East West Street by Philippe Sands review: shapers of the Nuremberg trials

The work of two law professors whose families died in the Holocaust and who defined the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity is fascinatingly explored

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
Author: Philippe Sands
ISBN-13: 9781474601900
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Guideline Price: £20

In the densely populated field of literature on the second World War, it is rare to come across a book that adds genuinely new insights into the war or its legacies. A rare exception that manages to do both is Philippe Sands's new book. East West Street is partly a history of the legal concepts that were devised to deal with the historically unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust, and partly a group biography of the key actors in that process.

Sands, a practising barrister, is well known internationally as a legal scholar of genocide and crimes against humanity. As a barrister, he has been involved in the creation of the International Criminal Court, as well as high-profile cases relating to accusations of genocide in Chile, Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

In East West Street, Sands focuses on one of the most important debates to emerge in response to the Holocaust: whether the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials were guilty of genocide or crimes against humanity. Sands combines a history of the evolution of these two central legal concepts for the prosecution of systematic mass murder with insightful minibiographies of those who were responsible for developing these concepts – as well as those who were practitioners or victims of the Nazis' genocidal policies.

The central protagonists are two eminent scholars in the field of humanitarian law: Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht. Both of them were Jewish legal scholars whose high-profile international careers centred on how to respond to the crimes of Nazi Germany and how to prevent similar crimes in the future. Their different conceptions of humanitarian law revolutionised the field.


Crime has a name

For Lauterpacht, a Cambridge professor at the time of the Nuremberg trials, the main point was to protect individuals from what he termed “crimes against humanity”. He argued that calling Nazi atrocities exactly that would help to protect fundamental human rights in the future, rather than simply give a name to past atrocities.

Lemkin, who escaped Poland in 1939 and authored the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide after the war, developed a competing understanding of Nazis crimes. He suggested that the murder of whole peoples ought to be called genocide, a crime “directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of national groups”.

The two scholars’ differing positions became part of a global conversation between the Allied prosecutors at Nuremberg and had a profound impact on the trial proceedings.

Sands’s interest in Lemkin and Lauterpacht is not just academic, which is what makes the book really interesting. There are, after all, plenty of histories of humanitarian law and the legal prosecution of Nazi crimes.

Sands has embedded his legal history within the context of Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s personal life stories, which began in what is known today as the Ukrainian city of Lviv. This once culturally rich, multiethnic city in Habsburg Galicia also happened to be the birthplace of Sands’s maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz.

Buchholz fled the city for Vienna during the first World War (when Galicia became a battleground on the Eastern Front), before moving further west when the Nazis absorbed Austria into the Greater German Reich.

Buchholz never wished to talk about his childhood experiences after 1945, so Lviv – which, like so many other east-central European places, is known by more than one name (Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov) – remained a mysterious place in Sands’s adolescence.

Sands began work on East West Street when he was invited to give a lecture on the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity at Lviv University. In preparation for his lecture, he intensified research on his grandfather's home town, which also happened to be the city where the "fathers" of the two legal concepts he was lecturing on had received their legal training.

It was perhaps no coincidence that the two most eminent humanitarian law scholars of the 20th century came from humble Jewish backgrounds and attended university in Lviv. The city was a microcosm of 20th-century Europe, both in terms of its rich texture before the 1940s and in its ultraviolent unravelling during the second World War.

The title of the book is a reference to a passage in The Wandering Jews, Joseph Roth's famous 1927 nonfiction book about east- central European Jewry, in which Lviv/ Lemberg (also Roth's home town) is described as a gateway between East and West.

The war brought an end to the pluralistic, multireligious world of Galician Lviv. Responsibility for the violent ethnic “unweaving” of its population after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 lies in no small measure with a further protagonist in the story told by Sands: Hans Frank.


Frank, who worked as Hitler’s lawyer in the 1920s and 1930s, would become the notorious head of Nazi Germany’s administration in the occupied Polish rump state, the General Government, between 1939 and 1945. In this capacity, Frank oversaw the systematic murder of well over three million Polish Jews, including those Galician Jews first forced into the Lviv ghetto before being deported to various killing sites.

Lauterpacht’s parents and all of his siblings were murdered, while Lemkin, who fled Warsaw when the Nazis attacked Poland in 1939, lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust.

The strangely interconnected lives of Lemkin, Lauterpacht and Frank would eventually culminate in a personal encounter in October 1945 during the Nuremberg trials. Frank and other defendants were eventually found guilty of legal charges that had been masterminded by Lemkin and Lauterpacht: crimes against humanity and genocide.

Lauterpacht was present in the courtroom during the trial; Lemkin listened to the proceedings on a wireless from a hospital bed in Paris.

The stories of Lemkin, Lauterpacht and Frank – not to mention that of the author himself – add a great deal of spark to what could have been a dry legal history. Instead, Sands succeeds in bringing the subject to life even for those not primarily interested in the evolution of legal concepts.

Robert Gerwarth is the director of the University College Dublin Centre for War Studies