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Words matter, deeply. War crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide: these terms warrant proper explanation. Philippe Sands delves into his family’s past and the biographies of legal luminaries in an amalgam of historical detail, connections, coincidences and legal conundrums as he traces the evolution of international law from post-World War2 victor’s justice to a more holistic construct in its protection of human rights.

The thread linking these elements runs through Lviv, in the Ukraine, and the neighbouring town of Zólkiew. The ashes of World War 1 seeded this area of eastern Poland, a tinderbox for the rise of anti-Semitism and ethnic violence. It was also the formative environment for the intellects around which Sands centres the book, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin.

These two legal pioneers had roots in the same area, trained at the University of Lemberg, and were affected awfully by events leading up to 1939, and the Holocaust . They were heroes of the same humanitarian high ground.

Lauterpacht was a Cambridge-based academic, an early emigrant from the region’s anti-Semitic foment. He was convinced of the paramountcy of the rights of individuals, at a time in Europe when lawfulness was subservient to rising National Socialism and nationalist agendas.

Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish Warsaw prosecutor, fled to the US during the war, becoming a consultant to the US Board of Economic Warfare, and later a respected academic and lobbyist. His 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe collated myriad Nazi decrees, documenting the " co-ordinated plan of different actions ... with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."

Lemkin believed this strategy of mass extermination required a new word: he blended the Greek genos (tribe or race) with the Latin word for killing, cide.

The victims are embodied through the dramatisation of the author’s family histories. Sands unveils multiple coincidences, not least that East West Street in Zólkiew was where his grandparents lived as well as where Lauterpacht was born. These flesh and blood memoirs represent a tragic microcosm of the 2.5m East European Jews who perished in east Poland.

Ostensibly, Sands’ biographical explorations culminate in the Nuremberg trials at the end of the war. The book balances a starkly objective synopsis with a riveting tension not only around the year-long proceedings, but also in the behind-the-scenes manoeuvering by Lauterpacht, and Lemkin in particular, to assert and prioritise their respective justifications for specific charges — crimes against humanity in Lauterpacht’s case, and genocide as lobbied by Lemkin. Poignantly, both were by then aware that their families had been lost within the murderous Nazi destruction.

A quasi-legal thriller needs a defendant, and the villain is Hans Frank, governor-general of occupied Poland. His idolatry of Nazism led him to a belief that "community takes precedence over the liberalistic atomising tendencies ... of the individual." The area under his administration became the epicentre for the extermination of European Jewry. In Frank’s domain lay the sites of the larger concentration camps, names seared in infamy: Belzec, Sobibór, Chelmno, Majdanek. And Treblinka — where Lauterpacht’s, Lemkin’s, and the author’s family members died.

The road towards an international legal framework has been long and tortuous and paved, literally, in blood.

Nuremberg was only a beginning, of sorts. The 1946 judgments represented a vindication of Lauterpacht’s proposals, as crimes against humanity were successfully prosecuted. Weeks later the UN extrapolated Nuremberg into resolution 96, codifying the rights of groups and specifying genocide as a crime under international law.

But it would take another 50 years for the world to agree on the establishment of an international criminal court (ICC). Only in July 1998, spurred by the atrocities in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, was the ICC constituted via the Treaty of Rome.

East West Street’s core analysis is to ask which should take legal and sociological precedence: the rights of the individual, or those of a group. Lauterpacht is portrayed as a pragmatist, a synthesiser of ideas within the lawmakers’ contextual goal of proof for prosecution — hence, his belief in the protection of clearer, definable individual rights. Lemkin is depicted less heroically: impatient, impractically rigid, an obstructive idealist in his insistence upon the protection of minorities.

Though Lemkin’s obsession with group safeguards is surely understandable in the context of 1930s and 1940s National Socialism, the author seems unwilling to see the intense, urgent clarity of Lemkin’s rationale even as he writes about events which underpin it. And time shows the prescience of his quest: the word he germinated — genocide — has sprouted as a terrible truth in events such as those in Rwanda, Sarajevo and the Sudan.

This knowledge causes a depressing awareness on concluding the book. Ultimately, the law is ephemeral; the ICC was always going to be an instrument of overreach, and its cumbersomeness is a symptom of the idealism of all its architects. Lauterpacht, in his pragmatism, may have understood this better, but Lemkin, we sense from the heart of his biography within East West Street, had a keener vision of the horrors should the world fail to heed the warning within his new word.


East West Street. On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity"
Philippe Sands
Weidenfeld & Nicolson