Book review: Genocide or crimes against humanity

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

For most of human history, governments had free reign in their treatment of anyone living within their borders. When waging war, there were also no constraints on military behavior: No world court or governing body to which people could protest widespread slaughter within a country’s boundaries or those outside of it. The terms genocide and crimes against humanity are 20th century terms, which were not always accepted as legitimate terminology by legal authorities as shown in Philippe Sands’ fascinating and compelling “East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity’” (Alfred A. Knopf). Part history, part biography and part memoir, it explores the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity, while also showing how World War II affected the lives of four men.
The impetus for “East West Street” is an invitation Sands received to lecture at a university in Lviv, Ukraine, about his legal career, which has focused on crimes against humanity and genocide. Lviv – also known as Lemberg, Lvov and Lwów, depending on who controlled the city – serves as a connection between three Jews – Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin and the author’s grandfather, Leon Buchholtz – and one German official, Hans Frank. Although each was in the city at a different time, Sands uses their association with Lviv as an excuse to discuss not only the origin of the legal terms genocide and crimes against humanity, but the lives of these four very different men.
After Sands visits Lviv, his curiosity is piqued: how did his grandfather survive the war? Sands beings to collect clues – photos and documents – that, at first, raise more questions than answers. Why did his grandfather, who was born in Lviv and later moved to Austria, abandon that country without his wife and daughter? Why did Sands’ mother travel to France a few days after her first birthday while his grandmother remained in Austria for a longer period of time? Who are the mysterious people in photographs from that time period? Sands’ mother can’t answer these questions because her father refused to discuss those years. So Sands carefully and systematically searches on his own, and discovers some wonderful and moving information about individuals who helped his grandparents, including one who, in 2013, was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of its Righteous Among The Nations.
Although the biographies of Lauterpacht and Lemkin are well-done, it’s the discussions of their legal ideas that were particularly compelling – especially when compared to those of Frank, who was a supporter of the Nazi regime. Both men were looking to protect the rights of individuals, although they had different ideas on how to accomplish that. Lauterpacht preferred to focus on the idea of crimes against humanity with its attention to the individual, while Lemkin fought for the use of genocide – the idea of crimes committed based on group identity.
According to Sands, “Lauterpacht set his back against group identity in law, whether as victim or perpetrator... I was instinctively sympathetic to Lauterpacht’s view, which is motivated by a desire to reinforce the protection of the individual, irrespective of which group he or she happened to belong to, to limit the potent force of tribalism, not reinforce it. Lauterpacht wanted to diminish the force of intergroup conflict. It was a rational enlightened view, and also an idealistic one.” Lemkin, on the other hand, felt that violence – at least the violence that occurred in Nazi Germany before and during the war – called for the use of the term genocide. Sands notes that while “not opposed to individual rights, [Lemkin] nevertheless believed that an excessive focus on individuals was naive, that it ignored the reality of conflict and violence: individuals were targeted because they were members of a particular group, not because of their individual qualities. For Lemkin, the law must reflect true motive and real intent, the forces that explained why certain individuals – from certain targeted groups – were killed. For Lemkin, the focus on groups was the practical approach.”
Frank, who was governor general of Nazi-occupied Poland, believed in total governmental control of those within its borders. Sands notes that Frank “wanted strong government based on the values that protected the vision of ‘national community,’ a legal system that was informed by the ‘idea of community,’ which should prevail over all else. There would be no individual rights in the new Germany, so he announced a total opposition to the ‘individualistic, liberalistic atomizing tendencies of the egoism of the individual.’” Frank saw Hitler’s criminalization of those who were referred to as “moral criminals” – for example, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, those with mental illnesses, etc. – as the correct path for the country. To his mind, these people threatened the health of the nation and should be eliminated. During his time as governor general, the ghetto in Lviv was created. Frank also oversaw the construction of concentration camps in territory he ruled.
The differences in these political philosophies played a role in the Nuremberg trial where Frank was a defendant. In simplified terms, the defense claimed that the government was responsible for any criminal actions, so those obeying the orders of their government could not be held liable. There were disagreements among the prosecutors about whether or not the defendants should be tried for the crime of genocide or for crimes against humanity, with politics playing a major role in the final decision. This section also raises a question about whether or not Frank – who converted to Catholicism after the conclusion of the war – took some responsibility for his actions, something none of the others on trial did. However, based on the evidence available, Sands is unable to come to a definitive conclusion.
This summary doesn’t do justice to the amount of material covered in “East West Street.” Sands does a thorough, systematic job in outlining all he discovers. His interviews of the sons of two figures in the Nazi government in Poland show the different ways contemporary Germans view what occurred during the war. His careful and caring portrayals of Lauterpacht and Lemkin – including what occurred to the members of their families who were unable to escape the Nazis – is nuanced and moving. The chapters about Nuremberg were captivating and made the book almost impossible to put down. Sands’ powerful, absorbing work should be read by anyone interested in World War II or the history of human rights.