Jews, Letter from London, Money, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Letter from London: Our Greatest Fear

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, more than half of Berlin’s 3,400 lawyers were of Jewish origin. All of them, alongside the thousands of other Jews practising law throughout the rest of Germany, were forced to re-apply for admission to the national bar. At which point, only German-Jewish lawyers who had qualified before 1914, or who had fought at the front line in the First World War, were granted the right to continue in their profession. And in November 1938, even this select group was banned from practising. Many German-Jewish lawyers would subsequently be murdered in concentration camps. Others managed to flee to the U.S., where some, like the late Coudert Brothers lawyer Ernst Stiefel, eventually re-qualified as U.S. attorneys.

I learnt about Stiefel — who, before being admitted in the States, completed spells as a chauffeur, busboy, and dishwasher in New York, having undergone a period of internment as an “enemy alien” in the U.K. — from an excellent pamphlet produced by the German Federal Bar and the American Bar Association, “Jewish Lawyers in Germany under the Third Reich,” that I happened upon last week in the reception room of the English Law Society’s office in Brussels. I was there to listen to the English legal representative body’s arguments against a proposal for a new single Europe-wide contract law, having spent the first part of the day listening to the E.U.’s arguments in favour of the plan.

At face value, a single European contract law is about exciting as, well, Brussels (imagine an Eiffel Tower-less Paris without the joie de vivre, or a diluted Euro-version of Washington, D.C.)….

But the proposal is actually a pretty big deal, going to the heart of the debates about national sovereignty currently raging in Europe as we battle to contain the Greek debt crisis. The central issue is this: do E.U. countries move closer together to help the weaker ones, or do we drop the European masterplan, let Greece default, and go our separate ways?

As we try to come up with an answer to this question, the story that keeps playing in the back of our minds is the 1930s of our grandparents, with its wild inflation, extremist governments, and ultimately, the horrific death and destruction of World War Two and the Holocaust. We really don’t want a re-run of that.

Those who view salvation to be a truly federal Europe, with greater economic, political, and legal union, cite the fact that in aggregate the E.U. is less indebted relative to the size of its economy than the U.S. While they admit that creating the necessary central fiscal control to re-apportion debt between the poorer European countries to the richer ones would be politically tricky, they believe that doing so would not only get us out of jail, but be the first step towards economic growth. Who knows, they argue, facilitated by measures like a single, Europe-wide contract law, we might even end up building a prosperous super-state to rival the U.S.!

But the Eurosceptics are convinced that greater integration is a continuation of the idealistic thinking behind the creation of the Euro that got us into this mess in the first place. Down the line, they predict that a federal Europe would result in an even more damaging implosion than the one we’d witness if the E.U. countries were to break up now. To this group belong many U.K. lawyers — particularly London Biglaw attorneys — who fear greater integration could, in time, see the civil code used by the majority of E.U. countries erode the authority of the English common law. This is one of the main reasons the English Law Society is against the idea of a single European contract law.

Yesterday, a vote in the British Houses of Parliament about whether we should hold a referendum on our membership of the E.U. (although the U.K. didn’t adopt the Euro, we are still members of the E.U.) came back with the emphatic answer: no. But the fact that a vote contemplating this radical notion was held at all, at such a delicate time, speaks volumes about the mood here right now. To date, thanks to some hard bargaining from our government, Britain has avoided putting its hand in its pocket to help out its southern European partners. If the debt crisis were to worsen, and Britain forced to flip the Greeks a few quid, the outcome of a future vote on this matter would be far from assured.

Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at

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