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). 

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. 

On October 6th, Dr. Sara Brenneis, Professor of Spanish at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was invited to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies to give a talk on her book Spaniards in Mauthausen: the Representations of a Nazi Concentration Camp. I had the opportunity to sit with her (virtually) for a fascinating conversation, as she discussed her work on the interplay between fiction and history in 20th century Spain.

Tibisay Navarro-Mana: What sparked your interest in Spanish history, and specifically the experience of Spaniards that were deported to Mauthausen?

Sara Brenneis: My interest in Spanish history blossomed when I lived for a year as an undergraduate student in Madrid. I was an exchange student living with a host family, and I just remember being really intrigued by the conversations around the Francoist period.

I was living with two younger hosts; one of whom was gay and had a partner, which sparked a lot of conversations about the transition and Spain opening up. On the other hand, I would hear from my host mother about the dictatorship, and I just became fascinated about that period of Spanish history.

All this was before the law of historical memory. So you could still see monuments dedicated to Franco, and he was still on the currency, the peseta. So that was what opened me up to Spanish history. Then, when I was working on my dissertation, my advisor suggested that I read Montserrat Roig’s  Els Catalans als camps Nazis (Catalans in Nazi Concentration Camps), and I was fascinated.

I was surprised that I didn’t know anything about the history of Spaniards having been deported to Nazi Concentration Camps, given that I have been studying the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship, so I was surprised and at the same time, incredibly fascinated with what happened to these men and women.

During your talk, you focused on the representation of victims through literature or through art, specifically the drawings in their memoirs. How do you think that adds, or even changes, the learning of this history as opposed to more traditional or official narratives? Do you think these cultural representations bring a different perspective? 

I firmly believe that art, literature, drawings, photographs, film, and narratives actualizes what we think of traditional historiography. It is something that I have been working with since I was in graduate school. We can read the historiography; we can learn about the facts, the data, but its representation in fiction provides an idea of the personal side of the experiences.

Literature and other forms of art sometimes take some creative liberties with history, but I personally don’t think that the fact that people write fiction about historical events or make fictional films necessarily detracts from our understanding of history. I think you need to be a critical consumer of these different materials to separate fact from fiction, but for example, novels such as Joaquim Amat-Piniella’s K.L. Reich were written based on the author’s own experience. He consciously wrote a fictional account, but what happens in the novel (the details and the context) is all historically accurate. It just gives us a different lens through which to view the history of Mauthausen.

Can you speak more about historical memory in Spain and about the different organizations that work in trying to keep this memory alive? 

Sure, it has really become a groundswell of what I would call grassroots movements. Amical de Mauthausen, for example, the main organization that works with Spanish survivors and family members of victims of Mauthausen, has been around since the 1960s. It was formed in 1963, and it was an illegal organization until Franco died. There are other organizations that are just loose groups of family members and relatives of people that were deported to Mauthausen. They have been the impetus for people in Spain to read about or to see small monuments that commemorate the victims of the concentration camps.

Most of these projects have not been funded by the government, but by individuals who are interested in seeing this historical memory transform the Spanish landscape, so you can see monuments dedicated to people that were deported from Spain. These organizations fill in where the government has been lacking. Because of different political ties that have been going on in the last decades, there has never been consistent funding for any commemoration or memorials for Spanish deportees, and here is where these grassroots organizations fill in. They are the ones who take groups of high schoolers to Mauthausen every year, who organize talks by survivors and family members, and who do presentations in schools. I think this has made historical memory is visible in Spain right now. 

So the lack of support, lack of funding, or even an official narrative that still allows debates on whether or not Franco’s dictatorship was good or bad. Unlike other countries that had totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, in Spain we don’t see the rejection to that ideology from the government, and that must be really hard on the victims of the Civil War and the post-war repression. 

Exactly, it is terrible — especially this debate on whether Francoism was good or bad for Spain; or the ongoing debate where some people feel like talking about this period of time means the opening of old wounds. And for the victims, survivors, and their families, who need to have their suffering acknowledged by the state, it is not about opening old wounds, but about healing.

It is healing through the acknowledging of what they and their family went through, what the country went through, and also the acknowledgement that the Spanish government was complicit. We can draw a specific line to Franco and his regime and how they disavow themselves of the Spaniards that were sent to Mauthausen. There is a direct line — an uncomfortable connection — but it is one that has to be acknowledged for Spain to move forward and to move towards a healthier relationship with its historical memory. Other countries in Europe have already grappled with this: in France, in Germany, these debates have already been settled, and in Spain they are still ongoing. 

Both victims of the Civil War and the Holocaust are passing away. How do you think this will affect the historical memory building moving forward?

Unfortunately, it really depends on these survivor and family member groups to keep this issue in the public discourse. […] now that we don’t have these survivors to talk to and listen to their first-hand accounts, we are still even more dependent on the kinds of cultural representation that I have been studying. Now we have to depend on all these other groups and all these publications that are trying to tell us these stories in a kind of post-memory world. 

Do you think that official recognition from the government is necessary for both these organizations and the family members of the survivors?

I think it is definitely a step in the right direction. The previous law of historical memory didn’t even mention the deportees to Nazi camps; it was based entirely on victims of the Civil War and the Francoist regime. At the least, acknowledging the existence of Spanish victims of Nazi violence is an important step. Any move that the government makes to acknowledge people that have been silenced or forgotten is a positive step.

In terms of the work that I do, one of the benefits is the reorganization of the archive — making more archival material [available] to scholars and to students. To understand more about the history and the individual stories, we need access to the documents, and there are small steps that they are taking with the law that would be very beneficial. Poco a poco! (little by little). 

Yes, when I was in school, I never learned about the deportation of Spaniards to Mauthausen. 

Yes, exactly and the pedagogical materials are there: novels, movies, memoirs. As I said in my talk, there were Spaniards deported from every single region in Spain without exception. That means that every school curriculum from each region could find someone from that region that was deported to Mauthausen, and that would be a great gateway to learning about that history. If high school and college students can begin to learn about this history, it could have a huge impact on understanding not only the Civil War or the Second World War, but the different issues with fascism, refugees, or economic crises that are present today.

You mentioned that you just published a book this year about the intersections between Spanish history and the Second World War.

Yes, it is a collection volume on Spain, the Second World War and the Holocaust that we just published in April, called Spain, the Second World War, and the Holocaust: History and Representation. Dr. Gina Herrmann and I worked for almost a decade to bring together a collection of different essays and articles from an international group of scholars, all of whom are working on aspects related to Spain’s presence in the Second World War. We have perspectives from different countries and from different fields, and we are hoping that the book is a good resource for people that do not know much about how Spain fits in the bigger picture of the Second World War and the Holocaust but want to learn more. 

** Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity **

Tibisay Navarro-Mana is a PhD student in the History Department at the University of Minnesota. She is an international student from Spain, and her research interests focus on the politics of historical memory after a period of mass-violence and genocide. She is interested in exploring collective and individual memory in Spain and Germany after the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust, respectively. 

Young woman with a raised fist protesting in the street

In an article exploring the relationship between social movements and genocide, Aliza Luft suggests that the discipline of genocide studies has been mainly composed of historians who have largely abandoned theoretical explanations of genocide in favor of rich, historical analyses. These historical pieces have broadened the field of genocide studies, focusing on the historical moment and context of each genocide. Luft, using the theoretical perspectives developed by social movement scholars, however, demonstrates how this sociological literature could enhance genocide studies.

I want to make clear that this blog post does not seek to equate social movements with historical or contemporary genocides. It is not my intention to say that social movements are genocides. Rather, I seek to illustrate that these two phenomena operate on a spectrum of contentious politics, and both social movement scholars and genocide scholars may learn more about their respective disciplines by looking at the commonalities and differences between them. Furthermore, I seek to suggest, that maybe genocide scholars could learn a few things by turning to this contemporary moment in the US.

Aliza Luft is not the first to call for a more integrated approach between social movements and mass violence. Social movements and genocide are both types of contentious politics that are centered around changing the status quo — albeit in drastically different ways. While the motives of genocide perpetrators and social movement activists may differ across empirical cases, what remains consistent and worth analyzing are the myriad of ways in which individuals are mobilized and goals are communicated.

So what exactly are contentious politics? Contentious politics are characterized by the government as being an object of claims or the third party to such claims. Claims can be defined as a call for action, and if realized, claims affect the interests of the object (McAdam et al. 2007: 2). Within contentious politics, there are three main properties: political opportunity structures (or more simply, the idea that protests can occur when it is tolerated by the public), collective actors, and performances and repertoires.

Thus, social movements are often included within the scope of contentious politics. Social movements can be understood as sustained challenges to power; these challenges are made in the name of those whom power is held over (McAdam et al. 2007: 19) Given the three properties of contentious politics and the characteristic of claim making, genocide and mass killing also qualify as types of contentious politics; thus contentious politics becomes an umbrella term under which social movements and genocide become linked. What holds these various forms of contention together is the ability of social movements and genocides to mobilize individuals into action regardless of different uses of resources and contexts. 

Social movement scholars have called for more comparative casework across different forms of contentious politics. Sidney Tarrow has suggested that these subfields of social movements and contentious politics more broadly are problematic, as they must be considered dynamic and fluid. 

For example, Rachel Einwohner, using the example of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, demonstrates how collective action can occur under conditions of genocide — in conditions characterized by repression and threat. She demonstrates that social movements and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Owens and Snow also explore the relationship between genocide, mass violence, and social movements. Using four historical cases of genocide and mass violence, the authors show how these phenomena occur within the context of social movement and political organizations. 

Photo of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Damage

Transitions can occur, and often do, between various forms of contention. Mass violence can be perpetrated in response to social movements, as we see with the Arab Spring and ongoing violence in Syria. Social movements can occur within a genocide, as well, as we see with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Genocide and mass violence do not occur in isolation. They do not occur in a vacuum. And thus, it does not make sense or advance the literature to study these phenomena in isolation.

Collective actors operating in genocide are pulling from the same tool kit as those in social movements. Theories regarding the mobilization of participants and the opening and closing of political opportunity structures demonstrate interesting comparisons between these two forms of contentious politics. Perhaps one of the most interesting comparisons centers around the use of framing, or how the movement or government communicates its cause.

Both the fields of genocide studies and social movements could greatly benefit from incorporating various forms of contentious politics, moving past a discourse that seeks to evaluate which types of contentious politics are worthy of comparison. When we stop isolating genocide and look at it in relation to social movements and other forms of contentious politics, we can start to ask why particular forms of contention result in mass violence and others do not. And perhaps, if we stop seeing genocide and mass violence as exceptional and inherently unique, than maybe we can start to consider how genocide is a social movement of the elite. 

Perhaps in doing so, we’d be more willing to look at our domestic systems of power and social movements and consider how they relate to the phenomena we study. As someone who studies genocide, I’m often preoccupied with my own research of genocide in Rwanda and mass violence in Sierra Leone, and for many who study genocide, we often look outside of where we call home. Myself, and other genocide scholars, must be more willing to look at the various forms of contentious politics in our own backyard and abroad.

Jillian LaBranche is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests broadly include violence, knowledge, collective memory, and comparative methods. Her research seeks to understand how societies that recently experienced large-scale political violence teach about this violence to the next generation.

On the night of November 9, 1938, the Nazis coordinated an attack on the homes, businesses, and cultural institutions of German and Austrian Jews. It had been, according to the Sturmabteilung (the SA or brownshirts), a retaliation for the killing of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish refugee living there. In reality, the attacks were the culmination of increasingly antagonist policies towards the Jewish population occurring since 1933. While perhaps not actively involved in the wanton destruction that became known as Kristallnacht, non-Jewish citizens watched in stunned silence, allowing thousands of businesses, synagogues, and homes to be burned and looted. Reports of the violence spread in newspapers around the world in the days that followed.

We remember the horrors of Kristallnacht not solely because of its place on the path towards the Holocaust but also as a lesson in the dangers of passive compliance in the face of injustices. Part of what makes November 9th such a tragedy is understanding that ordinary citizens were unable, or unwilling, to protect their neighbors. The relationships that existed between perpetrators, victims, and bystanders are seemingly unconscionable in the face of buildings burning and lives being ruined. 

And yet, in 2020 it seems as relatable as ever. Today, the flames of intolerance and hatred have been fanned by groups who spread their message through fear and intimidation. 

As we mark the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht we must pledge to not be passive in the face of hatred. We must stand in solidarity, upholding the virtues of justice, equality, and democracy. In that way, we will truly honor the victims of Kristallnacht

Joe Eggers is the Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies.

This piece was originally published in the Community Voices section of the MinnPost.

The dangers are real. Timothy Snyder spelled them out in his short book, “About Tyranny.”

Germany at the dawn of Nazism, the USA today. Similarities? Differences? Many today ask such questions, for valid reasons.

The German Führer then sought to delegitimize core democratic institutions. The American president today does the same when institutions do not serve his political goals: the courts, the electoral process, democratic opposition, even branches of the administration that do not fall in line. He calls the mainstream news media, decried as “Lügenpresse” (press of lies) in 1930s Germany, “fake news.” He scapegoats minorities and stirs up of hostile emotions against adversaries, another parallel. Further, while Hitler affiliated SA- and SS-militias with his Nazi Party, President Trump encourages self-recruiting militias (“stand by!”). Hostilities toward democratic countries supplement these parallels.

Followers and enablers

Another similarity between Germany of the inter-war years and the United States today is about those who enable leaders with authoritarian leanings. Hitler attracted followers from among those who felt national humiliation after the defeat in World War I. Many had not gotten firm ground under their feet after returning from the trench warfare. After the Great Depression, he attracted scores with his protectionist economic policies. Many saw economic benefits, conveniently overlooking the dark side of the Nazis’ program.

In today’s America, millions are on the losing side of an increasingly globalized economy and IT revolution, deprived of lines of work that had been a source of pride since the industrial revolution. They too feel humiliated and insecure, let down by political (and ridiculed by cultural) elites. Others see 401(k) benefits in a stock market that roars in delight at Trump’s deregulation program, no matter the long-term cost. Yet others do not dare to speak up against the new leader because they depend on his political base.

Many differences — yet dangers are real

There are differences between Germany in the 1930s and the USA today, of course. Trump has not declared as his goal the extermination of an entire people. His ideology is not as clear-cut as Hitler’s, and he does not have the same discipline to stick to a set of core principles. Further, German democracy of the 1920s was young and fragile, in contrast to America’s firmly settled democratic institutions today.

Yet the dangers are real. Timothy Snyder, Yale historian of European totalitarianism spelled them out in his short book “About Tyranny.” Closer to home, almost a century ago, Sinclair Lewis anticipated the risks of fascism in his ironically entitled “It Can’t Happen Here.”

I was born in Germany in 1951, barely six years after the horrors of Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust. I saw the scars of that history. I immigrated to the United States and moved to Minnesota thirty-one years ago. My American wife and I raised our daughters in St. Paul. I learned to appreciate America’s diversity, the academic institutions in which I work, and the thousands of students I taught at the University of Minnesota. Today, I am concerned.

Joachim J. Savelsberg is a professor of sociology and law and the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair at the University of Minnesota. His recent books address issues of genocide and collective memory.

Don’t get me wrong, I have been a huge fan of both America and Americans since watching the Apollo space program as a kid on a black and white TV in my parent’s house in Germany. But it’s not the ’60s anymore; it feels more like the 1600s. And no, I am not talking about the year 1620 or its woke neighbor 1619. The high-speed time machine that the entire US sits in right now has its dial pointing to 1618 Europe — Prague to be exact.

The defenestration of Prague in 1618 was followed by 30 years of religious wars in Europe that left half the population dead and the other half ready for the age of reason.    

That is when and where the largest massacre in Europe started over whose faith is the right faith. Catholics and Protestants had come to the conclusion that after a century of fruitless debate, battling it out was the best option — with each side convinced that the Lord had their backs. The Lord, alas, decided to stay out of it and the ferocious war that followed ended in a tie after raging for 30 years. 

The war left half of central Europe’s population dead and the other half scratching their heads over the benefits of organized religion and clerical propaganda. So, it was no accident that the age of reason and realpolitik came next, at least on the east side of the Atlantic. Arguing over science and fact-based knowledge turned out to be more productive than questioning the validity of each other’s faith. The early Americans missed out on the sobering experience of the Thirty Years’ War. Boarding the Mayflower in 1620 was perfect timing if you wanted to bring with you an untainted love for bizarre theological certainties and the Bible as a literally true and unfailing guide to the future, even in politics.

By the 1980s, the Pilgrims’ Puritanism felt much more relaxed. That’s when I first moved to the US. To me America appeared refreshingly secular and pragmatic even if Ronald Reagan had an annoying habit of invoking the Almighty in his speeches against the godless communists and their evil empire. Democrats and Republicans got along much better than political parties in Germany, and if there was any dogma, it was “living louder” in the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) than in the GOP.

Today the mood in America has reverted back to the pre-Enlightenment era. Everyone in the US who speaks into a microphone — be it your representative in DC or your neighbor in the local news — is a person “of faith” and offers prayers for the occasion. Which makes me shudder, particularly since faith is absolute, and biblical teachings don’t exactly promote the value of compromise. As diverse as the current 116th Congress is otherwise, based on recent surveys not a single member identifies as atheist (or dares to do so anymore). No wonder that in such a spiritually charged climate, issues that have long been settled legally and without much public noise in more secular countries, have turned into matters of faith, morality and divine rights in the US: abortion, guns, healthcare, and supreme court justices.

It is hard to imagine that a candidate for a constitutional court in a Western European country (that has a memory of the Thirty Years’ War) would be advertised as a “judge grounded in faith and family,” presenting herself as a proud and prolific Catholic like Amy Coney Barrett does. It smacks too much of Gegenreformation. Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Habsburgs’ campaign to roll back progressive Protestantism in the Holy Roman Empire, which finally, in 1618, led to a clash of belief systems that at the beginning was actually more slapstick than jihad: Imperial officials who tried to reign in the “liberal” Bohemian Protestants were not shown the door but a window of Prague Castle and out they went from the third floor. 

To everyone’s surprise, there were no serious injuries. This, however, didn’t prevent the Catholic Empire from striking back at the Protestants with full force. The rest is bloody history. I wonder if America’s Religious Right will mount a similar response when their chosen one experiences his defenestration on November 3rd. There are probably enough guns in this country to re-enact all battles of the Thirty Years’ War, but my hope is that somehow, miraculously, the age of reason will stage a strong comeback in the US before it’s too late.  

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

Last month, the results of the “First-Ever 50-State Survey on Holocaust Knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z” were released. These results were shocking, as they found that 48% of respondents couldn’t name one concentration camp or ghetto that existed during World War II. Furthermore, respondents were unable to identify that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. 

Photo of students visiting Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of:

Interestingly, this study depicted Minnesota’s relative success in the area of Holocaust education. It found that 64% of Minnesotans surveyed could name a concentration camp or ghetto, and 75% could identify Auschwitz. Yet, Stephen Smith, UNESCO Chair of Genocide Education, took great issue with this survey, arguing that genocide education is more than being able to identify specific historical facts. While he argues these facts are important, he highlights the findings of another recent survey.

In this survey, Echoes & Reflection surveyed 1,500 students at four-year American colleges. They found that students who received Holocaust education not only knew more about the Holocaust, but they were also more tolerant of people of different races and sexual orientations than those who did not receive such education. Furthermore, students who had received Holocaust education were 50% more likely to offer help when presented with a bullying scenario.

Smith demonstates that Holocaust education is not solely based on the reguritiation of historical facts, but attitudinal changes regarding tolerance, diversity, and bystander intervention. If this one of key outcomes of Holocaust education, Echoes & Reflections’ recent survey may in fact demonstrate its effectiveness of Holocaust. Although historical facts about the Holocaust are not be easily recalled by American college students, the lessons regarding the danger of hatred and importance of tolerance seem to resonate with students.

So while children may learn about historical dates, the causes and consequences of WWII, and the definition of genocide; being able to recount the historical narrative of the Holocaust may not be the primary goal of Holocaust education — despite its importance. These findings give us many things to consider moving forward. Perhaps the greatest question is: what is the purpose of Holocaust education? 

In my studies of post-violence history education, I find that there are many purposes of history education. But perhaps the most oft cited reason is to prevent future violence. Today, 75 years after WWII, Holocaust education focuses on eradicating anti-semitism, humanizing the victims of genocidal violence, and fostering the understanding that violence is preventable.

Over the years, education has proven to be a key agent of socialization, having the ability to promote peace and/or violence. More specifically, schools can be sites of physical violence. For example, schools were a common site of genocidal violence during the Rwandan Genocide and Canadian residential schools were a key instrument of what Canada has now labeled cultural genocide. Aside from being a site of physical violence, schools can also foster structural violence (or inequality). In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Jews were banned from schools, and education was systematically withheld from Jews and other marginalized populations. Furthermore, education can also be used to spread hateful and divisive rhetoric, such was the anti-semitic indoctrination that occurred in German schools. 

Therefore, given education’s key role in promoting genocidal ideology, we must seriously consider how schools can be used to promote peace and tolerance and continue to be mindful of the many ways schools have the potential to prime citizens for future violence.

In both my research and teacher trainings on Holocaust education, I’ve noticed a common desire to humanize victims of genocide. As we know, victims and survivors of genocide, are often dehumanized by their perpetrators in efforts to justify the violence committed against them. Thus, genocide education often prioritizes humanizing these individuals — an incredibly important task. 

Yet, as teachers and educational programs seek to humanize victims and survivors, they often dehumanize perpetrators. Perpetrators are seen as inhuman and evil, and their violent acts are the only qualities discussed. I ask you to consider, however, that if the purpose of genocide education is prevention, mustn’t we humanize perpetrators as well? 

Holocaust education programs often fail to convey how and why “ordinary” men and women participated. If students believe those who participate in genocide are simply motivated by pure evil, will they ever be able to see the unconscious biases (or stereotypes and attitudes that we hold but may be unaware of) that work alongside violent ideologies?

For example, during a 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, a protestor drove his vehicle through a crowd killing a counter-protestor, and more recently, President Trump has refused to denounce the violent actions and ideologies of the Proud Boys. The individuals who participate in these organizations and violent actions are Americans. They are our neighbors; they are our current or former students. They may sit beside us on public transit or stand behind us in grocery stores. They are “ordinary” people.

If students only see humanity in victims and survivors, can we expect them to acknowledge when their beliefs persecute others? We need to seriously ask ourselves these questions, if we hope to stop Americans from participating in future acts of violence.

Jillian LaBranche is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests broadly include violence, knowledge, collective memory, and comparative methods. Her research seeks to understand how societies that recently experienced large-scale political violence teach about this violence to the next generation.

Collectively, Americans have a particular idea of what constitutes genocide. Notions of the Holocaust, Cambodia, or Rwanda are generally what come to mind. Almost universally they have two things in common; they are tied to events that happen abroad, and they involve killing on a massive scale. This clear notion of what constitutes genocide can be traced back to the legal definition of genocide, found in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

This legal framework for genocide itself can be traced back to 1944, in the midst of World War II, when the horrors of the Holocaust were being increasingly brought to the forefront. Jurist Raphael Lemkin published a series of guidelines that would allow for the prosecution of the heinous Nazi crimes.

In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws Of Occupation, Analysis Of Government, Proposals For Redress Lemkin culminated his years of work defining and redefining what he considered the crime of crimes. The legal language found in the Genocide Convention, however, differs greatly from that in Axis Rule. Fortunately, many scholars have carried the torch of Lemkin forward, continuing to examine how we define genocide.

From this scholarly work, we can find a more nuanced and expanded approach to genocide that has allowed us to examine the events of the past with a more critical lens. Events like the treatment of Native youth in America’s boarding school system  throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries have become widely accepted instances of genocide. Moreover, the policies and attitudes towards Native people have dramatically shifted over the years to the point that in 2012 the city councils of both Minneapolis and St. Paul condemned the treatment of the Dakota following the 1862 war as genocide.

These public declarations fall well short of a legal threshold, though. When the time came in 1948 to establish the crime of genocide as codified law much of the basis for defining genocide that Lemkin established in Axis Rule was diluted. Instead of a legal framework that recognized crimes like political, social, or cultural genocide, the newly established United Nations limited the scope of genocide almost entirely to physical genocide, the targeted killing and elimination of a group. 

The Soviet Union is usually charged with watering down the language found in the UN Genocide Convention, but in his book Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes scholar, William Schabas, points out that many of the Soviet’s concerns were equally shared by the American delegation. There was a desire to avoid future prosecution of acts committed by the American government that would clearly meet the threshold under Lemkin’s expanded definition of genocide, especially as it related to policies towards Native and Black groups in the United States. 

As the United Nations was coming into its own in 1945, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) was mobilizing itself and its constituents to bring forth injustices against the Black community. Policies like poll taxes, literacy exams (to that end, Jim Crow laws as a whole that disenfranchised Black America while establishing and preserving segregation), along with systemic violence and economic policies meant to dehumanize Black Americans were laid out in a petition to the UN that made the case for genocide. The movement was called We Charge Genocide.

The movement culminated in a petition delivered to the UN General Assembly in 1951. It reads as though it could have come from today’s headlines :

On Killing Members of a Group:

Our evidence concerns the thousands of Negroes who over the years have been beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriff’s offices, in the cells of county jails, in precinct police stations  and on city streets, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy.

In regards to Economic Genocide:

We shall prove that the object of this genocide, as of all genocide, is the perpetuation of economic and political power by the few through the destruction of political protest by the many.  Its method is to demoralize and divide an entire nation; its end is to increase the profits and unchallenged control by a reactionary clique.

Particularly harrowing is a passage discussing the evidence the CRC intended to bring forward, which feels especially pertinent to today’s climate:

Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.  To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative.  We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.

The petition goes on to call on the UN to examine the case — to complete the investigation of genocide, but it never came. Almost immediately, We Charge Genocide was disregarded by the American delegation. Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the United States and the first US delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights wrote of the petition “It will do great harm at home because the answers to untruths and half-truths are always less dramatic than the assertions,” identifying the authors as communist instigators rather than the victims of systemic violence and racism. 

Ultimately, and not surprisingly, the petition went nowhere. The United States, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with its veto power, clearly had enough influence to ensure the petition would never receive an acknowledgement from the UN.

We Charge Genocide has served as a catalyst for further recognition of Black genocide. The banner has now been taken up by other groups who have used the spirit of the 1951 petition to call attention to contemporary issues impacting Black communities: policies of forced sterilization throughout the 20th century, challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the disproportionate rates of incarceration amongst people of color.

We Charge Genocide has re-emerged through the work of a non-profit group in Chicago. Advocating for marginalized communities impacted by policy violence, We Charge Genocide connects the current calls for law enforcement accountability in America’s third-largest city, naming the very injustices laid out in 1951.

The question of genocide has largely been ignored in the nearly seven decades since We Charge Genocide began. The movement itself received little coverage in the media, and it has been largely forgotten. This raises challenging questions: Why are Americans open to acknowledging one genocide but ignore another? As our understanding and willingness to comprehend episodes of our painful past continue to expand, will there come a point in which the conditions listed in the We Charge Genocide’s petition are accepted for what they are — genocide?

Recent polls have indicated eroding support for Black Lives Matters and similar campaigns calling for racial justice protests, so the potential for Americans reckoning with another aspect from our genocidal past seems unlikely, for now. 

Joe Eggers is the research and outreach coordinator for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.

From Minneapolis to Germany to Kenya to Japan, people are crying out “I can’t breathe.” Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 people all across the globe have taken to the streets in protest to support Black Lives Matter (BLM). Although the Black liberation struggle has been ongoing for centuries, activists seem to think that this moment may be different.

In an interview with Channel 4 news, Angela Davis, leading civil rights and political activist since the 1960s, underscored: “This moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced.” There has been a lot of debate about what makes this moment different and if George Floyd’s death will be the one that changes the world as we know it. While no one can be sure what the future holds, we can point to ways in which this moment is indeed unique.

In the two weeks following the death of George Floyd, support for Black Lives Matter in the US increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years (Cohn and Quealy 2020). According to Pew Research Center, as of June 2020, the majority of Americans (67%) support the Black Lives Matter movement. And more Americans than ever are vocally showing their support on social media, through mutual aid and community care, and especially on the ground at protests.

We have seen bikers block off roads to stop traffic for marches, medics protecting and serving their community, protestors helping each other to safety amidst police firing bullets and teargas into crowds. In Minneapolis, we have seen “community” at its best –as more than just a feeling, but an action. We have seen people standing, sitting, kneeling, and marching in unity, demanding justice because without justice, we will never have peace.

In Minneapolis, currently ground zero for the movement, people continue to show up in extraordinary numbers. People across the nation have been using their unique talents and skills to show up in countless ways for BLM. People of all races, religions, gender identities, and ages have united on their streets to stand together as one to demand justice for the Black community. The sheer magnitude combined with the diversity of the current movement makes this moment unique.

Beyond Minneapolis, in Hawaii for example, local surfers have held paddle out ceremonies for BLM. In Aurora, Colorado, locals have been holding violin vigils for Elijah McClain, and in Philadelphia, skaters have organized skateboard marches for BLM.

Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history. Across the globe, people are standing in solidarity with BLM in the U.S. and demanding that their own nations also confront racism and white supremacy. The rebellion was televised but the revolution will not be. The very things that will change people, will not be caught on film but caught on the ground, in our communities.

We must continue to demand justice for people, regardless of where one comes from. This is only the beginning, so if you are skating, skate for the justice for Black lives. If you are shooting hoops, shoot hoops for the justice for Black lives. If you are dancing, dance for the justice for Black lives.

Come as you are. Come in your own way. Come out for Layleen Polanco and Tony McDade. Come out for Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. Come out for Philando Castille and George Floyd. Wherever you are and whatever you do, just make sure you keep coming.

We are Sociology graduate students based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and live about two miles from 38th and Chicago where George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police. 

Below, we showcase some of the ways in which the Minneapolis community has shown up for Black Lives Matter:

June/July 2020 What can you say…it’s Family: From infants to elders, toddlers to teens, protests in Minneapolis have been filled with families marching together. The youngest generations are already participating in the fight for racial justice. Their elders are showing these young justice warriors the way and they are wasting no time. This is their future.

July 2020 Roll for Justice: On July 4th, rather than taking part in traditional 4th of July festivities, locals rolled through the streets of Minneapolis from City Hall to Bde Maka Ska in a unique protest organized by MIRAC dedicated to Black Lives Matter. For roughly five miles, community members and friends grabbed the nearest wheels they could find and rolled for change.

July 2020 Traditions and Solidarity: Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli, a traditional Mexica-Nahua (Aztec) cultural group, has spent much of the summer marching alongside thousands of protesters offering danzas and songs. During the National Mother’s March in St. Paul, families who have lost loved ones to police violence across the nation came together. Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli expressed solidarity, tradition, safe space, and unifying demands for justice.

May 2020 Leave the Porch Light On: In On the Front Porch, Black Life in Full View, Audra D. S. Burch said it best: “a stage straddling the home and the street, a structural backdrop of meaningful life moments.” In Minneapolis, community elders frequently stand in solidarity cheering protesters on from their balconies, front doors, and backyards. In fact, during the height of the protests, community members called on their neighbors to leave their porch lights on to help protesters feel safe getting home throughout the night. Whether it was a lone voice showing support from their balcony, families with young children waving, playing music, and providing water to protestors, or simply leaving the porch light on to show that someone was home and that they cared, community members expressed solidarity in their own way.

July 2020 Community Taking Care of Community: The Minnesota Freedom Fighters, an independent “elite security unit dedicated to protecting the citizens and businesses of the Twin Cities urban areas” has spent much of the summer working to ensure the safety of all protestors and their communities. Their objective “is not to be the police, but the bridge to link the police and the community together.”

May 2020: A Toast to the Graduates: Here’s to those in the Class of 2020 who spent their graduation days on the streets fighting for a better future. Congratulations, keep on fighting!

June 2020: Scenes from Floyd Town: On weekends, 38th and Chicago, now locally known as Floyd Town: The Free State of George Floyd, is regularly filled with community gatherings, artists, live performances, barbeques, donation drives, and pick-up basketball games. Floyd Town has become a sacred place for the Black community in Minneapolis. It has become a place of tragedy and resilience, a place of mourning and celebration, a place of reflection and organizing. May Floyd Town continue to bring power, joy, peace, resilience, and fight for those who continue to come as they are.

Anna DalCortivo is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her scholarly interests include crime, law, and punishment, social movements, and race. She is currently working on projects involving juvenile decarceration, the prison abolition movement, and All Square (a Minneapolis nonprofit social enterprise that invests in people with criminal records).

Mi’Chael N. Wright is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her primary research focuses on sociology of media, sociology of mental health, collective memory and trauma, and identity. She is specifically interested in how digital communities, which can be simultaneously encouraging and hostile, constitute the identity development of Black and Brown adolescent girls.

All Photos Taken by Anna DalCortivo

The recent protests in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in our own Minneapolis, coupled with the spread of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the globe, have sparked a much-needed conversation within the field of Genocide Studies. The BLM movement calls for the end of anti-Black racism in the United States (and around the globe), and the movement has shined a light on an American legacy of systemic racism — or racism that is ingrained within our social, cultural, and political institutions.

Photo of the George Floyd Memorial

As genocide scholars we know systemic racism. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s Declaration of the Prevention of Genocide has emphasized genocide’s connection with systemic racism, calling for the prevention of “persistent patterns of racial discrimination and other systemic violations of human rights that could lead to violent conflict and genocide.” We know that one of the critical early warning signs of genocide is a legacy of discrimination and persecution.

As genocide scholars, we have explored the origins and consequences of violence. We have looked at the historical, or rather modern, roots of racism (Weitz 2003), and how ordinary citizens and law enforcement officers are mobilized into extreme forms of violence (Browning 1992). We have learned how governments and individuals legitimize violence, often using fear to justify their actions (Straus 2006). We have learned about the banality of evil (Arendt 1964) and how seemingly neutral organizations can participate in mass violence (Kühl 2016). We have learned that just because a violent act is legal, doesn’t mean it is moral.

Classic social theorist, Max Weber (1946), defined the state by its monopolization on the legitimate use of violence. He argued that the state can protect its citizens from violence and commit violence against them or the citizens of other states. Yet in the era following WWII, the right of the state to perpetuate violence against its own people (particularly unarmed civilians) was questioned by the international community. As genocide scholars have discussed, Hitler’s murderous campaign against the Jews was not illegal, and while norms were certainly changing during this time, genocide was not an established crime (Savelsberg 2010). 

It is only more recently, with the development and globalization of human rights and humanitarian law, that state sovereignty has begun to diminish. As a result, episodes of mass violence committed by states against their own populations are increasingly becoming understood and tried as crimes. We have seen this with the creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for both Rwanda (1994-2015) and the Former Yugoslavia (1993-2017). More recently, we have seen this with the International Criminal Court’s involvement with Darfur (2005)  and the International Court of Justice with Myanmar (2019). 

Yet, due to the extreme nature of genocide, scholars are often hesitant to explore and comment on other forms of violence that do not amount to genocide. But in doing so, we risk turning a blind eye to the various forms of ongoing violence being committed in countries such as the US. As those who understand violence to its most heart-wrenching detail, it is our responsibility to share our knowledge and speak out against the injustices happening in our own communities.

While it is never easy to study genocide, it is much easier to study violence when you are removed from it. As a result, scholars like myself often study episodes of mass violence that are either historically or geographically removed from our own lives. However, the knowledge from this field can and must be used to explore and critically analyze American history and White violence against Black Americans. CHGS will contribute to this conversation through a series of articles that discuss contemporary and historical forms of violence in the US in our series entitled: Anti-Black Violence in the US.

In this series we at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies will explore the connection between social movements and genocide, share photo essays from Black Lives Matter Protests around the country, and interrogate the violence being perpetrated against Black Americans. It is with this series that our blog will turn inwards, exploring our own backyard and the violence being committed here. It is our hope that this series will begin to explore both what our field can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement and the horrific death of Minneapolis resident, George Floyd and what we may contribute.

Jillian LaBranche is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests broadly include violence, knowledge, collective memory, and comparative methods. Her research seeks to understand how societies that recently experienced large-scale political violence teach about this violence to the next generation.