Where Nazism Failed

When the leadership of a country has been reduced to this state it is confessed that it lacks inspiration. It is equally evident that it lacks efficiency…

In the summer of 1946, having cross-examined many of the leading Nazis at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, David Maxwell Fyfe wrote this article reflecting on the systematic flaws of Hitler’s regime for his Liverpool constituents.

It is not unusual, although extremely irritating, to meet people who say

“ I quite agree with you that the Nazis were ruthless brutes but they did get results –they were extremely efficient.”

Full text available to view at Churchill Archives

The danger of such a viewpoint is obvious. It is out of such superficial lack of faith  culminating in temporary fits of depression that nations have lost their democratic government and succumbed to some sort of tyranny. It is therefore not without value to study this criticism and to probe its basis in fact.

I myself believe that it is profoundly untrue, and that the more one examines the results of the Nazis’ system and of the expression of Nazi ideology in practise, the more convinced one becomes that the system is bad in itself and has inevitably led to blunders as well as crimes.

…I must emphasize how fortunate the Nazis were in the circumstances of their coming into power. Two things primarily contributed – the world slump of 1930 lighting up the opposition to the Versailles Treaty, and the failure of Parliamentary government in Germany… These circumstances gave Hitlerism the most favourable start…. They had organised that the’ Fuehrer principle’ of implicit obedience to orders coming down the scale from Hitler was supported by their special machinery which at one time had a strength of nearly 6 million, for enforcing speed of government, delation, absence of free thought and speech, internal suppression, external trained and calculated force.

…I am well aware that there used to be criticism during the war of the British system of government by committees and discussion. It was said to lead to a waste of time, to a difficulty in getting decisions and an elaborate system of appeals which were not fitted to the conduct of urgent affairs.

Every government, whether democratic or totalitarian must administer the country through a series of what we call ministries or government departments, and the Germans rather significantly term ‘agencies’… For any efficient government there must be a liaison between departments at all levels. This is carried out by an informal interchange of views and in Britain is an important reality. I believe there was much more in Nazi Germany than was ever admitted,  but the effect of the famous Fuehrer Decree No 1, whose result was the effect that nothing be mentioned except to a person directly concerned with the matter in question, was to discourage such liaison as far as could be done.

When one leaves the departmental level these divergencies become sharp and acute. In Britain new proposals are brought before a committee of the cabinet and fully discussed. They are then placed on the agenda of the cabinet and discussed…  Finally… it is open to criticism in parliament.

Under the Nazi system there was no effective committee… the Reichs cabinet soon ceased to meet and Parliament – the Reichstag – was a rubber stamp. Under the Fuehrer principle, each minister was directly responsible to Hitler… after 1937, and during the whole of the war, the German cabinet never met at all. The decisions as to Germany’s policy in all fields were taken at the Chancellory or Hitler’s HQs… It followed inevitably from this set up that a ‘yes’ man should become the chief of the O.K.W and that the open door to action should be an acceptance of Hitler’s wishes…

The modern world is too complicated to be run without references to a number of experiences and points of view. There is a superficial attraction in the picture of the strong man relentlessly pursuing his aims uninfluenced and never deflected by the views of others. When, however, he has got the people round him into the state when they are afraid to give their views, they are also afraid to give full information, and without full information the discovery of the best plan is impossible. We all suffer from wishful thinking, but a tyrant also suffers from wishful lack of thought. He will not listen to facts from those whose opinions do not coincide with his own…

When the leadership of a country has been reduced to this state it is confessed that it lacks inspiration. It is equally evident that it lacks efficiency…

Free discussion and criticism give to the minds and hearts of men not only that sinewy strength  which produced the British asset of the extra week when others were exhausted. They  produce also   the moments of clear vision and the retention of moral judgement which are still more necessary to the position of the world.

Prologue to Nuremberg

It was no simple problem that faced us in our early talks. There were three choices open to us.

In his autobiography, David Maxwell Fyfe writes of his first meetings with Justice Robert Jackson of the U S in early June 1945, barely a month after V E Day, as they discussed how the Allies should deal with the War Criminals from World War 2.

It was no simple problem that faced us in our early talks. There were three choices open to us. The first was to let those whom we believed to be major criminals go. In Jackson’s words this would have been to mock the living and insult the dead. Moreover, as we were already punishing those who had carried out the individual crimes, we should have stepped into the position which my predecessor, F. E. Smith, had described in his opinion to the Cabinet in 1918, in Juvenal’s words :

Dat veniam corvis vexat censura columbas.

Censure acquits the raven but fall foul of the dove.


The second choice was executive action, under which Napoleon had been sent to Elba and then to St Helena. This had two classes of supporters. First there was the large and vocal ‘stick’ ’em up against a wall and shoot ’em school. Others who favoured executive action put forward a much subtler argument. They made the point that political trials were always a failure – from Charles I onwards… They insisted that on the actions of the German leaders everyone had already formed both a moral and a political judgement, and therefore unbiased judges could not be found. So they came to the conclusion that the leaders of the victorious powers must kill or imprison those whom they thought guilty and answer for their actions at the bar of history.

What such people had never considered was how this would be done. Either the Allied political leaders or their generals, if the task were devolved in them, would have had to select those who had been guilty of crimes, which would have to have been specified, and decide whether death of imprisonment was the appropriate punishment. Although they could have had the advice of Jackson and myself, and of the French and Russian colleagues who afterwards joined us, what must have been in the end an essentially judicial function would have been performed in a back room without any attempt of the requirement of judicial fairness. In this context, it must be remembered that after months of work in selecting and prosecuting defendants on what seemed to us overwhelming evidence, the Tribunal at Nuremberg found that we were wrong in three cases and acquitted von Papen, Fritzsche and Schacht.

David Maxwell Fyfe and Robert Jackson

The third choice was to select the defendants and give them a hearing. In such event, natural justice demanded that we should inform them clearly what the charges were against them, produce to them the evidence in which these charges were based, and give them a full opportunity of answering them.

This was the view strongly advocated by Jackson and myself. I held that it would be a deplorable beginning to a world in which everyone was looking for the rule of law if we irresponsibly cast it overboard in our first difficult sea. Moreover , martyrs are easy to make as the years pass, and nothing but a public deployment of impregnable evidence of guilt would prevent this retrospective hagiology.

Extract From A Political Adventure, Chapter 8, Prologue to Nuremberg, by David Maxwell Fyfe

Published 1964 Weidenfeld & Nicolson