Recap: FCIL-SIS Book Group

By Jennifer Allison

ewstSpearheaded by Dan Wade of the Yale Law School Library, the FCIL-SIS Book Group met again this year at the AALL annual meeting. Of the two finalists, the book chosen by the participants was East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”, by Philippe Sands (published in 2016 by Knopf, ISBN 978-0385350716).

The participants in the book group included:

  • Dan Wade, Yale
  • John Wilson, UCLA
  • Lyonette Louis-Jacques, University of Chicago
  • Loren Turner, University of Minnesota
  • Jennifer Allison, Harvard
  • Daniel Donahue, University of Houston
  • Marilyn Raisch, Georgetown
  • Evelyn Ma, Yale

After a bit of a location mix-up, the group settled on meeting at the conference hotel’s American Craft  Kitchen & Bar.  Over delicious food and drinks, the conversation about this interesting and unexpected book flowed.

Most of the group’s participants gave the book a thumbs-up, although there were definitely mixed reviews regarding the book’s somewhat unusual format.  Although it was a non-fiction account of the development of the crime of genocide, Sands wove this information into the stories of four people from an Eastern European city, that, throughout its history, has had a number of names, including Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, and as it is known today, Lviv.

One of the four people whose story was told was Sands’ maternal grandfather, a Jew who left his hometown for Vienna in the early 20th century, and then fled Vienna for Paris in the late 1930s.  The book featured extensive descriptions of the grandfather’s early life, the fate of his family in what was, during the war, the Polish city of Lwów, and his later years in Paris, where the author spent time with him.

Sands also told the stories of two men who had studied at the law faculty of the University of Lwów:

  • Raphael Lemkin taught at Duke Law School and worked with the American lawyers who were involved in the Nuremberg trials. In his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, he offered the first definition of the word “genocide.”
  • Hersch Lauterpacht was an international lawyer who taught at the London School of Economics and Cambridge University. He worked with the Nuremberg Trials’ team of British lawyers.

The book’s fourth biographical figure was the German lawyer Hans Frank, who served the Nazi regime as both a lawyer and the Governor General of occupied Poland.  He was a defendant in the Nuremberg Trials, where he was convicted of the murder of Polish Jews.  He was sentenced to death and executed.

Although biographical information of these four figures was woven throughout the book, the main focus of its second half was the Nuremberg Trials, from the preparation (in which the allies’ legal teams debated whether to use the newly-introduced crime of “genocide” in their prosecution of the Nazi defendants), through the trial proceedings and the outcome.

Some of the members of the book group were not enamored of the book’s extensive use of biographical narrative, and would have preferred that the book focus merely on the earliest development of genocide of a legal norm that could be used by lawyers to prosecute war criminals.  In fact, a few people said that, if they were to read the book again, they would skip its first half entirely.  However, other members of the group felt that the inclusion of the biographical stories made the work more accessible to non-scholars; specifically, “it made it a serious book about genocide that I could recommend to my mom, or sister, one that they would actually read.”

There were other concerns about the book among the group.  As Dan Wade pointed out, “This book likely would not have passed a law school preemption check.”  Perhaps he is correct.  Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, a law professor at the University of Western Australia Faculty of Law, published an article that covered a remarkably similar topic in 2009: Human Rights and Genocide: The Word of Lauterpacht and Lemkin in Modern International Law (20 Eur. J. Int’l L. 1163 (2009)). The article tracked the life paths of these two figures, from their education at the University of Lwów Faculty of Law, through their lives and careers in the United States and England, to their participation in the Nuremberg Trials, in similar detail to Sands’ book.  Of course, Vrdoljak’s article discussed neither Sands’ grandfather nor Hans Frank in any detail, and the presence of the content of those two individuals added a level of narrative complexity and interest to the book that is not present in the article.  Still, Dan’s was a valid point.

Overall, it was a very successful and enjoyable book group meeting.  Hopefully this is a tradition that has been firmly established and will continue at AALL meetings into the future.

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