Meyer Weinshel is a PhD candidate from the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. He received his BA from Macalester College and MA from the University of Minnesota. His research and teaching interests include German Jewish literature and culture, modern Yiddish literature and culture, and translation studies. He is completing his dissertation, “Dos eygne Daytshland: Anthologizing Jewish Multilingualism in and beyond the Habsburg Empire.” The project traces the ways German-language poetry in Yiddish translation shaped modern Jewish cultural developments in/beyond Central Europe. He studied Yiddish at YIVO’s Uriel Weinreich Summer Program (2015, 2017) and at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute (2016). In 2018-19, He has also completed research in Jerusalem at the National Library of Israel and began study modern Hebrew. 

Besides teaching German studies coursework at the university, he also teaches Yiddish classes in the Twin Cities. He designed beginner Yiddish curricula for Jewish Community Action, a Minneapolis non-profit organization focused on racial and economic justice issues across Minnesota. Each 10-session course introduced students (who ranged in age from high school to retirement age) to Yiddish language and culture in an accessible format. Creating these educational resources also coincided with his work piloting In eynem, the forthcoming Yiddish textbook published by the Yiddish Book Center (Amherst, MA), and one of the few Yiddish language textbooks to be published in North America since the Second World War. He worked as the TA for elementary Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Yiddish Summer Program in 2020. 

As a prior volunteer with the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies, he has met with high school theater students at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, and spoke about the linguistic and cultural diversity of Jewish life before the Second World War. He also conducted interviews with guest speakers at the Center that later appeared on the Center website. He led a discussion at the 2019 Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival following the screening of “Black Honey,” a documentary about Yiddish poet and Vilna Ghetto survivor, Avrom Sutzkever. He has also appeared with Yiddish and Ojibwe language speakers about the role of language revival efforts (and the challenges these efforts face) following genocide and displacement. 

In his work as an educator (whether teaching German, Yiddish, or TA-ing for the Center’s affiliated faculty), Meyer foregrounds the diversity of pre-war Jewish life when teaching students about the genocide of European Jewry and its aftermath within broader trends. When George Floyd was murdered, and protests erupted around the world, he was working remotely with the Yiddish Book Center due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Distance learning due to the pandemic, and while living in the city at the center of a global protest movement, he wanted to convey to beginner students of Yiddish Yiddish writers’ own (and very complicated) attitudes toward the racialized hierarchies they encountered upon immigration to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Some Yiddish-speaking immigrants tried and failed to effectively grapple with anti-Black racism. Others (including many who remained in Europe and were later killed by Hitler or Stalin) organized around their political affiliations and protested with Black writers and activists in the United States. Teaching about moments like these further cemented his obligations—toward students and society at large—to place the study of, and resistance against, mass violence within a global context.

“Students don’t live in dormitories and the university exerts no control over a student’s private life.”
Hermann Weyl (German mathematician and philosopher, 1885-1955)

Hermann Weyl left Germany in 1933 to join his friend and colleague Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. During his time at Princeton he not only taught theoretical physics; he also lectured on European history and civilization. Here is what else he had to say about student life in Germany before the Nazis took over:

Once matriculated in the university, students choose their own teachers as well as the lectures, exercises, and seminars which they want to attend. If they don’t feel disposed to attend on a particular day they can stay away, nobody bothers. They may take advice from their professors or neglect it at their own peril.

This used to be the Continental European approach to higher education and, despite many reforms, its basic tenets are still alive. Students are viewed as (more or less) autonomous adults and universities focus on research and teaching. Life outside the classroom is not in some vice provost’s portfolio or regulated by preachy codes of conduct telling you to lead a good life and report anyone who doesn’t. Bias response teams that monitor “offensive and discomforting language” on American campuses, often based on anonymous alerts, would ring all sorts of alarm bells in Germany and bring back dark memories of privacy wrecking regimes, both fascist and communist. In 1949 the framers of West Germany’s Basic Law, many of them exiled or imprisoned under the Nazis, had fresh memories of Gestapo officers knocking at their doors after being tipped off by some evil-minded neighbor or party loyalist. In the Stalinist German Democratic Republic, the Staatssicherheit or Stasi (which, oddly, translates into homeland security) took over from the Gestapo after WWII and recruited half of East Germany’s population to spy on the other half. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that after two golden ages for snitchers, protection of privacy — not freedom of religion or the right to bear arms — ranks at the top of Germany’s Bill of Rights.

That’s why I am often baffled at how deep American universities dive into students’ private lives. It’s not just the bias response teams, it’s also the group exercises developed and overseen by college administrators. Take, for example, the so-called privilege walk, often facilitated by a well-meaning facilitator from the diversity office. It physically separates a room full of students, usually at the beginning of their program, into haves and have-nots by asking them questions about their upbringing and socioeconomic background and making them step forward or backward depending on whether their answer labels them as privileged or marginalized. “Powerful” experience? Yes, and divisive too. You would think that at a research university, students can grasp the effect of money and family background on people’s lives through analysis and abstract thinking. Do they, in order to get it, really need to see their fellow students being moved across the room like chess pieces disclosing highly personal information? Good thing you can’t do the privilege walk on Zoom — if we are lucky COVID-19 will put a lasting end to this nonsense.

Recently, I received an email from the university administration proudly informing me about the new “affinity groups” that they had created for students, staff and faculty. Affinity groups? Why did the university feel compelled to organize my private time? Had we changed from college to “Kollektiv”? Before the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans were organized in “Kollektivs”— groups of people at the same workplace who after work had to attend cultural events together and then submit enthusiastic reports about their growing socialist comradery to the local “Parteisekretär” (party secretary). My first tenured appointment in the ’90s was at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in freshly re-unified (East) Germany and people were still reeling from the totalitarian harmony that the communist government had imposed on them.

The affinity groups, however, that our administration (and, as a quick Google search revealed, many other universities in the US) had come up with had nothing to do with theater visits or book clubs, not even Marxist-Leninist discussion groups. They were strictly based on, and segregated by, skin color, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status. Never mind that this siloed approach to diversity and inclusion has long been tried, found to not work and abandoned by corporate organizations. What troubles me more is that it undermines the concept of the university as a classless community of discoverers where ideas count and not who you are or think you are. Knowledge is universal and doesn’t care about the skin color, genetic makeup or identity of the person who generated it. Germans back in the day thought it did and ended up distinguishing between Aryan and Jewish science. For the record, I find nothing wrong with groups of people wanting to hang out among themselves. But it is my firm belief that if university leaders feel the urge to meddle with academics’ private lives, the only affinity group they should openly and actively push for is the one for homo sapiens. And they should make clear that Neanderthals and all other hominids are welcome too!

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.

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

For much of the last century and a half since the 6-week U.S.-Dakota War that has largely been the narrative put forth in the newspapers that covered the event and its aftermath. This myopic approach to covering the U.S.-Dakota War almost entirely ignored the manipulative treaties, the withheld annuity payments, and other causes that led to the fighting. Subsequent articles from anniversaries ignored the legacies of the war; choosing to focus largely on the plight of settlers at the expense of highlighting the continued disenfranchisement of the Dakota people. 

For the last several years, the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies has been engaged in a research project, analyzing newspaper accounts of the U.S.-Dakota War and later anniversaries in an effort to better understand how the state’s memory of and attitudes toward the war have shifted over the last 150 years. Last year, the Center released a curriculum geared towards Minnesota sixth grade students that incorporates this research. 

Now as Minnesota approaches the 158th anniversary of the war that changed the trajectory of the state and sealed the fate of its original inhabitants, the Center will be sharing the headlines from the war, providing critical insight into what’s been long considered Minnesota’s forgotten war. The newspapers come from Mankato, near the epicenter of the fighting along the Minnesota River, and St. Paul, the seat of the state government where decisions impacting the course of the war and its aftermath were made. Some of these headlines will be painful, like the calls for the complete annihilation of the Dakota. Some will be surprising, like drawing attention to broken treaty agreements as early as in 1912. Along the way, we’ll showcase that the U.S.-Dakota War has never been black and white. 

Follow the project on Twitter, @USDakotaWarinP1

For questions about the project, contact Joe Eggers, CHGS Outreach Coordinator at

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

BJJ is widely considered the “gentle art.” It is a grappling-based martial art whose entire ethos is centered on using concepts such as leverage and timing to submit stronger and more aggressive opponents. As a woman, BJJ is not only a competitive sport, but it is also teaching me proper self-defense techniques that can be carried out in a way that avoids physical harm. As a new member of the BJJ community, I have been impressed by the diversity of its members: from gender to ethnicity to profession, but despite a multitude of differences, I have been surprised by how welcoming and tight-knit this community of individuals is.

During my time at MTT, I have had the privilege to train with many black belts, including 3rd degree Black Belt and owner of M-Theory Martial Arts, Ishmael Bentley. Both Ishmael and his wife, Sue Bentley, are active board members of the International Jiu-Jitsu Education Foundation (IJEF). IJEF is a non-profit that started in Brazil with the intention of providing children in impoverished communities with a BJJ education. The program provides stipends for instructors, mats, and gis (the traditional uniform). It promotes not only the new knowledge of the sport but it supports community-driven change as well.

A young boy practices his technique with Prof. Ishmael Bentley

As Vice President and the Executive Director of IJEF, Ishmael and Sue respectively, have helped bring IJEF’s mission to six additional countries. The first country they were directly involved with was Cambodia. Sue, a native and survivor of the Cambodian genocide, remarked how IJEF’s presence in Cambodia is particularly special. In fact, IJEF’s presence in Cambodia has helped facilitate a government-sponsored initiative, recognizing BJJ as a national sport for the country. As a result, Cambodia recently competed at the Southeast Asia Games with Singapore, which has elevated the sport’s legitimacy in Cambodia.

A young boy trains BJJ at Cambodia’s Olympic Training Center

What’s the connection between BJJ and genocide studies? As a budding sociologist who studies post-genocide reconstruction, I could not help but notice that each of the locations in which IJEF operates has a history of extreme political violence, if not genocide: Brazil, Cambodia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, and the Philippines. Beyond the geographic locations of IJEF, the more I have trained BJJ, I have begun to consider the possible connections between post-conflict societies, violence, and the martial art. 

It’s not just IJEF. With the help of the We Defy Foundation, American veterans have been introduced to the gentle art of BJJ, and as a result, there have been recent studies exploring the relationship between BJJ and PTSD and other trauma disorders. In fact, a recent study found that BJJ is good for veterans coping with trauma. And while these studies are in their infancy and psychological in nature, they suggest that BJJ helps with the mood regulation and decreased aggression. 

As a testimony from We Defy states:

“There’s many challenges to overcome once you leave the theatre of combat. From our formative years in the Marine Corps, we are taught “violence of action”; Kill or be killed. In combat, this is a necessity. Here back home, it’s not applicable to most professions or lifestyles. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the perfect outlet for the displaced warrior. It teaches discipline, endurance, and humility….”

While IJEF doesn’t work specifically with survivors of genocide or other forms of violence, the Bentleys know that they are often working with the children of survivors. When asked why BJJ is important for children in these impoverished (and post-violent areas), the Bentleys mentioned several reasons: First, it gives children access to a growing and popular sport, which is a luxury in many of these countries. It also promotes character building (patience, humility, etc.), and in addition to character building, it also gives children who may be dealing with trauma an outlet and safe space. More broadly speaking, in Cambodia, there has been a recent women’s rights movement, and this has resulted in an acceptance of BJJ as a form of self-defense and empowerment for young girls and women alike. Lastly, and perhaps most poignant, BJJ creates a sense of community; it has the ability to break down barriers across all different types of people. Which I imagine in a post-conflict society has the ability to promote hope, resilience, and healing.

As one BJJ practitioner writes:

It teaches you to be humble and kind to other people and be more aware of how your actions are affecting someone else. It gets you to interact with way more groups of people that you’d otherwise see. It also helps you form deeper bonds with people than any other activity I’ve ever done.”

Reflecting on my own experiences with BJJ, my research on post-genocide reconstruction, and my interview with the Bentleys, I am struck by the possibility for potential areas of social science research:

  • What is the impact of BJJ socially? Beyond the psychological studies exploring BJJ’s relationship with mental health, can BJJ create social change? Can it build a sense of community in countries with legacies of identity-based violence?
  • Scholars have shown that war can be a force of rapid social change that has the ability to reconfigure gendered power relations in the wake of cultural, demographic, and economic shifts precipitated by mass atrocity (Berry 2018). And as the Bentleys mentioned, the women’s rights movement in Cambodia has allowed for a space in which women can participate in BJJ. Scholars have demonstrated that gender-based violence often increases after episodes of mass violence. Thus research that explores the relationship between gender and BJJ in post-violent societies could add to the existing literature on gendered power relations.
  • When people discuss post-violent/post-conflict countries, this often creates a binary between violence and peace, creating an assumption that post-conflict societies are passive. How could scholars use BJJ to explore the complexities of the relationship between violence and peace?
  • There appears to be an ongoing conversation about the value of BJJ, particularly in the wake of violence. To those unfamiliar to BJJ, this may seem counterproductive; but those who train BJJ, often argue it is not a violent practice. Rather, it is an activity that allows individuals to “perform violence” without an intent to harm in a safe and respectful environment. At a more empirical and tangible level, it may prove fruitful for researchers to explore whether sports like BJJ could be an integral part of national reconstruction efforts.

If you'd like to contribute to the efforts of IJEF, they are 
currently accepting donations.

** The views expressed in this blog post are my own and are not 
representative of CHGS, IJEF, M-Theory, or Minnesota Top Team**

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.

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

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

Historians have never discovered any credible evidence that supports this claim. Many German citizens at the time, however, believed the Nazis’ charge, including several news agencies in the United States. The New York Times reported on 13 September 1933, for instance, that a German commission discovered “a coup in the hands of a Russian Jew named Wollenberg … was prepared so that at a given signal the Red rising would break loose everywhere.” Germany did not release any specific information, however, “so as not to anticipate the court trial.”

As the Reichstag still smoldered, Nazi representatives, together with a sizable cadre of center-right politicians in the German National People’s Party (DNVP) and Center Party, passed the so-called “Reichstag Fire Decree” on 28 February 1933. Article 1 formally suspended “Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153 of the Constitution,” an action that enabled the government “to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, [and] the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications.”

Article 4, meanwhile, targeted anyone whom the Nazis deemed a potential enemy of the state. “Whoever provokes, or appeals for, or incites the disobedience of the orders given out by the supreme state authorities … or order given by the Reich Government,” decreed the new legislation, “is punishable—insofar as the deed is not covered by other decrees with more severe punishments—with imprisonment of not less than one month, or with a fine of 150 up to 15,000 Reichsmarks.”

The same Article continued that “Whoever endangers human life by violating Article 1 is to be punished by sentence to a penitentiary … with imprisonment of not less than six months. … In addition, the sentence may include [the] confiscation of property. Whoever provokes or incites an act contrary to public welfare is to be punished … with imprisonment of not less than three months.”

Hitler’s fire decree effectively served as his first step toward civil dictatorship. Less than one month later, the last political remnants of Germany’s republic passed the “Enabling Act,” which authorized the Nazis to declare laws outside of the traditional constitutional framework. The last remnants of democracy, in effect, voted themselves out of existence. Germany’s elected body, now under the leadership of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s future second-in-command, simply authorized legislation at his convivence. It was the beginning of a long and dark period in German history, a catastrophe that eventually enveloped all of Europe six years later.

Serious historians recognize the importance of historical context and the necessity for evaluating the past on its own terms. At a time when high-profile media personalities invoke a skewed or blatantly false historical narrative to justify policies on a seemingly daily basis, I am wary of arguments that clumsily rely on unnuanced comparisons. Professional responsibility, however, does not abjure scholars the right to call attention to contemporary affronts to liberal democracy, from the forced separation of families at the U.S. southern border to officially-sanctioned violence against peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C and Portland, Oregon.

One does not need a Ph.D. in German history to recognize the dangerous potentials of our present-day politics in the United States. We can no longer comfort ourselves in a false logic that regards discriminatory practices as a unique aspect of German history or the distant past. History does not repeat itself. But a critical evaluation of past events can at least provide us means to learn about the destructive capabilities of nationalism, racism, and centralized oppression of citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional rights.

As George Orwell reminds us, “Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish a dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism. But any systematic government reliance on secret police and fabricated revolutions will not have a happy ending.

Dr. Adam A. Blackler is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wyoming. His book manuscript, currently titled An Imperial Homeland: Forging German Identity in Southwest Africa, explores the transnational dimensions of German colonialism, race, and genocide in German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia). In September 2020, Peter Lang Press will publish his co-edited volume, entitled After the Imperialist Imagination: Two Decades of Research on Global Germany and Its Legacies, that analyzes the critical role of empire in modern German history between 1884 and the present-day. He will also publish a chapter, entitled “The Consequences of Genocide in the Long Nineteenth Century,” in Bloomsbury Press’s forthcoming series, A Cultural History of Genocide, which is scheduled for release in October 2020.

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

The last time a group of framers went to work in my home country Germany was in 1948. They were more remodelers than founders — a democratic constitution had already been in place since the end of WWI, except it hadn’t worked. It had major flaws and loopholes wide enough for the entire Nazi party to march through and seize power legally. Interestingly and in contrast to their celebrated American counterparts, hardly anyone today remembers the Gründungsväter (founding fathers) of 1948. There is no shrine you can visit that displays a flashy piece of parchment, under glass and guarded by security, that starts with a German version of “We the People” and ends with an impressive list of signatures. It was their speed, not so much their names that made it into the history books. In just two weeks the group of legal experts put together a draft constitution with 149 articles while being secluded in a monastery on a Bavarian lake that was part of the American occupation zone. Chiemseeinsel Herrenwörth or short Herrenchiemsee provided a beautiful Alpine backdrop to the participants and a formidable pronunciation challenge to the US administrators. The Allies’ charge to the framers was simple. Come up with a tyrant-proof constitution and make sure there won’t be a Fourth Reich after the Third. It was done by taking back gifts that had been generously doled out during the previous round of democracy building. The Reichspräsident was stripped of the powers granted to him in the 1919 Weimar Constitution so that he could no longer act as “Ersatzkaiser” and overrule parliament by emergency decree or, for that matter, executive order. For Germany the real Hindenburg disaster wasn’t the Zeppelin exploding in 1937, it was President Hindenburg handing the chancellor position to Adolf Hitler four years earlier. The 1948 framers, many of them imprisoned, exiled or dismissed from office during the Nazi period, had seen their fellow Germans fall for strongmen’s promises and propaganda. Their solution? Take back the people’s right to directly vote for a leader (the German translation of which is “Führer”) and have parliament do it instead — parliamentarism instead of populism. So far, the system has worked and produced leaders that may be short on charisma but, luckily, on personality disorders as well.

Had the Herrenchiemsee framers taken more than two weeks to rummage through the dustbin of discarded constitutions they might have even stumbled upon the European “Electoral College,” a group of princes that had sold their votes for the Emperor of the First German Reich from 1356 until Napoleon and his Grande Armée put an end to it. Napoleon never made it to the US, only his sales order for Louisiana did. Therefore, the American Electoral College is still alive and if European history is any predictor of its longevity, it’ll be with us until 2237. Has it prevented demagogues and wannabe dictators from snatching the President’s office as the Founding Fathers hoped it would? I bet that with their hopes so badly dashed in 2016 they’d take that gift back too, definitely before November — no questions asked.

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.

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

“The Terror of War” by Nick Ut, Associated Press.

My interest in genocide studies surely grew from my childhood exposure to such images.  In On Photography, Susan Sontag (2001) said she was forever changed from seeing a picture from the Holocaust as a youth, a photograph that she said divided her life in half, from innocence to a new vision of vomitus human cruelty.  Now traveling as an adult in Ho Chi Minh City, I felt unease and shame.  I knew of the atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on unarmed women and children.  I had become aware of the massive and indiscriminate U.S. bombing campaigns against Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian citizens.  I had learned of the ongoing effects of the U.S. use of chemical weapons like napalm and Agent Orange.  Despite being a child during the war, as a now-adult citizen of the aggressor nation I felt complicit—that in my brazen appearance on Vietnamese soil, I could not escape judgment for my country’s policy decisions and atrocities.

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City.  By Prenn, CC BY-SA 3.0,
A list of victims from a U.S. attack in February 1969 at Thanh Phong, displayed in the War Remnants Museum.  Photo by author.

Still, I found it unsettling to visit Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum. Once named the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, its name was changed following the normalization of Vietnamese and U.S. relations in 1995.  The museum, though, uses the phrase “the American War” throughout, as opposed to what U.S. citizens call “the Vietnam War.”  The museum’s exhibition of the material was frank and persuasive, without much commentary.  I found a statement from U.S. Senator Wayne Morse that the U.S. had flouted the rule of law during the war.  Quotes in the museum from the Geneva Convention can be contrasted against photographic evidence of the My Lai massacre, the shells of massive bombs, and charts outlining the tonnage of U.S. bombs dropped on Vietnam (tonnage estimated as perhaps double what was used in all of World War II).  Here was undisputed material.  Americans had fought the war in Vietnam. Vietnam never attacked U.S. soil.  It was a war of aggression carrying the hallmarks of genocide (Lemkin 1944).  In the American War, unarmed U.S. women and children did not suffer and die.  U.S. villages were not razed.  Chemical weapons were not deployed on American soil.

Statement in the War Remnants Museum from U.S. Senator Wayne Morse opposing the Vietnam War.  Photo by author.

Perhaps the images and other material in the museum were especially upsetting for me as I was now surrounded by Vietnamese people and international visitors.  We viewed the images together.  A specific area of the museum devoted entirely to images of deformed fetuses and children, victims of Agent Orange, also left no doubt that Vietnamese people would long suffer the effects of this war.  A war resulting in genetic mutations arguably never ends.

Entryway to the War Remnants Museum’s exhibition, titled, “Agent Orange Aftermath in the U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam.”  Photo by author.
Visitors view photographs of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange displayed in the War Remnants Museum.  Photo by author.

I wish more Americans could see the War Remnants Museum.  While it can be perceived as promoting a form of Communist Party nationalism (Giller 2014), it might also give Americans pause to consider both America’s immense power on the world stage and the results of war.  The War Museum can be seen as propagandistic and one-sided, but perhaps American visitors could simply see that war is understood in many ways (Schwenkel 2009).  Gently phrased, the world outside of the U.S. at times views its actions unfavorably.  Shame is a powerful emotion and is perhaps the first step toward reconciliation—if shame is expressed by the citizens of the once-invading country, the victims and other observers can see that the event horrifies some citizens from the responsible country.  Carefully walking through such a museum can also disabuse visitors of simple ideas that history is a collection of events neutrally observed and recorded.  Public displays of war atrocities, seen by U.S. citizens, might promote U.S. accountability for and acknowledgment of U.S. war crimes.  Such public displays, upsetting as they are, might further reduce future support for wars that feature indiscriminate killing.  

Later that same trip, I wait in a line several blocks long to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi.  A little girl standing nearby with her classmates, in her school uniform, says hello to me in English.  She asks where I am from.  When I say the United States, she replies “welcome to Vietnam.”  I was humbled.  The girl was kind and magnanimous, like all the Vietnamese people I met that trip.  This child-welcoming me would know the prolonged effects of the American War.  She will learn about the history of her country.  She seemed younger than nine years old, the age of the girl in the photograph I cannot forget, the girl whose skin was burning.  She will see that picture.  U.S. citizens should also see it, particularly through Vietnamese eyes.

Kurt Borchard is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska Kearney.  He was a participant in the 2019 CHGS summer workshop for teachers.  He teaches an undergraduate course on the Holocaust and has written extensively on cultural studies and homelessness.  


Gillen, Jaime.  2014.  Tourism and Nation Building at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers.  DOI:10.1080/00045608.2014.944459.

Lemkin, Raphael.  1944.  Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.  Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Schwenkel, Christina.  2009. The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sontag, Susan.  2001.  On Photography.  New York: Picador.

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

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

Indeed, over the past few days, our email inboxes and social media accounts have been filled with statements regarding the vicious murder of George Floyd and commitments and resources for supporting one another, dismantling white supremacy, promoting social justice, and engaging in anti-racist teaching and learning. We are turning to our colleagues and amplifying their voices and critical work. Some additional resources we highly recommend:

General Resources:

1619 Project from the New York Times

A collaborative set of scaffolded anti-racism resources aimed at engendering white allies and accomplices in anti-racist work, a set of anti-racist resources complied by Victoria Alexander, and another very comprehensive list of resources compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein.

Rethinking Schools offers a number of resources for teaching about and for social justice, including a magazine and many excellent books. We highly recommend Teaching for Black Lives (edited by Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, and Wayne Au), as well as Rethinking Schools’ yearly Planning to Change the World: Plan Book for Social Justice Educators (edited By Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Margaret Kavanagh, Thomas Nikundiwe, Carla Shalaby) – check back for the 2020-2021 edition

“‘We Charge Genocide’: The 1951 Black Lives Matter Campaign” from the University of Washington’s Mapping American Social Movements Project (by Susan Glenn)

Local Resources:

Articles on local history: “Dred and Harriet Scott in Minnesota” from MNopedia by Annette Atkins and “Duluth Lynchings” from the Minnesota Historical Society

East Side Freedom Library: The ESFL is a local community library and gathering space in East St. Paul dedicated to inspiring solidarity, advocating for justice, and working toward equity for all

Mapping Prejudice Project from the University of Minnesota, which includes an educator guide

MPD150: Working Towards a Police Free Minneapolis: MPD150 is a participatory, horizontally-organized effort by local organizers, researchers, artists, and activists dedicated to changing the story of policing in Minneapolis and working to ultimately dissolve the Minneapolis Police department. [Example lesson resource on policing reform]

We stand in solidarity with you and our Twin Cities communities.

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

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

Penned in the 1950s, Frisch’s play has been read as a parable about the complacency and cowardice of the common man that stood by during the rise of Nazism, ignored the crimes of Stalinism in Europe, or buried his head in the sand during the nuclear arms race. What has this to do with our current crisis? Biedermann is a stand-in for the German average citizen who indulges the good life, a contented member of the middle class detached from the reality that surrounds him. Most of us have a bit of Biedermann housed within us. Our beautiful Twin Cities is one of the most livable places in the country… for White citizens, but that wealth, prosperity, and acceptance have never been fully accessible to African American and indigenous neighbors.

My friend and colleague Joachim Savelsberg wrote these compelling lines in a letter to the New York Times last week:

“Expressions of disgust come easily in response to killings of unarmed black men by police. So does upset about lacking judicial responses. Yet, both are only possible in a context in which society and its political representatives tolerate and promote massive structural inequalities and segregation of the disadvantaged in neighborhoods and prisons, delegating to specialized forces the dirty work of keeping these populations in check. Such conditions generate high rates of killing in poverty neighborhoods, police brutality, and police impunity. We must fight these evils by eliminating the roots.”

In other words, the problem will not simply fizzle out because the fires are momentarily quelled. Max Frisch’s ominous subtitle for his play was also a warning: “A lesson without a lesson”. For us, unless we become more attentive to the needs of our communities and work actively in the fight against discrimination, each from our respective positions, dismantling the visible and invisible barriers that fan the flames of racial inequality, we will continue to be burned like Biedermann.

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

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

As the above quote alludes to, the numbers debate is political in nature. While sociologists, political scientists, demographers, and economists attempt to arrive at casualty figures for the Rwandan genocide, Jens Meierhenrich argues that this debate is inherently imbued with morality and claims of victimhood. This is because, within violent conflicts such as war and genocide, there is a propensity to equate the group with the highest number of victims with true victimhood.

Calculating Casualty Figures

Before diving into the various numerical conclusions of the authors featured in the debate, it is crucial to recognize that these numbers are highly subjective and reflect the myriad of statistical modelling decisions that must be made when deriving these figures. 

All of the authors point to the problematic nature of trying to derive a precise estimate of casualty figures based on the existing data. One of the first hurdles for scholars is calculating a pre-genocide baseline, in which they determine the population of Rwanda as a whole, as well as its racial breakdown.

For example, McDoom (2020) argues that precise figures are impossible for a few reasons. First, the existing data scholars used to derive these numbers, such as census data and population growth models, are faulty. In the period leading up to the Rwandan genocide, censuses underreported the number of Tutsis in Rwanda, in an effort to justify the ethnic quotas that had been put in place by the Habyarimana regime. Tutsis may have also self-reported as Hutu in an effort to avoid discrimination. Furthermore, as Armstrong and his co-authors (2020) explain, many arbitrary decisions must be made in the process of modeling causality, and scholars must place a significant amount of credibility and faith in the aforementioned existing data.

The above chart summarizes the key authors in this debate who have modeled their own casualty figures. It is important to note, however, that several others have weighed into this debate providing feedback on the above numbers and the various methodological approaches. This chart also includes the highly contested numbers of Davenport & Stam (2009), the oft-cited Human Rights Watch Report, and the Rwandan Ministry of Local Affairs’ own numbers (found at memorial cites across the country).

There are a few points worth stressing in this table. First, the majority of estimates regarding Tutsi deaths during the 1994 genocide are around 500,000, with the Rwandan government’s own reporting being an outlier. Interestingly, however, is the vast array of casualty figures of Hutus, ranging from 60,000 to 700,000. It is also important to note that many of these casualty figures are derived from not only direct killings of Hutus, but also Hutu deaths as a result of disease and access to resources. This is a result of living in refugee camps in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.

Image via

Why does this debate matter, and should it? 

It is apparent that many of the scholars in this journal point to increased numbers of Hutu deaths. Thus, if the number of fatalities between Tutsi and Hutus is much closer than initially believed, the Rwandan government’s claims of exclusive Tutsi victimhood stand to be challenged. And, if these higher Hutu casualty figures are accurate than perhaps we need to focus on the structure of genocide, highlighting how it occurred within the context of a civil war.

This raises some important questions. For example, as McDoom asks: “Should the killing of Hutu be seen as morally less reprehensible or equivalent?” (2020, 84). And should Hutu victimhood be acknowledged? McDoom argues that recognizing Hutu casualty figures matters for three reasons: it shapes the categorization of violence, it raises questions of the experience of memory and justice following the genocide, and it has implications of reconciliation. As previous scholars have noted (Berry 2018), recognition of a group’s victim status often transfers into distinct political advantages and economic resources. Additionally, by acknowledging Hutu casualty figures, it complicates current perceptions of Hutus as the sole perpetrators and Tutsis as the sole victims of violence. It may go as far to imply that following (or during) the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, a politicide against Hutus may have also occurred, in which Hutus were targeted for their political beliefs, rather than for their ethnic identity. At it’s very least, however, discrepancies in the numerical figures and identities of victims warrants question the validity of the oft-cited 800,000 casualty figure.