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Monday 5 February 2018

Review Philippe Sands, East West Street

I don’t usually provide quotable quotes about books I read but I have to say of this one that it is an extraordinary achievement, both in terms of the research on which it is based and the narrative manner in which it is presented. The main text runs to 387 pages, readable throughout. Sands recounts the history of his mother’s family; the history of two great international lawyers (Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin); the life and crimes of Hans Frank, governor of German-occupied Poland; the story of the Nuremberg trials and something of their  aftermath. He holds it all together by constant references back to Lemberg / Lwow/ Lvov /Lviv the city in Austrian Galicia where his grandfather Leon Buchholz and the two lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, were born and later the site of some of the worst Nazi crimes.

Lauterpacht gave us the expression “crimes against humanity” and Lemkin gave us the term “genocide”. One of the main achievements of this book is to make us think about what those things mean and how they have different implications for law and politics. In particular, Sands points out dangers involved in focusing on crimes against groups (genocide) rather than crimes against individuals, however large their number (crimes against humanity). There are not only the problems of proving intent to destroy a group as such, but also the danger that the idea of genocide re-enforces habits of thinking and acting by using categories which themselves are part of the problem. Though he does not draw it out, it is obvious that if the word “genocide” had never been used then Armenia and Turkey might have progressed much farther towards a resolution of  their century-old dispute than they have. But the Armenians insist they were victims of a genocide and the Turks do not want to accept responsibility for one, though they are clearly willing to acknowledge all or most of the main narrative of mass deportation, starvation and killing. One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that Turkey in World War One saw the Armenian population in its eastern parts as likely to favour enemy Russia over their own Ottoman rulers. That gave rise to military anxieties about fifth columns,  similar to those which led Stalin to organise mass deportations. But those deportations were not significantly driven by racial theorising. 

The archival research which Sands has conducted or directed is astonishing, and the reader must surely come to think that if only you persist long enough with your Google searches and your actual visits to people and places you will eventually turn up the truth. The remarkable chapter on Miss Tilney of Norwich, who took Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris, is a handproof of that claim and within the book itself it reads like a polished gem of the archival researcher’s craft. It is all the more remarkable that Sands is working on questions where the archival evidence has so often been destroyed by war, neglect, sell-offs and looting - Sands does not mention that in the 1990s when the Soviet Union became the Wild East, chunks of Lemberg archive material were either sold off to cover things like building repairs and staff salaries or looted by new-style small entrepreneurs who paid bribes for easy access to material. I don't know the details of the transactions involved, but I have seen lots of  the archive material,  low-grade it's true but still part of a history which had been preserved for decades until the Soviet Union imploded. 

I think I will have a hard task to find a more impressive book to read in 2018 and for once the jacket endorsements (led off by John le Carré) are entirely justified.

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