Folks, I don’t often read books about the Second World War and all the crap that came with it. It’s just … not my tea. At all.
But I’ve heard enough about this week’s book to make an exception. I normally also do not read family memoirs, but I’m glad I picked this book up.
The basic summary of this book goes something like this: Established international law professor gets invited to give a lecture in the Ukranian city of Lviev, and he uses that opportunity to uncover his family’s secret history. He knows his grandfather was born there, and Sands knows he fled to Paris during World War II.
It goes without saying that this will not be a happy story.
But then, Sands also discovers that the origins of international law – the subject he is teaching – come from two lawyers educated at the very university he is supposed to give a speech at!
And so the story begins. Sands starts weaving this story of Europe in the 1930s – the story of his family, and the people who would kill them, and the people who would bring them to justice.
He talks about the big names – Hans Frank, the Governor-General of the Polish occupied territories – and the forgotten ones – he finds the name of the woman who smuggled his mother from Vienna to safe Paris. He talks about how two lawyers – Lauterpacht and Lemkin – started talking and thinking about how to bring Nazis to justice and how they started an entire new section of law.
It’s this dense fabric of interwoven stories that makes this book such an interesting read – most of us know the basic facts of history behind it, but to see how this played out on an individual level really brought the tragedy home.
As Stalin said – “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic”. The human brain is not able to understand the tragedy of the holocaust in all its enormity. To break it down to the fate of individuals – his grandparents, his extended family, people who had names and hopes and jobs and friends – is the true beauty of Sands’ book.
And all throughout, there is a basic question: what’s the right of the individual towards the State?
This might sound like a hypothetical question, but it is anything but.
So. Prior to WW2, really, the idea of state sovereignty gave the state the right to treat its citizens as it wished. You could be dispossessed, held captive, or displaced if your Head of State wanted it so.
(There is also the medieval ‘droit de seigneur’, which gave the King / whoever was in charge the right to rape your wife / girlfriend / daughter. Just thought I’d throw this in here because it’s awful.)
It was only with World War 2, and the development of the idea of universal jurisdiction (that’s the idea that a state can interfere with another state’s behaviour, even if State B had done nothing to attack State A) that the individual gained rights when it came to the citizen – State relationship.
This gave the US the right to interfere in Nazi’s Germany’s own business. (Thank God.)
Lemkin and Lauterpacht, the two brains behind this idea, disagreed on a fundamental question though: Should the Nazis be prosecuted because of crimes against individuals or whole groups?
Lauterpacht was all for the protection of the individual. Every single murder counts.
Lemkin didn’t disagree, but he said that most Jews were murdered precisely because they were Jews – they belonged to a group. He even coined a new word for this – genocide.
And, interestingly, the same question of individual vs. group played out on the other side, too – Were all Nazis collectively guilty of everything or should they be charged as individuals?
Of course, all of this resulted in the Nuremberg trials – which was the first time that leaders of a sovereign state were held accountable for crimes against their own citizens.
It’s a lot of punch for a book this short, but it’s a good read.