Review: East West Street

Phillippe Sands “East West Street” is a book about events that led to the Nuremberg trials. It is very thought provoking, a chronicle of ideas as well as events. It asks who carries responsibility for war crimes, the individual or the group?

The words ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ did not exist in legal-speak when the Nazis invaded Europe and killed communists, Poles, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and the poor. Phillippe Sands describes how these words come into the lexicon of judges at Nuremberg through the efforts of two men – Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht. Both men were from Lviv, a town in Poland where some of the worst crimes were committed at the order of a Nazi Hans Frank, the governor-general of the region.

Sands describes the terrible events that made a new category of crime necessary. He counterpoises these events with descriptions of culture and refinement of Hans Frank, his love of music and art. He seems to be saying the Nazis were not red necks, at least not all of them.

Four of the main protagonists at Nuremberg came from this same town in Poland variously known as Lvov, Lwów, and Lemberg. These name changes occurred each time the town was invaded in the 20th century. He says the town itself is the 5th main character in the book, its long East West Street providing both title and scene of historic events.

Since its inception in 1998 the International Court of Justice in the Hague has had some pretty dubious characters before it, including Pinochet, Milosevic, and more recently, Ang San Suu Ky  … no doubt some would like to add a few more names: the Bush’s, Clinton’s, Blair’s and Netanyahu’s come to mind.

I was struck by an account in the book about how angry a young Jewish woman from Lemberg in Poland was with the British, even more than with the Nazis who had murdered her family. The reason she gave for her hatred for the English was British government refusal to allow her to go to Palestine in 1946 (just one year before the state of Israel was declared by the UN). The woman later recanted, saying it was the anger of a young person. In her old age, she ended up in a retirement village in Tel Aviv.

How strange that self-interest weighs so heavily in the way people see history. War crimes are being committed daily in Palestine by Israel and yet the International Court of Justice can do nothing to prevent it!

Nuremberg was the first time four powers, Russia, Britain, France and the U.S. shared a courtroom to prosecute the vanquished. What followed was a UN charter of human rights and then the cold war where Berlin was divided between East and West so beautifully portrayed in Pawel Pawlikowshi’s film Cold War. The protagonists of that film were Polish, engaged in a musical odyssey in post war Poland. The Soviets formed a musical ensemble in an effort to rekindle national pride.

It was not until the cold war had ended that an international court was created using the principles formed by Lemkin and Lauterpacht through the dark years of national socialism.

Ian Curr
23 Dec 2019

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