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Odyssey into evil

06 October 2017

John Arnold enjoys the rattling pace of East West Street by Philippe Sands

John Reynolds at Click Click Click

Direct descendant: the author, Philippe Sands, Professor of Law at University College London

Direct descendant: the author, Philippe Sands, Professor of Law at University College London

PHILIPPE SANDS subtitles his book On the origins of genocide and crimes against human­ity. Strictly speaking, it is about the origins of these two terms in the crises and catastrophes of the 20th century, and about the two extra­ordinary men who coined them: Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht. Both were citizens of the same city: successively Lem­berg, Lviv, Lwow, and now Lviv again. It is also an odyssey in search of their fellow-citizen, Leon Buchholz, the author’s grand­father.

Finally, it is a tale of two cities, because the climax occurs not in Lemberg, but in Nurem­berg, at the War Crimes Trials of 1945-46. Sands weaves these strands together, varying the pace and the style so that masterclasses in international jurisprudence are intermingled with gripping narrative and journalistic trav­el­­ogue. And the range of persons is positive­ly Shakespearean, as a host of colourful minor characters support the main players.

The story begins when Sands, Professor of Law at University College, London, receives an invitation to lecture in Lviv, in 2010. There he encounters a key problem in international law: the difference between crimes against humanity and genocide. It is there, too, that he is encouraged to rediscover his own family, which he does with astonishing doggedness and forensic skill.

He starts with personal memories of his grandparents, using them to unlock not just family history but also the story of the suffering of the Jews of Eastern Europe since the end of the 19th century. By 1923, Leon was in Vienna; in 1939, he escaped to Paris, surviving, and leaving open many page-turning questions, not least the fate of Sands’s mother, Ruth.

We cut to the story of Lauterpacht, born also into a Jewish family, in Zolkiew, near Lemberg, in 1897, at the other end of East West Street from Sands’s ancestors. He was destined to be a Professor of International Law, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, a member of the Athenaeum, an important player at Nuremberg, and a lifelong defender of the principle that (in his own words) “the individual human being . . . is the ultimate unit of all law.”

It was in Vienna that he first became acquainted with the idea of individual human rights. The prevailing orthodoxy was: “The State could do whatever it wanted to its na­­tionals.” He was to devote his life to com­bating this noxious doctrine, which flourished in the Third Reich, and to the attempt to limit the power of the State. This section ends with a tour de force, which sub-editors will enjoy, on the baleful effects of substituting a comma for a semi-colon in the draft Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal. Cut once more, this time to the interpolated tale of the saintly Miss Tilney, a Baptist missionary in Paris who saved Ruth’s life, and then on to Lemkin.

He was less obviously successful than Lauter­pacht, but his name may live longer for his invention of the word “genocide”. He studied under the same supervisor in Lem­berg; and the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks, in 1915, convinced him that “attacks upon national, religious, and ethnic groups should be made international crimes.”

His whole life, full of adventurous escapes, was devoted to getting this novel concept recognised in international law, after he found a home and a base at Duke University, North Carolina. He only partially succeeded at Nuremberg, owing largely to Lauterpacht, but was vindicated by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, and, alas, by subsequent events in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.

So much for the heroes. Enter the villain, the suave and charming “man in a bow tie”, Hans Frank, the epitome of a certain type of Nazi psychopath. Hard-working, well-educated, cultured, musical — and entirely with­out empathy. He killed no one with his own hands, but, as governor general of the occu­pied Polish territories, he presided over the deaths of thousands, even millions. It was his meticulously kept diaries that supplied the single most damning body of evidence against the accused. He was the only one of them to admit to some guilt (later retracted); and his conversion to Roman Catholicism in ques­tion­able circumstances failed to save him from the gallows.

Sands’s description of the trial, and espe­cially of the sentencing, is courtroom drama at its best: there are masterly portrayals not only of the accused, but also of the prosec­­utors and judges. The cut and thrust of advo­cacy is paralleled by the ongoing debate on individual versus group rights. Unprece­dented crimes had led to the formulation of unprecedented charges; and we are privileged to witness one of the great moments in legal history when law has to be made on the hoof — to the dismay of lawyers, but for the sake of humankind.

Sands seems to side, as an academic, with Lauterpacht; but he cannot conceal his ad­­miration for Lemkin in his lonely fight to see right prevail. Let us call it an honourable draw between worthy opponents, even as we enjoy a rattling good read.


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham Cathedral.

East West Street: On the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity by Philippe Sands is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop price £9); 978-1-474-60191-7.




One of East West Street’s epigraphs, by Nicolas Abraham, states:

“What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Having read the book, how far do you agree with this?

What did you make of the contrast between “practical Lauterpacht” and “passionate Lemkin”?

“I have chosen not to remember.” What did you think of the links between memory, suffering, and responsibility in East West Street?

Hersch Lauterpacht believed that “the well-being of an individual is the ultimate object of all law.” Do you agree? What implications does this idea have for Christians?

Sands writes that “it could be said that the city of Lviv is the fifth main character in the book, or maybe the first”. What did you make of the book’s strong sense of place?

How did Philippe Sands’s inclusion of photographs affect the way that you read the book?

“Individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife.” What part do women play in Sands’s book?

Do you think that the same ideas as are involved in protecting individuals and groups apply to our thinking about individual and group responsibility?

What did you make of Miss Tilney’s part in the story?

How do you think the Church should deal with the respective obligations due to individuals and groups, or the Church as a “group” in itself?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 November, we will print extra information about our next book, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It is published by Penguin at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-241-98034-7.


Book notes

The Grapes of Wrath is widely recognised as one of the great American novels of the 20th century. Steinbeck’s book documents the plight of the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers driven by drought and hardship to seek work in California during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath won the 1939 National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, although its unsparing depiction of migrant life and death (Stein­beck said that in writing the novel he had “done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags”) meant that it was not uni­versally well-received on publication: it was burned in Steinbeck’s home town on two separate occasions.


Author notes

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902, and much of his fiction — including his most celebrated works, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men — is based on his memories of living in this region in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although an agnostic, Steinbeck retained a lifelong attachment to the Episcopal Church, and his fiction is shaped by both the language of the Bible and the theological themes of conversion and self-sacrifice. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and died in New York in 1968.


Books for the next two months:

December: The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham.

January: Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud.

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