East West Street: genocide? Or crimes against humanity?

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Philippe Sands’ “East West Street” is a brilliant, thought-provoking memoir that brings to life how World War II and the Holocaust changed international relations and international law. 

I recently read East West Street by British law professor and international human rights expert Philippe Sands.

Why you should read “East West Street”

If you have any interest in the cataclysm which overtook eastern and central Europe between 1933 and 1945, I recommend East West Street.  It explains the development of the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” against the background of the Second World War and the appalling crimes which took place in the run up to, and during, that conflict.

It also considers the relevance of what happened in 1933-45 today.

East West Street

My copy of ‘East West Street’.  The endorsements ring true

A focus on individuals

Sands humanises and illustrates his account by focusing on four individuals.  Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law who developed the concept of crimes against humanity.  Rafael Lemkin was a prosecutor and lawyer who developed the concept of Genocide.  Hans Frank was Hitler’s lawyer and later governor-general of German-occupied Poland from 1940-45.  Leon Buchholz was Sands’s grandfather, who died in Paris in 1997.  Of him, Sands writes the following.  ‘He took Lemberg to the grave, along with a scarf given to him by his mother in January 1939. It was a parting gift from Vienna, my mother told me as we bade him adieu.’

All about Lviv

In 2010 Sands visited Lviv, now in Ukraine.  His grandfather Leon had once lived there.  Sands learned to his astonishment that both Lauterpacht and Lemkin had studied law at Lviv (then known as Lemberg) university.  Frank had also visited Lviv.  Sands discovered that the families of his grandfather and Lauterpacht had lived on the same road.  That road was East West Street, in the nearby town of Zółkiew.

Sands structures his narrative around a briefcase full of old photographs left behind by his grandfather.  Leon had never talked about his birth in Lviv – then Lemberg – and early life in Vienna.  ‘C’est compliqué, c’est le passé, pas important,’ he would say.  It’s complicated, it’s the past, not important.  Nor did he ever talk about his parents, brother and two sisters.

A passionate tale of discovery

East West Street is a passionate tale of discovery, set alongside alongside countless human stories.  Many are uplifting, many tragic.  They include the atrocities of the period.  And they show how the Nuremberg trials led to the new concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The tone of the book is somewhat similar to Edmund de Waal’s brilliant The Hare with Amber Eyes.  I was also reminded of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the horrors inflicted on central Europe by Hitler and Stalin.

I met Sands recently in Vienna, and found him impressive and thoughtful.  In a lecture, he said a couple of things I noted down.  ‘What happened in Lemberg (Lviv) could happen in London.’  ‘We are at a dangerous moment right now – politicians don’t realise the importance of the settlement and achievements of 1945.’  And ‘If I was asked to protect a single human right, it would be freedom of expression.  Without that, you have nothing.’  I tend to agree with all three.

Here are a few quotations I noted from the book.  I would highlight the way Sands expresses his own concerns about the concept of genocide in the final quotation.

“East West Street”: Quotations

Leon… never told me that every single person from his childhood, each and every member of the extended Galician family of Buchholzes and Flaschners was murdered.  Of the seventy or more family members living in Lemberg and Zółkiew when the war began, the only survivor was Leon, the smiling boy with big ears.

Such issues of group identity and autonomy, along with the rise of nationalism and the emergence of new states after the end of the First World War, combined to move the law to the centre of the political stage.  This was a new development in scale and scope.  How might the law protect minorities? it was asked.  What languages could they speak?  Would they be able to educate their children in special schools?  Such questions continue to resonate today around the world, but back then no international rules offered guidance on how to address them.  Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished.  International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities and no rights for individuals.

In 1921, Kelsen became a judge on the [Austrian] Constitutional Court, bringing Lauterpacht into direct contact with a new idea, in Europe if not America: individuals had inalienable constitutional rights, and they could go to court to enforce those rights… By contrast, in the rarified, conservative world of international law – dominated by the idea that the law served the sovereign – the notion that an individual had rights enforceable against the state was inconceivable.  The state must be free to act as it wished… to do whatever it wanted to its nationals.  It could discriminate, torture, or kill.  

Pragmatic and instinctive, a creature of his life and law courses in Lemberg, Lauterpacht believed in the possibility of reining in the power of the state.

A few weeks later, on 26 June [1945], the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco, by which governments agreed to introduce a new commitment to ‘fundamental human rights’, to respect the ‘dignity and worth of the human person’.

No longer would a state be free to treat its people entirely as it wished.

[In contemporary Lviv’s faculty of biology, Sands sees an Austro-Hungarian collection of stuffed birds] ‘The Austrians were inspired by these birds in the design of their hats,’ the director explained.  A small black-and-yellow-feathered bird bore two spiral feathers on its head.  one twirled left, the other right.  In such an incongruous place, it offered a stark reminder that Lviv had no museum dedicated to its former residents, the groups that had long gone, the Poles and Jews and Armenians.  What it did have was a superb zoological collection, a reminder of the hats worn by the disappeared.  

[Hans Frank said in a speech in 1935 that he:] wanted strong government based on 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 atomising tendencies of the egoism of the individual.’  

[In German-occupied Poland] Frank assumed total control over life and death and intended to exercise it, putting into effect ideas expressed at the 1935 Berlin Congress: in his General Government, the ‘community of the people’ would be the only legal standard, so individuals would be subjugated to the will of the sovereign, the führer.

[The Nurnberg trials were] the first time in human history that leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against humanity and genocide, two new crimes.

[Lauterbach’s concept of ‘crimes against humanity’] was a starting point to vindicate ‘the rights of man’, to offer protection against the ‘cruelty and barbarity of his own State’.  Such acts were illegal even if German law allowed them.  The draft proclaimed that the fundamental rights of man trumped national laws, a new approach to serve the interests of individuals, not states.

[Summarising a speech at Nurnberg by Shawcross, the British Attorney General:] War was just and lawful to prevent ‘atrocities committed by tyrants against their subjects’.  If humanitarian intervention by war was allowed under international law, how could it be said that ‘intervention by judicial process’ was illegal?… those who helped a state commit a crime against humanity would not be immune from responsibility; they couldn’t shelter behind the state.

[Sands sets out his own reservations about the concept of genocide:] I have seen for myself how the need to provide the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires, can have unhappy psychological consequences.  It enhances the sense of solidarity among the members of the victim group while reinforcing negative feelings towards the perpetrator group.  The term ‘genocide’, with its focus on the group, tends to heighten a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, burnishes feelings of group identity and may unwittingly give rise to the very conditions that it seeks to address: by pitting one group against another, it makes reconciliation less likely.  I fear that the crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because the desire to be labelled a victim of genocide brings pressure on prosecutors to indite for that crime.  For some, to be labelled a victim of genocide becomes ‘an essential component of national identity’ without contributing to the resolution of historical disputes or making mass killings less frequent.

The book is, like The Hare with Amber Eyes, packed with extraordinary research.  A chapter tracking down a key figure from his mother’s survival, a Miss Tilney of Norwich, and uncovering Miss Tilney’s remarkable war-time activities, is breathtaking.

I found the closing words of the epilogue moving.  Sands rediscovers the wooded site, east of Zółkiew, where the 3,500 Jewish inhabitants of the town – including ancestors of Sands himself and Lauterpacht – were murdered and buried by the Nazis on 25 March 1943:

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.  There we sat, on grass, watching the sun fall onto dark, still water that stretched with across the openings of the earth.  

“East West Street”: rating

For: a compelling, moving account of grim events and rare uplifting moments, bringing to life key concepts in international law.

Against: more grim events than uplifting moments.

Other stuff

If you found this interesting, you may like to check out my other reviews.  These include Central European melancholy – relevant to this review.  I review an an eclectic selection of books.  See my reviews of PrepLee Child’s Jack Reacher novelsThe Alan Clark Diariesthe works of Barbara TuchmanJulian Barnes, The Museum of Innocence; and of course 11 Reasons to read Trollope.  I have also reviewed enough Wodehouse to have installed a PG Wodehouse tab.

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If you would like to have a look at my own writing, take a look at my most recent books, such as “Palladium”, below.

Palladium by Leigh Turner


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