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

By Mark Mazower – May 20, 2016

Financial Times

The founding of the Inter­national Criminal Court in 1998 was a remarkable moment in world history. In the years since, leaders have been held to account for their crimes, and human rights law has made huge advances; less prominently, the history of the human rights movement has flourished alongside it. The lawyer Philippe Sands saw the founding of the ICC close up, and has worked on a number of high-profile cases, including the arrest of General Pinochet. Now he has added a vivid and readable contribution, part memoir, part documentary, to the history debate as well.

East West Street weaves lives together in a kind of collective biography of a generation. Hersch Lauterpacht, a Cambridge professor of international law, was one of the outstanding jurists of the 1940s and a key figure in the enunciation of the international human rights regime. Another Polish-Jewish lawyer, Rafael Lemkin, born three years after Lauterpacht, is best known today as the founder of the term genocide. Then there is Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, whose daughter Ruth, the author’s mother, was born in Vienna in 1938, the year of the Anschluss. On the other side, as it were, are two Nazis: Hans Frank, an exact contemporary of Lemkin’s, who parlayed a position as Hitler’s private lawyer into a glamorous life as the most powerful jurist of the Third Reich and later, during the war, ruler of rump Poland. And finally, there is one of his underlings, Otto Wächter, wartime governor of Galicia.

What brings these five men together in Sands’ telling is a city. Call it Lemberg, as the Austrians had done and the Nazis did. Call it Lwów as it became in interwar Poland, or Lviv, as it is in today’s independent Ukraine. Whichever name you choose, it is one of those remark­able, slightly melancholic places whose slide from religious and linguistic kaleidoscope to monoglot uniformity encapsulates what the 20th century brought to much of central and eastern Europe.

But Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv is special because of its unique connection to the history of international law. Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were trained as lawyers there, in the era of the first world war, at precisely the moment that the old multinational empires fragmented. Sands describes the ethnic violence that beset the city when a new Polish republic arose from the ashes of Habsburg Galicia. And he has done remarkable research to bring to light the courses the two men studied at the university, and the way law was combined with other more humanistic disciplines — philosophy for Lauterpacht, literature for Lemkin — to produce an outlook unlikely to be replicated today.

Law’s prestige internationally was high in the 1920s. This was the era when legal obligations were imposed by the great powers on Poland and other eastern European states to guarantee their minorities certain rights. The minority rights treaties, as they were known, were bitterly resented by the governments that were forced to swallow them — they were a condition of international recognition at Versailles in 1919 — and once the League of Nations began to fall apart in the 1930s, they largely fell into abeyance…

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