I have never been an enthusiast for taking advantage of Father's Day, which seems to me to be a recent invention intended to help the makers of cards, perhaps justified as balancing the much more reasonable Mother's Day. Had I sent affectionate messages to my father on this day he would have thought I had taken leave of my senses, but he and I came from a different age, an age when he would (and often did) quote Cicero, 'O tempora, O mores'. The times, they were a'changing, and change to us old people is usually regretted or deplored. Our children and grandchildren are, however, of this modern generation, and I now grudgingly admit to some pleasure when I get good wishes on the day from these younger families.
This year, perhaps because we were locked into our house for the duration, I got a surprise. A heavy parcel arrived, addressed in the familiar handwriting of a daughter-in-law. It has been my habit to give gifts of books – improving books (again, my father's influence) – on birthdays and Christmas. Perhaps my daughter-in-law was getting her revenge and starting a course of grandfather improvement. Nervously, I opened the parcel; three substantial volumes, the shortest 370 pages long. As this one also had the largest typeface, I started to read it. It was a novel based on the true story of two refugees from Syria, a beekeeper and his blinded wife, and their desperate escape from the war that had killed his young son, through Turkey and Greece to England. It was beautifully and movingly written, and I thought of those other refugees currently making their way towards us in the hope of a better life and their final desperate voyage across the English Channel. My eyes filled with tears.
The second book was a sweeping view of the story of mankind in the light of the author's quotation of David Hume, that the chief use of history 'is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature'. Starting with an account of how the British response to the Blitz confounded theories of collapse of civilised behaviour, the author's aim was to examine whether mankind is essentially evil, as Thomas Hobbes maintained, or good, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed. After showing that much of the evidence for the former has been misinterpreted or was plain wrong, he makes a strong case for humanity not being ruled by selfish genes but by being essentially altruistic yet corruptible by our environment and systems of society. He ends on a hopeful note with his 10 rules to live by. I put the book down with a smile on my face; if we do not believe in the essential goodness of mankind we are lost.
Those two books took only a few days to read but when I turned to the third, I hesitated, not sure that I wanted to read it. Written by a distinguished lawyer who has worked on many of the well-known cases of atrocities such as those in former Yugoslavia, the Congo and Ruanda, it was an account of the author's investigation of the origins of his subject, international law, in bringing the Nazi leaders to trial at Nuremberg. After reading about the essential goodness of mankind, I did not want to be reminded of how far we could fall from that ideal. I guiltily set it aside and there it sat on my desk. There it might have remained unread had I not been helping a young Polish woman with her written English and had asked her to write about a visit to her grandfather. How had he managed during the war, with the successive invasions and the tyranny of the Nazis and the Soviets?
Poland, particularly Lvov or Lemberg in the south-east, is central to this story. It was where the author's Jewish maternal grandfather came from and coincidentally also the original home of two central characters of the story, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. Both became lawyers and escaped the Nazis; the former was responsible for introducing the concept of crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg trial, the latter for the concept of genocide in international law. Perhaps a rather subtle distinction, but one viewed the law as protective of the individual while the other saw it as protecting groups. Both came into their own in 1946 when the General Assembly of the United Nations included them in its resolutions for a new world order, leading eventually to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Court of Justice, and finally, in 1998, the International Criminal Court.
This remarkable book tells the story of the author's parallel investigations into the history of his own grandfather and of these two extraordinary Jewish academic lawyers. All three escaped the holocaust that destroyed their families. His grandfather lived in Paris through the occupation, where he worked to support fellow refugees. The lawyers made separate (and rival) contributions from Cambridge and USA to bringing the Nazi leaders to justice, most notably Hitler's lawyer, Hans Frank, who ruled occupied Poland and its notorious death camps.
I was struck by the links between these three very different books. The novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo
, was written by Christy Lefteri, daughter of refugees who has worked in a refugee camp in Greece herself. It tells a very human story of the goodness, courage and determination of individuals confronting tragedy and disaster and escaping from it in a search for a better future – indeed for any future. Recently, I was rather surprised to read several letters to The Times
urging a more humane approach to the current refugees crossing the Channel.
Rutger Bregman's book, Humankind; a hopeful history
, explains why on a personal level many among us would take this attitude and how bureaucracy and distance can lead us collectively to treat immigrants so inhumanely. Finally, Philippe Sands's book, East West Street
, while primarily a historical and legal detective story, reminds us of how humans can come together to commit great evil but also have it within them as individuals to survive disaster and do great good. For the first time, I understood how revolutionary and essential, yet different, were the twin legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Had I been browsing the shelves of a bookshop, I doubt I would have picked up any of those books. However, I enjoyed them all very much. Two brought frequent tears to my eyes though both ended on a note of hope. I should have read them first, leaving Rutger Bregman's hopeful history to explain what may have been behind the characters in them, and to cheer me up. Three brilliant books; did they improve me? I hope so. Time will tell.