Throughout the year of the Nuremberg War Crime Trials, David and Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe corresponded on a regular basis.
Early in the trial the telephone did not work, and it was unclear if Sylvia was going to be able to visit. At that time the letters were especially detailed and interesting. As the trial developed, Sylvia visited, Maxwell Fyfe returned home for major festivals, and the letters became more sketchy, in particular, when Maxwell Fyfe was very busy during the cross-examinations. However they became full once more during the final days of the trial when he was waiting for the end while conducting the prosecution of the organisations of the Nazi state.
These letters are in the first place love letters between two people suffering a post war separation.
However, much light is thrown by them on the story of the trials, its purpose and its leading characters.
There is something inexplicably mysterious about a story lost that is subsequently found. The time capsule, the buried treasure, the search for lost truth – all are the stuff of epic humanity.
The rediscovery of the Maxwell Fyfe letters hardly falls into the same category – albeit that they were indeed stored in the vaults of the City solicitors Allen and Overy. The contact was mundane, a brief letter describing boxes of material left by David Maxwell Fyfe, a surprisingly large number of boxes as I discovered as I stacked them into the London cab.
As a family we had known of these letters for some time. Without my having any real knowledge of the subject, the failure to find them had registered as a disappointment when my grandmother died in 1992. The assumption was that she might have thrown them away. For a woman who had spent her life close to public office, she seemed to have little desire to record for posterity. Or perhaps this was because she had spent her life close to public office.
The traffic was grim as the taxi edged its way across London from the City; it took a couple of hours to make the journey. There was time enough to open boxes and glance at their contents. And I shook.
The letters were there, and within them was a story of a time, a place and two lovers separated for a year, discovering a purpose, fame and a moment of definition. I knew little enough about Nuremberg (the Oxford history degree of 1982 saw the post war period as current affairs), but the names of Goering, Ribbentrop and Doenitz were familiar, and here they were discussed in familiar terms.
It seemed to me at once that here was the discovery of something extraordinary, a little mysterious and if not an epic tale then an intimate tale of an epic event.