The Law is a Living Thing

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

In the week of the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, Sue Casson looks at the relationship between the Great Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights as she continues her series exploring how her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed. 

The subtle, pared down sound of Dreams of Peace & Freedom that by necessity defined our Edinburgh Fringe performances in 2014, made the idea of a pop-up tour to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights the following year more possible, as with a narrator and three singers, one of whom doubles on piano, we could, and did, turn up to sing in as many places with connections to Magna Carta as we could, with very little fuss.

Hold on – Magna Carta? That’s something quite different, surely? But in fact, it was just this happy coincidence that prompted our big idea that 2015 was a Big Year for Freedom

Magna Carta

Magna Carta Libertatum (to give it its’ full name – the Great Charter of Liberties) historically enshrined natural rights and freedoms into British law for the first time. It offered access to swift justice, outlawed illegal imprisonment, limited feudal payments to the king and protected the rights of the church. It has been described as the

foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.

Lord Denning (1899 – 1999)

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

65 years since the signing of the ECHR and 800 years since King John signed the Magna Carta

When we laid out our plans for our Big Year for Freedom, we were only vaguely aware of the British government’s decision to make major changes to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the ECHR. But as the year progressed, what had seemed a historic commemoration gradually took on the guise of political activism.

David Maxwell Fyfe provided a link between Magna Carta and the ECHR. In his speech to The American Bar Association as they unveiled their monument in Runnymede in 1957, he laid out his belief in natural law – law derived from nature or ethical reason, that exists independently of a given political order, that is at the heart of the great Charter. Just as Magna Carta protected rights that existed beyond the King’s jurisdiction, so the European Convention, which Fyfe was instrumental in drafting, provided recourse for citizens beyond the nation state, who believed their human rights were infringed.

We highlighted this when we opened our Edinburgh show with a musical setting of some of the closing lines from Magna Carta translated from the original Latin, sung alongside excerpts from this speech. There are Waters, which closed the show, was accompanied by a draft list of all the fundamental freedoms that made up the European Convention.

However, during our tour, an explicit parallel between the Magna Carta and the modern International Magna Carta, seemed missing from the song cycle. Tom laid down the gauntlet of finding a way to musically mesh the two – by somehow fusing David Maxwell Fyfe’s suggested preamble to the European Convention which he had recently discovered online, with my musical setting of Magna Carta, to make the association between the two musically clear. I came up with the idea of a descant and The International Magna Carta became the grand finale of Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

Now David Maxwell Fyfe’s personal story, and his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, was encased between two great Charters, and the activism, to preserve the rights enshrined within them has become another strand to our story. When Cultural Solidarity Media, as part of a documentary of the Nuremberg Trials for Russia 1,  came to film Dreams of Peace & Freedom in June 2016, we used the film they gave us of our performance of The International Magna Carta for our pro-Remain campaign during the lead up to the referendum. 2015 was the moment our commemoration became a campaign.

Find out more about our Big Year for Freedom tour at www.kilmuirpapers.org.

Inside the Archives

Every stroke of their pen tells a different story, and it is extraordinary to read a letter they wrote so long ago and feel a connection through the paper to my family, whether through a turn of phrase or choice of word.

Lily Casson first visited the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge when she and her family gifted it with the personal papers and official souvenirs of David Maxwell Fyfe. Here she describes how she has grown to know her great grandparents through these materials.

A memorable part of getting to know my great grandparents was through their letters exchanged during the year of the Nuremberg Trials, which we gifted to Churchill Archives in 2010. Every stroke of their pen tells a different story, and it is extraordinary to read a letter they wrote so long ago and feel a connection through the paper to my family, whether through a turn of phrase or choice of word.

On our first visit, an ordinary grey day in 2009, when I was 12 and Robert 9, we felt very important, carrying historical artefacts in our tiny hands down the long path to the centre, through the grounds of Churchill College, Cambridge, feeling the responsibility for the care in our charge. Among them, Maxwell Fyfe’s red boxes of office, containing the letters, along with a copy of the Grand Seal of the United Kingdom.

Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre shows Lily and Robert how the documents are kept

Since then, we have regularly visited to dig deeper into his story. Early on, we filmed a behind the scenes tour of the archive with its director, Allen Packwood, for Under an English Heaven, and it was eye-opening to discover the care and attention each document gets to conserve them, from the mesh between the papers to the fire safe boxes and rolling doors, saving them for a new generation to discover.

More recently, photographing documents for the Dreams of Peace & Freedom performance I’ve grown increasingly aware of how primary source material brings history alive, as these letters and documents, though now preserved in protective tissue, were written by real people, not just historical figures.

Discover the Churchill Archives Centre at https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/

Watching History

When we are able to see raw footage of historical events – with our own eyes – as part of the timeline of history, it ensures that these events can never be forgotten.

Robert Blackmore, who has incorporated extracts of archive footage in his editing of The Human’s in the Telling film, describes the emotional impact of seeing history unfold on screen.

A picture paints a thousand words as we are often told. Historical film footage shows us at a glance how people used to be – their style, representation, and stories. Unedited footage so often can tell a story of its own.

One of the most interesting parts of my role in The Human’s in the Telling is editing together the archive footage from the Nuremberg Trials, which we use with great thanks to the people at USHMM.

Watching the material shows me how the desire to film historical events hasn’t changed that much over the years. There has obviously has been an enormous change in technology, and we can now see more detail in colour rather than just black and white. ​​

But our reason for documenting life is not that different. When the Russian army decided to film the liberation of Auschwitz when they entered the camp for the first time, they had to make a moral judgment as to whether it was appropriate to film what they found there.​

They must have decided that without good evidence, we cannot have justice. And with a film, we can look at the bigger picture that affirms the written word for that evidence.​​

I think that if there had not been such extensive filmed footage from Auschwitz, it would have been easier in the years to come to become a  Holocaust denier – the evidence may have been written down, but with the technology we have now, it would be much less strong in the public eye.​​

Nuremberg was not only revolutionary in terms of the law, but it also revolutionized how we see the evidence. ​​

Watching the trials, I often wonder what the response of the judges and the prosecutors would have been at Nuremberg. Even some of the defendants responsible for those terrible events, watching the reality of the Holocaust unfold in front of their very eyes for the first time.

That is why I believe the Allies wanted to film those horrific events. They believed that someday, in some capacity, sometime in the future – there would be an opportunity to show what really happened in Auschwitz.​​

And with developing technology it is a role that Steven Spielberg has taken on – through digitizing the film making it possible to show the past in schools, in museums and through hundreds of documentary films.

In turn, this has empowered people to speak out – they are less afraid of telling their side of the story. One can only wonder at the times in history when cameras were not invented, where its’ course might have been changed by using the power of film. We take it for granted that we can capture anything anywhere at any time now – obviously within reason.​​

When we are able to see raw footage of historical events – with our own eyes – as part of the timeline of history,  it ensures that these events can never be forgotten.

Footage Accessed at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration

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

Nuremberg : A Modern Miracle

When David Maxwell Fyfe flew out in October 1945, he described the city saying, ‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins.’ Today, however, Nuremberg is a buzzing, metropolitan centre, full of culture and life.

Lily Casson has been researching the life of her great-grandparents, Sylvia and David Maxwell Fyfe with her family for the last decade. Here, she writes her impressions of Nuremberg, which she first visited in April 2009…

Before going to Nuremberg in 2009, I had never been to Germany before. Apart from my patchy school history knowledge of the Second World War, I didn’t have any idea as to what I might discover. It had extra meaning for me, as we were going to find out about my great grandfather, who spent a year there after the war, during the War Crimes Trials as the chief prosecutor of the British team.

Nuremberg, 1945

When Maxwell Fyfe flew out in October 1945, he described the city saying, ‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins.’ Today, however, Nuremberg is a buzzing, metropolitan centre, full of culture and life. It has been rebuilt with care and attention, the buildings have been carefully restored to look new and vibrant. Inside St Sebalds, known as the peace church, an icon of renewal whose towers stayed standing throughout the bombing, the war is remembered with plaques that show the rebuilding process from ruins to the church it is today.

Documentation Centre, Nuremberg, former Nazi Rally Ground

The importance of remembering and confronting the past is at the heart of two museums in the city which tell the story of the Nazis from different perspectives : The Dokumentation Centre, set within the footprint of the Nazi rally ground, which documents the rise of the movement, and Courtroom 600 which brings to life the place where leading Nazis were cross-examined after the war. I, like many of the German schoolchildren who have visited, found it shocking to see the past brought to life where it actually happened.

Market Place, Nuremberg

The willingness of the people of Nuremberg to remember, whilst also moving forward with hope for the future is one of the reasons I love the city so much. Confronting the past with courage and conviction, and learning the lessons of history, it is a testament to the past and an example for the future – truly a modern miracle.