Except for His Father

Isabel Hull

  • East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity by Philippe Sands
    Weidenfeld, 437 pp, £20.00, May 2016, ISBN 978 1 4746 0190 0

Before 1914, Lemberg was the fourth largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The multilingual, multicultural capital of the semi-autonomous province of Galicia, Lemberg was half Polish, a quarter Jewish and a fifth Ruthenian (Ukrainian). In addition to its cosmopolitan attractions (an opera house, a large museum, a university), it was also home to Austria’s easternmost fortress. Barely a month after the beginning of the First World War, that fortress fell to the Russian army, marking the start of decades of struggle to control (and rename) the city. It shifted back and forth between Austria and Russia during the Great War: ‘Lemberg ist noch in unserem Besitz’ (‘Lemberg is still in our possession’) became a cliché of Austrian propaganda, bitterly lampooned by Karl Kraus in his play The Last Days of Mankind – the phrase repeated again and again as Austria slides into oblivion. The new states of Poland and Ukraine battled for the city in 1918, touching off a pogrom that killed more than a hundred Jews. Poland emerged victorious and Lemberg became Lwów until 1939, when it fell to the Soviet Union as spoils of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (and became Lvov). When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 it retook the city, which became part of the General Government of Poland, an area Germany occupied but didn’t annex. The region’s governor-general, Hans Frank, presided over the extermination of Polish intellectuals and almost all of Lemberg’s Jews. In January 1945, the city fell again to the Soviets, and after 1989 became part of Ukraine, once more under a new name, Lviv.

Each exchange of control and name was accompanied by state-sponsored or tolerated mass ethnic killings. The first of these, the anti-Semitic pogrom of 1918, spurred the Allies to require that Poland and other Eastern European successor states sign Minority Treaties that traded recognition of sovereignty for international oversight over the treatment of ethnic minorities within their borders (thus limiting that same sovereignty). Poland regarded the Minority Treaties as a national humiliation and renounced them in September 1934. In 1945-46, Lemberg figured again in international attempts to deter or punish official mass killing, this time at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. The Soviet prosecutor focused on the exterminations in the city as exemplary of ‘crimes against humanity’, count three of the four indictments at Nuremberg. Thus, Lemberg can stand, and has stood, for two different ways in which international law defines and prohibits state killing: as a crime perpetrated against groups or as a crime against (large numbers of) individuals. More remarkably, Lemberg (or Lwów) law school trained three of the protagonists in this drama: Hersch Lauterpacht, a Cambridge academic and influential behind-the-scenes adviser at Nuremberg, who refined the concept of crimes against humanity and drafted much of the language in the indictments and prosecution arguments; Rafael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘genocide’ to refer to the intentional extermination of whole groups and who worked tirelessly and in the end successfully to introduce that concept into international law; and Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground who furnished vital information about the Nazi extermination programme to the Allies. Two other lawyers were central to this story on the other side: Hans Frank, the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, and Otto von Wächter, SS lieutenant-general, governor of Kraków and then of Galicia, and a former classmate of Lauterpacht’s in Vienna. Frank and von Wächter were both responsible for the ‘great action’ of August 1942, when the Jews of Lemberg were rounded up and sent to their deaths. Philippe Sands’s remarkable book is a voyage of discovery into the lost world of Lemberg/Lwów, its people, and their actions and ideas as these rippled outwards into the larger world we still inhabit.

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