Many of us growing up in the 60s and 70s were aware that leading Nazi figures were prosecuted, found guilty and executed for their crimes at Nuremberg. What is probably less well known is what charges were actually on the indictment and what were the names of the crimes for which they were hanged. In this wide ranging and highly personal book, Philippe Sands, an international lawyer, shows us that it was at Nuremberg that the legal concepts ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ were first adopted and applied. In tracing the development of those legal ideas, he follows the life and career of the men who introduced them, Hersch Lauterbach and Rafael Lemkin respectively. Both of these men came from the area near the city of Lviv now in the Ukraine, formerly known as Lemberg and situated near the eastern border of the Austro- Hungarian Empire until its collapse during the First World War.
The book begins when Philippe Sands goes to Lviv to deliver a lecture and uses the opp0rtunity to visit the home of his Jewish maternal grandfather, Leon, who coincidentally had also grown up in Lviv and was born in the nearby town of Zólkiew . When Philippe was a child, Leon was living in Paris, where he’d been since 1939 when he left Vienna. He’d arrived in Paris first, his baby daughter Ruth being brought later by an unknown person in July 1939 and his wife Rita not joining them until late 1941. Philippe Sands was aware growing up that his grandfather never wanted to talk about the past and even his mother seemed remarkably lacking in curiosity as to how she’d arrived in Paris as a baby unaccompanied by either parent. In researching his own family history, Philippe Sands discovers some surprising connections between his own family and that of Lauterpacht: Leon’s mother, Malke, who was to die at Treblinka, lived on the very same street in Zólkiew as the Lauterpachts, East West Street.
This is just one of several examples of lives interweaving and connecting throughout the book. Lauterbach and Lemkin were near contemporaries at the Law Faculty at Lemberg University and yet their legal careers took them to different continents and brought them together again at Nuremberg. Though Lauterbach was not prosecuting at Nuremberg he was on the British legal team and drafted William Shawcross’s opening speech. One of the defendants was Hans Frank, who became the Governor- General of German occupied Poland in October 1939 and was responsible for the murder of Lauterbach’s own family, though Lauterbach did not know this until after the Nuremberg trial.
The career of Hans Frank provides the third strand of the book. Frank was a lawyer and appointed State Minister for Justice in Bavaria in 1933 on Hitler’s rise to power. On becoming Governor -General he took up residence in the Wawel Castle in Krakow, from which he ran the whole of the eastern area, while aspiring to live like a monarch. In this role he was responsible for the deportation and killing of millions of Jews. He did not attend the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 , where the Final Solution was agreed on, but sent Bühler as his representative and expressed enthusiasm about assisting with the transport of Jews from Vienna across his territory at a dinner party in Krakow the next day. His son, Nicolas, as well as later expressing horror publicly at his father’s crimes, also remembers a cold and remote father. (See the film My Nazi Legacy for more on Niklas Frank).
And the climax of the book is the Nuremberg trial. With the help of carefully placed photographs as well as clear and engaging description, the personalities of the legal teams and the defendants stand vividly before us. Sands gives us a chronological account of the trial, detailing the legal arguments and defining the legal terms where necessary but always balancing this with the human reactions of the people involved. Weaving through this section is the appearance of the new ideas of crimes against humanity and genocide and Sands helpfully distinguishes them for the lay reader: crimes against humanity is concerned with crimes against the individual, whereas genocide concerns crimes against individuals because they belong to a particular group. Lauterpacht’s contribution, crimes against humanity, was indeed included in the indictments, whereas genocide, though referred to in speeches, was not to form part of the crimes at this stage. A useful epilogue charts the subsequent development of both ideas, leading to the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the inclusion of genocide in the charges against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.
I enjoyed this book on many levels. Philippe Sands’ clear and unassuming style conveys well how ground breaking these new legal concepts were: that an international court could have jurisdiction over a national sovereign court was novel indeed. The life stories of the lawyers and of Hans Frank culminating in the Nuremberg trial were well told and through the selection of just one witness account, Sands gives us a sufficient idea of the horrific material aired in that courtroom without dwelling on the barbarity. I enjoyed too his personal quest to fill the gaps in his family history, though this highlighted the fact that some questions will remain unanswered.
And for me personally, the book had many resonances. Having taught the period of France under Occupation and visited the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris several times with school groups I was intrigued to find that Philippe Sands’ mother had been an enfant caché and so moved to read that Elsie Tilney who got her out of Vienna was recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations, a title I had first come across at that museum. Also to hear that after the war Leon worked for the Jewish committee based at the Hotel Lutetia in Paris, a gathering point for Jews returning from the camps, described in Pierre Assouline’s novel Lutetia.
It feels just right too that the book’s Epilogue ends with the personal. After relating developments in the law, progress that has been made in bringing mass murderers to court for crimes against humanity, Philippe Sands recounts his visit to the clearing in the wood outside Zólkiew where 3,500 Jews from the town were murdered.
‘Here were the ponds, two great sandpits filled with an expanse of dark water, mud and reeds that bent in the wind, a site marked by a single white stone, erected not by the town in expression of grief or regret, but as a private act of remembrance’.
He sits in quiet contemplation of the individuals whose bones are commingling now beneath the sand and water and we feel with him loss, disappearance and absence. It is a powerful and arresting ending to a rich, varied and far reaching book which I shall go back to again and again.