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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