March 20, 2009 / 1:06 AM / 10 years ago

Nuremberg lawyer said "knocked Goering off perch"

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s main prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials recalled in a letter to his wife how he felt he got the better of “fat boy” Hermann Goering during cross examination after his U.S. counterpart had faltered.

Previously unseen letters between David Maxwell Fyfe, British deputy chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, and his wife Sylvia have been donated to the Churchill Archives Center at Cambridge University and shed new light on the famous trial.

“Friday morning, I think that my cross examination of Goering went off all right,” he wrote, referring to the senior Nazi and Luftwaffe chief.

“Everyone here was very pleased. (U.S. chief prosecutor Robert H.) Jackson had not only made no impression but actually built up the fat boy further. I think I knocked him reasonably off his perch.” The donation of 205 letters was made on Friday, the 63rd anniversary of Maxwell Fyfe’s interrogation of Goering.

The lawyer’s grandson Tom Blackmore discovered his grandparents’ letters in the vaults of a London solicitor in 1999 having previously feared they were lost. He then set about transcribing and organizing the correspondence.

“In March, 1946 Maxwell Fyfe’s cross-examination of Goering at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials began to pour light on the guilt of the leaders of the Third Reich,” Blackmore said.

“It set the tone for the practical presentation of evidence to prove the guilt of those in the dock. And Maxwell Fyfe followed it up with the forensic destruction of (Joachim) von Ribbentrop, (Karl) Doenitz and (Franz) von Papen.”


Allen Packwood, director of Churchill Archives Center, said that although transcripts of the trial were freely available, the letters gave new insight into the private thoughts of one of the main players at Nuremberg.

“What the private letters do is give insight into some of the personalities and characters involved in these momentous events,” he told Reuters.

“They are aware they are involved in momentous events. He was charged with cross-examining Goering in what was a make-or-break moment for him. He knows if it goes well it will have huge implications for his own career, which it does.”

Maxwell Fyfe went on to enjoy a successful political career and was instrumental in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights.

“These letters bring forward the difficult circumstances,” said Packwood. “There are these people dragged from their families to spend a year in Nuremberg, a city in ruins, a grim and claustrophobic place to be.”

Packwood believed Maxwell Fyfe’s success was based on his decision to focus on Goering’s alleged involvement in a specific event — the shooting of British airmen who escaped from prison.

Historians debate whether he proved Goering’s guilt, but several believe that he rattled a hitherto confident suspect.

“It was very important for the credibility of the court given that this was the first time you had nations coming together in this way to try representatives of a defeated nation under international law,” said Packwood.

“It was important for its credibility for Goering not to be able to dominate.”

Goering was sentenced to death, a ruling Packwood believes would have been handed down with or without Maxwell Fyfe, but poisoned himself in his cell hours before he was to be hanged.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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