From the Director

Six years have passed since I joined the University of Minnesota and in a few weeks I will be starting my first sabbatical research leave.

In keeping with its founding goals, the Center has kept busy over these last six years.  We have welcomed new graduate students, hosted captivating scholars, developed new outreach initiatives, and built a robust intellectual agenda around the vital theme of responses to, remembrance and prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes. Through lectures, symposiums, courses, exhibits, and teacher workshops we have been privileged to learn, teach, disseminate research findings and expand the community of engaged students, researchers and genocide educators. We have built new partnerships – at the U of M, nationally, and internationally — and nurtured fruitful relationships with community organizations, schools, and cultural institutions in the Twin Cities.

I have immensely enjoyed being part of the exceptional CHGS team, comprised currently of its terrific Program Coordinator, Jennifer Hammer, Outreach Coordinator Joe Eggers, Research Fellow Artyom Tonoyan, and graduate students Miray Philips (Sociology), Brooke Chambers (Sociology) and George Dalbo (School of Education). The team also includes an outstanding board of affiliate faculty members, whose continuous input and collaboration is instrumental in making CHGS a major academic center in the country, distinguished both by its international scope and local sensitivity.

This newsletter celebrates the achievements of the Center in this academic year. I look forward to following the continuation of outstanding work of the Center next year from afar, and to rejoin my colleagues in the fall of 2019.

We are fortunate and grateful that Dr. Klaas van der Sanden, Program Director of the Institute of Global Studies, will serve as CHGS’s interim director during the academic year 2018/2019.

Thank you for the many ways you support the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Alejandro Baer is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Monuments, plaques, statues, names on streets or buildings have become symbolic battlegrounds of different historical interpretations and often also irreconcilable values. There are representations of the past, which help us coming to terms with the legacies of violence, while others deepen divisions further.

These fields of dispute are not restricted to the debates over removal of Confederate monuments in the US South. Minnesota recently reverted Lake Calhoun to its original Dakota name Bde Maka Ska, opting for a name that honors the first inhabitants that settled along its shores instead of the former Vice President infamous for his support of slavery. A story from last Friday’s Star Tribune highlights the important changes taking place at the Minnesota Historical Society. Once deeply rooted in telling the white colonial story, it now embraces a fuller, and thus also more unsettling, picture of the state’s history.

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There is no state that has been and continues to be as haunted by the specters of a criminal past as is Germany. What happens when State leaders cannot tell a positive story about the nation’s past? A damaged national identity is, of course, not unique to Germany. For German leaders, however, the task at hand was, and continues to be, the mastering of a past that has become the symbol of ultimate evil. Jeffrey Olick’s The sins of the fathers: Germany, memory, method examines, with an impressive wealth of documentation and meticulous attention to detail, the process by which the Federal Republic of Germany (1949–1990) confronted the burden of the Nazi crimes and dealt with its political costs.

Germany’s ‘legitimation profiles’

Jeffrey Olick argues that ‘much of the state-sponsored memory in the Federal Republic of Germany has been organized as an effort to deny collective guilt’ (p. 29). The book is structured around the presentation of three succeeding ‘legitimation profiles’ – each confronting the problem of collective guilt in singular ways.

The first one, the ‘reliable nation’, which was centered on institutional reform, rather than symbolic gesture, aimed to prove that the newfound German state was a trustworthy and responsible member of the international community. During this time, the country’ s leaders draw a clear line separating the criminal Nazi leadership from the general German population. The Nazis had committed crimes ‘in the name of the German people’, as chancellor Adenauer put it in the1950s.

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Gas Chamber installationIn March 2006, performance artist Santiago Serra constructed a homemade gas chamber inside a former synagogue in the Cologne area and invited Germans to be symbolically gassed. Exhaust pipes from six cars were hooked to the building, which was then filled with deadly carbon monoxide and visitors entered the space wearing protective masks. What was the artist’s intention? Serra said his aim was to give people a sense of the Holocaust. The Jewish community was furious. It was considered a provocation at the expense of Holocaust victims, an insult to survivors and the whole community. “What’s artistic about attaching poisonous car exhaust into a former synagogue?” said writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano (1923-2014), “and who gave permission for this?”

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This past week, the Basque town of Guernica recounted the sorrow and devastation inflicted 80 years ago. On that fateful late afternoon of April 26th 1937, German and Italian aircrafts, at the urging of their ally, General Franco and his right-wing Nationalists, unleashed their bombs on unsuspecting civilians.

Just nine months before, Franco had led a coup against Spain’s Republican government dragging the country into a civil war. The Nationalists eventually triumphed and Franco ruled Spain for the next 36 years.

For a long time, the word Guernica stirred powerful emotions among Spaniards and Europeans who witnessed the destruction wreaked by Fascism. It was a crime against humanity that shocked the world, and was later immortalized by Picasso’s famous expressionist mural. However, the 80th anniversary has received rather scant attention in the US. In my classes last week, I tried to explain to my students why Guernica should remain historically relevant to citizenry across the globe.

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“I propose to treat the Holocaust as a rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society.”

-Zygmunt Bauman

“Pack your swimsuit and head on out to the Wannsee.” These are the opening lyrics to Pack die Badehose ein, a cheery German beach song of the 1950s, referring to the shores of one of the lakes found in the southwestern plains of Berlin.

But Wannsee, for non-Berliners, evokes other connotations. On January 20th, 1942, a villa on the edge of that lake hosted the infamous Wannsee Conference. Here high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathered to discuss and coordinate the implementation of what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” – the physical annihilation of the European Jews.

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Wannsee Villa

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When I checked my departmental mailbox this week there was a postcard from the UMN administration that couldn’t be more timely: it showed two students wearing maroon and gold, hugging — one blonde and Caucasian and the other black and Somali — and a very simple phrase: “You are here. We like that.”

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One might wonder why such an obvious message would be at all necessary at a major American public University. The political reality that has unfolded in this country over the last months — reaching its culmination on Tuesday — has sadly shown that this reminder is more necessary than ever. Basic democratic norms, pluralism and willingness to coexist peacefully with people of different religions, languages and origins, has proven not to be a given for millions of Americans.

This chilling eye-opener comes on a fateful date. The night of November 9th marks the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored riots known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. Before I read about Kristallnacht in books I had heard about that infamous night from my father, who remembers to this day how the police came to his home in Pirmasens, a small town in the Palatinate region, and arrested his father. By fortune, and unlike so many other Jewish families, they were able to leave Germany in time.

The Kristallnacht commemoration teaches that democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained and that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. This day reminds us what occurs when a community based on mutual acceptance has been destroyed. This day urges us to be mindful that the path that leads from verbal incitement to discriminatory policy and murderous action can be very short.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies November/December newsletter is devoted to this historical event and features a number of educational resources (bibliographies, testimonies, artwork, newspaper articles). In this newsletter we ask our readers to teach the lessons of the past to wind back the divisive rhetoric that has been unleashed.

 Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

PopulismoThe semester is about to start and I find myself touching up syllabi and putting some order in my course material. While reviewing files, I came across a very helpful handout from a conference I attended at the University of Bayreuth in 2010. The topic from then is even more timely today: “Analyzing Right-Wing Populist Discourse across Europe.” In it, discourse analyst Ruth Wodak laid out the most salient features of Right Wing Populist rhetoric, which she identified in statements from political leaders across the old continent. Given the indisputable “toxicity” of this discourse, here we will label the following ten elements from Wodak’s handout as the “Acid Test” for Right Wing Populism:

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The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Director, Dr. Alejandro authored this article in response to the recent passing of Elie Wiesel. It appeared in the July 6th issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


With the passing of Elie Wiesel, genocide education has lost its most important advocate. I write “genocide” and not Holocaust, in order to make a point.

unnamedThere are many that contend today that the Holocaust’s global presence and iconic status obscures other forms of mass violence, and even the acknowledgment of other genocides. Elie Wiesel’s seminal role in Holocaust memorialization worldwide demonstrates exactly the opposite. The proliferation of Holocaust remembrance, education and research efforts has been extraordinarily influential in the moral and political debates about atrocities, and in raising the level of attention to past violence and responsiveness to present genocide and other forms of gross human rights violations.

Continue reading on the Star Tribune website. 

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, on May 8th 1985, German President Richard von Weiszäcker addressed the country’s parliament with the following words: “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion.”

Weiszäcker’s speech became a milestone in  the distinctively German process known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a composite German word which can be best rendered in English as the struggle to overcome or confront the [criminal] past.) Acknowledging the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by Germany during WWII was not an easy process. Weizäcker’s speech challenged persisting idealized or self-victimized national narratives, and it undermined citizens’ identification with their history.

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