Friday, May 14, 2021

The dilemmas of dealing with a criminal past

The two last books written by the legal scholar Philippe Sands, “East West Street” and “The Ratline,” are great stories about the tragedy and crimes of the Holocaust, and how to deal with its memories. They should belong to the book shelves of anyone interested in the contemporary footprint of passed atrocities and the lingering impact they leave in communities and individuals. The two of them deal at the same time with the collective and the personal dilemmas of confronting the past.

“East West Street” is the story of four individuals whose lives are connected to the Nuremberg trial or to the city of Lviv (currently a Ukranian city, but Lemberg, Lvov or Lwow in the past, depending on which was the “sovereign” country). This city is where the grandfather of the author, one of the main characters of the book, was born, and where two of the other characters where also born (two Jewish legal scholars that played an important role in the Nuremberg trial). The grandfather of Sands was fortunate to leave first his home town, and later Viena, to live the rest of his life with the sadness of almost all the rest of his Jewish family having been killed by the Nazis.

Lviv, a key place in the two books, is a city where the buildings remain in the same place, but the name, the country (Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine) and the citizens change with wars, tragedies, ethnic cleansing and occupations. The memories that the local authorities select to promote also change. The fall of a multi-ethnic past, followed by atrocious crimes driven by blind nationalism, places Sands in the tradition of Stefan Zweig in “The World of Yesterday” and Claudio Magris in “Danube.”

“East West Street” discusses the legal dilema between the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” which first were used in the Nuremberg trials and were promoted by the two legal scholars, whose lives are explained in the book. Genocide emphasizes the murder of people for being members of a group, and crimes against humanity emphasizes the importance of the individual and how states can abuse their sovereignty to violate human rights. Although Sands is respectful of both concepts, he does not fully hide his higher sympathy for "crimes against humanity," as he believes that “genocide” may encourage group responsibility and “us against them” dynamics. He also wrote a very interesting article (a real anti-nationalist manifesto) in The Guardian in favor of a global, instead of a national, passport.

“The Ratline” amplifies a sub-story of “East West Street:” the different views of two children of Nazi leaders. Niklas Frank, the son of the Poland governor during the Nazi occupation Hans Frank (sentenced to death in the Nuremberg trial), is openly critic of his father, even to the extent of saying that he is against the death penalty, except for his father, about whom he wrote a book expressing his negative feelings. Horst Wächter, the son of Galizia District’s governor in Nazi times Otto Wächter, a friend of Niklas, takes a very different perspective: he is totally unable of confronting the reality of his father as a mass murderer, and is always finding excuses to forgive the latter’s participation in the Holocaust, such as arguing against all evidence that he felt trapped in the system, where he supposedly tried to minimize the atrocities. 

Otto Wächter went hiding after the fall of the Third Reich, and he died in Rome under the protection of an anti-comunist Catholic Bishop with Nazi sympathies, and the tolerance of the American secret services, which were recruiting Nazis as spies at the time, the beginning of the Cold War.

Horst is a gentle individual, and he keeps a constructive relationship both with Niklas and with the author of the book. The different approaches of Niklas and Horst are also the topic of a documentary, which can be watched for free in You Tube. The two sons have also in common that they were ostracized by many in their families just for openly talking publicly about the past. Family links of affection are put at risk by the exploration of the past.

The two books are a great read, and probably belong to the genre that the Spanish writer Javier Cercas (mentioned by Sands in "The Ratline" with admiration) has called “non-fiction novels.”

Besides the two books and the documentary, the full collection should include the Financial Times article “My father, the good Nazi,” a result of the conversations between Philippe Sands and Horst Wächter.

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