to freedom. That Great Charter was the first written expression of natural law that has since formed a basis for democracy all over the world.
David Maxwell Fyfe was carried through his life along his own streams to Nuremberg and then Strasbourg, from his Scottish childhood, through university at Oxford, an early working life in Liverpool and so to the Inns of Court and Westminster. Prepared, he made his mark in Nuremberg and Strasbourg, and sowed the seed for human rights protection in Europe. In each stream he found further wisdom that developed his understanding and appreciation of natural law. (Read more about Maxwell Fyfe’s Stream of Natural Law in our previous blog here.)
During this 75th anniversary year, I have been spending time examining my grandfather’s only speech at the trial, his closing in the case against the Nazi organisations.
First, I looked at his forensic analysis of institutions of the Nazi party and state, and his attempts to describe their evil. As a lawyer it was the corruption of the law and its execution that moved him most. In this extract he focuses on that corruption:
Let me conclude by reminding you of the opinion of the Supreme Court. Of the murders committed during the 1938 demonstrations by Hoheitstraeger (bearers of sovereignty) and members of the SA and SS it was pleaded that, I quote,
“in such cases as when Jews were killed without an order or contrary to orders, ignoble motives could not be determined.”
The purpose of those proceedings in the Party Court were, I quote again,
“to protect those Party comrades who, motivated by decent National Socialist attitude and initiative, had overshot their mark.”
In those few lines you have the secret of all the death and suffering, the horror and tragedy, that these defendants and the members of these organizations have brought upon the world. You see to what depths of evil they corrupted the human conscience. No ignoble motive – the murder of women and children through
“decent National Socialist attitude and initiative.”From David Maxwell Fyfe speech at Nuremberg against the Nazi organisations
The Court’s explanation of slaughter as reasonable, reveals the abyss that had grown between fair judgement and monstrous justification. The evil was clear to all, except those who could not see because of indoctrination into the power of sovereignty (as expressed in the fuhrerprinzip), and a subsequent capacity to judge wrong as right. All of this was of course built on a foundation of fear.
Time and again the Nazi state turned its back on the rigours of natural justice and the sense of natural law.
But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the speech Maxwell Fyfe seeks to describe how this could be put right.
It might be presumptuous of lawyers who did not claim to be more than the cement of society to speculate or even dream of what we wish to see in place of the Nazi spirit, but I give you the faith of a lawyer, some things are surely universal: tolerance, decency, kindliness.
When such qualities have been given the chance to flourish in the ground that you have cleared, a great step will have been taken. It will be a step towards the universal recognition that :
“sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day/ And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness/ In hearts at peace…”
Are not the prerogative of any one country. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.David Maxwell Fyfe quotes Rupert Brooke in his speech at Nuremberg against the Nazi organisations
It is here that he conjures the need for the restoration of natural law for all, which was beginning to become known as universal human rights.
In 1950, months before he tied together natural law with the need for effective international criminal law and human rights in the European Convention, he stated his creed in this speech:
Most people approach the subject of War Crimes Trials fundamentally either as cynic or idealist. This is, I think, because in essence the case for or against trying war criminals depends on that controversial subject which has become succinctly known as human rights.
Your cynic says, “Human Rights? There are none.” Your idealist, however, takes the view that there are certain rights and freedoms not created by lawyers but to which mankind as such is heir and which cannot be alienated. It is a conception akin to the idea of the Law of Nature which had such a wide influence on relationship in past centuries, although now somewhat outmoded… The idea of fundamental Human Rights is one in which I firmly believe.David Maxwell Fyfe’s speech at the Athenaeum January 1950
On the 75th anniversary of Maxwell Fyfe’s turning point speech at Nuremberg, we will perform a live streamed performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom. This is our commemoration of Maxwell Fyfe’s work in Nuremberg and Strasbourg. Dreams of Peace & Freedom evokes the streams that carried Maxwell Fyfe on his journey and the river of rights and freedoms that flowed first from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, and then on into 75 years of liberty.
English Cabaret are performing a special livestream performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom on the anniversary dates. Find out more here.
Discover our Instagram feeds exploring #streamsofnaturallaw here.
Read more excerpts from Maxwell Fyfe’s speech at Nuremberg here.