The city of Lviv, part of the ‘great mansion that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’, was sundered by the vicissitudes of war between 1914-45, losing its identity under Polish, German, Soviet and finally Ukrainian rule.

The other names ascribed to Lviv – Lemberg, Lvov and Lwow – reflected those power struggles, not least when the city became part of an independent Poland after the first world war. Embedded in the Versailles agreement was a requirement that Poland sign a Polish Minorities Treaty, which afforded protections for schools, and religious and social institutions. As Philippe Sands QC, professor of law at University College London, observes in his absorbing East West Street: ‘The modern law of human rights was born on the anvil of Lwow and its environs.’

For the city’s university nurtured two of the greatest architects of international law. Professor Hersch Lauterpacht fought for the ‘vital necessity’ of rights for individuals, and at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 crimes against humanity became part of international law. The assembly also decided that ‘genocide is a crime under international law’, thus endorsing the ideas of prosecutor and lawyer Rafael Lemkin. His concern for the ‘destruction of groups’ had been piqued by the mass murder of Armenians in 1915.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin had an influence on the Nuremberg trials of German leaders (pictured). In helping to forge an international criminal tribunal, Lauterpacht had suggested to American judge Robert Jackson that atrocities against individual citizens should be called ‘crimes against humanity’.

As the trial began at Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, a Soviet prosecutor described one of the charges as ‘crimes against humanity’. Later, Lauterpacht would hone British prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross’ speeches, though Lauterpacht did not mention genocide as he wanted to ‘diminish the force of inter-group conflict’.

Nuremberg would have profound repercussions, writes Sands, as ‘the sovereignty of the state would no longer provide absolute refuge for crimes on such a scale’.

Author: Philippe Sands QC

£20, Orion Books

But the trial was frustrating for Lemkin, who believed that ‘individuals were targeted because they were members of a particular group, not because of their individual qualities’. Lemkin had pored over Nazi decrees and ordinances and ‘identified the wholesale destruction of the nations over which the Germans took control as an overall aim’. At Nuremberg, French prosecutor Pierre Mounier became the first person to use the word ‘genocide’ in a court of law.

And later Sir David Maxwell Fyfe used the word in his cross-examination of Konstantin von Neurath, Hitler’s first foreign minister. However, there was a general reluctance at Nuremberg to use the word ‘genocide’, writes Sands, perhaps stemming from the difficulty of proving intent to destroy a group, or from concern that focusing on groups could give ‘rise to anti-Semitism and anti-Germanism’.

As well as offering a very readable account of Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s ideas, Sands’ book places Lviv, where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born, as the locus of torn families. Invited by the city’s university to give a talk about his own work on crimes against humanity and genocide, Sands decides to find out more about Leon. ‘He never told me,’ writes Sands, ‘that every single person from his childhood… was murdered. Of the seventy or more family members living in Lemberg and Zolkiew when the war began, the only survivor was Leon’.

Even today, ‘issues of individual identity and group membership were delicate in Lviv’, says Sands, neatly encapsulating the familial agonies wrought by two global conflicts.

Nicholas Goodman is a sub-editor at the Gazette