Review: East West Street; On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity by Philippe Sands (2016) Assessment 9 out of 10

This is a great book. It reads like a thriller. It is at the same time a study of legal theory, territorial and urban history and a multiple cross generational biography.

The legal theory concerns the formulation in international law of crimes against humanity and genocide. Both can be committed by states, but are visited on the individuals responsible for them.  The Nuremburg Trials for war crimes judged not those perpetrating the crimes but the Nazi leaders responsible for organising them. Sands is himself an international lawyer who has appeared before international courts acting against war criminals

Crimes against humanity are perpetrated against individuals, genocide against groups. They should be seen as trumping sovereignty, the idea nation states are not limited in what they can do within their borders. Pursuing cases of genocide in itself categorises individuals as members of groups, supporting the view it is sufficient to recognise as international crimes crimes against individuals.

The biographical passages focus on four men. Three of them, Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin and Leon Bucholz were all of Jewish descent and came from those regions of shifting territorial allegiance, which variously fell into Austria-Hungary, Poland, the Reich, the USSR and the Ukraine.

 Lauterpacht fled to the UK were he became an authority on international law, forming part of the UK’s legal team at Nuremburg. He came up with the concept of crimes against humanity. In due course his son, Elihu, became professor of international law at Cambridge, where he taught Sands. Lemkin was also a scholar of international law who formulated the concept of genocide. Without being part of the US delegation at Nuremburg, he provided input to it. He was disappointed that the scope of the Nuremburg Trials was limited to war crimes and so did not extend to Nazi acts before the start of WWII. Bucholz was Sands’ grandfather.

The fourth man was another lawyer, Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, who became governor-general of German occupied Poland, which was treated as part of the Reich, so German law applied, supposedly unrestricted by international law applying to occupied territories. Frank was hanged after the Nuremburg Trials.

The territorial and urban history concerns the city which under Austria-Hungary and Germany was known as Lemburg, as part of Poland, Lwow and as part of Ukraine, Lviv. Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin studied law at its University. Lauterpacht and Bucholz lived at opposite ends of East West Street, running across the city, hence the book’s title.

In 1914 Bucholz moved with his family to Vienna, where he was in business running a liquor store. After the Anschluss he left in 1938, followed in 1939 by his infant daughter, Ruth, Sands’ mother, and in 1941 by his wife, Rita. Sands was able to build up the fascinating tale of how they were able separately to leave Vienna and survive.

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