David Maxwell Fyfe’s closing against Nazi organisations

It is not merely the quantity of horrors – although these organizations have been the instruments of death for 22,000,000 people, it is the quality of cruelty which produced the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the routine shooting of Jewish children throughout a continent claiming to be civilized. There is not one of these organizations which is not directly connected with the sorry trade of murder in a brutal form.

On 28th August 1946, David Maxwell Fyfe gave his first speech on behalf of the UK prosecution against the Nazi organisations at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. It is now recognized as a classic of its kind and a textbook example for student lawyers. It lasted over 4 hours – below are extracts from his closing.

In 1938 Hitler spoke in the Reichstag, and I quote his words:  

“National Socialism has given the German people that leadership which, as a party, not only mobilizes the nation but also organizes it. National Socialism possesses Germany entirely and completely…. There is no institution in this State which is not National Socialist.”  

Adolf Hitler 1938

We know now the kind of leadership that National Socialism did give the German people. We know how and for what purposes the Nazi Party mobilized and organized the German nation – for world dominion at the cost of war and murder. The entire and complete possession of Germany by National Socialism meant the possession of the people, body and soul, by the organizations of the National Socialist Party and Government… 

…we do not seek to convict the people of Germany. Our purpose now is to protect them and to give them an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves in the esteem and friendship of the world. But how can this be done if we leave amongst them unpunished and uncondemned those elements of Nazidom which were most responsible for the Nazi tyranny and crimes and which, as this Tribunal may well believe, are beyond conversion to the ways of freedom and righteousness? Nor is it only the German people that we seek to protect. All Europe needs protection… 

The law is a living thing.  It is not rigid and unalterable. Its purpose is to serve mankind, and it must grow and change to meet the changing needs of society. The needs of Europe today have no parallel in history.  

Never before has the society of Europe faced the problem or the danger of having in their midst millions of ruthless, fanatical men, trained and educated in murder and racial hatred – and in war 

The principle on which their condemnation is asked for is clear. It is a practical application of the sound theory of punishment which we learnt in our youth – from, among others, that great German thinker, Kant. If men use society merely as a means to their own ends, then society is justified in putting them outside society. The immensity of the problem does not excuse its nonsolution. The failure to perform this legal duty may well spell terror and racial persecution throughout a continent and, for the third time in our adult lives, world war.  

 My Lord, I am deeply conscious that one of the greatest difficulties, and not the least of the dangers, of this Trial is that those of us who have been engaged day in and day out for 9 months have reached the saturation point of horror. Shakespeare attempted to picture that saturation point in the memorable lines:  

“Blood and destruction shall be so in use 

And dreadful objects so familiar

That mothers shall but smile when they behold

Their infants quartered with the hands of war;

All pity chok’d through custom of fell deeds.”  

Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1 by William Shakespeare

It is only when we stand a little apart from what has been our daily companion for 40 weeks that we realize that the “domestic fury and fierce civil strife,” the results of which Mark Anthony was prophesying, are an inconsiderable bagatelle beside the facts which we have had to consider.  

It is not merely the quantity of horrors – although these organizations have been the instruments of death for 22,000,000 people, it is the quality of cruelty which produced the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the routine shooting of Jewish children throughout a continent claiming to be civilized. There is not one of these organizations which is not directly connected with the sorry trade of murder in a brutal form.  

If Europe is to be cleansed of Nazi evil it is indispensable that you and the world should know these organizations for what they are.  

It has been our sombre task to assist you to this knowledge; having done so, we sometimes wonder if the stench of death will ever wholly pass from our nostrils. But we are determined to do our utmost to see that it will pass from Germany, and that the spirit which produced it will be exorcised.  

It may be presumptuous for lawyers, who do not claim to be more than the cement of society, to speculate or even dream of what we wish to see in its place. But I give you the faith of a lawyer. Some things are surely universal: tolerance, decency, kindliness. It is because we believe that there must be a clearance before such qualities will flourish in peace that we ask you to condemn this organization of evil.  

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 all happy as her day,

And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness,

And hearts at peace….”  

From Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet V, The Soldier

are not the prerogative of any one nation. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.  

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