Book review: East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

Author: Philippe Sands
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2016)
Format: Hardcover 496pp and e-book
​ISBN: 9781474601900

Much larger issues dominate Professor Philippe Sands QC’s East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Those who have seen his documentary My Nazi Legacy will already know part of the story, which is repeated here. There are four ‘main characters’ but also important are certain cities; in particular Lvov or Lemberg as it was called when it was the capital of Austrian Galicia. The classic Galician town was laid out on an east/west, north/south axis, hence the book’s title. Lemberg is one of the tragedies of twentieth century Europe: during the century it found itself in eight different countries and was subject to multiple ethnic cleansings. It was simultaneously the home of Sands’ maternal grandfather and of Hersch Lauterpacht, the future Cambridge professor who contributed hugely to the jurisprudence of the Nuremberg trials and the corpus of law which emerged from them.

Much of the book is about this development in international law. There are two unlikely antagonists: Lauterpacht and the lawyer Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht developed the notion of ‘crimes against humanity.’ His work on an International Bill of Rights of the individual inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. He focused on the individual as a means of diminishing inter-group conflict. Lemkin, who went to law school in Lemberg, invented the word ‘genocide’. To him what mattered was what happened to the group. Despite his desperate efforts, no one was convicted of genocide at Nuremberg but the UN adopted a Genocide Convention the day before the Universal Declaration.

The book also deals with two other lawyers, the ones who carried out extermination in Poland: the German governor of Poland, Hans Frank, and the man he put in charge at Lemberg, Otto von Wachter. In My Nazi Legacy, as here, Sands draws out the stories of both men and of their respective sons, Niklas Frank who hated his father and what he did, and Horst von Wachter who continues to seek the good in his father despite the mounting evidence against him. It was Otto von Wachter who effectively was in charge of murdering Hersch Lauterpacht’s family. The two men had in fact been classmates in Vienna. Lemkin’s family was murdered at Treblinka at the same time as Sands’ great-grandmother. Earlier, she had lived on the same east/west street as the Lauterpachts. Such tragic connections weave themselves throughout the book. One of the oddest is that when Lauterpacht was a law student after World War I he helped to organise a hostel for Jewish students. They needed a housekeeper and hired Hitler’s sister.

This is not conventional history-telling. In terms of time, the narrative moves back and forth, between the various people and places and between the public and the private. Much of it is told as if Sands is sitting in the room talking to you and taking you through his researches. The Holocaust itself comes into it in brief but powerful passages. Lauterpacht’s niece watched through the window as her mother is arrested and her father runs out after her. She never saw them again and was left to save herself, aged 12. It took 15 minutes from the moment Sands’ great-grandmother and the others arrived at Treblinka, were stripped naked and were gassed.

The personal story is about his family, and in particular his maternal grandparents. Sands spent many years piecing it together, digging up archives, travelling around the world and engaging many researchers. A surprising number of records survive, but there are also blanks. His grandfather left Vienna in 1939 without his wife or daughter. The daughter (Sands’ mother) was brought to Paris thanks to an extraordinary English Baptist missionary with a zeal for protecting the Jews but with the hope of converting them. His grandmother didn’t escape until the last minute in 1941. Why didn’t they all get out together? He can only speculate. And then there are the years of silence from the survivors themselves. Sands visits an ancient Viennese cousin, who escaped to Palestine in 1938. She tells him that she has not forgotten but she has chosen not to remember.

In the end everyone, Jewish and German, are people rather than mere symbols. Frank was a good pianist and may have suppressed his homosexuality. Lemkin was impossible to get on with. Sands’ grandmother may have stayed on in Vienna in order to pursue an affair. As for the two international lawyers, they had as students been taught that there was nothing that could be done if a state oppressed its own citizens in accordance with its own laws. Their achievement was to enshrine the principle that there was international criminal law and that an international court could pass judgment on a state whose laws and actions breached it. Lauterpacht wanted that to have ‘teeth’ and he got it: the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950, with a key role in the drafting going to the British Nuremberg prosecutor David Maxwell Fyffe.

In 2016 I received a Brexit leaflet which in part exulted in the opportunity which Brexit would give us to withdraw from that Convention and from the European Court. Being subject to international law can be uncomfortable.

Much of it is told as if Sands is sitting in the room talking to you and taking you through his researches. The Holocaust itself comes into it in brief but powerful passages

Reviewer David Wurtzel, Counsel Editorial Board