VE Day – When Freedom Roared Back

Now we are fighting for lives. But we will need to summon the courage to maintain the freedoms for which so many fought and died during the Second World War, and so many more celebrated on VE Day.

In the week leading up to 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on the 8th May, Tom Blackmore remembers why people fought and contributed in a thousand different ways to the defeat of the Nazis and why that has special relevance this year.

Early in this pandemic, before he was ill, Boris Johnson surveyed the future. He was introducing widespread restrictions on his people’s movement and freedom, but his concern was the disruption to GB plc. Not to worry he said, ‘The economy will roar back.’

After the Second World War there were many financial hardships and problems to be faced. The economy had been turned upside down by the war effort. There was widespread displacement, bomb fuelled dilapidation, and there was loss.

But there was also joy. Because in the war for freedom, those who loved freedom had won. The Nazi threat had been to freedom conducted under fair law, and it had been defeated.

On VE Day people tasted the first fruits of their freedom restored.

The Russians defeated one dictator to enable another and were lost for fifty years. They sucked the freedom from the Eastern Block, until the Berlin wall came tumbling down.

But in western Europe after the war, freedom came roaring back into everyday lives.

And governments took steps to protect it.

As well as commemorating victory, this year provides the chance to remember the first steps taken in Europe to ensure that there could be no repeat of the threat to freedom.

At the War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg, the allies sought to re-establish freedom under the law by giving to the leading Nazis that which they had deprived so many, justice. Opening a mere six months after the end of conflict, in November 1945 this justice was rough-hewn and incomplete. But it did allow for the collation of immense stockpiles of evidence of guilt which stands as record. And it did provide the opportunity to confront the leading Nazis with this evidence, and their part in the atrocities. And it did provide a springboard for discussions about the prevention of a repeat of barbarism.

These discussions continued through the 1940s in the shadow of the drawing up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations in New York. And so, in 1950 Europe signed a legally binding treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms enforced by a court. This Convention has become the pre-eminent regional instrument of the Universal Declaration.

In the Second World War people fought for freedom. When they won, they ensured that freedom roared back into all aspects of their life.

Now we are fighting for lives. But we will need to summon the courage to maintain the freedoms for which so many fought and died, and so many more celebrated on VE Day.

In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt :

‘All we have to fear, is fear itself.’

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933 inaugural address

The Cross-Examination : The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

For those familiar with John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man who shot Liberty Valence, America’s Robert Jackson played Ransom Stoddard to David Maxwell Fyfe, Britain’s ‘Tom Domiphon.’

In March 1946, British prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe cross-examined Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Göring  at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Trials. Tom Blackmore reflects on the significance of the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Sadiq Khan wrote in the New Statesman some years ago :

“As deputy chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Maxwell Fyfe was responsible for one of the most noted cross-examinations in history when Hermann Göring took the stand.”

Sadiq Khan, The New Statesman 2011

Only last year the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh described it as

“widely considered the most significant cross-examination of modern times.”

Faculty of Advocates

These are accolades for David Maxwell Fyfe’s performance at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials when he confronted Göring late on the afternoon of March 20th 1946.  

The quotes above pale when compared to the hysteria of the press shortly after these exchanges. 

Guy Ramsay from the Mail wrote :

“Then rose to cross-examine Herman 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 Mail 1946

And Freddy Birkenhead writing as Atticus in The Times went further:

“The British delegation dominates, and the genius of the place is Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who so far excels the other prosecutors that he has almost played them off the stage.  Indeed his skill in cross-examination has alone prevented the Germans from turning the court into a theatre for the display of patriotic histrionics.”

Atticus, The Times 1946

It can confidently be said that the cross-examination went well, but in the aftermath, its impact grew from being part of the folklore of Nuremberg to igniting dreams of international justice.

The Nuremberg story revolves around the American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson whose vision fuelled the Nuremberg Trials and who set the Tribunal alight with his opening speech. At the time of the Trials, Jackson was a long time away from a Courtroom, rusty at cross-examination, very probably physically impaired, and determined to prove conspiracy between the leading Nazis (conspiracy is hard to prove in a dictatorship in which orders flow one way). Consequently, Göring was able to boss Jackson, who turned to the Tribunal for support and felt let down when none was forthcoming.

For those familiar with John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man who shot Liberty Valence, Jackson played Ransom Stoddard to Maxwell Fyfe’s Tom Domiphon. Jackson’s idealism radiated through the Tribunal as he brought law and order back to a desolate Continent. There was something of the improvised Wild West Court House about Nuremberg. 

The Sketch, 1946

Except of course, that it is Tom Domiphon who shoots Liberty Valence. Maxwell Fyfe acted as chief prosecutor in Nuremberg in the absence of Hartley Shawcross, and he had the British team prepare their cross-examination forensically as they sought to prove murder, aggressive war, and even genocide. 

Maxwell Fyfe spent more time in Court than anyone apart from the judges, he tamed the extraordinary environment of arc lights and translation babble and, he prosecuted what he could prove, usually with the evidence of the Nazis themselves.

And so he shot Liberty Valence.

However, there was a little more to it than that. Rebecca West offered this insight when reporting the trials:

“In the examination and cross-examination of witnesses, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe holds the honors. This gentle and heavily built man, who never exempts himself from the discipline of fairness, drives witness after witness backward, step by step, till on the edge of some moral abyss they admit the truth.”

Rebecca West, New Yorker Magazine 1946

Maxwell Fyfe was fired by his own, very Scottish and very hidden ideals. In this case, it was the desire to reawaken natural justice in Europe. Natural justice depends on fairness and proper procedure to protect the defendants. All qualities that had been in short supply in Nazi Germany.

Jackson was wrong. Europe was no Wild West. It was an epicentre of the civilization of the world. And Europeans had shared values born out of more than a thousand years of neighbourliness and conflict.

Whilst acknowledging that :

“The barbarian is never behind us but always underneath us ready to rise up.”

David Maxwell Fyfe

Maxwell Fyfe later wrote:

“I believe if anyone had suggested to three quarters of the defendants in 1933 that they should do the things they did without a tremor of conscience in 1943, they would have refused with genuine indignation.”

David Maxwell Fyfe

For most of the defendants, there was a moral abyss, and for many, they chose truth, or a version of it, over a descent into that black hole. They felt guilt.

And this was the beginning of the reconciliation of Europe.

As Harold Nicholson wrote

‘In the courtroom at Nuremberg, something more important is happening than the trial of a few captured prisoners. The inhuman is being confronted with the humane, ruthlessness with equity, lawlessness with patient justice, and barbarism with civilisation’. 

Harold Nicholson

Why we are telling our story

Next year marks the dual anniversaries of the Nuremberg Trials (75 years) and the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights (70 years.) Tom Blackmore writes about ‘The Human’s in the Telling’ and why David Maxwell Fyfe’s story is at the heart of this commemoration.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom is the story of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg, where he was a leading prosecutor in the War Crimes Trials, to Strasbourg, where he was a champion of the Convention on Human Rights in Europe.

In The Humans in the Telling we, members of his family, tell the story in a song cycle.

‘In Dreams of Peace & Freedom, inspirational quotations from the speeches, letters and autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, naturally thread through musical settings of poetry he found inspiring. The melody infuses his chosen poetic words with another unspoken dimension – emotion to reinforce the story, rather as in his speeches, the poetry heightens the tenor of his legal argument.

 Sue Casson, Composer of Dreams of Peace & Freedom

So that we can tell the story more widely in 2020, we have in the past year, made a recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom, and a podcast which provides further depth and background. We have created a filmed recording which explores the landscapes of the story, and produced a book that throws light on the raw resources of the history, and tells you more about the historians.

We are telling this story:


As the European Convention is threatened, The Humans in the Telling is the debris of the past from which to build a barricade. We will join with those working to halt the march of populism and nationalism with the raw facts of history.


The Humans in the Telling remembers events too easily forgotten. It remembers the evidence of holocaust, murder and tyranny presented at Nuremberg. Why people fought in the Second World War, not to win, but to protect and restore peace, justice and freedom under the law. And it relates how the first hesitant steps to win the peace were taken in the trial of leading Nazis and in the drawing up of a continental code to keep the people safe.


Looking at the future through the prism of the past is a way back to coherence and unity. It allows a reset of the mind.

The Humans in the Telling invites reflection on the response to the Second World War, the last time the nation was at war.

After the Second World War a movement that had grown underground for many years flowered. There was a passion for peace, an awakening to the need for natural justice, and an understanding that freedom could only be exercised under the law both at home and around the world.

We can reconnect and learn again that:

‘A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons’

Desmond Tutu


Every year in November, we rightly and properly remember those who died in war. In November 2020 let’s #rememberwhy

‘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.

Nuremberg War Crimes Trials 1945 – 46

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.

Barricade of Flowers

The juggernaut of nationalism rolling down the road is a carnival float of ghosts, distant recollections, fears and frustrations as we grapple with global change. That makes a slippery enemy for those defending the barricade.

In February 2017 Dominic Grieve invited English Cabaret to perform Dreams of Peace & Freedom at the Palace of Westminster. In preparation for that performance we published the following blog as a press release. This in turn prompted Patrick Smith’s article for Buzzfeed which you can view here. We are delighted that Dominic Grieve continues in his support for The Humans in the Telling.

Written by Tom Blackmore

The Convention on Human Rights in Europe is an international treaty.

The juggernaut of nationalism is rolling down the wide streets of Britain once more. A general hue and cry has been raised under the flag of patriotism, and a brighter, bluer, paradise.

Down the street a barricade has been hastily erected. This was built by those surprised and blind-sided by the popular vote overcoming expectations in 2016. Those who were shocked that the mask of protest was nationhood.

Despite the efforts of many brave defenders, that barricade is not holding. Surprise, muddle, nostalgia, the pragmatism of economics, all mean that our membership of the EU is being sacrificed on the shrine of some people’s will.

We are watching from further down the street where it is still quite quiet. We are at work on the foundations of a further barricade, this one built to defend not business practices and trade, but rights and freedom.

For when the juggernaut has swept away economic co-operation, and the rules of the club, its’ declared intention is to sweep away all European law, including the Convention on Human Rights.

‘It’s more of the same,’ they yell, ‘more interference with our sovereign nation.’

Actually of course the Convention is something very different.

The Convention allowed individuals to take their government to court if their government failed to protect or even abused their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It is not the rules of the club drawn up by nation members, but a treaty between sovereign nations, inspired by a global hunger for peace.

The Universal Declaration was the product of the United Nations, a project to generate good globalisation, or at least an attempt at it. It spawned regional instruments that captured its’ vision but sought to apply them to the character of the region.

In Europe, this was forged by the newly founded Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly. And it was moulded by those who had made a forensic study of the totalitarian condition of the Nazi regime, and who had confronted the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg By LCB Photography

Nations draw up treaties to better manage relations with others. In the immediate aftermath of years of depression and war, European nations wanted treaties that would stop wars and bloodshed. They identified that nationalism, born from the fire of the industrial revolution, had stoked the flames of military aggression. And they wanted those flames extinguished.

Sovereign nations signed a treaty, agreeing that such a court should be built and that they would be subject to it to protect their people.

Although without any plans to expand, let alone the capability, or any immediate threat, nationalism loses its meaning. Patriotism should be contentment with ourselves, and the warm comfort of neighbourly co-operation. In fact, that it is what patriotism is.

The foundations of our barricade is history, its substance the peace and freedom enjoyed by many for 70 years.

But a word about this juggernaut. Nationalism only really works when it is expansionist. Nationalism is an idea that fuels empire. It’s a justification for minding some other nation’s business, and for capitalising on another’s wealth. It’s the big idea that makes that behaviour right. As a nation we know enough about that from the past 200 years.

The juggernaut of nationalism rolling down the road is a carnival float of ghosts, distant recollections, fears and frustrations as we grapple with global change. That makes a slippery enemy for those defending the barricade.

But perhaps the tactic of erecting a barricade is wrong.  Perhaps these wraiths need exorcism not challenge, a deep peace not battle. Perhaps, we, down the road, waiting for the juggernaut, should build and tend a mound of flowers, a garden barricade, where the ghosts can lie down and sleep – for those who call on the memory of ‘a sovereign nation’.