I read this book by Philippe Sands after seeing the film ‘My Nazi Legacy’. The film shows his search for answers about his wider family in the company of two men whose fathers were important members of the Nazi regime. Although the experiences shown in the film are covered here, the book is wider. In particular, he shows how the work of two men from the city of Lvov were instrumental in thinking about human rights law. The awful events in Lemberg (as Lvov was called at certain points in the twentieth century) are covered as is the approach of the allies on winning the Second World War; the Nuremberg trials are detailed in the second half of the book.
Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law. He grew up in Lvov. His major contribution to the trials at Nuremberg was to focus on crimes against humanity; there was no hiding behind the State, if you committed a crime, you committed a crime. The other major thinker was Raphael Lemkin, also a resident of the Lvov, and also Jewish so restricted by the anti- semitic laws in pursuing his career. His contribution to law was to establish the concept of genocide. He believed that the intent to destroy whole groups or races needed to be recognised as a crime. It seemed to me that the ideas of both men overlapped, although it was not always seen this way when the trial was underway in Nuremberg and Lemberg, in particular, was frustrated that his ideas were not readily picked up.
Hans Frank features more than the other Nazi criminals as he was in charge of the area in which Lvov fell. He was also the father of one of the men Sands had come to know. It is this sense of the historical as personal that makes this book so powerful.
I was fascinated to learn that the idea of putting Nazis on trial was contested, especially as it looked as if some would be acquitted or receive lenient sentences. This is not a book about Nazis, though, and it is important to remember the people who suffered. Leon, Sands’s grandfather has pride of place in this memoir because the events formed him and allowed Sands to see history in a more personal light. This is an amazing memoir and I was left, at the end, with a sense that it was just that the two lawyers who had the biggest impact on legal thinking in the Nuremberg trials were both Jewish and had both been pushed out by the very regime they were holding to account.