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Saturday 16 March 2019

Ratlines - Human Rights Lawyer, Author, Podcaster Professor Philippe Sands at the Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna 9* out of 10

Prominent International Lawyer Philippe Sands in an enthralling wide-ranging conversation with Austrian journalist and author Tessa Szyszkowitz on International Criminal Law, family history and Brexit. You can watch the award-winning documentary starring Sands and listen to his Podcast series Ratlines by following the links below.   

A Professor at University College London and a Barrister at Matrix Chambers, Philippe Sands is a renowned International Lawyer specializing in International Human Rights Law. In 2015 he published East-West Street, a book on the origins of the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity and a report on the search for his own origins. By fate or coincidence, Raphael Lemkin and Hersh Lauterpacht, the protagonists behind these two profound and competing milestones in the progress of International Human Rights Law, developed and applied at the Nuremberg Trials in the wake of World War 2 and Sands’ grandfather’s family all lived at some point in their lives in the city of Lemberg, Lvov, Lviv. This city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, part of Poland and today is in Ukraine, which explains why it has at least three names. It was Philippe Sands who, when he discovered this connection, proceeded to unearth and tell the story of two great legal minds’ invention of two key concepts in International Humanitarian Law.  He also unearthed his own family history, a family most of whose members fell victim to such crimes.

Having gained fame as a writer of a popular book about the history of international law Sands went on to star in a BBC Storyville documentary My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did. He took 2 sons of key figures on the German/Austrian/Nazi side of his story whom he had met during the research for his book to Lviv. Niklas Frank is the son of the notorious War Criminal Otto Frank who headed the Nazi Administration in Poland. Horst Wächter is the son of SS-Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter who under Otto Frank headed the civil Nazi Administration in Lemberg. Civil in its designation it was not civil in its behaviour.  Niklas Frank detests his father who was found guilty and hanged at the Nuremberg Trials after World War 2. Horst Wächter, in the face of overwhelming indications to the contrary, is convinced of his father’s innocence. To his credit, Horst Wächter has opened all the family correspondence, as he desperately wants to find indications that his father under whose direction as head of the civil administration the Jews of Lemberg were sent to their death, was a good man who participated, if at all, only reluctantly in the abominable crimes so deliberately and efficiently directed by his good friend and boss Otto Frank. Sands, whose relatives were murdered under Frank’s enthusiastic leadership maintains throughout most of the documentary the persona of the accomplished barrister looking for the facts and prepared to defend or prosecute as the barristers’ code of ethics demands. He says he is not proud of the moment where he temporarily loses his professional cool with Horst Wächter.

The award-winning film led Sands to research what happened to Otto Wächter after the war. How had Wächter escaped the attempts of the allies to catch him? The story is revealed in a suspenseful entertaining and chilling manner in a BBC Podcast – The Ratline, with a cameo appearance by John Le Carré, master of the spy novel and Sand’s neighbour in London’s Hampstead neighbourhood. 

The Ratline is the name given to the operation of a network by the highest levels in the Catholic church in Rome to help Nazi war criminals escape from justice. Since soon after the end of the War the Western Allies were putting what they perceived as their own interest ahead of the pursuit of justice, most senior German and Austrian Nazis had their crimes whitewashed in return for helping the Western Allies fight the threat of Soviet Communism. 

This prompted me to raise my hand in the Q&A session and ask Sands how he would answer the question: Do "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" pay, if not for the perpetrators at least for their perpetrators' legally innocent descendants? The dead cannot have descendants anymore while most Nazi-criminals and their descendants, the latter being innocent of their parents' crimes, can live rich and comfortable lives undisturbed by survivors and any descendants or other relatives of the murdered? No, answered Sands, the passionate International Lawyer, International Criminal Law is a long game with small but important steps having been made over hundreds of years, and big steps having been made by the adoption of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide into International Law in the 20th century.  

In a wide-ranging conversation with the London based Austrian author and journalist Tessa Szyszkowitz, Philippe Sands showed himself as great raconteur thoughtfully reflecting on the experience of his journey through the history of his family during World War II and explaining the competing ideas of "Crimes Against Humanity" and "Genocide" and their origins. Charming, eloquent and a trifle self-possessed, as one would expect from a barrister, Sands showed himself as a man who can listen as well as talk. He is passionate about the importance of facts and possesses the persistence needed to look for such facts in all the most unlikely places. His persistence is so often rewarded that in Sands’ case serendipity appears to have become a trusty companion.

Sands spoke about the research and the writing of East West Street as a search for his identity. But listening to him, it becomes clear that the identity he exudes with the most natural confidence is that of the gifted lawyer driven by curiosity to tell the story based on where the facts lead him.

Horst Wächter, the son of the protagonist of Ratlines, was also in the audience and asked to speak, trying to convince us all that his SS-father who had joined the Nazi party in Austria in the 1920s and stood with Hitler on the balcony of the Heldenplatz after the Nazi-German invasion of Austria in March 1938, would never have willingly participated in the killing of innocent people including the deportation and killing of Jews. After the event, Horst Wächter, now Philippe Sands' friend, took 10 minutes to try and convince me personally of this too. So, he deserves at least 8* out of 10 for effort; but the weight of the facts speaks against his father’s “reluctance”. Horst Wächter did tell me that he had brought with him letters of people vouching for his father and showing that he had saved numerous Jewish people from certain death. Perhaps we’ll hear if Horst Wächter has made a dent in Philippe Sands’ view of Otto Wächter. 

Ably interviewed by a knowledgeable and thoroughly prepared Tessa Szyszkowitz, an Austrian journalist and author living in London, Sands effortlessly switched from intriguing secrets of the past to British politics of the present.  As a prominent international lawyer in Britain, he is involved in advising on the legal aspects of Brexit and was as eloquent and interesting when speaking about that topic as he was about the past. Although a convinced “remainer”, Sands delivered a stinging critique on the European Court of Justice for being unwilling to submit itself to the European Court of Human Rights on Human Rights issues. With democracy coming under strain and scrutiny in Europe and beyond, Sands indicated that the protection provided individuals and groups by the rule of law is becoming an important counterweight against attempts to limit the rights of the individual by the means of a democratic majority as some governments in former liberal democracies are veering towards authoritarianism. He answered questions on Trump’s USA, the Uighurs in China the reach of International Criminal Law today. A very interesting evening at the Kreisky Forum.

Below I have listed a number of links to Philippe Sands book, podcasts, and films. Anybody with an interest in contemporary history and politics who would like the role of international law explained clearly and in context will enjoy reading, watching or listening to Philippe Sands. If you get the chance don’t miss it.

Philippe Sands

Links to books, youtube videos, and podcasts:


Documentary Film: My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did 
Available on Youtube

BBC 10-part Podcast: The Ratline on BBC Sounds:

East West Street: A conversation with Philippe Sands recorded at the London School of Economics November 2016 on YouTube

I made a number of spelling/grammar corrections and small editorial updates to the original blog entry on 17 March 2019.

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