Lead book review

Genocide is named and shamed

Before the Nuremberg Trials, neither genocide nor crimes against humanity were recognised concepts. In his moving East West Street, Philippe Sands describes their origins (within his own family) and their inspiration

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Philippe Sands

Weidenfeld, pp.480, £20, ISBN: 9781474601900

One of the things Philippe Sands clearly remembers from his grandparents’ Paris apartment — a rather sombre, silent place — is the lack of family photographs. There’s a single, framed, unsmiling wedding photo, and that’s all. There is no mood of bittersweet nostalgia, there are no nods to memory or history. Where did his grandparents come from? How did they end up as these people, whom he knew only towards the end of their lives? Retrieving that history, that deliberately unremembered story, is the beginning of Sands’s task in this remarkable book.

Generically speaking, the story is familiar enough. Leon Buchholtz — Sands’s grandfather — was born in what was then Lemberg, in the very heart of Europe. As the first world war began to take its toll on the family, young Leon and his surviving family moved west (like so many others), to Vienna. He married Rita, their marriage witnessed by her brother, Wilhelm, a dentist. Leon ran a liquor store. Then came the Anschluss; some Jews left, some remained. Leon was one of those who left. But his wife and their infant daughter — Sands’s mother — stayed behind. Why? Rita would only leave on 9 November 1939, the day before the borders closed. Sands’s two maternal great-grandmothers were soon on a train east, to Theresienstadt.

Eventually Leon and Rita settled in Paris, where he was involved with the French Resistance, sending packages to the camps and ghettos in German-occupied Poland. Among the documents Sands examined in his research were the postal receipts for these dispatches. For the rest of his life, Leon would keep a great deal of evidence — some of which ended up with Sands’s mother, Ruth, and another trove in a plastic shopping bag with his aunt Annie — but he did not speak of this time.

Sands is tenacious in his investigations, however. He examines construction plans and permits; he conducts careful analysis of photos (he is a lawyer, after all, a professional scrutiniser of evidence); he consults school registers and cadastral records, undergoes DNA tests, visits significant places (sometimes wandering around Lemberg with three different historical maps).

And he has a taste for detail. Does it matter that Wilhelm was a dentist? That aunt Annie’s stash of letters was in a plastic bag? It does. The detail makes for vivid reading, but it also serves posterity; it is memorial. We all know there are countless stories a bit like Leon’s. My family has them, and so perhaps does yours. But that very countlessness is the most grotesque kind of shorthand, especially at a time of such extreme, mechanised dehumanisation. Think of prisoners in concentration camps, all indistinguishable in their striped uniforms, their heads all shaved; think of the ghetto Jews, each distilled to the presence of his essential, defining yellow star, the four million Jews and Poles murdered in Polish territory. The things that make the stories individual should matter. The dignity is in the detail. Sands carefully assembles one such story.

But Leon Buchholz is only part of it.

Dr Julius Makarewicz was a professor of law at the university of Lemberg. His students in 1917 included a young man by the name of Hersch Lauterpacht, intelligent and intense with a striking sense of humour. Lauterpacht had been born in Zólkiew (where Leon’s family was from, too), and lived in Lemberg from his teenage years. Lauterpacht’s courses at the university included one on ‘optimism and pessimism’, while Makarewicz taught him Austrian criminal law. He, too, would move to Vienna; and 15 years before Leon would flee to Paris, Lauterpacht made for England. In England he would develop his ideas about the formation and enforcing of international law, regardless of state jurisdictions. ‘The well-being of an individual is the ultimate object of all law,’ he wrote. He remained deeply engaged with the situation in Poland, and kept up a correspondence with his family, but never spoke to his son of his own time there. More silences.

In time Lauterpacht would come to be a professor of international law at Cambridge, and a friend and adviser to the US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, an ally against American isolationism and eventually chief US prosecutor at Nuremberg. It was in a conversation with Jackson that Lauterpacht first used the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’.

But back to Lemberg and 1920 — by which time the winds of change had blown once again. Lemberg had become Lviv, Lviv became Lwów, washed over by successive imperial tides. Professor Makarewicz was still teaching at the university, though his course was no longer in Austrian but Polish criminal law. And this year — so soon after Lauterpacht had graduated — his students included another remarkable young man, Rafael Lemkin. Following an influenza pandemic, he had taken an early interest in the destruction of groups, which came into horrific focus when over a million Armenians were murdered in the summer of 1915. Like his near-contemporary, Lemkin was to develop his own theories of international law, his focus being on group victims. He called this ‘genocide’. These were acts ‘directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of national groups’. (Lauterpacht did not approve of this concept.)

In the autumn of 1945, when the Nuremberg indictment was published, it would include two groundbreaking new notions: Lauterpacht’s ‘crimes against humanity’ and Lemkin’s newly coined ‘genocide’. The difference between these two was fundamental, essential — is the focus on the individuals or the group? — but they had much in common, not least the peculiar coincidence that their originators, though not known to each other personally, had developed their thinking in the very same classroom, under Professor Makarewicz. Leon’s grandson, this book’s author, would grow up to be a human rights lawyer, too.

So, we have three men — Leon, Lauterpacht and Lemkin — each of whom spent some of their early life in Lemberg, and the grandson of one, our author, following the threads that connect them. But there is one life left to tell.

Hans Frank was also a lawyer. But he was Hitler’s lawyer. He helped to draft the Nuremberg decrees, stripping Jews of the rights of citizenship, and he argued for ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states’, and for a legal system whose protections for ‘national community’ — over individual rights — were paramount. He also spent five brutal years in charge of German-occupied Poland, with both Lauterpacht’s and Lemkin’s families suffering under his rule. A cultured man, Frank liberated countless works of art from Polish collections (a ‘protective’ measure, apparently). Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ hung in his private offices. ‘This is how you should comb your hair,’ he told his young son, Niklas.

As a boy, Niklas Frank had been taken to visit the Kraków ghetto. Unable today to love or forgive his father, Niklas accompanies Sands to Courtroom No. 600, where his father was tried. ‘This is a happy room,’ he declares, ‘for me, and for the world.’ But Hans Frank, the ‘Butcher of Warsaw’, is now ‘Niklas’s father’. (If you thought it was impossible to create emotional complexity around an arch-Nazi, you were wrong.) Alongside Niklas Frank, Sands also meets Horst von Wächter, son of Otto von Wächter, the governor of the district of Galicia — but Horst tries to find ways of exonerating or mitigating his father’s guilt (‘I must find the good in my father’) — he was operating only as part of a group, part of a larger system, after all. Sands’s book is about individual vs collective victimhood, but it’s about individual vs collective guilt, too.

Which brings us — the key participants now in place — to Nuremberg. Frank’s name appears on the list of 24 defendants; and the charges referred to in the indictment, in autumn 1945, include both ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’. When Frank took the stand, Lauterpacht was in the room.

The trial and judgment at Nuremberg would be the first test of Lauterpacht and Lemkin’s legacies, and Sands’s extensive account of these manages to be both complex and gripping. But the book’s implicit argument is for the longer legacy of these great legal ideas, each of them developed by one man.

East West Street is a fascinating and revealing book, for the things it explains: the origins of laws that changed our world, no less. It’s also a readable book, and thoughtful, and compassionate. Most fundamentally, though, it’s a book that tells a few individual human stories that lie behind the world-changing ones. That storytelling isn’t redemptive — what could be, in this context? — but it confronts all those silences and challenges them. That challenge makes it an important book, too.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Bonkim

    What about the American Indians, the Incas and the Aborigines of Australia – All those genocides also need investigation.

    • rationality

      I think we’ve been guilt tripped more than enough on those events dont you? Every single non European is allowed to collectively blame us for those events. Dont you think looking at the Bolshevik inflicted Russian and Ukrainian genocides are more pertinent, after all the German one is invoked every single day on yet another article about it.

      • Bonkim

        That was the point – Huge numbers have been exterminated in Russia, China, India/Pakistan, Cambodia, Rwanda, etc, etc as also in Europe and the Americas.

        Man has been beastly on all continents and continues to be although the intensity may not be the same.

        Having said that judging history even the Holocaust by today’s standards is not on. Germany today is exemplary in the treatment of minorities. Minorities continue to suffer in Asia, Africa, and many other parts of the world and the British government maintains trading relations with many of these nasty regimes – Burma, Sri Lanka, even India/Pakistan. Double standards prevail in such matters.

        • rationality

          Agreed on the last sentence. In fact I am deeply insulted that as a descendant of those that fought in that war or prepared munitions in factories for it that I am held responsible because I happen to be European.

          • Bonkim

            Regrettably children are easy scapegoats for their parents’ crimes. Throw it back – you are only free as what you believe in – ignore what others say or write.

        • AWoLsco

          “Man has been beastly on all continents and continues to be”

          So……”Trust in God……..but keep your powder dry” , would be as good advice today as it was in times past.

          “although the intensity may not be the same.”

          Believe that, and you’ll believe anything…….
          “Some mothers do ‘ave ’em”, and
          ” There’s one born every minute.”

    • Thorin Oakenshield

      What about the Genocide committed against Europeans by: Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, The Ottomans or the Moors etc – don’t they count?

      • Bonkim

        The Great Khans of Central Asia were the super-power of the times and got rid of anyone on their way. Then again don’t forget Attila the Hun – his hordes settled in Europe – and many other waves of raiders – the tribes of Europe and Asia were slaughtering each other and don’t forget the strong get rid of the weak in every period of history – in fact that is how history is made. In earlier history the Greeks and Persians did the same plundering and pillaging all the way. Don’t assume there were any isolated groups of people in Europe with any unique characteristics – the history of Europe and its warring tribes blend into others marching across the Eurasian land mass. What you have today is the sum total of all that. Try to untangle history.

      • Lawrence James.

        One atrocity does not cancel out another: now go and iron your black shirt, listen to the Horst Wessel leid. and count yourself lucky that you did not have to share a scaffold with your soul mates.

        • Thorin Oakenshield

          The only People who will hang are today’s Traitors in the NWO!

    • Trailblazer10

      You forgot the Europeans who were in America during the ice age. Didn’t last long after the darker tribes from Siberia came along.

  • Paddy Nolan

    And the Romans ?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Britisher pals, in the interest of historical research, you might want to be aware of documents recently unearthed in the British archives relating to the Second World War period. Specifically I refer to the handwritten notes on a relevant document made in 1944 by Victor Cavendish Bentinck (Lord Bentinck of Portland, 9th duke) as head of the Psychological Warfare Executive, and I quote: 
“We’ve had a good run for our money with this gas chamber lie. But we really have to be a bit careful, because eventually it’s going to be exposed. So we need to distance ourselves from that story now we’ve set the hare running”. 
Part of British propaganda was to convince anyone who would listen that the Nazis were guilty of the most despicable crimes, so it’s hardly surprising that occasional they “egged the pudding”. Seems reasonable to conduct research to decide if the British Psychological Warfare (PWE), “Made that bit up”.
    Nuremberg was the biggest miscarriage of justice since the Salam Witch Trials. The defendants knew they faced the rope whatever the evidence, so confessed to the most improbable crimes that were written into the court record unquestioned. Possibily in the hope that in the fullness of time the truth would come out.
    Former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss was tortured by British officials into signing a false and self-incriminating “confession” that has been widely cited as a key document of Holocaust extermination. His testimony before the Nuremberg Tribunal, a high point of the proceeding, was perhaps the most striking and memorable evidence presented there of a German extermination program. Höss maintained that two and half million people had been killed in Auschwitz gas chambers, and that another 500,000 inmates had died there of other causes. No serious or reputable historian now accepts either of these fantastic figures, and other key portions of Höss’ “confession” are now generally acknowledged to be untrue.

    • rationality

      It was the greatest con trick of all time and when known, it breaks the mental conditioning and people begin to see things more rationally. It has to be wider known for all our sakes.

      • AWoLsco

        “greatest con trick of all time”

        ….and a great loss to world history. Imagine what we would know now, had people like Goering, Himmler and Hoess, been spared and treated with some dignity.
        We’d have had the truth by now.

        Instead, we have to wade through a quagmire of lies, half-truths and patently ridiculous exaggeration…….backed up by paid shills, hired hacks and men of little conscience.

    • Daisy

      That’s interesting – I didn’t know that. Would you have a reference for that please as I have not been able to find one.

      • AWoLsco

        “a reference for that please as I have not been able to find one.”

        “Legions of Death”, written by Rupert Butler published by Hamlyn press, 1983……wittingly , or unwittingly, gives the game away.
        Hoess was tortured by jewish(British) sergeant Bernard Clarke, and later by a Major Draper, probably jewish but as yet, not confirmed.

        • Daisy

          Sorry, perhaps I wasn’t very clear. I meant with regard to:

          “Handwritten notes on a relevant document made in 1944 by Victor
          Cavendish Bentinck (Lord Bentinck of Portland, 9th duke) as head of the
          Psychological Warfare Executive, and I quote: 
“We’ve had a good run for
          our money with this gas chamber lie.”

          • AWoLsco

            “perhaps I wasn’t very clear.”

            Pardon me. I thought the forced confession under torture was of much greater interest than some English upperclass twit fooling around with psychological tricks and jolly japes.

          • Daisy

            Having a reference for the fact that the gas chamber lie was a hoax all along is pretty significant I would say.

            If it pleases your Highness.

          • AWoLsco

            “If that pleases your highness.”

            Not really.
            I wish none of it was true.

          • Daisy

            Well, same here.

            Yet others still seem to believe in it – which is why I try to get references where I can. And the gas chambers being acknowledged as propaganda is pretty significant in my book.

        • Bendys
  • dr.viraj pradhan

    No mention of Stalin’s excesses?Stalin seems to have killed more,tortured more compared to Hitler.However,Hitler is constantly evoked to shame and bully into submission the Germany of today.Even Germans feel under compulsion,due to this reference to the period between 1936-1945,to be kind even they need to be firm on principles.

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    Stalin. Mao, Napoleon, all statist rights-of-man left ideologue mass killers. British socialists have been prevented from such actions. Long may that last.

    • There are no socialists in Britain. I went once to an event. Ten people or something, got no idea about theories of planned economy, and never thought how dictatorship of proletarians meant to work without terror. Only repeat the Cold war brainwash just like any other regular Brit. Until at least one of them buy a book and read it, I am not going there again.

      • Sargon the bone crusher

        There are many forms of socialism. Planned economies are an affectation – the guts of the thing are concerned with ctrl, and with the rape of private freedoms. There, Britain under the Labour Party is a world leader.
        I am pleased a poison vessel like you stays away – infect some other hapless horror state.

  • ossettian

    How come inherited guilt only applies to non-Jewish Europeans?

    • Applied by whom? Self obsession has different forms, mythology of own guilt admission over and above other groups of people is just one of them.

    • rationality

      Just a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to the Russian and Ukrainian genocides of the 20s. I will resist temptation to scream about the hypocrisy.

  • 1234567890

    What about the deliberate, by the moneyed clique, “importation” and resettlement of millions of Illegal Aliens into Europe to replace the indigenous population?

  • Thorin Oakenshield

    Nuremburg Trial, a sham – if ever there was one, just like todays Holocaust laws!

  • Daisy

    Why do we never hear about the victims of Bolshevism and Communism, estimated to be around 50 million people, predominantly European Christians.

    Why are we never exhorted to remember them? Why have they received no reparations, no memorials, no tributes? Why have the perpetrators never been bought to justice?

    As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (one of the most famous defectors from Soviet Russia) wrote:

    “You must understand, the leading Bolsheviks who took over Russia were not Russians. They hated Russians. They hated Christians. Driven by ethnic hatred they tortured and slaughtered millions of Russians without a shred of human remorse. It cannot be overstated. Bolshevism committed the greatest human slaughter of all time. The fact that most of the world is ignorant and uncaring about this enormous crime is proof that the global media is in the hands of the perpetrators.” -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  • Mr B J Mann

    Then there’s the 50,000 Cossacks and 30,000 non communist Serbs sent “home” to Stalin and Tito in cattle wagons.

    To be executed.

    By the British!

    (Well, the English and the Scots – the Welsh regiment given the job mutinied – the others were just following orders!).