Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What We're Reading: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

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

This is a remarkable book. More than any other book I have read recently, it demonstrates why history is so important if we are to develop an understanding of human affairs and know how to act morally and do good in the world.  It tells us what we need to do if we are to change anything. East West Street introduces us to two lawyers whose contribution to international law has gone largely unrecognized, and explains the origin of their ideas and the debt we owe them. History is powerful when it allows us to trace the nature and character of the world in which we live back to events that have occurred in the past, when we make those kinds of connections. It becomes particularly powerful when we can trace those connections back not only collectively but personally, when we explore events that occurred in recent history, the events that occurred in our own lifetime or that happened in the years just before we were born. History of that kind can evoke depths of understanding and empathy that may elude us when we read about the more distant past.

Hersch Lauterpacht, who argued for the concept of "crimes
against humanity" to be incorporated into international law
Sands has written an historical account of the individuals who created our contemporary ideas about “ genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” the two men who coined the terms, who named the crimes that have found their way into international law. In the process of doing this he also traces the genealogy and suffering of his own family back to the same place (and time) where his two principal subjects, international lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, lived before they emigrated to England and the United States. All lived in the city in Eastern Europe today known as Lviv in the Ukraine. The city changed national hands eight times between 1914 and 1945, and depending on which country owned it at the time, was variously known as Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov, or Lwow. We learn that the culture and intellectual traditions of this city, and the terrible things that happened there, had much to do with the ideas about international order that found their forceful expression in the advocacy of Lautherpacht and Lemkin. Sands's grandparents and great-grandmother also lived in this city and in the nearby town of Zhovkva, and shared the experiences and fate of the Lautherpacht and Lemkin families. 

Rafael Lemkin who created the word "genocide" to describe
the Nazi persecution and murder of Jews and other minorities
in Europe and Eastern Europe
Sands weaves together the history of his grandparents and his mother during World War II with the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These connections take on special power not only because World War II was the most catastrophic and violent event in human history, but also because of what lies at the dark heart of that conflict, that event we continue to find so hard to fully comprehend: the Holocaust. Sands takes us along with him as he attempts to uncover mysteries in the lives of his mother and grandparents. He worked for more than six years trying to discover what lay behind their silence, starting with his grandfather’s cryptic memorabilia, tracing down leads in archives in Europe, Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, interviewing relatives and individuals who were a part of his ancestor’s lives, and uncovering unexpected and indeed astonishing connections among his family, historical events, and the two lawyers who are the focus of his book. The result is something whole, historically illuminating, personally felt, and immediate, a book that demonstrates that the best history books can make you feel that they are not really talking about history anymore, that the past has somehow, in some profound way, visited the present. 

The pogrom in Lviv, 1941
East West Street comes to its powerful conclusion--and full circle--at the Nazi war crimes trial in Nuremberg. Hersch Lauterpacht was at the trial as part of the British prosecution team, and he wrote a portion of the British closing arguments. Rafael Lemkin was there too, with a U.S. War Department pass, but in a mostly unofficial capacity, trying to convince the Soviet, French, American, and British prosecution teams to make “genocide” a crime in the prosecution at Nuremberg. Lemkin had escaped Eastern Europe in the early years of the war, and came to teach in America. He wrote a book called Axis Rule, in which he identified the stages of genocide, the methodical steps taken on the road to murder in the Nazi-occupied territories. Unknown to both international lawyers, while they were working on issues of crimes against humanity and genocide during the war years, their families were being murdered by the Nazis in Poland and Galicia. Lauterpacht only learned about the fate of his family around the time of the conclusion of the Nuremberg trial, and Lemkin was uncertain about what had happened to his family until some years later. In his discussion of the trial, Sands turns his attention in particular to Hans Frank (convicted and hung for his crimes), the Nazi official who was in charge of the German-occupied department comprising Poland and some of the surrounding territories where many of the extermination camps were located, and Otto von Wächter, a classmate of Lauterpacht and the Nazi who was in charge of Galicia, the district that included Lviv and the surrounding towns where the Latherpacht, Lemkin, and Sands families lived when they were rounded up and disappeared into the camps. Some of the most interesting passages of the book relate to Sands's meetings with the sons of these two war criminals, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter. Sands produced a documentary film with both of them that was released last year, A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did.

Hans Frank on trial at Nuremberg
Hersch Lauterpacht was critical of Lemkin’s concept of “genocide” as an international crime. He felt that crimes against the individual should be the focus of international law, and he placed these crimes at the center of his idea of “crimes against humanity.” He feared that Lemkin’s focus on crimes against “groups” would make crimes against individuals seem less important in the court of international justice but, more importantly, he thought that prosecuting crimes against groups would only foster animosity between groups, that it would perpetuate the kind of thinking about races and ethnicity that gave rise to genocide in the first place. As Sands points out, this debate is still with us, as he concludes this moving story of how personal experience and bitter tragedy lay at the center of two men’s quest for a new code of international justice, one in which states would no longer be able to act against the lives and the rights of their own citizens with sovereign impunity and would have to answer for those crimes to all mankind.  


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