Book Review: ‘East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity’ by Philippe Sands

We are delighted to welcome this guest book review from Samantha Williams, PhD candidate at the CCJHR and School of Law, UCC.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity by Philippe Sands, Weidenfeld, 437 pp, £20.00, May 2016, ISBN 978 1 4746 0190 0

Within an ever-expanding body of literature concerning World War II (WWII), Philippe Sands’ latest publication is a welcome and unexpected addition. Flipping the genre on its head, East West Street is a beautifully crafted text, focusing on a series of extraordinary historical coincidences.

Professor Philippe Sands QC, a practising barrister and Professor of International Law at University College London, is well known internationally as a leading scholar of genocide and crimes against humanity. As a barrister, working from Matrix Chambers, he was involved in the creation of the International Criminal Court, as well as a number of high-profile cases relating to accusations of genocide.

East West Street weaves together a collective narrative which is focused on the interrelated lives of four men, Hersch Lauterpacht, Raphael Lemkin, Hans Frank and Leon Bucholz, the latter, Sands’ maternal grandfather.  Part family biography, part history, part memoir and with a hearty dash of legal thriller – Sands serves as both tour guide and detective as he effortlessly weaves together several interconnected narratives using the town of Lviv in Ukraine as a starting point. Representing a departure from his previous catalogue of academic works, Sands draws the reader into a work which is best described in his own words as “a tale of four men, two legal norms, one trial and one city.”

Through the first part of the book, Sands leads us through the lives of these four men with a keen and eagle-like precision, poring over the “muck of evidence” with the same dogged perseverance that he does when filling in gaps in his own family history. Forever delving and going to great lengths to piece together the background and context within the interconnecting lives of these four men.

The role of the infamous Nazi lawyer Hans Frank, the man responsible for the decrees instructing the rounding up and mass murder of Polish-Jews, is juxtaposed with Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, two forefathers of international law and creators of the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”. Frank is also the man also responsible for the murder of the entire families of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Buchholz – all of whom were wiped out in places now seared into the pages of history, Treblinka, Warsaw and Auschwitz. It is no surprise that Sands chose to bookend the text with the trial of the Nazi war criminals – a stark reminder that beyond their similar upbringing in the town of Lviv the narrative of the story is intrinsically interwoven with the harsh realities of the Holocaust.

It is arguably this perseverance and unwavering determination which is most engaging and thrilling for the reader, who at times may be mistaken for forgetting that the emerging story is not in fact a thrilling detective story, but instead an all-absorbing mini-biography of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Buccholz. Such detailed and masterfully executed detective work is the cornerstone which supports the magic of Sands’ work. This perseverance and evidence-based writing is where Sands’ strength as both a practitioner and as a writer come to fruition.

The second half of the book moves away from its biographical starting point to compare and contrast the conceptions of crimes against humanity and genocide and the opinions of the men who drafted these. For Lauterpacht, it was individuals who ought to be the focus of such a new crime and thus, crimes against humanity was conceived. For Lemkin, the atrocities of Nazi Germany had been aimed at individuals as members of distinct ethnic groups, Roma, Jews, and minorities in general – so for him this new crime needed to lend a previously unseen level of protection to such groups, thus genocide was created.

The apparently conflicting basis for these two new crimes are examined in depth within the book as Sands highlights both the thought process and advocacy that both men had to go through to have their terms included in the Nuremberg judgments. For Lemkin, this was much more of an uphill struggle than for Lauterpacht – Sands credits this fight for legitimacy as attributable to both Lemkin’s rather alienating personality and the wariness of the prosecutors to adopt such a radical new take on a state’s responsibility. Genocide signaled a clear departure from the ideas of state sovereignty, that a state can do whatever it wishes to those under its sovereign power and within its borders. While such reasoning is artfully explored, as one would expect of a barrister and Professor of International Law, Sands’ preference towards Lauterpacht is markedly clear:

I was instinctively sympathetic towards Lauterpacht’s view, which was motivated by a desire to reinforce the protection of each individual, irrespective of which group he or she happened to belong to, to limit the potent force of tribalism, not reinforce it … It was a rational, enlightened view.

This clearly marked bias serves somewhat to detract from the larger analysis of these two great men and the norms which they constructed. In a recent event held at UCL, On Law, Life and Literature, Sands was asked about such leanings, and answered frankly, arguing that the crime of genocide is now part of a hierarchy of international law norms, and its usage is often inexplicably (and perhaps mistakenly) favoured over crimes against humanity. For Sands, as both a practitioner and as an academic, this amounts to a huge oversight – “a direct consequence of the idea of a group having been elevated higher than that of the individual.”

This elevation is ultimately troubling for Sands as it “downplays the significant role that individuals play within international law.” However, in doing so it is suggested here that Sands somewhat oversimplifies the key differences between Lauterpacht and Lemkin’s approach to this rebirth of international law. Sands perhaps undersells the significance of what Lemkin was envisioning in his attempts to bring focus back to a renaissance or reimagining of previous incarnations of minority rights safeguards, such as the Polish Minority Treaty, also known as the ‘Little Versailles Treaty.’

This bias is also clear further on in the narrative when Sands notes that Lemkin’s approach was always likely to fail to win over the imaginations of the Allied Prosecutors. Sands attributes this to Lemkin’s flaws as an individual and general ‘unlikeability’. However, it is suggested that this was more likely to be due to the focus of his newly conceived idea. Particularly, as genocide’s focus was to protect the rights of minority groups from a repeat of the horrific atrocities of Nazi Germany.

A quick overview of the historical the context of the time, an era of civil unrest under Jim Crowe in America and the rise of unrest in the Colonies of the British Empire, highlights the dangerous that the idea of genocide with its protections afforded specifically to groups, could have caused. Specifically, as historically both the US and most notably the UK had treated minority groups in a way that the newly emerging crime of genocide could be applied to. Such opposition suggests the Lemkin’s idea might have been getting at something important and was ultimately widely applicable to the acts of the Allied Powers both prior to and post-WWII. Sands’ diminishing of historical context here suggests a slight oversight of the intrinsically institutionalised nature of ethnic and racial prejudice in most European States at that time.

It is also worth noting that weaving a personal, biographical story with an exploration of important legal norms and the figures behind these placed certain limitations upon the book and its relevance. Furthermore, Sands’ preferential treatment of Lauterpacht over the “less likeable” and “wayward,” Lemkin leads the book to descend dangerously close to hero worship (a point noted by Mark Mazower in his review of East West Street). However, such slight oversights ultimately do not detract significantly from what is a well-written and immaculately researched work.

In conclusion, East West Street is an impeccably detailed read, set within the historical context in a way which elevates it from other works focussed on the intricacies of international law and WWII literature. Part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller, Sands guides with a gentle hand and highly descriptive writing between past and present – as the stories of the men unfold in parallel. Unravelling this personal story, yet simultaneously weaving this into the lives of Lemkin and Lauterpacht – Sands keeps the reader engrossed throughout – even when discussing in great analytical detail certain elements of the Nuremberg Trials. For this, East West Street undoubtedly deserves the acclaim and literary accolades it has received since its publication in the summer of 2016. Yet one would expect nothing less from Sands.

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