The course is sponsored by the Jewish Studies Department at SFSU and, as a person of Jewish culture, I have a particular resonance with the strand of antisemitism that led up to that most horrific of genocides by Nazi Germany in the 1940s. There have been many other incidents of organized and targeted mass murder by states and militias across the 20C and more recent events in Darfur, Western China (the Uyghurs), Myanmar (the Rohingya), and southern and eastern Ukraine (this year). There are many incidents from earlier times as well. Overall, unfortunately, it’s a lengthy list. As a historian, then, it would seem that I’ve got plenty of material to work with.
However, one thing I like to ask my students at the beginning of each course is “Why are you here?” Self-reflection is good (and under-practiced) and I hope to get them past the superficial answers of “it fit my schedule” or “I needed it for my GenEd requirements.” This question is especially interesting the context of a course on The Holocaust and Genocide since it deals with the most gruesome of topics, the worst aspects of human nature, and with little opportunity for lightness and fun. Students in this course will have, I expect, some more substantive purpose for spending their time and money on a course with no apparent vocational benefits.
There are likely to be some who, from family or cultural contexts, want to understand how such events arose that led to the deaths and suffering of so many people just like them. There will likely be others who are intrigued by the limits of human behavior (or lack thereof), those that wish to vent against evil, and those that want to figure out how to prevent such things from happening again. We will have to wrestle with the fundamental disconnect between trying to understand these phenomena and their utter incomprehensibility. This includes both the problem of lacking the words to express horror and the wrenching frustration and disorientation rooted in cognitive dissonance. The same was true of many at the time.
As I have noted previously, I don’t have much truck with the idea that history has “lessons” which, if properly learned, will enable us to steer the future. The best we can look for are echoes/rhymes that alert us to pay attention to similarities in current actions that might lead down a similar path as the past. Rather history presents a comprehensive set of examples for study and reflection, whether at the level of macro/national policy or the level of personal behavior and attitudes.
In this light, a course on The Holocaust and Genocide has a tremendous amount to offer, since it gives us the chance to come face-face with the worst part of ourselves. It’s ugly and not for the faint-of-heart. Indeed, there is a considerable amount of the historiography of the Holocaust devoted to explaining how this was a uniquely German phenomenon, based on a unique German history which has little applicability to “us.” Of course, such analyses sweep to the side any number of evils/oppressions/brutalities which “we” in the US or innumerable other countries have committed in our own histories. Genocide is a human problem.
As a nation, Germany has done perhaps as good a job as we have seen of recognizing and coming to terms with their own sins in this regard. In comparison, the Japanese still pretty much reject any idea that they behaved barbarously in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Turks have gone to great lengths to deny their concerted attacks on Armenians during the 1910s, and there remain many in the US who can’t comprehend that racism has been a virulent strain in our own history. Perhaps this course can help each of us find, acknowledge, and even take a step to repair whatever damage we might have done to another; recognizing, at least implicitly, that we have some shade of the same darkness in us (that I have some shade of the same darkness in me).
As I have been studying the idea of genocide closely of late, I note that while the list of incidents goes well back in time, it was only in the aftermath of WWII that the concept of organized and targeted mass murder was labeled “genocide.” Over the past thirty years, a whole sub-field of historical and sociological analysis has grown up; replete with debates about meaning, definitions, and modes of improving humanity.
I suspect that modern genocide is actually not worse than the violent practices of powerful people over the millennia (with appropriate adjustments for population growth and “improved” technology). What is so stunning is that “we” (i.e. sophisticated “modern” “civilized” people who occupy the world in the 20C/21C should still be doing this. “Gee, I thought we (as a species) were past that sort of thing.” Only to find it is still going on, and that “human nature” has not progressed as fast as technology (or even more than incrementally) over the past several thousand years.
So, maybe one thing such a course can do, by way of seeing (as best we can) the faces of those in pain (and those that caused the pain, and those that watched the pain) is to recall this lack of “progress” and the distance still to go.
In the absence of the Holocaust or the brutality of the Tutsis/Burmese/Russians/et al., very few of such victims would otherwise be remembered by history. Our act of remembering is not, therefore the usual role of history to capture the significance of historical events and figures. What we can do is to actively rebut the dehumanizing attitudes and murderous actions of those who perpetrate genocides. We do that by insisting that each victim be remembered—as a person—with a life and a family; to tell the murderers that they have utterly failed in their mission of extermination.
That seems like enough for one semester.