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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


Two weeks ago I met with a community leader whose own community was devastated by a genocide that happened decades ago in a place halfway around the world. We talked about how his community marks the event, the pain its survivors continue to experience and the challenge of getting his new neighbors to care about something so foreign to them. One of the things he mentioned struck a chord with me: “Recognition is about completing the fabric of our wider community.” To him, recognizing genocide was not simply about recognizing the painful past of his people, but recognizing the shared humanity that ties us all together.

Two weeks ago the Armenian community finally had their story recognized. Following three weeks of White House-backed challenges, the Senate joined the House in calling the mass killings of Armenians a century ago genocide. The resolution officially calls for remembrance and to combat “denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide” and “to encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the role of the United States in humanitarian relief efforts, and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity.” 


Earlier this year, Cambodia marked the 40th anniversary of the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and the end of the genocide that left an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people dead and countless Cambodians displaced. It made sense then for the largest academic group dedicated to the study of genocide, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), to host its biannual conference in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, this past July. The conference would provide an opportunity for the country to demonstrate its resiliency and give attendees (myself included) a chance to see the lingering effects of mass violence in a place where its impacts are still clearly visible and permeate nearly every aspect of society.


Everybody has a family narrative or childhood story to tell. Elizabeth Warren’s is about her Native American ancestor; my mother’s about her German Jewish neighbor. And while Elizabeth Warren’s ancestor remains elusive, my mother’s neighbor and what I heard about him growing up has become more concrete over the years. It literally became concrete when in 2005 a Stolperstein (stumbling stone) bearing his name was installed in front of the house he had owned before he was deported and murdered in Theresienstadt.

Sally Cohen’s Stolperstein in Remscheid, North Rhine-Westphalia

Here is the story my mother told me. It was in late 1941 when she noted that Sally Cohen, an older gentleman and respected citizen (so she thought) had to wait in the corner of the neighborhood bakery store until everybody else was served. She also noted that he was now wearing a monstrous star-shaped yellow badge that said, “Jude.” My mother was 11 at the time and to this day hasn’t forgotten the sad and embarrassed look on Herr Cohen’s face. When she asked the adults why Herr Cohen was treated that way, she was told not to worry and that all of this was mandated by a new law.