East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. By Philippe Sands. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. i–xxx + 464 pp. HB £20.00. My Nazi Legacy, BBC, 2015. DVD £7.99. A Song of Good and Evil (performance), Southbank Centre, London, 29–30 November 2014. How often does a book reviewed in the British Yearbook of International Law also get covered in dailies across the world and glossies such as Vanity Fair?1 How often does one read a book on international legal concepts overnight, and subsequently buy it as a Christmas present for dozens of friends and relatives? How often do books on international legal concepts inspire BBC radio shows,2 a documentary3 and a theatre production?4 Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity is an exceptional book, even by Sands’ own standards. Some of his previous books on international law, in particular Lawless World (2006) and Torture Team (2008), already managed to reach the general public, informing it about the illegalities of the war on terror and the widespread use of torture in that war. Sands has done it again and better than ever: popularising international law. While the indefatigable Sands is already working on promising sequels,5East West Street may be the story of his life. Reviewing only the 464 pages of the book would not do justice to Sands’ creative skills. East West Street is only one dimension of a multifaceted project in which Sands became so engrossed that it must have taken over, or have become, his life. Not afraid to share ideas at an early stage, he travelled the world tirelessly to speak about the key actors and main ideas long before the book came out; published some of the interviews that informed the book in newspaper articles;6 staged a performance, A Song of Good and Evil, starring amongst others Vanessa Redgrave, and wrote a documentary, My Nazi Legacy, for which he enlisted the director of Downton Abbey. In a day and age in which scholars are encouraged to think about dissemination of their work, ideally in forms other than long academic texts, Sands is far ahead of the game. But since the book develops his ideas to the fullest, let’s focus on East West Street. Its ten-page prologue essentially contains everything that the book is about. It introduces the dramatis personae: Hersch Lauterpacht, Professor of International Law, credited with, among others, suggesting the inclusion of the term ‘crimes against humanity’ in the Nuremberg Charter; Rafael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the concept ‘genocide’; Hans Frank, yet another lawyer, at one time Hitler’s favourite, and governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland; and Leon Buchholz, Sands’ grandfather, fleeing that very same Nazi regime. The prologue also introduces the book’s key concepts: ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’, which, Sands argues, are fundamentally different because the former focuses on the protection of specific groups, and the latter on individuals. The prologue takes us to the book’s key places: Lviv/Lemberg/Lwów/Lvov, the now Ukrainian and once Austro-Hungarian, once Polish and once Soviet town (hereinafter referred to by its present name, Lviv), and the courtroom in Nuremberg, the location of the famous trial of the Nazi leadership. Sands brings all of these people and places together in a captivating narrative. Preparing for a lecture at the Faculty of Law in Lviv about his work as a barrister practising international law he discovers that not only his grandfather Leon, but also two prominent figures in his field, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, had close ties to the city of Lviv, over which one of the Nuremberg defendants, Hans Frank, once governed. He also finds out that both Lemkin and Lauterpacht, at the time of his lecture unbeknownst to the Faculty’s scholars, staff and students, both studied law at that very same faculty. These discoveries lead Sands to embark on a research project to unearth the family histories of Leon Buchholz, Rafael Lemkin, Hersch Lauterpacht and Hans Frank, a project that has spanned more years and continents than he is likely to have anticipated when accepting the lecture invitation. Of these histories, that of his grandfather is the most original and most moving. Other writers had already done much work on Lauterpacht and Lemkin and have contributed to their celebrity status in international law.7 Hans Frank, too, had been subject to biographical work, most notably by his son Niklas Frank, furthering his notoriety.8 However, Leon Buchholz was little known. Few could have written as personal an account of Leon’s family, because most of the family had been murdered in the Holocaust. Perhaps the history of his family is the most moving compared to the histories of the book’s other families exactly because his family was not famous before the war and did not become so after the war (until this book). The account of how the Holocaust affected one family is yet another reminder of the impossibility of grasping the scale and intensity of the destruction inherent in that event. Millions and millions of families, all so ordinary and yet all so unique, suffered that same fate of losing almost everyone. Without Sands’ personal efforts to discover his own family history, Leon would have remained yet another ‘l’homme inconnu’.9 While the families’ histories are mostly presented in separate chapters, Sands does bring them together. Two places do a lot of work to combine these family histories: Lviv and Nuremberg. Lviv functions as the city with which all of the key actors had some kind of connection: Lauterpacht and Lemkin studied there, Frank visited and gave a speech there, and Sands’ grandfather was born there. While the book highlights many a coincidence (for instance, the fact that Adolf Hitler’s sister was a housekeeper at a dormitory run by an organisation chaired by Hersch Lauterpacht), it is the Lviv connection that strikes Sands the most. Connecting Lauterpacht and Lemkin, Sands suggests in the prologue that ‘[i]t seemed more than just a coincidence that two men who did more than any others to create the modern system of international justice should have origins in the same city’ (xxviii). But the emphasis in the rest of the book is more on coincidence than on ‘more than just a coincidence’; it does not transform the coincidence into correlation. This would have been very hard to do. If ‘origins’ are the place where one is born and raised, Lviv does not work for Lemkin; as Sands describes, he came from a place in today’s Belarus and only studied in Lviv. It would have been even harder to justify the inclusion of Frank and even more so Leon only on the basis of Lviv: Frank’s rule had its ruinous effects in other towns, too, and there were so many people like Leon in Lviv. If Lviv is the place of origins, Nuremberg is the place of the book’s catharsis, the place where justice is done. Lauterpacht sits in the courtroom as part of the British team; Frank is condemned to hanging; Lemkin listens to the outcome of the trial on a radio while in a hospital in Paris; and the charges include offences of which Leon was a victim. But again, whereas the protagonists clearly share an interest in Nuremberg, the connections are too weak for it to be Nuremberg that holds the book together. Rather than a place, it is a character that is the book’s strongest thread: Philippe Sands himself. Writing in the first person, Sands does not try to hide his own connecting role. He gets invited to Lviv; as a barrister he works with the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide that Lauterpacht and Lemkin, respectively, propagated; he has since long been interested in the Nuremberg trial and has been involved in other international criminal justice and human rights cases; one of his key legal mentors was Hersch Lauterpacht’s son, Elihu Lauterpacht; and Leon was his mother. Sands wanted to understand the family silences, to know his own origins and to understand whether his worldview is more closely connected to the concept of genocide or that of crimes against humanity. ‘Who am I?’ is the implied question that the book answers. So, for Sands, East West Street may not just be the story of his life, but also the story of his life. The fact that Sands is the central figure makes the book no less interesting—on the contrary. As if reading a Dan Brown novel, we stare with Sands at a scrap of paper that holds a potential clue to his family’s history, we board planes to meet those who may have known the people who saved his mother’s life, and we await the outcome of a DNA test to see whether someone other than the man whom he always believed to be his grandfather is more likely to have been that. In his search for truth, Sands spares no effort, expense or potential personal shock, as in the case of the DNA test. Sands’ detective-style writing makes the book ‘unputdownable’, in the words of Orlando Figes on the cover.10 No less telling is the fact that another endorsement comes from John Le Carré, the world’s best-known espionage novelist. A true detective, Sands discovers facts about peoples’ lives that they have intentionally been quiet about. As Franziska Exeler has observed, it is a book about family silences.11 Sands’ grandfather not only refused to speak about the war, but did not even mention the fact that he once had a big family in Lviv. Hersch Lauterpacht was quiet about the fate of his family. Herta Gruber, Leon’s niece who survived the war in Palestine, is cited as saying: ‘I decided a very long time ago that this was a period that I did not wish to remember. I have not forgotten. I have chosen not to remember’ (p. 322). But Sands goes beyond the detective who uncovers what some try to hide. In the documentary, My Nazi Legacy, more than in the book, we also see him as a prosecutor: he confronts people with evidence and interrogates them from a position of knowing the law and what is right and wrong. He confronts Horst von Wächter, the son of Otto von Wächter, a high-ranking Nazi who was Governor of the district of Galicia, with the crimes committed by his father. He presents his own mother with the facts that her father might have been gay and that her mother sent her as a toddler to Paris, remaining herself in Vienna, possibly because of an affair. Not only does he confront people with evidence, he also tries to confront them with each other. In a London theatre, Sands stages Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, and publicly juxtaposes the former’s absolute condemnation of his father with the latter’s reluctance to do so. Some people, namely Hersch Lauterpacht’s son Elihu, refused to participate in such confrontations. These confrontations raise a fundamental question that is becoming pertinent in the field of international law. With advocates increasingly pushing not just for ‘a right to truth’, but also ‘a duty to remember’, the question arises to what extent an individual survivor’s (as opposed to perpetrator’s) desire not to know or not to remember also deserves respect. Recall Herta Gruber’s position: ‘I have not forgotten. I have chosen not to remember’. In my own research relating to transitional justice in situations that are often labelled ‘post-conflict’ (even though the conflict still shapes every aspect of life) I have encountered survivors who, confronted with transitional-justice practitioners who stress the importance of dealing with the past, raised the question whether they did not have ‘a right to forget’. In My Nazi Legacy Sands comments in the beginning that at times he felt voyeuristic looking at Frank’s and Von Wächter’s family albums. This comment is not followed by a ‘but’; some watchers of the documentary may feel this discomfort throughout. It is intensified by Sands’ mixing of roles: he approaches his interviewees as a historian, prosecutor, judge and personal friend, all at the same time. In his professional life, Sands would not be able to combine all these roles in one. But an implicit argument in this entire project seems to be that the professional is hugely personal, and Sands does not hold back in revealing how multidimensional his personal relationship to the subject is. Sands does not just mix roles; he also mixes genres. As a result, the book is not just unputdownable, but also unpindownable. According to the cover of the book it is ‘part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller’. But it is more than that: it is also part psychological drama, part ‘third-generation Holocaust representation’, part Yizkor, part life story.12 This mixing of genres makes the book rich, but also difficult to review. As what, and for what, should one evaluate it? For its contribution to knowledge about international law? For its contribution to the history of World War II and the Nuremberg trial? For its insights into the psychology of family silences? The risk of adopting the criteria of one particular genre is to assess the book according to standards that it never intended to fulfil. The qualification ‘part’ does not merely indicate what the book partly is, but also implies what it is not entirely. The book goes into history, but is not a conventional history. Whereas the historian would provide only the outcome of her research,13 Sands does not reduce his detective work to some comments about sources and methodology in an introduction; he makes it the central story line. And successfully so: his passion for the research is one of the book’s most enthusing features. Like a dog with a bone, he does not let go. It shows an energy, drive and commitment that other scholars may also have, but seldom share as explicitly in their writings. A psychologist might have wished for more development as to why some people respond so differently to their pasts, for instance, whether it was not easier for Niklas Frank to condemn his father’s public acts precisely because he also condemned him as a father, something that Horst von Wächter was unwilling to do. Or what personal experiences might explain Lemkin’s focus on protecting groups and Lauterpacht’s on the individual? But neither the book nor the documentary claims to be a psychological case study. The legal scholar might wish more development of the contrast between the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide, a contrast that Sands paints, but on which one might like to push him further. Or indeed, the lawyer may wish him to consider that there may ultimately be more similarities than differences between the two concepts, for both are part of a response that focuses on individual criminal responsibility for political violence, as opposed to, for instance, state responsibility or political accountability. An international lawyer might also wish the book to use more precise terminology: for instance, to speak of the origins of international criminal law, rather than international law, for the latter antedates the former by centuries. Similarly, the use of the concept ‘international justice’ as synonym for ‘international criminal justice’ reduces the notion ‘justice’ to a set of retributive practices and marginalises other dimensions of the concept, such as restorative and distributive justice. However, the publisher may have considered such terminological precision legalese, standing in the way of popular engagement. The academic, irrespective of the discipline, might have wished for more footnotes, providing authorities for each and every claim or acknowledging that others have made similar discoveries. But the publisher probably thought that footnotes would have been an obstacle to getting people beyond lawyers to continue reading. One could rebut: ‘change publisher’, but this publisher is to be praised for having made its contribution to making the book accessible to the general public: how many books concerning international law consisting of almost 500 pages are available for £20, transforming it from a book for academics with a book budget to a cherished birthday present? Reading East West Street as a life story, as Sands’ attempt to make sense of his own, most interesting, life, one can best appreciate all the book’s dimensions: the legal, the historical, the psychological. Life stories are by definition teleological reconstructions: they reconstruct lives, past and present, to make sense. With Sands, we make sense of who Sands is, and what he does, against the background of his family’s history. Characteristic of life stories is that they give history a purpose that it may at times have lacked; the moment we try to narrate our lives, there is often little room for contingency. In that light, one wonders what Sands’ brother does in his daily life: has he been similarly shaped by the family’s experiences and silences? The teleology of a life story also explains choices, for instance, why we read about Sands’ career in human rights law and international criminal law, and not about the other fields of international law that he is also well known for. In order to create a coherent life story, we cannot include everything—after all, some dimensions of our lives make little sense, even to ourselves. Or they do not represent the values that we wish to stand for. The key to life stories is to appreciate them for what they are: unique. That also applies to East West Street: a unique, unputdownable and unpindownable personal exploration of family silences and histories. Unique as they are, life stories are inherently ungeneralizable. So one must resist the temptation to funnel the emotions that this book evokes—outrage against the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, admiration for intellectual giants and for determined activists—into blind support for the international criminal tribunals that Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Sands helped shape. A few sections in the book could be interpreted to present a reading of the history of the field of international criminal justice (defined as international criminal law enforced by international criminal tribunals) that is as teleological as that of a life story: from ‘Lviv via Nuremberg to The Hague’, an endorsement of one of Sands’ earlier works, titled ‘From Nuremberg to The Hague’.14 However, focusing on the years before, during and immediately after the war, the book provides little evidentiary support for such a reading of history. Nor is this book’s focus on understanding political violence or analysing whether criminal law is the most effective way to curtail it. For such understanding, we must turn to Hannah Arendt or Judith Skhlar rather than Lauterpacht or Lemkin (which the feminist might interpret as ‘more women, fewer men’). For this reason, I have difficulties with reviews that recommend senior politicians to read this book with a view to attaching policy consequences to it.15 Authors cannot control readers’ interpretations, and the consequences they attach to those interpretations. However, it is instructive that the book has been labelled as falling into yet another genre: a meditation,16 standing still at a particular issue, rather than providing a definitive answer. Few books have so masterfully succeeded in gripping the attention of thousands of people and making them think about two concepts in international criminal law. May this page-turner serve as a reason to stand still and reflect, rather than an immediate call for action in one specific direction. Footnotes 1 C Murphy, ‘5 Questions for Philippe Sands Ahead of His Nazi-Era Saga East West Street’, Vanity Fair (New York, 27 May 2016) <https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/05/phillipe-sands-east-west-street-nazi-genocide>. 2 J Rozenberg, ‘Crimes Against Humanity’, Law in Action, BBC Radio 4 (31 May 2016) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07cvlmb>. 3My Nazi Legacy (BBC 2015). 4A Song of Good and Evil (performance), Southbank Centre (London, 29–30 November 2014). 5 See P Sands, ‘Rome Diary: author Philippe Sands goes in search of old Nazi refuges’, Financial Times (London, 16 June 2017) <https://www.ft.com/content/c80b1404-5058-11e7-a1f2-db19572361bb?mhq5j=e4>. 6 See, eg, P Sands, ‘My father, the good Nazi’, Financial Times Weekend Magazine (London, 30 June 2013) <https://www.ft.com/content/7d6214f2-b2be-11e2-8540-00144feabdc0?mhq5j=e4>. 7 S Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books 2002); E Lauterpacht, The Life of Hersch Lauterpacht (CUP 2010); M Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870–1960 (CUP 2002) ch 5; M Koskenniemi, ‘Hersch Lauterpacht and the Development of International Criminal Law’ (2004) 2(3) Journal of International Criminal Justice 810; AF Vrdoljak, ‘Human Rights and Genocide: The Work of Lauterpacht and Lemkin in Modern International Law’ (2010) 20(4) EJIL 1163. 8 N Frank, Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung (C Bertelsmann 1987), translated into English as In the Shadow of the Reich (Alfred A Knopf 1991). See also D Schenk, Hans Frank: Hitlers Kronjurist und Generalgouverneur (Fischer Taschenbuch 2008). 9 A Makine, La vie d’un homme inconnu (Seuil 2009), translated into English as The Life of an Unknown Man (Sceptre 2011). 10 Orlando Figes, endorsement on the cover. 11 Franziska Exeler during the book launch of East West Street at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, 21 November 2016, podcast available at < https://itunes.apple.com/gb/itunes-u/lcil-international-law-seminar-series/id472214191?mt=10>. 12 For more genres, see S Moyn, ‘Local Roots, Universal Rights’, The Wall Street Journal (New York, 31 May 2016) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/local-roots-parochial-rights-1464734304>: ‘The result feels like a mashup of two familiar genres: The Eastern European Jewish family odyssey and “Great Jewish Sports Heroes,” with lawyers subbing for baseball players.’ 13 RJ Evans, ‘East West Street by Philippe Sands and A Passing Fury by AT Williams—review’, The Guardian (London, 6 July 2016) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/06/east-west-street-philippe-sands-a-passing-fury-at-williams-review>. 14 P Sands (ed), From Nuremberg to The Hague: The Future of International Criminal Justice (CUP 2003). 15 BH Lévy, ‘“East West Street,” by Philippe Sands’, New York Times (New York, 23 May 2016) <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/books/review/east-west-street-by-philippe-sands.html>. 16 AD Moses, ‘Popularizing the History of International Criminal Law’, Lawfare (3 June 2016) <https://www.lawfareblog.com/popularizing-history-international-criminal-law>. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. Available online at www.bybil.oxfordjournals.org
The British Yearbook of International Law – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 9, 2018
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