East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity, by Philippe Sands

Summary: an lucid and important exploration of the personal consequences of atrocity, and the origins of international human rights law.

East West Street is something of a hybrid of a book. It is part family memoir: Sands’ maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust, but never spoke about their experiences. And while loving people, they never smiled much, something that becomes more understandable as their biographies are painstakingly revealed.

In part the book is a history of the philosophy of international law. The book is also a joint biography of the originators of key concepts of human rights: Rafael Lemkin postulated the idea of “genocide” – the destruction of groups of people based on their identity; Hersch Lauterpacht formulated the idea of “crimes against humanity” – atrocities against individual civilians, often by their own governments.

What binds all this into a remarkable whole is the strange coincidence that, like Sands’ grandfather, Lemkin and Lauterpacht had deep ties with the city of Lviv, currently in Ukraine, previously known as Lemberg when it was in the Hapsburg empire. It was there that Lemkin and Lauterpacht originally studied law, and may well have come to know each other, though they do not seem ever to have become friends. Lemkin was a solitary and spiky soul. Lauterpacht had deep concerns that the concept of genocide would drive human beings deeper into their group identities and hence perpetuate the roots of genocide, if not its actual manifestation.

Nevertheless, both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are now important concepts in international human rights law. However, it was a struggle to get them accepted at Nuremberg. The US and the UK did not like the idea of genocide having been formidable practitioners of it themselves in the past. The Soviets, whose own campaign in the East had been marked with atrocity, including mass rape during the conquest of Berlin, did not like the concept of “crimes against humanity.” Nevertheless, Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s advocacy, and the interventions of Robert Jackson the chief US prosecutor, and Hartley Shawcross, the British Attorney General, eventually got them included.

The book builds considerable momentum towards its climax at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Here the personal, political and legal strands of the book are drawn together into what must be the most important courtroom drama in history. Sands focusses particularly on the case of Hans Frank in this trial. Himself a lawyer, as Governor General of Nazi occupied territories in Poland, Frank was ultimately responsible for the murders of many of Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s families, as well as members of Sands’ own family. 

In the course of writing this lucid and important book Sands became friends with Frank’s son, Niklas. Together in the courtroom where his father was sentenced to death, Niklas described it as a “happy place.” Later Niklas explained further that he was against the death penalty, but not for his own father. 

East West Street is a mighty book.

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