The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s present but another case where casualty numbers are highly politicized— manipulated and employed by various actors to serve their interests. Twenty years after the wars in the former Yugoslavia ended, debates continue about their naming, framing, and death tolls. These debates are so polarized that the various ethnic groups involved do not even agree on who committed genocide to whom. 

Michael Büker’s Photograph of Gravestones at the Potočari Genocide Memorial Near Srebenica.

The violence in ex-Yugoslavia is particularly politicized because it resulted in the breakup of one country into five new successor states (now seven). Actors in each country use collective memory of past violence (the most recent wars and other historical periods) as a tool to build a national identity, and casualty numbers are one key ingredient in this construction. 

One example illustrating these debates is the Srebrenica massacre that occurred in July 1995 during the Bosnian War. Because the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia designated the Srebrenica killings an act of genocide, the politics of numbers are tied up with the politics of naming (or refusal to name) genocide in this specific case. It should be noted that this is just one ten-day period of violence within ten years of ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and insurgencies together known as the Yugoslav wars. There are many other events whose casualty numbers are hotly contested, such as the Siege of Sarajevo, Operation Storm, the War in Kosovo, and the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The International Center for Transitional Justice estimates 140,000 people were killed and four million displaced during the wars.

Independent researcher Victor Toom calls the casualty numbers in Srebrenica an “ontologically dirty knot.” The “knot” is the quasi-consensus that Bosnian Serb Army and Serbian paramilitary units executed between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. However, the threads that tie this knot, consisting of both material elements (like human remains and DNA) and subjective interpretations, can be unraveled at any point. This table shows some of the casualty numbers used in the Srebrenica case:

A monument at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center, pictured below, depicts the highest victim count of 8,372, and underneath it reads: “total number of victims which is not definitive” (my translation). Clearly, the numbers debate rages on for all parties. 

Some American scholars and journalists like Edward S. Herman, David Peterson, and Noam Chomsky invalidate that number as being used in the service of U.S. imperialism to justify selective intervention when it benefits the U.S. and not in other cases. Bosnian Serb leaders like Milorad Dodik dispute that figure, citing numbers as low as 2,000, and call Srebrenica “the greatest deception of the 20th century.” The Bosnian Serb governmental estimates have changed over time depending on who is in power (mainly Serbian nationalist versus E.U. sympathizers).

“Monument at Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica showing ‘8,372’ and ‘total number of victims which is not definitive.’ (author’s translation)”  

What are the consequences of these debates? In a CHGS-sponsored talk, anthropologist Sarah Wagner showed how commemoration and victim identification are used by both Bosniaks and Serbs to “forge a new nationalism” based on reconstructed ethnoreligious identities. Wagner emphasizes the importance of identifying victims at the familial level while arguing that “on a more abstract societal level, the political interpretation of bodies recovered and reburied has at times exacerbated tensions in post-war Bosnia.” She describes the political and religious overtones in victim burials at both the Srebrenica Memorial Cemetery and nearby Serbian commemorative monuments. Rather than “building a cohesive national identity around shared experiences of loss and violence,” these commemorations divide and exclude. 

According to its website, the ICMP’s use of DNA to identify 6,693 of Srebrenica’s missing since 2001 is the first time such scientific methods have been applied to a post-conflict case. Wagner states in her talk that this “forensic intervention into the missing persons issue… has effectively raised the stakes of facticity, forcing both Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs to document their losses in increasingly quantifiable terms.” Though some may deny its validity, all parties are now forced to confront this empirical evidence in making their case. “Gone are the days when they can speak in generalities.” Effectively, this scientific identification process, while certainly helpful to the victims’ families, is fueling the increased numericization of the politics of memory in this post-conflict society. 

The politics of numbers in the Yugoslav case are unavoidable, least of all for this Serbian-American researcher. They raise questions about how to study and commemorate this violence without furthering ethnonational divisions, particularly when even basic facts cannot be established without antagonizing someone.

Nikoleta Sremac is a Ph.D. student in Sociology and a graduate board member of The Society Pages at the University of Minnesota. She studies gendered power relations and collective memory of mass violence in ex-Yugoslavia and the U.S. 

The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 coincided with the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht. On that occasion, we titled our newsletter: Infamous Past, Disturbing Present. The shocking ascendancy in a post-Holocaust world of a movement rooted in the United States, mainly powered by toxic rhetorical brawling and sheltering authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses, was destined to be a ruinous affair. The ransacking and rioting at the nation’s capital by those courted and enthralled by this cult of personality is deeply despairing.  

In 2016 we looked carefully at the facts and summarized our concerns about the potential direction of unrestrained incendiary speech and actions. Five years later, despite Trump not being elected President, or maybe precisely because of that, we have now reached the precipice. 

The shocking assault on the Nation’s Capitol should not make us overlook the rage-filled gathering that unfolded simultaneously outside Minnesota’s State Capitol in Saint Paul, which included several Republican lawmakers. These Trump followers were not only decrying the Biden certification, in support of the insurrection of some members of Congress, validating the mob violence inside the Capitol and threatening the Minnesota Governor and other Democratic local officials. They were openly initiating the threat of war and, yes, genocide. The recording of the speech leaves no room for doubt. An unidentified individual preceded the Republican state representatives and local Republican leaders in the rally with the following call to action:

“We cannot move forward; we cannot evolve as a people because we have been choked off by weeds. Weeds of communism, weeds of socialism, weeds of leftist liberals subjecting us, suffocating us. We are a garden that needs to grow. We cannot grow if we have weeds choking us off.” The audience chimes in, shouting: “Kill the root, kill the weeds!” and the speaker closes his rant with: “We need to pull the weeds!”

Let me put things in an even more clear perspective. This is the Us vs. Them vision in its most dangerous and extreme manifestation. There is no room for both. In Modernity and the Holocaust, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explained that eliminating the adversary is a necessary step needed to be taken to reach the end of the road, which is the desired society. Moreover, Bauman warns about a “gardeners vision,” were those creating the garden identify its “weeds,” those groups of people who spoil their design. “All visions of society-as-a-garden define parts of the social habitat as human weeds. Like all other weeds, they must be segregated, contained, prevented from spreading, removed and kept outside the society’s boundaries”, writes Bauman. But if all these means prove insufficient, he concludes, “they must be killed.”

Elected state officials endorsed a genocidal playbook with their participation in the Minnesota Capitol rally.

As a Saint Paul resident, as the son of refugees from Nazi Germany, as the director of an academic Center whose mission is to investigate and teach the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, I was left momentarily speechless. I and so many other colleagues across the country have not ceased to point to the unambiguous historical parallelisms and alarming facts when elected officials engage with authoritarian, fascist and Neo-Nazi ideas. Meanwhile, we witness events nationwide unfolding in their grotesque and dreadful manner. Elie Wiesel captured this sense of helplessness in a stirring way. There is something more frightening than the tragedy of a messenger who cannot deliver his message, he said. And that is when the messenger has delivered his message and nothing has changed.

Alejandro Baer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

“Weapons collected at the refugee camp in Goma, Zaire. Photograph by Gilles Peress / Magnum” Image originally posted by the New Yorker. Such images capture the scale of violence without depicting the violence itself.

Philip Gourevitch opens his book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, with a quote from Plato:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Peiraeus, close to the outer side of the north wall, when he saw some dead bodies lying near the executioner,  and he felt a desire to look at them, and at the same time felt disgust at the thought, and tried to turn aside. For some time he fought with himself and put his hand over his eyes, but in the end the desire got the better of him, and opening his eyes wide with his fingers he ran forward to the bodies, saying, ‘There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle.

Many people desire to make sense of violence, a pursuit that often leads to engagement with violent imagery. However, as Susan Sontag captures in Regarding the Pain of Others, depictions of violence cannot ever replicate its lived experience. While graphic imagery or descriptions of violence may serve to aid in an understanding of violence, they also hold vast destructive potential. In contrast to assumed education benefits, they can also dehumanize or inhibit agency. As such, we are responsible for critically reflecting upon how we engage with this content in our roles as both researchers and educators.

To do so, we must acknowledge that representations of violence are not equivalent across populations. Historically, a hierarchy of suffering has prioritized the humanity of some groups above others. Within this hierarchy, violence against the Black community, Indigenous groups, people of color, and throughout the Global South is devalued in contrast to White populations in the Global North.

In “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” Makau Mutua reflects upon the limiting and, at times, the dehumanizing impact of human rights institutions and their depictions of violence. Commonly held understandings of human rights violations, especially against marginalized communities, can have the effect of reducing individuals to their experience of atrocity. This constructs violence as something that happens elsewhere, to other people, and it characterizes those who experience violence into limiting, unagentic categories. They may be hapless and helpless victims, incapable of caring for themselves, or barbaric, savage perpetrators. When people think of genocide and mass atrocity, for example, they often think of Africans before thinking about Native Americans. This violence is colloquially understood as being perpetrated by Africans against Africans, rather than by the early settlers of what we now call America against Native communities.

Crucially, our role as scholars can have the impact of reinforcing these destructive identities, especially when we share graphic imagery that supports these archetypes. Sharing depictions of violence can have the effect of shrinking a nameless individual’s identity to the experience of violence, as a “victim” or a “perpetrator,” an “other.” Closely intertwined with the capacity of violent imagery to reduce the subject’s humanity is an ethical conversation of agency. 

There is a profound intimacy in the experience of violence and death, and more often than not, those depicted have no voice in how their experience is captured. This, of course, is especially true for the dead – they cannot support or counter the narratives that depictions of their passing are utilized to further. Images of victims strip agency from those whose death and pain we voyeuristically consume from the comfort of our air-conditioned rooms.

We need to ask ourselves why we need images of death and suffering to make the point that humanity can be destructive, and further, what it means when we share such depictions in our classrooms. We need to think about the secondary traumatization process we put students through when they see bodies that look like theirs displayed for all and sundry to consume in the name of education. 

If the constant images of police violence against Black people in this country has not stopped the killing of Black people, why do we think that showing images of victims of genocide and mass atrocity will prevent these events from happening? These images are destructive in how they perform the function of allowing their consumers, subconsciously, to think of certain groups as already socially dead. They run the risk of presenting Black and Brown bodies as disposable. Just another body. Seeing as most images of victims of genocide and mass atrocity often look like the second author’s body, this is not merely an intellectual debate. It is position viscerally felt by him even as he studies the representation of genocide and mass atrocity in Africa.

Brooke Chambers is a Ph.D. Candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Sociology. Her research interests include collective memory, cultural trauma, political sociology, genocide, mass violence, and the sociology of law. Her dissertation work examines generational trauma in contemporary Rwanda, with a focus on the commemorative process. She is the 2018-2019 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a 2019-2020 Fulbright Research Fellow.

j. Siguru Wahutu is an Assistant Professor at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. His primary scholarship examines media constructions of knowledge in Africa, with a particular focus on genocide and mass atrocities. His research interests include the effects of ethnicity and culture on the media representations of human rights violations, global and transnational news flows, postcolonial land claims, and the political economy of international media, with a regional emphasis on postcolonial Africa. His primary book project offers an extensive account of media coverage of Darfur between 2003 and 2008 within various African states (including Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt). When not studying media and genocide, he works on issues surrounding data privacy, and media manipulation in African countries. This secondary research stream is the subject of his second book project currently under contract with MIT Press. Wahutu’s research has appeared in African Journalism Studies, African Affairs, Global Media and Communication, Media and Communication, Media, Culture, and Society, and Sociological Forum.

The summer of 2020 saw a wave of protests that demanded systemic change and made our nation’s continued racially motivated violence and inequity impossible to ignore. As people across the United States gathered to protest racial inequality and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, many turned to social media in the midst of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders. 

The media covered the protests in such a way that even those who had previously dismissed racial issues paid close attention, learning about the history of racism beyond the cursory and sanitized explanations given to us in the American education system. Now, attention was turned to recognizing the persistent inequities within our society, even with the increasing partisanship that has been a feature in the Trump administration. The media portrayal of these protests, however, was not without its own bias. The constant depiction of force used by law enforcement and the national guard without discussion of whether or not it was warranted had the effect of desensitizing the American public to the violence experienced by protestors. 

The coverage of these protests centered on two main narratives. Politicians asked protesters to moderate their emotions and actions and, in many instances, imposed curfews to curb the protests. Meanwhile, discussions from media pundits walked a fine line of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously portraying actions like property damage and attempts to incite violence as widespread. These allegations were hastily made despite having little evidence to support claims that protestors aligned with movements like Black Lives Matter were involved in such incidents. News stories also showed the massive deployment of law enforcement and mobilization of the national guard, accompanied by accounts of the use of so-called “non-lethal weapons,” such as tear gas and rubber bullets, against protestors.

A group of five National Guard members stand next to a tan armored vehicle, in a parking lot surrounded by wire in Northeast Minneapolis.

According to a study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, nearly 95% of the protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement this summer were characterized as peaceful. However, this was not the prevalent narrative depicted within media sources. Rather than contribute to a calm resolution to the situation, politicians and law enforcement’s actions and rhetoric to “crack down” on protests escalated tensions in many cities.

As Americans, we must ask ourselves the following. Why are peaceful protests calling for racial equity and police accountability immediately met with armed members of law enforcement in riot gear? In fact, a 2011 study of 15,000 protests dating from 1960 to 1990 shows that even after taking into account protester behavior including “throwing objects, using weapons, and damaging property,” law enforcement were more likely to respond with violence against Black-led protests than White-led ones. Historically,  anti-racism movements have been labeled as terrorist groups. Following the 2020 summer protests, we saw this rhetoric once again readily used by the Trump administration and law enforcement groups in attempts to reduce the credibility of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This stands in stark contrast to the treatment of mostly white, pro-Trump supporters protesting COVID-19 lockdown measures and election results. Beginning with “Operation Gridlock” in mid-April, to armed protestors and increasingly violent rhetoric in May, protests organized by conservative groups in Michigan grew increasingly aggressive. Yet arrests were only recently made in the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer. In the Kenosha, WI protests in late August, Kyle Rittenhouse was not only peacefully arrested after shooting three protestors and killing two, but reporting also shows local police forces did nothing to stop him. Why weren’t these incidents met with the same amount of force or tactics such as the use of “non-lethal weapons”?

The disparities in treatment, however, come as no surprise when we look at the history of Black people in the United States and their fight for equality. The Selma march in spring 1965, led by civil rights activist and former Representative John Lewis, is a clear example of a peaceful protest that was brutally attacked by police instigators. Championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, the message of nonviolence within the Civil Rights movement has been maintained as the ideal form of protest. However, this message has also been co-opted by critics ready to denounce civil rights movements by holding protestors to an impossible moral standard. 

It is evident that the history between police forces and African-American communities has always been tense. Still Professor Keisha Blain of Harvard University has helped make a direct connection between policing and the subjugation of these communities through her close examination of the history of policing within the United States as a form of control.

Police violence against protestors in Minneapolis is part of a long history of anti-Blackness that attempts to suppress people exercising their right to peacefully protest when their demands call into question the status quo. The discrepancy in the treatment between protestors who are demanding that people’s right to life be respected and protected through increased police accountability and those who are protesting pandemic lockdown measures and election results serves as a stark reminder of the continued violent treatment of civil rights protests, which must cease to be normalized in our country. Protesters asking for an end to their family and community members being extra-judiciously murdered by law enforcement officers hired to serve their communities should not be met with violence and the use of “non-lethal” weapons in turn as they march for their rights.

**This blog is the first of a two-part series on the normalized suppression of peaceful protests against racism and police brutality in the United States. 

The authors are a group of alumni and current graduate students affiliated with the Master of Human Rights Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. They are currently conducting an independent research project documenting the experiences of protestors who witnessed violence enacted by law enforcement during the Summer 2020 anti-racism and police brutality protests following the death of George Floyd.

Sarah Allis is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program, concentrating on research methods.

Joy Hammer is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in international conflict and security.

Paul Olubayo is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in International Justice and Human Rights Law. Paul presently works at an international Anti-Slavery organization.

Hannah Shireman is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in research methods. 

Bailey Sutter is a second-year Master of Human Rights student with a concentration in racial justice, education, and the school to prison pipeline.

Vanesa Mercado Diaz is a second-year Master of Human Rights student with a concentration in women’s rights, migration, and Latin America. 

Raven Ziegler is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in business and human rights.

Do numbers matter? Learn about genocide, and often the first fact you’ll learn about is the number of victims. Six million Jews perished during the Holocaust. A million and a half Cambodians were killed during their genocide, eight hundred thousand Tutsis in Rwanda. While the UN Genocide Convention does not include a numerical threshold for genocide in its definition, we often equate the number of victims so closely with an act of genocide that the number itself seems to define the crime. Without such a threshold, does genocide occur? 

It is a question that graduate students on the Politics of Numbers in Genocide Studies and Memory Debates panel grappled with earlier this month at the Mass Violence and Human Rights (MVHR) graduate student workshop. MVHR (formerly the Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence) is an interdisciplinary working group of graduate students from across the university interested in sharing and collaborating on genocide and mass violence research. In the first panel of its kind, the MVHR students from Sociology, History, and French & Italian Studies from both the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University weighed in on the problems associated with numbers when examining the crime of genocide. 

The panel began with a discussion of the genocide of Native Americans in North America and the challenge of recognizing a genocide without numbers. Unlike other episodes of genocide, the genocide of Indigenous people does not have a definitive beginning and endpoint. The vague timeline of the genocide is coupled with the Federal government’s policies that targeted specific tribes while not being a blanket policy toward all tribes, meaning tribes experience genocide at a different time and in different ways at different periods. Can the genocide of Indigenous people be thought of as a single genocide toward a target people or a series of smaller genocides over a longer period of time? And without precise numbers, how do we commemorate the genocide or genocides?

Next was the debate through an analysis of Rwanda – where the dominant Tutsi population of Rwanda today has come to dominate how the state remembers and commemorates the genocide, at the expense of the Hutu victims who were killed during the fighting. This raises an important challenge in genocide studies – that the group with the largest number of victims gets to claim victimhood preeminence over other groups, inevitably altering how the genocide itself is framed. In the case of Rwanda, this has led to a strict narrative of genocide rather than the events in the context of a wider civil war. 

Similarly, they examined the wars in the former Yugoslavia, an area now broken up into seven different countries following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Within a confined region, there are seven different memories of the region’s mass violence, each conflicting with one another. In addition to these differing memories of past violence, there are competing actors vying for victimhood position, attempting to discredit the experience and memory of groups in the region. In the case of the Balkans, victims statistics are the currency for competing positions of victimhood, with each state continually revising its own number of victims. Beyond the impact this has on interstate relationships between former adversaries, this has the effect of impeding reconciliation efforts between neighbors, where perpetrators and victims still live in close proximity to one another. 

Finally, the panel was concluded by an exploration of Holodomor. The case of the Holodomor was explored through two lenses: in comparison with the Holocaust and its position as Soviet & post-Soviet propaganda. To the first point, the Holodomor, historically, has been overshadowed by the Holocaust, both in recognition and scope. It’s something that can be found in other episodes of genocide. It’s the idea that genocide is the crime of all crimes, and genocide, with its intent to destroy in whole or in part, is worse than other forms of mass violence — even if resulting in more deaths.

In addition, the Holodomor has been the victim of politicization for decades, both during the height of the USSR and finally in the 1990s when Ukraine gained its independence. Because of this, the victim numbers of the Holodomor have expanded and shrunk depending on the need at a particular moment and which body was doing the calculating. Because of this, the number of victims of the famine has expanded and shrunk significantly over the decades. Holodomor casualties, and victimhood itself, has been a pawn to meet particular narratives at given moments. 

With the highest attendance of any MVHR workshop this semester, the panel prompted a lively conversation regarding the politics of numbers and naming. Students and faculty grappled with the questions posed by the panelists, and some posed their own. For example, participants discussed the difficulty researchers face when recognizing other kinds of victims during mass violence, such as victims of the wars in Yugoslavia that were not genocide victims or Hutu victims of the Rwanda civil war — also not to be mistaken for genocide victims. These efforts to name and recognize other victims and victim groups can be misinterpreted as unsympathetic, or worse, genocide denial. 

We look forward to exploring these cases and questions in the weeks to come with authored posts from each of the panelists.

To many, Yiddish is simultaneously “alive” and “dead.” The reality is, of course, much more complicated (and arguably) dire. For one, the extremes surrounding the life and afterlives of Yiddish are hardly unique. What befell Yiddish language and culture during the Holocaust (resulting in the murder of half of the Yiddish speakers worldwide), along with the interwar and postwar legal repression in the Soviet Union and its cultural marginality in Israel and the United States, partially mirrors majority cultures’ attitudes toward minoritized languages in general. 

What, then, do these conflicting yet interwoven sets of discourse convey to (and about) a broader public when most non-majority languages face steep declines in usage over the next century? In addition, how do the overly positive and overly negative pronouncements effect Yiddishists in particular, who often take it upon themselves as native and non-native speakers to “seriously” engage with a language and culture destroyed by genocide, state repression, and the continuing forms of stigmatization in and outside of the language’s respective communities? 

In the United States, the discussions surrounding Yiddish are two-pronged: 1. What role does Yiddish continue to play (or not) in the lives of American Jews (the majority of whom are Ashkenazi with immigrant backgrounds from Eastern Europe), and 2. How does this role translate to an anthropological reading of Yiddishism (broadly defined as cultural paradigms for, and in, Yiddish) today? 

Answers to all of these questions reveal themselves in recent publications for both academic and general audiences. In a recent piece in the LA Review of Books, Marc Caplan writes,

One hundred years ago, when most American Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe, nearly every Jew in the United States spoke Yiddish, but no one gave it any respect. Today, by contrast, everyone is full of affection for Yiddish, even though almost no one speaks it.

For Caplan, Anthologies (like the terrific one he is reviewing) also expose underlying, persistent tensions—both in the anthology as a literary form, and (more importantly) societally in the United States. Today, most in-group members (i.e., Jews of Ashkenazi descent) have little or no knowledge of the Yiddish language or the figures and works that shaped Yiddish culture for the past millennium, and how these figures often worked from the margins of a larger society. Caplan provides these sobering reminders in 2020, a year like no other in recent memory when Americans (including American Jews) are forced to confront the structural racism that has shaped this country since its inception. 

For Caplan (and myself), the concern extends beyond, “What is the role of Yiddish [in America]?” But rather, what should count as a “serious” engagement with Yiddish, especially when taking into account these broader questions about minoritization and linguistic usage?  Why do we allow translation to comfort us as our only form of “knowing” when we know so little about the actual processes of translation and the power it holds on us to begin with? These are the operative questions most Americans refuse to answer—at the expense of needed structural change and the protection of linguistic and cultural differences among indigenous and immigrant groups worldwide. 

This notion of “seriousness” emerges in a recent ethnography by the anthropologist Joshua B. Friedman. Friedman’s study breaks down what he coins the “politics of Yiddish seriousness.” It is a seriousness that implies intimacy, which in turn is two-fold: intimacy with subject matter often elided (Yiddish language and culture), and intimacy within a global community of individuals working outside more traditional spaces of power.

Through this ethnographic study, Friedman uncovers Yiddishist attitudes toward traditional power structures found in academia, institutional Jewish spaces, and mainstream publishing, all of which are settings that (“serious Yiddishists” would argue) condone a superficial engagement with, and further marginalization of, Yiddish. It is why Friedman notes that Yiddish among “serious” Yiddishists is an alternative to American Jewish cultural intimacy, which usually confines Yiddish to the butt of jokes (i.e., in that humor is used to bely underlying collective anxiety about belonging and acceptance). Instead, Yiddish acts as a mode of communication and cultural specificity. 

A Yiddishist himself, Friedman also highlights the risks inherent in viewing any subject of study with a lack of rigor and critical distance. As just one example of this, Friedman cites the ways Yiddish culture often appears in romanticized depictions of workers’ struggle and internationalism, thereby eliding the complexities of Yiddish culture in the same ways “Yiddish humor” also does. Furthermore, any romanticization, I would argue, also consequently erases (for example) the complicated role of Yiddish and race in the United States. 

The intergenerational phenomenon that is linguistic assimilation, which is prevalent in all walks of American Jewish life, erases much of the work on the ground many are doing (and have been doing for decades) in order to assure some semblance of intergenerational language and cultural transmission continues. Upon initial review, it is understandable why Yiddishists are “serious.” Watering down Yiddish does the language and culture a disservice or worse.

Some forms of “seriousness,” however, can also lead to gatekeeping—namely, around the few tangible resources available for long-term engagement with the language. What often belies this seriousness are calls for authenticity, which in turn risk excluding those newly interested in Yiddish or dismissing hybrid forms of engagement by categorizing unknown actors as “less than,” all of which are political acts. 

As I often get asked for resources on Yiddish culture, I recommend perusing the hyperlinks included in this post. For example, Caplan’s review of two recent publications center intergenerational engagement with Yiddish literature and culture. And Friedman’s newly published article can help many better understand the challenges faced by Yiddishists, especially in the face of mainstream Jewish life in the United States.

It should surprise no one that the Yiddish world, past or present, is pluralistic; it is multigenerational, multiracial, both Jewish and non-Jewish, etc. But whether teaching Yiddish to your children at home, in Jewish community settings, colleges and universities, etc., each path begets challenges both structural and cultural that these respective communities also face. These questions of seriousness (thankfully) pose multiple answers, all while many minoritized and indigenous communities here in Minnesota work to revitalize language usage. 

Meyer Weinshel is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He is a research assistant and the educational outreach coordinator for the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has taught community Yiddish classes with Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action and will be a lecturer of Yiddish studies at the Ohio State University in 2021.

“Why have we never learned about this before?” This question is repeatedly asked by the high school juniors and seniors in my comparative genocide studies elective course, often with a tone of disbelief and urgency. While all have studied the Holocaust, only a few have learned about the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, and rarely are students aware of the genocides that took place in German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), Cambodia, Darfur, or the many other so-called “hidden” genocides that we study. However, they are shocked and often angry when we examine the genocide perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in North America, especially the Dakota and Ojibwe nations in the State of Minnesota; “we should have learned about this before,” students say. As their teacher, I couldn’t agree more. 

Indeed, as a social studies teacher and as a Ph.D. candidate in social studies education at the University of Minnesota studying genocide education, I am encouraged to see that the recently-released draft of the proposed 2021 state social studies standards contains several references to both settler colonialism and Indigenous genocide, specifically the “genocide that occurred in the past within the land that is Minnesota today.” Such language does not appear anywhere in the current social studies standards implemented in 2011. The revisions are proposed by a standards review committee composed of a diverse group of 44 educators and community members. The Minnesota Department of Education is required by law to review and revise state teaching standards every ten years. 

Recognizing what many Dakota scholars, such as Chris Mato Nunpa and Waziyatawin, have been saying for years, the city councils of Minneapolis and St. Paul passed resolutions on the sesquicentennial of the U.S.-Dakota War acknowledging the genocide of the Dakota. The Minnesota Historical Society has also begun to use the term genocide in relation to the state’s history. Through my research and professional development work with educators, I have found that, in recent years, a small but growing number of social studies teachers have taken up settler colonialism and genocide frameworks in their classrooms. It is long overdue that the social studies standards reflect these shifts and promote a more truthful telling of Minnesota’s history. 

George (center) presenting at a 2019 CHGS educator workshop

While I welcome these changes to the standards, unfortunately, the three references to the Holocaust and genocide that appeared in the 2011 social studies standards have been dropped from the initial draft of the proposed 2021 standards. I urge the committee to reinstate references to the Holocaust and other twentieth and twenty-first century genocides in the 2021 standards. Minnesota students must have opportunities to learn about the histories and legacies of genocide in both Minnesota and around the world. 

Genocide education has the potential to be transformative for individual students and whole communities and societies. Such education highlights the harmful effects of prejudice, racism, and discrimination while engendering attitudes of tolerance and underscoring the importance of standing up to and speaking out against acts of intolerance. Genocide education develops awareness of national and international institutions, laws, and norms, especially human rights, and raises awareness of pluralism and the value of diversity within a democracy. Genocide education also underscores how communities and societies that have been affected by genocide and mass violence – including many communities in Minnesota, such as the Armenian, Cambodian, Jewish, and Ukrainian communities – have engaged in healing, seeking justice, education, and preserving culture and memory through recognition, commemoration, and memorialization efforts. 

In addition, the inclusion of language around Indigenous genocide and settler colonialism in the 2021 draft standards serves as a call for truth-telling in social studies classrooms regarding the histories and legacies of colonialism, genocide, and the continued violence against Indigenous people and communities. Such truth-telling can serve as a step towards justice, reparation, and healing within society. Indeed, to our north, Canada and the Province of Manitoba, which have more widely acknowledged their national and local histories of colonialism and genocide, have made changes to social studies education that might serve as a model for Minnesota. 

However, it is also important to recognize the limits of the proposed changes to the standards. While the changes to the language in the standards are essential, much work still needs to be done to create and update curricula, equip practicing teachers, and educate aspiring teachers to bring genocide education, especially the difficult histories and legacies of genocide in Minnesota, into the state’s social studies classrooms. 

The public can comment on the first draft of the proposed social studies standards between now and January 4 through an online survey and series of virtual town halls organized by the Minnesota Department of Education.

George Dalbo is a high school social studies teacher and Ph.D. candidate in Social Studies Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. He previously served as Educational Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is currently a part of the CHGS team researching education as a form of reparative justice in Minnesota & Manitoba, a Human Rights Lab funded project.

As a queer activist and researcher from Turkey, I am interested in understanding how queer lives endure in post-genocidal Turkey. I dwell on the Armenian Genocide and how the denial of the genocidal past is adapted by the sovereign Turkish state as a form of governing strategy (Savelsberg 2021, Suciyan 2017). More specifically, I contemplate how the circulation of denial is also related to the endurance of heteronormativity in which the broader practices of sexual violence, forced religious conversion, and orphanage emerge as critical issues (Ekmekçioǧlu 2015, Maksudyan 2015).

I hope to examine how the dissolution and disruption of Armenian families are linked to the reproduction of normative gender relations and the endurance of violence. By bringing queer and Armenian communities together, I concomitantly examine post-genocide, Armenians, and queer as bounded livelihoods in which the production of gender & sexuality and ethnicity are not necessarily separate categories but vividly intersected.

I have come to study this topic through my master’s thesis. I studied the ways in which the military coup of 1980 marked queer generations born before and after the event as radically different in Turkey. I studied the category of elderly queer by thinking through mass violence, intergenerational relations, and the emergence of global queer politics. I revealed that the military coup of 1980 disrupted the intergenerational relations in the queer communities and accelerated the adaptation of global sexual identities such as lesbian and gay. This research was informed by the funeral of Armenian queer photographer Osep Minasoğlu, who died at the age of 84 in Istanbul.

For a further archival record of Minasoğlu’s photographs, visit artist Tayfun Serrtaş’s webpage

Even though my research has shifted from elderly queer to the study of social difference through the dynamics of the Armenian Genocide and its contemporary iterations, the funeral of Minasoğlu has remained a cornerstone of my scholarly orientation. This elderly man was a liminal figure, and his funeral posed a critical question for me to trace the intersection of queer and Armenian communities.

Minasoğlu has suspended the integrity of the queer identity by problematizing the taken-for-granted assumptions about ethnic singularity and sexual disposition. In other words, his life-course showed that queer movement implicitly reproduces heteronormative Turkish nationalism without interrogating how it sustains the one-dimensional queer subject as Turk and Sunni-Muslim. The life of Minasoğlu, however, helps us to pose the question of what happens when different ethnicities and religious subject-positions come into picture concerning the queer lives in Turkey. 

I was paralyzed at the funeral, considering my inability to navigate a funeral ceremony taking place in a church and my lack of engagement with the Armenian community. As a queer man, I not only implicitly encapsulated my Sunni-Muslim and Turkish ethnic identity, but I was also not necessarily interrogating my positionality, which unconsciously ignored the genocidal atrocities continually resurfacing in contemporary Turkey. I started to think about how the queer movement implicitly reproduces nationalist ideologies of the Turkish state without raising the issue of the Armenian Genocide and its recognition. 

The funeral of Minasoğlu, in time, has turned into racial melancholia imbued with the shame stemmed from the vicious dispossession of Armenian families and brutal (re)enactments of extermination strategies (Cheng 2001, Parla & Ozgul 2016). I engage with Minasoğlu, not as a ghost of the past, but I attempt to bring him to the present moment, conceptualizing his dead body as a social figure that enacts ramifications of post-genocidal society (Gordon 2008, Yashin 2012). 

My interest in his biography motivated me to learn more about the Armenian Genocide and the experiences of survivors. As a result, I shifted my project to study the ways in which social difference is produced, contested, and reframed in contemporary Turkey. I hope to ethnographically document how the sovereign Turkish state reproduces its hegemony over minorities along with reproducing normative gender relations and forging communal boundaries.  

My broader Ph.D. dissertation project deals with how queer and Armenian communities have unexpectedly come together in strange ways. For example, I consider communal boundaries, reproduction of normative gender relations, the endurance of queer lives, and emerging socialities between minorities. 

Berkant Çağlar is a Ph.D. student in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He received his BA in Media and Communication and Sociology from Izmir University of Economics. He has an MA in Sociology from Bogazici University. He is broadly interested in the anthropology of mass violence and genocide, anthropology of the state, haunting, care, LGBTQI aging studies, and Bourdieusian social theory. 

No, I am not talking about the Vatican or the next Coen Brothers movie. I am talking about old men saving countries.

The man that comes to my mind can be described as follows: practicing Catholic with a pragmatic mindset that enables him to reach across the aisle; lawyer by training and politician by vocation who experiences personal tragedy — the loss of his wife — early in his career. That would be Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor after WWII, and those are not the only attributes he shares with Joe Biden.

For one, there is the unlikely comeback. Adenauer held multiple offices during the democratic Weimar Republic after WWI and was forced into retirement by the Nazis. He was arrested multiple times, went into hiding, and narrowly avoided deportation to a concentration camp. Nobody thought that at age 73 — considered biblical in 1949 — he’d be fit for office anymore, let alone for the Herculean task of rebuilding a democratic society after 12 years of totalitarianism. And here is where the comparison becomes a bit bumpy. Joe Biden never had to go into hiding during the past four years, and the most totalitarian element about that time was the total absence of governing competence.

Adenauer was expected to not be more than a transitional figure, and doctors told him that being chancellor for one or two years was definitely in his cards. He beat all expectations, got re-elected three times, and stepped down from the chancellorship after 14 years. His state funeral in 1967 was one of the first major political events I remember watching as a kid on the black and white TV in my parents’ house in Germany.

While not everyone liked Adenauer’s stuffy conservatism, he was known for having not a single nationalist bone in his body and a life-long visceral aversion against Prussian militarism. His reputation helped him to rebuild trust between Germany and the international community after WWII. Given the fact that Nazi Germany had invaded every single neighboring country (except Switzerland), this was a huge accomplishment.

Joe Biden, just like Adenauer, will have a lot of trust building to do and has the same advantage of coming across as the grandfather in chief who has seen it all in politics — the good, the bad and the ugly. Still, trust building ain’t easy when the amount of lies produced by your predecessor is as breathtakingly high as the number of people willing to go along with them. This is another challenge Biden shares with Adenauer.

Adenauer managed to bring people together who had been bitterly opposed to each other during the Nazi years and convinced them to work for and with his government. To be sure, there wasn’t much “working through the past” in the 1950s, and the booming economy did its part to keep people’s minds focused on making money rather than amends. 

Vergangenheitsbewältigung didn’t happen until the 1960s, and it took until 1979 before “Holocaust” became word of the year in West Germany. So maybe deal with COVID-19 and climate change first and leave the reckoning with the treasonous Trump administration to next generation historians? That’s for Joe Biden to decide.

Adenauer retired from the chancellorship when he was 87. This will be exactly Joe Biden’s age at the end of his second term. By then, according to Republican doomsday forecasts, we all will earn the same meager salary, address each other with “comrade” and send our kids to Marxism-Leninism study camps over the summer. It is noteworthy that even Adenauer’s own conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), initially thought that a healthy dose of socialism was the appropriate response to fascist disaster.

In the end however, socialism under Adenauer was nothing more than capitalism with universal health care, unemployment insurance and state-funded public education. The concept is still alive. In economic textbooks it has been dubbed Rhineland capitalism because Adenauer was from Cologne and spoke with a thick Rhenish accent. Biden’s economic plan has nothing to do with socialism and, if anything, has a striking resemblance to Rhineland capitalism. But if by his second term Joe has had enough and turns it over to his VP from California, she could call it La La Land capitalism. 

Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.

Dear Students,

This is my tenth year teaching a Holocaust and genocide course, and I love teaching this class. I know it sounds strange to say I love teaching about genocide, but I do. Though I teach other social studies courses each year, I spend most of my time and energy on this class; I even went back to graduate school to study how and why to teach about genocide. Over the past decade, I’ve read A LOT; traveled to many places like Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda; talked to many survivors (and perpetrators); and conducted research with teachers and students. Despite this, I still have many questions regarding teaching about genocide.

Image: George speaking to roughly 600 people at the Mutobo Camp in the Musanze district of Rwanda. The camp, which is run by the Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, works to demobilize and reintegrate Rwandans who fled the country in 1994 and have been living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ever since. All had been part of militia groups in the DRC, many as child soldiers.

Why did you sign up for this course? Why do you want to learn about genocide? I know I already asked this question on the first day of class. You shared about your plans to major in global studies and international relations in college, relatives who survived (and those that didn’t) the Armenian genocide or Holocaust, and your desire to learn more about those genocides that were barely or never discussed in school.

Why do I want to teach this course? Why do I want students to learn about genocide? I believe that there are lessons to be learned from studying genocide: lessons around how and why individuals and societies participate in, resist, and reconcile after genocide and lessons about tolerance, morality, history, and justice. However cliché, I believe that genocide education can give power and purpose to the coda voiced by the liberated prisoners at Buchenwald: never again. Learning about genocide can be hugely transformative for individuals and societies. 

However, this class will be hard, and at times, it may even be too hard. We will be examining the worst aspects of history and human nature: genocide, rape and sexualized violence, and individual and collective indifference to such heinous crimes. I fear that the hopeful narratives of survival, resistance, and the collective commitments to human rights that we also study will be woefully inadequate to balance the enormity of what has been called unspeakable and unimaginable crimes. Learning about genocide can be traumatic. 

I first learned about the Holocaust when I was seventeen and living in Austria as an exchange student. I visited the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial with my classmates. We walked through the former camp listening to our history teacher’s matter-of-fact description of the “stairs of death,” the 186 rough-hewn stairs, up which prisoners were forced to haul slabs of stone from the quarry below. However, it wasn’t the sight of these steps or the gas chamber and crematorium that made the biggest impression on me; instead; it was a simple iron ring embedded in the masonry of the Klagemauer, or “wailing wall,” where newly-arrived prisoners were chained and brutally beaten. The crudely-hewn ring had left a blood-colored rust stain on the stone.

Standing frozen in front of the ring, as my classmates moved on with the tour, I felt physically ill. For years to come, the mental image of that ring and accompanying nausea would overcome me. This image, still sharp in my mind, has become another in a series, alongside images (and the overwhelming smell) of mummified bodies at the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda and the “killing tree” where young babies were smashed to death in Choeung Ek, Cambodia. I can’t seem to shake these images. 

Despite having experienced trauma in learning about genocide, I still want to share these images with you. I want to find ways to somehow recreate for you within our classroom the experiences I’ve had in learning about genocide. However hard and haunting, these experiences have been hugely transformative for me as a teacher and academic – as a human being. I suspect that you would also say that you want these images and experiences to be a part of our course, no matter how difficult it might be to encounter them. Thus, we will examine images, watch testimonies, read memoirs, listen to survivors speak, and analyze perpetrators and bystanders’ statements.

In the past, I often measured my effectiveness as a teacher by students’ responses to seeing these images and testimonies. “You could have heard a pin drop,” or “the students were left speechless,” I might have proudly remarked to fellow teachers after a lesson. Simone Schweber referred to such responses as “Holocaust-awe,” or the stunned silence that follows listening to a survivor speak. Recently, however, I’ve started to wonder if this “awe” might be interpreted as a trauma response to learning about genocide.

Image: Students listening to Howard Melton (top left), a Holocaust survivor living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

James Garrett wrote that “sometimes there is knowledge that we simultaneously do and do not want to have.” Deborah Britzman called this “difficult knowledge.” Such knowledge is difficult not only because of the traumatic content but also because learning about such knowledge is itself traumatizing. Likewise, teaching about genocide can also be traumatizing. Though traumatic, learning about genocide is also often transformative.

I continue to wonder, however, if the transformative power of genocide education can ever outweigh the trauma that it inflicts on students. A popular Holocaust education curriculum reminds teachers to guide students “safely in and safely out” of Holocaust education. I wonder if such safety – lessening the trauma by sparing students some of the most difficult images, narratives, and truths about genocide – arrests the transformative power of genocide education. 

As the pandemic worsens, the switch to virtual learning has brought up new concerns. I worry that the community that we built in our physical classroom, which helped us better navigate the trauma inherent in learning about genocide, won’t withstand the strained internet connections and actual physical distance between us. 

I wish I had some platitudes with which to close this letter and justify our endeavor this semester: The transformation is worth the trauma, we have a moral obligation to bear witness, or never again. I’m afraid such statements only mask the trauma inherent in learning about genocide. Failing other conclusions, I’d suggest that we start by (a) recognizing and naming the trauma inherent in genocide education, (b) reflecting on our own needs and desires for learning about and from genocide, and (c) continue to strive for an open and supportive learning community (even during a global pandemic). 

Yours, 
Mr. Dalbo

George Dalbo is a secondary social studies teacher and a Ph.D. Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota. His research interests include Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education in K-12 curricula and classrooms.