Reflections

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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In the wake of the COVID19 outbreak, we are confronted with a globally massive threat to our health, where unparalleled measures are being proposed and enacted to counter it. We are chronicling in real-time the heroic actions of those in the field who are putting their lives on the line to make a difference coupled with heartbreaking stories of loss, separation, and suffering.

Medical personnel on the frontlines of this pandemic in my home country Spain are succumbing to illness at an astonishing rate. Currently, Spain is hobbled with the highest COVID19 caseload in all of Europe and reportedly ranks only behind the United States worldwide in terms of sheer numbers of those infected. 

Nurses in Madrid

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Millions upon millions of people have been killed in concentration camps over the last century, and yet I have found myself distracted and angered about recent political debate over semantics: specifically how and when we use the term “concentration camps.”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the US government facilities used to hold asylum-seekers as “concentration camps.” Prominent voices publically disagreed with Ocasio-Cortez, saying that only Nazi camps are concentration camps. By using the term for other camps, they said that Ocasio-Cortez dishonored Jewish victims of the Holocaust. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum jumped into this debate, too. It implicitly shamed Ocasio-Cortez, writing that one should never analogize contemporary events to the Holocaust; that doing so may offend Holocaust survivors and their families.

There are compelling articles, books, and podcasts which address this issue. Many look at the history of concentration camps across cultures, back to the camps used in the Boer Wars in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, to help us understand that “concentration camps” has consistently been a term that referred to more than the Nazi camps, and that the Nazis themselves adapted the camp technique from other societies, including the United States. You can find a shortlist of relevant links at the bottom of this article.

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While growing up in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, being evangelisch meant above all that you were not katholisch and therefore had to wait five years longer for your Confirmation presents. This was a little annoying, but in hindsight, it may qualify as my first encounter with the inner-worldly asceticism that Max Weber describes in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Delayed gratification aside, the German evangelical church at the time came across as benign, even reasonable, open to critical discussion and staffed with laid-back, progressive pastors. It was the seventies after all. Nobody would have spelled evangelical with a capital “E” back then, at least not in Europe. That Protestantism in the US could take on a very different flavor didn’t occur to me until I moved to California in the early 2000s and it was my daughter’s turn for Confirmation class. There was a lot about Satan in the curriculum and all the things you could go to hell for, like not showing up for class at Bethany Lutheran Church.

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In 2019 I attended a summer workshop for teachers held by the CHGS, titled “Teaching About Genocide.” As part of the workshop, we, along with two Native American activists-teachers, toured the Minnesota State Capitol with a docent. Entering the main chamber of the capitol, our guide gestured toward several portraits of white males who colonized Minnesota. She, an employee of the state, noted they were the men “who discovered Minnesota.” Here, in the most prominent institution of Minnesota government, a guide had normalized colonialism, except the normalization was now being heard by a critical audience. The statement seemed bracingly out of step with our appreciation of multiculturalism, the celebration of ethnic and racial diversity, and acknowledgment of the centrality of indigenous peoples to the shared fabric of American history.

Attendees of the 2019 CHGS Educator Workshop on the Minnesota Capitol dome.

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Huether. Heether. Heather. Hoother. Hutter. Huewther.

“Hütter, you’re German, right?”

No, its Huether. Sounds like Heether.

“Ah, American,” she answers with a slight chuckle.

With the simple change in the pronunciation of my surname, the panel chair was able to identify my nationality, and in so doing, indirectly created a border between us. She was German, and perhaps I could have passed as German as well, if only I had gone along with her pronunciation – the one I knew was the “correct” form of my surname but not my name. Regardless, her comment made me pause and think: how could such a slight pronunciation change signify so much? As soon as I was marked as an American, a corpus of assumptions and stereotypes became accessible. It’s not to say that such a corpus would not be present if I were German; it would be, but it would simply be a different corpus. 

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In the past two decades, we have witnessed a steady expansion of interest, beyond Jewish institutions, by the number of government officials willing to introduce and participate in some form or fashion in public observances of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Commemorations are now held in more than 35 countries on January 27th, the day on which, in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

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