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When governments and citizens instead of being armed with weapons, are equipped with historical perspective they reshape our national and local discussions on the rationale for certain monuments and memorials. And if the end result of this public dialogue culminates in a towering figure being toppled, the sound is resounding. This past week, a Confederate statue fell on a college campus in America, but the Civil War I am writing about here is the one that still haunts Spain.

On August 24th the Spanish government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez approved a decree to exhume the preserved corpse of General Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, a gigantic mausoleum near Madrid that the dictator had designed to eternally enshrine his victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The site is also the final resting place of Falangist Party founder Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and contains the remains of some 35,000 civilians and soldiers, many of them Republicans executed by Franco’s regime, and transferred to the site on his orders.

Why has it taken so long to decide to remove the body of a dictator from a sanctuary that celebrates and in essence beautifies his rule? And why now?

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Flowers in a Khmer Rouge jail cell by alex.ch.

In the twentieth century, 40 to 60 million defenseless people were massacred in episodes of genocide. The 21st century is not faring much better, with mass murder ongoing e.g. in Myanmar and Syria. Many of these cases have been studied well, both in detailed case studies and in comparative perspectives, but studying mass murder is no picnic. Scholars have also examined how conducting research, including ethnographic fieldwork, archival investigation, and oral history interviews, can affect the researcher in profound ways. Among a broader set of difficulties that obstruct research on this wretched subject, two stand out in particular: political constraints and psychological attrition.

Political constraints

All social research operates in a dense political field. Of all the political actors constraining research on mass murder, states stand out. They often have a vested interest in misrepresenting the truth, because for many, the memory of a genocide (or its denial), is part and parcel of their collective identity. States that consider themselves heirs to perpetrator regimes, such as Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, China, or Serbia, make great effort to influence the scholarship on episodes of mass violence. They deny access to archival collections and libraries, intimidate and prohibit them from conducting field work. (The opposite is also possible: governments may try to foster or manipulate research by funding politically useful research, by pushing for the establishment of academic chairs at home or abroad, or by offering scholarships.)

Having to contend with the taboos, restrictions, prescriptions, and outright threats of authoritarian regimes keeps scholars working on these topics under permanent threat. Researchers bold enough to travel into these societies to visit sites, uncover evidence, interview witnesses, and have got to fear the security services and intelligence agencies of these states. One consequence of this discouraging atmosphere is that, in general, less research is carried out on those instances and episodes of mass murder, an undesirable blind spot due to the importance of the events. (Some researchers ingratiate themselves with the authorities for privileged access.) A second consequence poses a methodological dilemma: due to such constraints, does one launch a sting operation, like undercover journalism? Or does one use informants, fixers, and mediators on the ground? Does one pay the possible interviewees for taking the risks?

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Claude Lanzmann, the French intellectual and filmmaker, has died at age 92. This is an age that suggests Lanzmann was not in a hurry. Instead, he took all his time to make an exit. It is hard to measure his legacy. His film Shoah is one of a kind. It was released in his maturity, in 1985, when Lanzmann was 60. It fell upon the film world like a meteorite. A UFO of cinema. In a world of young prodigies (artists, philosophers, writers and filmmakers), Lanzmann was more tortoise than hare–notwithstanding the title he chose for his Memoirs, The Patagonian Hare (2009).

He was slow, his film is slow–it has the rhythm of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Long, and slow, it demands patience and persistence from the viewer. Shoah is not a documentary–its author called it an artwork. Lanzmann’s purpose was never representation, but rather presence and incarnation. It was not about explaining or understanding, but about reliving by creating a dialectical image in which the Then of the event would collide with the Now of the film.

For those who have seen Shoah and read The Patagonian Hare, the contrast could not be more striking. Shoah, a threnody to the victims of the Holocaust, would suggest that its creator was melancholic, dwelling in the past and possessed by the dead. By contrast, Lanzmann’s Memoirs stage an insatiable hedonist, an Epicurean, a man enamored of life and perilous adventures, a man hungry for new experiences. Hence his films on Israel, and his unflinching admiration for the rebirth of the Jewish people after the destruction of European Jewry. Friend and disciple of Jean-Paul Sartre, Lanzmann toured the young Jewish state for the first time in the 1960s. There he realized that Jews were not merely the invention of the gaze of the anti-Semite.

Shoah seems to be the work of Antigone, but The Hare can be read as the autobiography of Don Juan. Between ethics and esthetics, between mourning the past and embracing the present, Lanzmann’s life was all far from exemplary – it was rather an authentic life, in the Sartrean sense of the word, i.e., a life of his choice and of his own making.

Bruno Chaouat is a professor in the Department of French and Italian, and is also affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is interested in 19th and 20th century French literature and thought, and has recently published, Is Theory Good for the Jews? French Thought and the Challenge of the New Antisemitism.

For the past few years, CHGS has been engaged in a research project on newspaper accounts from over 155 years related to the 1862 US-Dakota Conflict.

Through an analysis of more than 400 articles from newspapers of the Twin Cities and from towns in the Minnesota River Valley (Mankato and New Ulm), we trace how different generations of Minnesotans remembered, or in some cases chose to not remember, the six-week conflict itself and its dramatic consequences for the Dakota community.

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The Holocaust, Genocide and Mass Violence (HGMV) Interdisciplinary Graduate Group continues to be a thriving community of graduate students, faculty and visiting scholars. This year, we decided to split the time between two speakers, to more accurately reflect presentation lengths in conferences, and to still be able to provide thoughtful feedback. We had a total of 20 presenters – the largest number to date!

We started off the year welcoming everyone back from the summer by sharing information about HGMV funding and other professional development opportunities. Our first speaker, Maria Jesus Fernandez, a CHGS visiting scholar, started us off with a fascinating talk on translations of Anne Frank into Spanish. Throughout the year, we were also visited by captivating scholars and educators, such as Jodi Elowitz who led a timely training session on how to teach about right-wing extremism, Carlo Tognato who argued for a civil pedagogy of solidarity for highly polarized societies, and Martha Stroud, who gave an engaging account of the lingering stigma after the 1965 killings in Indonesia, followed by a training session on how to use the Genocide Survivor Testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation. Our student speakers came from 8 different departments throughout the University of Minnesota, and covered a wide range of topics, including Holocaust education, an analysis of Peruvian cinema and the genocide in Indonesia and . Students presented work in various stages, and they deployed a variety of interdisciplinary qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

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Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. As is customary, the Armenian communities around the world and in the Republic of Armenia gather to commemorate the extermination of their kin and kith in the Ottoman Empire in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished as the result of the state organized mass murder. Despite the growing body of incontrovertible evidence about this horror, the government of Turkey still continues to deny the fact of the Armenian Genocide, finding refuge in “the sanctuary of steadfast denial,” to borrow from Truman Capote. Denial then takes many shapes, ranging from the minimization of the number of victims to victim blaming. The survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their descendants have had to confront an entire universe of state produced alternative facts before Kelyanne Conway made alternative facts a thing. As the great French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne has put it, “If a lie, like truth, had only one face we could be on better terms, for certainty would be the reverse of what the liar said. But the reverse side of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits.”

Armenian Genocide Monument in Yerevan, Armenia

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If you have visited Warsaw, Poland, you have seen it majestically rising up from the square, between a Soviet era style apartment complex and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. On a sunny afternoon in Warsaw, people sit on benches, read papers, converse and eat lunch; others walk their dogs, or simply stroll along Mordechai Anielewicz Street. The Warsaw Ghetto monument a backdrop to their daily existence, barely noticed.

Politicians and dignitaries lay wreaths, and Jewish visitors leave stones and light Yahrzeit candles. For them, it is a memorial, a way to remember those who fought from April 19-May 16, 1943; who chose how they would die when death was the only option.

For 70 years, Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument has marked the Uprising, first bursting out from the rubble of the ghetto on the spot linked to leader of the resistance Mordechai Anielewicz’s death. From the rubble, a neighborhood has grown around the monument which now faces the new museum dedicated to educating visitors about the thousand years of Jewish life in Poland.

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On March 24, 85 year old Vel d’Hiv roundup survivor Mireille Knoll was murdered and her body partially burned in her Paris apartment by a Muslim neighbor. Pundits speculate that the neighbor may have been radicalized in jail, although we are still at the very beginning of the investigation. The neighbor knew her since age 7. During the past twenty years her humble apartment remained open to him and to neighbors of all faiths. No one could have anticipated the horrific crime, worthy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment–the murder of an old, vulnerable woman, just because it is possible, because after the death of God, man is all powerful. In front of such barbarity, one falls speechless, aware that wording will never do justice to such evil. Language, indeed, and forgive the cliché, is inadequate.

The failure of words comes from the failure of theodicy, a word which in Greek means “divine justice.” Man-made atrocities, past a certain degree, can no longer be thought in terms of hidden providence, in terms of making sense of suffering. While Job was tested by God, it would be indecent to explain the torture of Mireille Knoll as God’s and Satan’s plan. French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in an essay written in the wake of the totalitarianisms of the last century, used the phrase “useless suffering.” He meant that after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Cambodia, it is no longer possible to believe that suffering has a purpose, that it is God’s plan, or that, if one does not believe in God, it is a necessary evil that will result in historical progress (think of the millions of victims of Stalinism, in the name of a better humanity and of hastening the end of history.) It is no longer possible to believe that negativity, death, and suffering have a hidden purpose.

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Film, since its inception, has played a significant role in capturing history. It has given us ways to explore events in the past while contemplating the present. Art (it would seem) is ahead of politics, especially in matters of examining the painful realities of World War II in Eastern Europe. In recent years there has been a dangerous trend in Poland and Hungary in revising history to fit a political narrative.

Both Poland and Hungary have been trying to balance Democracy and the rise of right wing political parties, who are determined to use the Holocaust to rewrite historical narratives to create nationalistic pride, directly contradicting their past and present. Poland and Hungary along with Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, are all experiencing revisionist movements. Historian John Paul Himka believes part of the problem is how these once double occupied countries (by Germany and the Soviet Union) dealt with false historical narratives or “myths” they were told under post-war Soviet occupation, once they were free of Communism. Himka states in their hurry to join the West, they did not take the necessary time and care to explore their wartime roles, allowing for a division between memory and fact.

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The academic field of genocide took a comparative turn in the 1980s, thus setting the stage for its modern disciplinary character. Contemporary genocide studies is characterized by a growing overlap between scholarly and advocacy efforts, especially seen through a modern emphasis on preventing future genocide by flagging gross violations of human rights as they happen in real-time. As another outgrowth of this comparative turn, the historical record—particularly during the twentieth century—was re-examined. This “second look” has resulted in several previously overlooked cases, including the 1930s Ukrainian Holodomor (“death by hunger”), gaining increased research visibility. Ukrainian independence in 1991 resulted in the de-classification of previously hidden governmental records of this Soviet forced-famine under Joseph Stalin, and slow-but-steady translations of this evidence continues to allow for wider international research accessibility.

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