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Holiday Books 2023

It’s time for our annual diversion from executive employment law to offer a few last-minute suggestions of books as gifts for yourself or anyone on your list interested in legal issues.

Often involving national or international social and political issues, the law and legal proceedings can make dramatic and compelling reading, sometimes even changing lives.

Some years ago, a friend and client, David LeVine, former Head of the Dramatists Guild, used the phone in my office to call Jerome Lawrence, the co-author of Inherit The Wind. I asked David to tell Mr. Lawrence that, as an adolescent, my reading of his play about the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, with its courtroom confrontation between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, set me on a course to law school. Mr. Lawrence responded that over the decades since the first production of his play and the movie which followed it, dozens of lawyers had told him the same thing.

This year saw a number of excellent books about the law in historical context, several of which I continued to read into the night when I should have been sleeping.

We live in tumultuous times, with two full-blown wars in the world, so it is particularly pertinent when authors examine the legal fallout from WW II, the greatest conflict of the 20th century.

France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain (Belknap/Harvard University Press) by Julian Jackson, provides engrossing reading. Jackson, the highly-praised author of a biography of Charles DeGaulle, here focuses on the 1945 treason trial of Pétain, France’s World War I hero who, as an old man, led the collaborationist Vichy government during the German occupation of France in the Second World War.

As much as DeGaulle would have preferred the aged Marshal Pétain to disappear or finish himself off, his trial immediately after the Germans surrendered (and even before the war in the Pacific had ended) was inevitable. It was also a flawed – as human justice almost inevitably is flawed – reckoning, after the victory of the Allied powers, with “national indignity” which took place at all levels of French society. Despite many differences in procedure between the French “civil code” system and what we are accustomed to in the common law courts of America and England, Pétain was tried by a large jury, but the outcome was not acceptable to all French citizens. Jackson tells a fascinating story, which will lead the individual reader to ponder relevant parallels to our own day. An excellent book, elegantly written.

Ian Buruma is one of the few writers whose view of the Second World War is not limited by a focus on only one of the two hemispheres where the “world” war was actually waged.

Buruma’s most recent book, The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II (Penguin Press), picks up the theme of collaboration with the enemy to demonstrate that we should be careful about being judgmental after the fact about an individual’s moral choices at a time when that person’s own self-preservation hangs in the balance.

Buruma tells the fascinating stories of three individuals accused of criminal collaboration after World War II: the Finnish masseur of top Nazi Heinrich Himmler; a Jew from eastern Europe who almost certainly betrayed hundreds of Dutch Jews while purporting to save them from the Nazis; and a woman born in China but raised in Japan whose shifting loyalties implicated her in who knows how many deaths, and who was the only one of the three to be executed after trial.

All three individuals were, as Buruma recognizes, consummate grifters and fabulists, so it is often impossible to separate truth from fiction in their stories. After a World War in which many millions perished, there was ample blame to go around, and Buruma’s clear-eyed refusal to sit in absolute judgment of how these (probably bad and admittedly eccentric) individuals comported themselves under existential stress is a welcome perspective. Warmly recommended.

The Nuremberg war crimes trial of a number of the surviving Nazi leaders has been the subject of a number of fine books and dramatizations. It gave us, among other things, practical applications of such then innovative legal concepts as “Crimes against Humanity” and “Ethnic Cleansing.” The Nuremberg trial was also conducted in such a way that the verdicts at least resembled the outcome of a rational legal process rather than mere “Victor’s justice” (if memory serves, a few of the defendants were actually acquitted).

But, as Gary J. Bass describes in Judgment at Tokyo: World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia (Knopf), the Tokyo war crimes trial(s) were far more messy, and provided an outcome far less satisfying. They were complicated by a variety of other issues, including, to name just a few, a greater range of judges from different nationalities (albeit with some notable exclusions); the onset of the Cold War; the civil war in China between the pro- and anti-Communist factions which followed World War II; the issue of anti-imperialism; and a pronounced split decision (the judge from India wrote a furious dissent from the verdict, which made him a hero in Japan), and that’s just for starters. This is quite a long book, a complicated story engagingly told, and the author traces the effects of the lengthy legal proceedings – the actual trial took well over two years – on Asia’s rise to global prominence over the 70+ years since the end of World War II. No one is likely to agree with every one of Bass’s conclusions, but he writes well and his book is very much worth the effort needed to read it.

Justice may be imperfect, but sometimes it does work. I highly recommend Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland (Viking), a book which, if you will excuse the cliché, I literally could not put down.

The 1920s saw the “second coming” of the Ku Klux Klan, perhaps surprisingly centered in the Midwest instead of the Deep South. The Klan was dedicated to keeping America safe for white Protestants, and no state was dominated by the Klan more than Indiana under the dictatorship of a con man who bragged that he had every state official, including all the judges, in his pocket.

Egan’s book tells the story of how this petty tyrant was finally toppled by a few courageous prosecutors who pursued him on charges of rape and murder. I will not spoil the suspenseful ending other than to note that his trial turned on the rarely-used “dying declaration” exception to the hearsay rule. I could imagine my beloved evidence professor, James H. Chadbourn, smiling in heaven as I read this book.

As the old year draws to an end, we are very grateful for our clients and the friends who have referred them to us.

We hope for a more peaceful world in 2024, and send our every wish that those reading this will be blessed with health and happiness in the new year.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.