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

>> Monday, February 27, 2017

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

PAGES: 448

SETTING: Contemporary and mostly 1st half of the 20th century
TYPE: Non fiction

When human rights lawyer Philippe Sands received an invitation to deliver a lecture in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, he began to uncover a series of extraordinary historical coincidences. It set him on a quest that would take him halfway around the world in an exploration of the origins of international law and the pursuit of his own secret family history, beginning and ending with the last day of the Nuremberg trial.

Part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller, Philippe Sands guides us between past and present as several interconnected stories unfold in parallel. The first is the hidden story of two Nuremberg prosecutors who discover, only at the end of the trial, that the man they are prosecuting may be responsible for the murder of their entire families in Nazi-occupied Poland, in and around Lviv. The two prosecutors, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, were remarkable men, whose efforts led to the inclusion of the terms 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' in the judgement at Nuremberg. The defendant, Hans Frank, Hitler's personal lawyer and Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland, turns out to be an equally compelling character.

The lives of these three men lead Sands to a more personal story, as he traces the events that overwhelmed his mother's family in Lviv and Vienna during the Second World War. At the heart of this book is an equally personal quest to understand the roots of international law and the concepts that have dominated Sands' work as a lawyer. Eventually, he finds unexpected answers to his questions about his family, in this powerful meditation on the way memory, crime and guilt leave scars across generations, and the haunting gaps left by the secrets of others.
My non-fiction reading tends to be in two categories. The first is books I picked up because their subject matter was interesting to me. With those, the writing can make or break them. Even books about a fascinating subject, if the writing is not good, will end up in a DNF. The second category works very differently. It's the minority of books I bought because I like or have heard good things about the author's writing. With those, even if the subject is not something that would have normally interested me, the writing will carry me till the end and make me interested.

East West Street is solidly in that second category. It won the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson prize), and when the author was interviewed in Front Row, the interviewer raved about the writing. I immediately ordered it from the library, even though the subject matter was one which, while it didn't not interest me, didn't particularly interest me, either, if you know what I mean.

So what is this about? The subtitle is pretty explicit: this is about the origin of the concepts of 'Genocide' and 'Crimes Against Humanity'. They both arose as a result of the actions of Nazi Germany, and Sands explores how and why. His point of departure is a coincidence. During a visit to the city of Lviv, in Western Ukraine, Sands becomes aware of the fact that the two men who came up with and championed each of the concepts either came from Lviv and/or its surrounding areas. And there is a very personal connection as well: so did Sands' grandfather.

What results is a number of interspersed stories. We get the personal and family story of Sands' grandfather, but also of Rafael Lemkin, who created the concept of 'genocide', and of Hersch Lauterpacht, who championed the idea of 'crimes against humanity'. We follow Sands in what is almost a detective story as he researches these people and their families. But they're not the only characters, as their stories are set in the context of what was going on at the time. This brings others into the picture, such as Hans Frank, one of Hitler's henchmen, who governed Nazi-occupied Poland, which came to include Lviv. We also get a fascinating account of the Nuremberg trials, which was something that was completely new to me.

Someone who just reads the subtitle could be forgiven for thinking this will be pretty dry and factual. It's not. While it definitely delivers in terms of being a history of these two legal concepts and does so in a very rigorous ways, it's the personal touches that make this book so amazing. It's not just that they make the book feel human and touching and heartrending; they feel integral to the story of the concepts. They allow us to understand the context in which the concepts arose, and make it clear why they matter.

I always find that with the Holocaust, the horror of it becomes kind of blunted in my mind. It's fair enough, I suppose, because you probably couldn't function if you were feeling it in your gut all the time. Reading this, there were these little details where suddenly I could absolutely FEEL it, where what it must have been like for the people involved in it became clear in my mind and I got the gut-clenching, horrified feeling. This was both valuable on its own, but it also worked for the book, by bringing the point home of what was at stake. Lemkin and Lauterpacht's efforts were not a dry argument about legal terminology, they were about preventing the horror from happening again.

MY GRADE: An A. This was a fantastic book.


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