Philippe Sands, international lawyer and UCL professor, is the author of East West Street (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016), about the invention of international law as a response to the Holocaust. Having read the book last year, Lizzie Bullock and Rafy Hay spoke to him and asked about the book, its reception, and Sands’s life and views. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rafy Hay: Well I guess the reason we’re here is because we both read East West Street and are sort of obsessed with it. It’s the best non-fiction thing I’ve read recently.
Philippe Sands: I get so many emails about it, it really touches a chord. Really amazing.
RH: How did the people around you, your family, people who you know, how did they react firstly to you writing it, and secondly, to its release?
PS: My mum was the most anxious I think, because this was an area of silence and you don’t really talk about— and this material that’s very personal and very intimate about her mum and dad, and so there was this anxiety; but the reaction has been so overwhelmingly positive from all over the world because it’s coming out in lots of editions now that it’s put a new spring in her step and that’s one of the nicest things about the book actually; she’s about to be 80 and it makes me really happy that she’s really happy.
Complete irreverence from my kids, a sort of pride, but also a sort of “Hey dad, don’t get too big for your boots”, but in a good way, in a really supportive way.
RH: The personal element really draws people in. How do you go about it – is it a hard process, being that open?
PS: So I’m a lawyer, a law teacher at UCL, a barrister, and so I’ve had 30 years of training that you don’t talk about the self, about me, about I. So it’s squeezed out of you, and so everything else I’ve written is academic, about the legality of Iraq and that sort of stuff.
In starting to write this, obviously it was the first time I’d written about my own family – already different. But I needed to find a voice that allowed me to comfortably do that. And I had a fantastic editor – it was basically edited out of New York by a remarkable editor called Victoria Wilson, at Alfred A. Knopf, and it went through four drafts, each of over 150,000 words, each different, and slowly, over 6 years, she drew out of me the capacity to speak like that, to write like that. I think Vicky Wilson would tell you it was a bit of a slog, trying to get me to open up.
It’s a very personal book for everyone to read because it’s about identity. It’s about who we each are, who we believe ourselves to be, and how we define ourselves. Are we individuals? Are we members of groups? We’re obviously both, but what’s our central self? And it was just a happy coincidence that this seems to be a moment where identity politics has become very big, and I think people are thinking about it. That’s an accident.
But I think that’s the core of it – it’s using law as a vehicle to explore other things. It’s not that people inherently have an interest in exploring crimes against humanity and genocide. It’s that every human being, and I see this when I give lectures with 1,500 people in the room, you can say that every single one of you has asked yourself the question, “Who am I, how do I define myself?” and you just see this in the room, and that’s the heart of it.
But it is not that I set out to write a book about identity, I don’t think I realised what I was doing. It just sort of happened.
Lizzie Bullock: People identify with it on a visceral level. What do you think you’re going to do next?
PS: I’m writing the sequel in fact. I’m just about to finish the recording of a 10-part BBC podcast, which will go out at some point in the spring, with the working title ‘The Rat Line’ which is about one of the characters in the book, [Nazi governor of Krakow] Otto Wächter, and his son has given me access to all of the family archive, and I’ve traced what happened to him.
At its heart, it has the circumstances of his mysterious death in the Vatican, in the summer of 1949, and one of the questions that arises is, “Did he die by picking up an illness, or was he killed; and if he was killed, by whom? Soviets? US? Jews? Poles? Who did it?” And that’s what the podcast also explores. It’s thus a timeless theme – you know, the knocking off when one or other groups are unhappy with the person.
LB: Do you have a hypothesis?
PS: I mean, there’s evidence in different directions. The beauty of it is that it’s not clear what happened; it leans in one direction, but once there’s ambiguity, you’ve got a story, and different people will interpret the facts in different ways, which is exciting.
LB: That’s where law becomes fun, interpreting things…
PS: Yeah, well law is about words, and the meaning of words, and you know, there’s one character at the heart of the book who is a lot of people’s favourite character, and that’s Miss Tilney, who takes a single line from Paul’s letter to the Romans and interprets it in a particular direction; a peculiar interpretation but hey, that’s what – it worked for her and she acted on it, it’s a pretty remarkable story.
LB: It’s also interesting in terms of interpretation how some people thought she was not a good person, and as you get to know her, it changes.
PS: Nothing is what it seems – there is a character who, if I had met her on the street, I would probably not have given the time of day to. Here is a lady who spends her life trying to convert people, to bring people to Jesus, and at its heart is the very big question – what motivated her? Was it “ideology”, or was it humanity?
If you read the acknowledgements very carefully, you’ll see an answer to that, or a sense of an answer to that. I went to visit someone who lives around here, a writer, Jeannette Winterson, because her mother was an evangelical, and I wanted to get a sense from someone who really lived with someone of that kind as to what you thought was going on. And Jeannette was really clear – it was humanity. She was driven not by the desire to convert but to save a life.
But someone else may interpret the same facts differently.
LB: Do you find it hard to combine writing with teaching, firstly in terms of balancing time, and also in terms of knowing that things are a grey area – how do you teach that to somebody?
PS: In terms of the balance, that’s become complicated in the last year and a half, and UCL have been generous in cutting back on my teaching – but it’ll change. It’s about, I think, to flatten out. I still love teaching. I absolutely love being in the classroom and I really enjoy every year a different group of students; I don’t like the admin at all. It’s just gone crazy. So – I make time for it, and I don’t need to be persuaded to teach; I love being in the classroom. But it’s become difficult to balance, but you know it may be that it’s about to become calmer again.
LB: Do you find that your ideas, your ideology in your writing, is different from the way that you teach?
PS: No, I very much teach by anecdote; I’ve found out that I’m a story teller. Gone are the days when I’ll just read out my notes of a lecture and I know I’ll stand up and have five things that I want to say. And I only teach graduate classes because I don’t believe that law should be taught as an undergraduate course. I don’t think that the function of university is to train people for the professions or for work – I mean medicine is obviously different – but I think university is essentially about thinking, and so I don’t teach undergraduate, although the undergraduates at UCL, when I have had contact with them, are fabulous.
But the style is the same – and I think that it is that the style of being in a classroom, and the way I teach, and the way I argue in court, has informed the way I write these books, and the way I articulate ideas.
LB: Did you enjoy your time then, reading law, as an undergrad?
PS: No! Not in any way. I had one good course – in international law, which I really liked. But it’s one of my greatest regrets in life, that I studied law as an undergraduate.
LB: One thing that comes across in your answers is your focus on public service; it seems you have an optimistic view of the world – a nice view. Do you think that is compatible with the world as it is right now in 2018?
PS: I’m not a starry-eyed person. I do a lot of work dealing with incredibly nasty things, and nasty people. And so I’m well aware of human capacity to be monstrous. And it will continue. But the law has a sort of restraining effect on malign behaviour over the long term. It’s a long term project, international law.
But I am an optimistic person. Definitely.
I mean, even whilst, at this moment, feeling incredibly glum about this country, I’ve engaged in really interesting conversations with my kids, who are your sorts of ages, who think I have a very negative attitude to Britain, while they’re all, “No it’s going to be fine, we’re gonna get on”. I mean they’re all against Brexit and pro-remain and they said, “you know don’t be so gloomy, it’s going to be fine” and I like that actually. I think the role of our generation is not to be gloomy, is not to be naysayers, but I have to say, I think that Britain right now feels like a miserable little country right now. I mean I’ve just been in Australia, I’ve been in LA, I’ve been in California, and there’s just a vibrancy, an energy, and something is broken here.
LB: How do you think we’re going to fix that?
PS: I really object to politicians who lie to us. And we have basically people who stand up and lie to us. We have a foreign secretary who is not fit to be foreign secretary, who has done more damage to this country probably than any other foreign secretary in British history. And we have a prime minister, who I suspect is motivated by a sense of public service, but who has put at the top of everything saving the Conservative party rather than looking after the interest of the country.
And so I have become completely persuaded that we need to just sweep them all out. I’ve rejoined Labour, and I will, you know, fight for someone who is not a classical politician, like Jeremy Corbyn, to go for it. I think that the others are just broken. I have been completely persuaded by my kids, they’re all Corbynistas. Well, not quite my son, but he’s sort of into it. The rest are, the girls are, and I think he’s great. The fact that he has motivated your generation is a completely fantastic thing and is, of itself, worthy of support. So, you know, I don’t agree with some of the things he stands for, I don’t wish he’d more this or more that for others, but the bottom line is – he’s galvanised your generation, and that is a fantastic thing.
RH: I think that’s a really nice note to end on.
PS: Yeah, I’m really glad you came.
Philippe Sands, QC is a Professor of Law at UCL, lawyer at Matrix Chambers, and prize-winning author of 16 books, including East West Street and its sequel, A Death in the Vatican, to be released in the next two years.
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