The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art 

Serpentine Gallery, London, W2: Yoko Ono: To The Light, 19 June – 9 September

The first London exhibition of Yoko Ono’s work for a decade, To The Lights surveys the 50-year career of an artist who may, after her lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Venice Biennale, have finally succeeded in turning the spotlight away from her marriage to John Lennon and onto her art. Featuring key works, archive material and new installations, films and performances, the exhibition will draw out enduring themes in Ono’s work, not least her faith in the sixties’ ideals of ‘peace and love’, seen in new participatory project SMILE, which uses multimedia to collate the smiles of those who view her work.

Film    

BFI Southbank, London, SE1: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry + Q&A with Alison Klayman, 17 June

Alison Klayman’s timely and engrossing documentary follows dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei over three years, from the Tate Modern sunflower seeds installation of 2009 to his two-and-a-half month detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.  Klayman gains unprecedented access to Weiwei at a time when his social networking activity and growing international reputation are met by intensified government censorship. Catch this sensitive and ultimately celebratory film at BFI Southbank together with a Q&A with Klayman.

Theatre 

New Diorama Theatre, London, NW1: Borges and I, Idle Motion Theatre Company, 19 – 23 June

Fringe success Idle Motion return with their award-winning show about Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and I interweaves scenes from Borges’s life and writings, which lend themselves to Idle Motion’s distinctive blend of prop-based visual and physical theatre, honed since the actors’ met at school. The multimedia show portrays Borges on the brink of blindness, and features fantastical imagery from labyrinths and tigers to a love story and universe of libraries.

Music

Barbican Hall, London, EC2Y: Sir Simon Rattle/Vienna Philharmonic, 17 June

Grab a ticket to see Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the Third Symphonies of Schumann and Brahms in a programme of musical borrowing. Brahms’s romantic, evocative work, written in 1883, borrows from Schumann’s symphony, known as the "Rhenish" after a happy visit to the Rhineland with his wife Clara. Rattle’s much-publicised tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic has seen a focus on the German Expressionist canon, notably at the Proms in 2010. Here he conducts the dramatic and challenging Six Pieces for Orchestra by Webern, who continued the German musical legacy by borrowing from Brahms, with an orchestra no less renowned for its skill and sound.

Festivals  

Various UK locations: London Festival 2012, 21 June – 9 September

Thursday sees the start of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Olympic Games. The festival will be Britain’s biggest, with some 12,000 events and performances of dance, music, theatre, film and much more across the country. Highlights include the World Shakespeare Festival and Big Dance 2012, the country’s largest ever celebration of dance. Events to mark the opening include The Voyage, an interactive spectacle from 21 – 24 June in Birmingham city centre; a pyrotechnic firework extravaganza above Lake Windermere on 21 June; and the Peace One Day Global Truce concert in Londonderry. Visit the website to download a brochure.

Thinker and dissident: Ai Weiwei is the subject of a new documentary (Photo: Peter Parks/Getty Images)
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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster