Reflections

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.

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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.

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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.    

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“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:

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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). 

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“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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Before the trophy went to Adolf Hitler, German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II held the award for Most Hated Man on Earth. And while Hitler’s Third Reich has become the ultimate go-to place for much journalistic handwringing about the horrible times we are living in, in reality it feels like we are still stuck in Wilhelm’s Second Reich — it’s Kaiserzeit in America. Donald Trump and the last German Emperor have a lot in common, the vanity, insecurity, the penchant for bombast and persönliches Regiment (personal rule), to name just a few. In Wilhelm’s case the brakes on his impulsive and egotistical personality came off after he fired Bismarck, the experienced chancellor he inherited from his father, and surrounded himself with sycophantic generals and noble toadies who went along with his imperial fantasies and straight into World War I.

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