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

Why a song cycle?

If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice…. though it’s the oldest way in the world.

Songwriter Sue Casson explores why David Maxwell Fyfe’s love of poetry, often quoting his favourites to drive home a legal point, made a song cycle the natural choice for a show that tells the story of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

Recently, at a meeting where Tom Blackmore and I were pitching Dreams of Peace & Freedom, which tells the story of Tom’s grandfather, someone asked, ‘why a song cycle?’

It’s a fair question. If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice.

Although it is the way Tom and I have often chosen to tell a story, and as he would tell you, it’s the oldest way in the world. Troubadors since ancient times have entertained rapt audiences with mythic histories, in verse, in song – often with no more than their voice and whatever instrument was light enough to carry. What’s more, I’m a songwriter, Tom a writer – we write shows like that.

But really, that isn’t the whole story, and neither of us have put together a show quite like this before. For the link between those two important post war events was David Maxwell Fyfe, a well-read Scot, who often turned to poetry in his speeches to illustrate what he wanted to say. 

In his closing at the Nuremberg Trials, David Maxwell Fyfe quoted Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet V – The Soldier

‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day,

And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness

In hearts at peace’

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

David Maxwell Fyfe quoting Rupert Brooke in his closing at the Nuremberg Trials August 1946

This speech, the first he had made at Nuremberg, and written after he had forensically examined all the evidence and confronted the perpetrators, sets out his commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, and signals his future involvement in enshrining them in law. It is the fulcrum of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg. And to drive his point home – Maxwell Fyfe, a learned lawyer – quotes a poet: Rupert Brooke. If we were looking for an opportunity to incorporate music directly into his story it was this – poetry that he had chosen, demanding a musical setting.

‘I think that HJ never quite understood why I did, or how I could, prefer the wartime sonnets of Rupert Brooke to those of his hero Wordsworth.’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing about his English teacher at George Watson’s College in his autobiography, A Political Adventure (1964)

With this as our point of inspiration, reading the other four war sonnets in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 collection, published when Fyfe was just fourteen years old, Tom was struck by the way the poetic language expressing Brooke’s idealistic values at the outset of the First World War had filtered through into his grandfather’s speeches.

In his closing at Nuremberg, he not only quotes Brooke directly, but goes on to speak of ‘heritage’, a concept that closes Brooke’s War Sonnet III. As he seeks to create an enforceable treaty to protect human rights after Nuremberg, he champions Safety (War Sonnet II has the same name) and Security, which appears in the same sonnet. Norman Birkett, a British judge at the Nuremberg Trials, goes to considerable trouble to give Fyfe a Scottish poetry collection as a leaving gift, knowing exactly what it will mean to him.

For Maxwell Fyfe delights in finding the imaginative truth through reading, on occasion writing stories and verse himself.

‘romance … is poetry in action. It comes when the inevitable moment finds the inescapable deed,’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing of the tales that defined his childhood in The Watsonion, alumni magazine of George Watson’s College

This almost defines that moment at Nuremberg, when his closing speech expresses an awareness of rights and freedoms for all. A self-confessed romantic of the law, the poetry flows through Fyfe’s conscious and unconscious mind as he expresses what he is seeking to achieve.

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.

Fyfe praised the ‘incomparable songs’ of Scotland, and so musically setting the poetry in his heart beside his spoken words seemed not only effective, but perfectly natural. It represents the imaginative life that informs and reinforces his legal practice. Which is the real reason why his post-war dreams of peace and freedom and how he sought to achieve them, are best brought to life in a song cycle.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the fully mastered recording, will be launched in June 2020. Find out more at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

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