From Aberdeen to the Nuremberg Trials – Maxwell Fyfe

David Maxwell Fyfe was born in Aberdeen, the son of the Grammar School headmaster. Fyfe was educated at George Watson’s College and Oxford where he achieved a miserable third-class degree in Classics.

Irrespective of his disappointing degree, Fyfe went on to make his name in legal history, best remembered for his role in the Nuremberg Trials but by this time he was known as Maxwell Fyfe.

A Conservative MP, Maxwell Fyfe served in the wartime coalition government led by Churchill and was made Solicitor- General. In April 1945 he participated in the arrangements for the war crimes trial. Churchill demanded summary executions and Maxwell Fyfe, as his representative, presented this view to the Americans.

When the Labour Party won the General Election in 1945, Maxwell Fyfe was officially replaced by Hartley Shawcross as Britain’s chief prosecutor at the Trials. Shawcross, however, made Maxwell Fyfe his deputy and, in effect, Maxwell Fyfe continued his role in Germany. In due course his cross-examination of Hermann Göring has been singled out as one of the most significant on record.

Hermann Göring was a leading Nazi, a noted fighter pilot from the First World War, known as The Blue Max. In 1935 he was put in charge of the Luftwaffe (German air force). In 1945 he was brought to trial at Nuremberg and faced cross-examination from Maxwell Fyfe.

Where the US prosecutor Robert H. Jackson failed to undermine Göring, Maxwell Fyfe succeeded and this further aggravated the uneasy relationship between the two prosecutors due to personal and political differences.

During the year-long trial the teams of British and American prosecutors lived in Nuremberg, a city virtually destroyed by allied bombing and with dead bodies abandoned in the streets, so attempts were made to lighten the environment for the foreigner legal minds.

On 13 January 1946 Maxwell Fyfe wrote to his wife: ‘<It was thought a good thing if the prosecutors – which meant mainly me – threw a party. We did so last night – a band, a singer, a juggler, speeches … a game of netball between the prosecution and the forces and a sing-song round the piano. There was only beer so no one was over the eight’

On the US prosecutor Jackson’s efforts, Fyfe wrote on 21 March ‘Jackson had not only made no impression but actually built up the fat boy further. I think I knocked him reasonably off his perch’ (Maxwell Fyfe referred to Göring as ‘the fat boy’ or slap-happy Herman).

Two days later, he wrote: ‘Jackson could do very little with slap-happy Hermann and I had to go in to prevent him being firmly reseated on his pedestal’

On Göring, Fyfe wrote on 17 March 1946: ‘Göring has given his evidence quite well except that he was too long and grotesquely egotistical. ‘I and the Fuhrer’ sounds a bit silly when the others’ main plea – it is no defence – is that they could not argue with Hitler’

Maxwell Fyfe’s succeeded in brow-beating Göring and undermining his confidence by focussing on the detail in Nazi documentation.

Link to Nuremberg Trial cross-examination of Göring by Maxwell Fyfe.

Later in his career Maxwell Fyfe was involved in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights and notoriously for his refusal to grant clemency to commute Derek Bentley’s controversial death sentence.

2 Comments to “From Aberdeen to the Nuremberg Trials – Maxwell Fyfe”

  1. The picture attached to your blog is Khaki Roberts, another UK Nuremberg prosecutor. Maxwell Fyfe was born in Edinburgh, although his father was the last Rector of the Grammar School, Old Aberdeen between 1887-92′ In the summer of 1945 Maxwell Fyfe chaired the London conference at which we enthusiastically supported Robert Jackson’s plans for trial.

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