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.
No, I am not talking about Bernie Sanders’ revolution, I am talking about the one and only revolution that ever happened in American history.
But let me start by taking a step back. I always felt that the most exceptional thing about the United States was the fact that its political institutions have been virtually the same for over 220 years. This appears even more unique when you take into account that throughout this entire time period, democratic voting has been the default mechanism to put people in and out of office. There are some exceptions of course, such as the Civil War and four presidential assassinations. But still, compared with, let’s say, France, which is on its fifth republic since the French revolution and went through two Napoleonic empires and several more revolutions along the way, the United States always looked like the long-standing haven of democratic solidity, pragmatism and reliability. It looked even better from the perspective of my home country, Germany, with its mix of monstrous Reichs and numerous attempts at democracy that failed until finally the United States and its allies helped out after WWII.
As a middle and high school history and social studies teacher, I have taught about the Holocaust and other genocides for many years. At the beginning of my career, students in my classes would have encountered only the Holocaust, but, recently, I have broadened my curriculum to include many additional examples and aspects of genocide. Despite growing efforts to expand the field of genocide education, there is still a gulf between academic scholarship and curriculum and practice within secondary classrooms. Scholarship, often inaccessible for secondary educators, is slow to make its way into course content. Understanding Atrocities: Remembering, Representing, and Teaching Genocide (2017) is the latest among recent efforts to bridge this gap and recognize the role of educators at all levels and community organizations in conversations about genocide education. This collection expands the conversation to include many voices, especially concerning the teaching of genocides other than, or in addition to, the Holocaust.
Imagine a trial rocking a nation: accusations of collusion with a hated enemy, wealthy and influential elites taking sides, an entire country riveted by headlines. The trial would fundamentally alter the country; both changing how citizens viewed each other, the military and other national institutions.
No, this is not related to the current investigation into President Trump’s alleged ties. While the Dreyfus Affair, as it would become known, happened more than a century ago, there are more than a few passing similarities between the events of today and those from the 1890’s.
In 1894, a young army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of selling military plans to France’s mortal enemy, Germany. In a highly publicized trial, Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, France’s military prison island in the Caribbean. Soon after Dreyfus’ family began appealing the decision. The case split the country; conservative pro-army factions clashed openly with intellectual pro-republican leaders. In January 1898, Émile Zola published J’accuse…!, a rallying cry of support exonerating Dreyfus. Eventually cleared of his treason conviction, Dreyfus was instead sentenced to a 10 years hard labor, although that too was commuted. It wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was officially cleared of his conviction.
Was Hitler a bully? Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, shared in an essay in Slate how his 5-year-old daughter’s teacher compared the “worst criminal in history to a playground tormentor.” Perhaps an extreme example. Yet to understand this increasingly common trend to educate students about “Bully Hitler,” one must recognize two developments that are currently shaping the way teachers, curriculum writers, and educational institutions in the United States are educating young people about the Holocaust. First, there is a universalization of the Holocaust in an attempt to make its study relevant to students’ lived experiences and to provide them with overt moral and ethical lessons in the form of social-emotional and character education. Second, increasingly, many state legislatures have mandated Holocaust education, often suggesting a study in the form of character education to younger students, some as young as elementary school (5-10 years old). New Jersey’s Commission on Holocaust Education, the entity responsible for ensuring schools meet the state’s Holocaust-education mandate, reminds educators that, “the law indicates that issues of bias, prejudice and bigotry, including bullying through the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide, shall be included for all children from K-12th grade.” Thus, increasingly, students are taught to link the Holocaust with bullying and pushed to contemplate the choices they might have made during the Holocaust, as well as the choices they might make in their school’s cafeterias, hallways, and playgrounds as bullies, bystanders, or upstanders.
The Spanish daily El País published a shocking story last week about a rare and controversial document from the Buchenwald Nazi Concentration Camp. A PhD Thesis done by a Nazi camp doctor, Erich Wagner, titled On the Subject of Tattoos, that analyzes the tattoos of the camp’s earliest prisoners, many of whom were Jews arrested during Kristallnacht.
Wagner “meticulously catalogued the race, nationality, criminal past and education” of those sent to Buchenwald in an attempt to connect tattoos with criminal tendencies – an approach, needless to say, with no scientific merit.
Nadia dreamed of either becoming a history teacher or opening a hair salon in Kocho, Iraq – a small village of farmers and shepherds in southern Sinjar. In her book, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State (2017), Nadia talks about growing up with her many brothers and sisters amidst a tight-knit Yazidi community. Central to Yazidi identity is the history of the seventy-three past firmans (to mean genocide) committed against the community by outside forces. Nadia, along with others Yazidis, learned about this history but never thought she herself would soon survive a genocide against her own religious community. Nadia writes, “…these stories of persecution were so intertwined with who we were that they might as well have been holy stories. I knew that the religion lived in the men and women who had been born to preserve it, and that I was one of them.” To Nadia, however, the previous genocides belonged to a distant past. The ongoing violence in Iraq and neighboring Syria also did not feel like part of the contemporary plight of Yazidis – until one day ISIS began to surround Kocho and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces fled, leaving them unprotected.
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.
The recent “Truth, Trials and Memory Conference” at the University of Minnesota revealed an often overlooked concern in the field of Transitional Justice, namely that of the family, and its place and function for a forward-looking memory that is passed on from one generation to another. The panel on Memory in El Salvador took on a sentimental tone centered on the ideals and utopias held by one generation, as well as memories of political violence and victimhood experienced addressing how the next generation engages with them.
Professor Méndez participated this month in the International Conference Truth, Trials and Memory. An Accounting of Transitional Justice in El Salvador and Guatemala at the University of Minnesota. After his panel on “Truth-seeking Lessons from the Guatemala Experience”, he shared more insights with Michael Soto (UMN Graduate Student, Sociology).
After more than half a century of armed conflict, Colombia is poised to transition to peace. In 2016 a peace agreement was signed with the largest rebel group, the FARC, and there are currently negotiations with the second largest group the ELN. One component of Colombia’s transitional justice program is the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which is charged with investigating and prosecuting human rights violations. Below, is the third part of their exchange on the peace process in Colombia.