There is a moment about halfway through Philippe Sands’ new film, called in the UK My Nazi Legacy and in America What Our Fathers Did, where everything changes. For the first half, Sands, one of the world’s leading international human rights lawyers and professor of international law at University College London, has held onto a kind of neutrality. The film is concerned with two Nazi war criminals, both of them lawyers: Hans Frank, who as Governor-General of Poland was directly responsible for the destruction of the Jewish community there, and Otto von Wächter, from January 1942 to July 1944 Governor of Galicia and Frank’s deputy. Frank was hanged at Nuremberg; von Wächter, protected by the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal, slipped away to Rome where he died of kidney disease in July 1949. Or rather, the film is concerned with the sons of these two men, both of whom were born in 1939 and so too young to be implicated in their father’s crimes, yet each of them, in different ways, caught up in them. Frank’s son Niklas, a well-known German journalist, is renowned for his absolute condemnation of everything about his father, a standpoint that came to very public notice with the publication in 1987 of his book, Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung (The Father: A Settling of Accounts—translated into English in 1991 as In the Shadow of the Reich). Von Wächter’s son Horst, on the other hand, wriggles out of this: he is troubled, it is clear, he sees what was done, but his own father, he thinks, was fundamentally a good man who had no real choice; one has to understand that resistance to the Nazi decrees was not easy, even for a Nazi. Sands became interested in these men as a result of research on a book on the origins of law covering crimes against humanity. Much of this law originated in the work of two great Jewish lawyers, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who both had connections with Lemberg (Lviv) where Sands’ own maternal grandfather came from, and where Frank was responsible for the murder of virtually the entire Jewish population. Niklas Frank’s book stirred Sands’ interest in the theme of fathers and sons, and so he was responsive when Niklas suggested that he meet Horst, whose attitude was very different to his own.
In an interview I had with Sands at his home in London in July 2015, sandwiched between his working trip to Ghana and emergency meetings at his London Chambers, Sands described what he thinks happened to him during the making of the film. In the first half, which takes us up to a public staging of a conversation between Sands, Niklas and Horst at the Purcell Room in London in December 2013, Sands stood back, avoiding consciously taking sides between the two men. But at the end of this discussion, “Horst suddenly said, ‘my father is venerated in the Ukraine.’” That, for Sands, was the moment things changed, a “very crucial moment.” It resulted in a trip to the Ukraine for Sands and the two men to observe the annual celebration of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division and to visit Lviv together. In a powerful scene, the three men are filmed in the old Jan Kazimierz University. Sands takes them back to a meeting held there in August 1942 involving both their fathers, at which Hans Frank gave a speech announcing the implementation of the “final solution” in Galicia. Unexpectedly, and unscripted, Niklas mounts the rostrum, takes out of his pocket a translation of his father’s speech, and reads from it. He notes that Frank had addressed Horst’s father approvingly and joked about how he was making the Jews disappear. “And you are still pretending that you didn’t find anything which would accuse your father of being involved in this,” Niklas says to Horst. “Something happened in that room,” Sands told me; he describes himself as being “pretty irritated,” and it is not hard to see why. Faced with overwhelming circumstantial evidence, Horst still demands sight of his father’s signature on an incriminating document; otherwise there is always room for doubt. For both Niklas and Sands, this is a demeaning stance. What they want from Horst, even need from him at this point, is a statement that he recognises his father’s absolute complicity.
Why does this matter so much? Prior to this moment, the film shows Sands in the record office in Lviv reading about the eighty members of his own family who were killed in the Nazi actions there, under the instructions of Niklas’ and Horst’s fathers. We have also seen a poignant clip of Sands’ grandfather at Sands’ wedding, looking vacant and alone, as if haunted—who knows?—by these ghosts. This picture makes Sands cry, he says, in awareness of how he was not able to speak to his grandfather of what had happened, how silence enveloped his own family. The three go to the grand, ruined synagogue in the nearby town of Zhovkva, once frequented by Philippe’s own family and burnt out when the Germans occupied the town in July 1941. We also visit the killing field in which the community died.
So it is not surprising that Sands is frustrated and distressed. Still, even though one might think it easy to understand, I have trouble in working out exactly what it is that Niklas and Sands want from Horst as they challenge him to own up to the criminality of his father. It is not, I put to him, that there is any new information to discover: fundamentally, everything is known about what happened, and who was responsible. The film does not turn up any stones on this: the Jews were killed, and the Nazis killed them, under Frank’s command and under the command of von Wächter. So why exactly does it matter if Horst acknowledges this fully; what difference does it make? Sands’ answer to this is on two levels. One of these is what he calls a “personal instinct”—he likes Horst, and Horst’s equivocation interferes with this liking, making it harder to sustain; he want Horst to be better than he really is, to “recognise the facts.” But, Sands says, there is something else, something “professional” that comes from his life in international courts and tribunals. Horst’s position tends to undermine this system because courts and tribunals can only deal with a small number of cases, creating a large space which can be taken advantage of by those who are not prosecuted. It is in this space that Horst can effectively say of his father, “he was never convicted; he was a good man.” This means that unless people like Horst can see that prosecution and official conviction is not everything, a division is opened up: there are the proven guilty and “everyone else is fine”—yet they are not fine, as we well know. So Sands identifies his zeal, if one can call it that, to force Horst to see the truth about his father as part of his professional formation. As a lawyer, he knows that the system of law can be abused and that its integrity depends on the realisation that official justice is not the only condition of moral judgement.
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My Nazi Legacy is playing at the UK Jewish Film Festival on 11, 19 & 20 Nov.