In August 1862, Minnesota erupted in unprecedented violence. The Dakota, a people that had been confined to two strips of land along the Minnesota River Valley through a series of treaties, began attacking white settlements in the region. Within days, New Ulm had been almost completely burned down and an American Army outpost had been besieged. Just as quickly as the fighting began, it was over; Lincoln, in the midst of leading the Union through the American Civil War, sent Federal troops into Minnesota to put down the uprising. Retaliation was swift and brutal: women, children, and elderly Dakota were sent to an internment camp below Fort Snelling while almost 400  men were tried by a hasty military tribunal for crimes committed during the war. Ultimately 38 were hanged before the end of 1862 in Mankato. All Dakota would be removed from the state in 1863. 

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As a PhD candidate in the Sociology department, I have spent several years studying post-genocide reconstruction. I am constantly working to better understand how countries with legacies of large-scale political violence reconcile and rebuild. But when I am not in the library or my office grappling with these concepts, I am on the mats of Minnesota Top Team (MTT) grappling with my teammates. For the last two years, I have spent my free time learning the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). 

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“This is a God-given signal! If this fire, as I believe, turns out to be the handiwork of Communists, then there is nothing that shall stop us now crushing out the murder pest with an iron fist.” So allegedly expressed Adolf Hitler to Sefton Delmer, British journalist and Berlin correspondent for the Daily Express, one day after arsonists razed the Reichstag, Germany’s federal parliament building, on 27 February 1933.

Though he had yet to complete his first full month as chancellor in the still functioning Weimar Republic, Hitler seized upon the crisis for his own political gain. The Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party’s official newspaper, propagated the false allegation that communists were planning to overthrow the legally-appointed government.

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Yes, you can. And you should. After all, America is the country that lets you return a used toaster when the shade of brown it puts on your bread doesn’t match the color of your kitchen wallpaper — no questions asked. I don’t think the Founding Fathers would mind if we returned some of the things that made sense 250 years ago but no longer do. They’d of course be surprised and probably a little flattered to see that their Constitution is still up and running while countries in the Old World have had multiple system changes, revolts, and constitutional do-overs in the meantime. But then, after a second glance, they’d be scratching their wigged heads over our attempts to base 21st-century gun laws on an amendment that uses 18th-century grammar and a fuzzy syntax that has led to wildly different interpretations. I am sure they’d take the 2nd Amendment back and give us something brand new that’s a better fit. After all, they were bold innovators who resisted dogma, had a secular worldview and would shudder at the notion of calling a political document “sacred.” And besides, what’s the point of originalism if nobody wears wigs anymore?

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In 2015 I travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  As a U.S. citizen, I worried about how I would be received.  Born in 1968, I grew up hearing Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports of American casualties during what U.S. media accounts commonly called the Vietnam War (1955-1975).  I remember the famous 1972 picture of a Vietnamese girl running naked from a bombing campaign using napalm, a slick, sticky petroleum.  Napalm had seared the girl’s skin.  Her agonized distress while running on a road with other screaming Vietnamese children, followed by armed and seemingly nonchalant soldiers, confused and sickened me.  The black and white, Pulitzer-prize winning picture stood in contrast to full-color film clips I also remember of the war, clips shot from U.S. bombers whose payloads created massive, spectacular orange fireballs against the lush green jungle.

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At the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, we are both deeply saddened and profoundly angered by the brutal, horrific murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. In the face of the continued murder of Black people in Minnesota, across the country, and in many places around the world, we reaffirm our commitments to racial justice and equity.

We recognize that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the State of Minnesota were established through the theft of Dakota and Anishinaabe land and the genocide of the Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples. Indeed, the first sins of Indigenous genocide and the enslavement of African Americans laid a foundation for a society built upon and maintained through violence and white supremacy. While it is rare in academia and education that the Transatlantic slave trade or the institutions and legacies of slavery and segregation in the United States are termed genocide, noted genocide scholar Adam Jones wrote that arguments against the label genocide have too often become a tool for denial, “serving to deflect responsibility for one of history’s greatest crimes.” Last week, civil rights attorney Ben Crump wrote in the Washington Post, “And then we hear that nagging thought that keeps coming back and demanding us to face it: How many more deaths have not been captured on video? How long has this been going on without witnesses or documentation? Is this an outlier or is this endemic? And it starts to feel like genocide.” We recommend Crump’s 2019 book, Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People.

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It is almost impossible to put into words how heartbreaking and grim these past days have been, as we watched in horror and distress the footage of Minneapolis police officers murdering George Floyd. The outrage and pain that followed have shaken the foundations of our communities to their very core. The magnitude of this moment cannot be minimized, as protesters have taken to the streets. Young and old alike have cried out for justice.  

When I was a youngster back in high school in Madrid I was deeply moved by a drama I read called Biedermann and the Arsonists, by Max Frisch. It is about a citizen who invites two arsonists into his house, even though they signal from the start that they will set fire to it.  

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“Ever since the Holocaust, in which six million European Jews – among other victims – were deliberately targeted and destroyed, a moral hierarchy of suffering has seized the humanitarian imagination, one in which stories of victimhood are ranked based on the scale of human destruction. Genocide has become a numbers game. In this spectacle of suffering, the bodies of victims literally count” (Meierhenrich 2020, 4). 

The figure of 800,000 Rwandan deaths has long been associated with the Rwandan genocide. It has been widely cited in scholarly works, documentaries, museums, and memorials. This casualty figure, while widely cited, is also highly contested. In the most recent edition of the Journal of Genocide Research (2020), this figure is methodologically deconstructed and debated. While the figures modeled in the journal are also contested by scholars, the debates surrounding the politics of numbers raise important questions and concerns about how victimhood is constructed in the wake of genocide and mass atrocity.

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Ran Zwigenberg, Associate Professor of Asian Studies, History and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University, was recently hosted by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Center for Jewish Studies. He gave a talk entitled: “Survivors: Psychological Trauma and Memory Politics in Hiroshima and Auschwitz.” I sat down with Dr. Zwigenberg for a wide-ranging conversation covering survivor politics, the gendered dimensions of social work, praxis of care, the notion of social trauma, and other topics related to the global politics of memory.*

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Before the trophy went to Adolf Hitler, German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II held the award for Most Hated Man on Earth. And while Hitler’s Third Reich has become the ultimate go-to place for much journalistic handwringing about the horrible times we are living in, in reality it feels like we are still stuck in Wilhelm’s Second Reich — it’s Kaiserzeit in America. Donald Trump and the last German Emperor have a lot in common, the vanity, insecurity, the penchant for bombast and persönliches Regiment (personal rule), to name just a few. In Wilhelm’s case the brakes on his impulsive and egotistical personality came off after he fired Bismarck, the experienced chancellor he inherited from his father, and surrounded himself with sycophantic generals and noble toadies who went along with his imperial fantasies and straight into World War I.

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