Sins of the fathers

Matthew Reisz considers an international lawyer’s extraordinary documentary about the after-effects of trauma and guilt

November 19, 2015
Source: Sam Hardy
Stand-off in the Ukraine: Horst vön Wächter, Philippe Sands and Niklas Frank

“Imagine what it must be like to grow up the child of a mass murderer…”

Those are the words with which Philippe Sands opens his remarkable – and poignantly personal – new film, My Nazi Legacy, which has just been shown been shown as part of the London Jewish Film Festival and is now going on tour round the country. I have long followed his career with fascination.

A leading international lawyer who has, for example, represented Mauritius against Great Britain in their dispute about the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, he is also professor of law at University College London. If that already sounds like a fairly busy life, he came to much greater public attention with the publication of Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules in 2005, a “whistle-blowing account of how Bush and Blair are taking the law into their own hands”. Three years later, he was back with Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law, a forensic analysis of the tangled decision-making process that led US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld to sign a memo in 2002 licensing a number of “counter-resistance techniques” most people would describe as torture. 

More recently, Sands has embarked on an even more ambitious series of projects. Six years ago, he delivered a lecture at Lviv University in the Ukraine and discovered that both the founding fathers of his field of humanitarian law, the men who developed the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” – Raphael Lemkin and Hersht Lauterpacht – had studied there. Lviv was also the city where his maternal grandfather had lived until forced to flee during the Nazi era.

To address these issues, Sands is working on a book combining family history with analysis of the ways that complex personal and historical factors underlie even the most abstract legal doctrines. But there have also been a number of spin-off projects. One is a performance piece he put on last year with Vanessa Redgrave and bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, A Song of Good and Evil. The central figure in this, alongside Lemkin and Lauterpacht, was the lawyer Hans Frank, a leading Nazi who came to what is now Lviv in 1942 to unleash the Final Solution in Poland. He was later convicted at Nuremberg for the murder of 4 million people.

Sands has now befriended Frank’s son Niklas, who was only six when his father was executed. Niklas introduced him to Horst vön Wächter, the son of one of his father’s closest associates, Otto vön Wächter (also indicted for mass murder, although he died under the protection of the Vatican in 1949). My Nazi Legacy is an extraordinary documentary about the conversations between the three men and their travels to the killing fields of the Ukraine.

In the course of the film, Sands discovers that his grandfather was the only one of a family of 80 to survive the Holocaust. Niklas, who carries a photograph of his hanged father around with him everywhere just to remind himself that he’s really dead, remains utterly convinced of his monstrous guilt. But Horst becomes increasingly keen to defend his father, even if it means falling back on ever more flimsy arguments in the face of overwhelming evidence. The result is an extraordinary tense stand-off between the three men as issues of responsibility come closer and closer to home.  

As a lawyer, Sands reflects at one point, he has learned to distrust “tribal instincts” when dealing with issues of justice; yet when he hears Horst “speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the murder of my grandfather’s entire family”. He is clearly an exceptionally accomplished performer in the strange ritualised world of the courthouse. His recent books and now this extraordinary film make him the perfect guide to some of the fierce behind-the-scenes human realities that lawyers are often trained to ignore.

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