Two very different lawyers from recent history were involved in struggles which we recognise today.
There is an informal competition in our office to find names for our meeting rooms – the Nelson or Wellington Room, say, except that we are not looking for British military figures whose reputation would cause apoplexy in other European countries, but rather European lawyers whom we can all agree have distinguished themselves as lawyers in history.
Whom would you choose?
I have put forward two names. The first is Louis Braffort (1886-1944), a Belgian criminal lawyer who had the misfortune (I have no doubt he considered it an honour) to be elected as president of the Brussels Bar on 4 July 1939. Less than a year later, Brussels was occupied by the Nazis after the country’s surrender on 28 May 1940.
On 28 October 1940, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the German military governor of Belgium, issued an order that the names of Jewish lawyers be submitted to the authorities so that they could be expelled from the bar. Louis Braffort refused to do this. With the head of the ‘Cour de Cassation’ and the ‘Procureur Général’, he wrote a letter saying that to expect Belgian lawyers to stop being independent would be to ask them to stop being themselves.
He survived in his position until nearly the end of the war. In 1944, the Rex movement, a pro-Nazi collaborationist group, published a list of leading figures that it wanted eliminated. Louis Braffort’s name was on the list. He refused to go into hiding, because he said that if he hid, someone would replace him who would face the same risk.
He was seized by three Rexists at his home on 22 August 1944, at the same time as the radio was announcing the imminent liberation of Brussels (which took place on 3 September). Two days later his corpse was found, with four bullets in it.
Courage is not the only virtue which shows lawyers at their best. A vision of a better world is another. The Nobel Peace Prize was given in the early years of the 20th century to a number of lawyer-politicians who worked for an improvement in international relations through greater reliance on the law.
Elihu Root, the American statesman, was awarded the peace prize in 1912 for trying to ensure that conflicts between states would be resolved in future by arbitration – for example, after World War I, he participated in the development of the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague. (Another American lawyer-politician, Cordell Hull (1945), received the prize for his efforts to set up the United Nations.)
But there was a European lawyer among this group, who was awarded the prize in 1911: Tobias Michel Karel Asser (1838-1913), a law professor from the Netherlands. He was co-founder in 1873 of the Institute of International Law, which was itself the first organisation to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in its own right (1904).
Asser was an expert in international private law. He has been compared to his countryman, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), the founder of international law. But Asser concentrated on the impact of international relations on private law – advocating that countries should enter into binding agreements on how private law disputes should be settled, such as those involving marriage, separation and divorce.
His textbook on international private law was translated into several languages.
If you look at the website of The Hague Conference on Private International Law, which now regulates areas such as the international protection of children, family and property relations, you will see that its first session was convened in 1893 by the Dutch government on the initiative of Asser. And he was instrumental in setting up the Permanent Court of Arbitration, too.
So there are two very different European lawyers from recent history, involved in struggles which we recognise today – Braffort and Asser. I am sure that there are more. I am prepared to share the chocolate prize with anyone who comes up with better winning suggestions.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs