Teaching About Genocide

Joyce Freedman-Apsel

In the last decade there has been an increase in the still small, but growing, course offerings on comparative genocide on the college level. (Today, the preponderance of courses at the undergraduate level which analyze in detail the attempt to eliminate an entire people focus on the Holocaust. In part, this reflects a continuation of interest in the Second World War and extensive documentation and scholarship which fuel popular interest in Nazism and Nazi exterminatory policy).

The syllabi collected in this Guide reflect the case history and inter-disciplinary approach taken by most scholars and teachers in the field. The scope of the subject compels teachers to utilize a variety of disciplines to convey the different, sometimes contrasting, questions and levels one needs to explore in studying genocide. Hence, scholars and teachers in anthropology, history, literature, sociology, political science and psychology included here often draw material from each other's disciplines. Although many teachers draw material and methods from other disciplines and some ask transdisciplinary questions, others seek to expand their own fields. (Examples are the syllabi of Smith and Nowak which focus on destruction and evil.) Many attempt to identify both specific cases of genocide and the universal or generalizable characteristics and causes which have occurred in different historical contexts. The content and emphasis vary from anthropologist Hilda Kuper's course on indigenous peoples to political scientist Roger Smith's more broad-based exploration of human destructiveness and politics. However, all share a sense of the importance of trying to understand the currents of genocide in history.

There exists no unanimity among scholars and teachers concerning a definition of genocide and, hence, what should be included in the content of the course. However, the debate over how to define genocide allows students to examine their own assumptions and to grapple with the various gradations of evil. In the spring of 1991, students in my course on The History of Twentieth Century Genocide debated what constitutes genocide, issues of just and unjust wars, and the politics of historic atrocities against the backdrop of massacres of the Kurds and subsequent threats to Kurdish lives and of the larger conflict in the Persian Gulf. Class members found it both disturbing and imperative to try to come up with a definition of genocide. The legal and political implications of the United Nations' definition of genocide, and its limited action based on that definition, made a particularly strong impression given the international crisis of the time.

Frank Chalk has co-taught a course with Kurt Jonassohn at Concordia University on "The History and Sociology of Genocide" eight times since 1980. He points out: "Each year some current event in the news seizes the students' imagination as related to genocide and the cases in our course. Frequently, especially early in the year, they see any massacre or atrocity as genocidal, even if it only involved ethnocide or the isolated actions of a mentally deranged individual." Trying to decide whether apartheid or slavery or abortion are correctly labeled genocide raises important issues concerning definition, intentionality and the very nature of violence. Students begin to distinguish between the criteria or attributes pertaining to different concepts, such as, for example, war crimes, genocide, ethnocide, crimes against humanity, and realize that the borders of these concepts are often unclear. Furthermore, students begin to understand that mass death is not necessarily genocide; and some genocides do not produce mass death. Categorization of different forms of evil, a process of demystification of evil, often undermines assumptions and beliefs, exposing students to the complex factors which contribute to different genocides. Clive Foss comments that he has "often had students who wanted to study the British 'genocide' of the Irish, or the 'genocide' of the American Indians, being quite sure that they would find the expected answers, only to be quite surprised and ending up by demonstrating the opposite of what they had supposed to be true." Now and then students find it so difficult or morally repulsive to analyze different forms of evil that they decide they cannot remain in the class. For example, in the spring of 1991, a student dropped my course on The History of Twentieth Century Genocide because she felt the assignment, a typology of genocide, was what she called "immoral." She felt that it was improper to delineate between different types of killing. Some years earlier, a student who was raised in the Bruderhof community (the society of Brothers, a Hutterian community with a settlement in Rifton, New York) dropped a course on the Holocaust because her Elders objected to her studying evil.

However, most students come to understand and value the need to encounter and distinguish among the different categories of historic atrocity.

Why, one may ask, are teachers drawn to teaching so innovative and demanding a subject as genocide? Personal background plays a crucial role in what teachers decide to teach. Most teachers whose syllabi are included in this Guide wrote that they had some type of personal experience with prejudice or genocide, or professional work with human rights or refugee organizations. Leo Kuper was a lawyer in South Africa active in the nonviolent anti-apartheid movement before becoming a sociologist; Kurt Jonassohn and Ron Baker were child refugees from Nazi Germany, while Ervin Staub survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary with the aid of Christian friends. Both Ron Baker and Rhoda Howard state that their work with human rights organizations led them to become interested in knowing more about genocide. Clive Foss comments that in doing archeological research in historic Armenia he noted the lack of Armenians and determined to try to find out what actually happened. This generated a more general interest in the whole question of genocide. My own interest in understanding the Nazi genocide against Jews and Gypsies led me to develop courses on the Holocaust which included sections on the earlier genocide against the Armenians and to develop a course on comparative genocide. In my experience, the comparative approach provides an invaluable broad context within which to examine particular genocides. Many educators as well as students echo Margi Nowak's comment that she wanted to know how people could do this to other human beings and how could they survive?

Indeed, students are often shocked to discover that genocide has not only reoccurred throughout the 20th century and that nation-states are able to get away with mass murder, but that genocide can be a politically effective tool of states. Many courses on comparative genocide discuss the Turkish genocide against the Armenians and the subsequent history of denial. The profound and cataclysmic events of the First World War, including the first ideological genocide of the twentieth century, forever changed the nature of our world. Nationalism, implying homogeneity, became ideological justification for excluding and eliminating people from Turkey in 1915 to Cambodia in 1975. Nationalism, revolution and war provide a background for genocidal conditions up to the present time. For many students, this approach provides a painful re-examination of history: suddenly they are faced with the human cost of change and the need to evaluate whether they believe this was necessary for a particular national or political movement. Furthermore, popular notions which blame one individual or group of people for atrocities are undermined once the students note how many peoples are implicated in the continuum of destruction (both as bystanders and perpetrators) at different times and places.

Teaching about genocide can be intellectually, emotionally and pedagogically demanding. Students and teachers can sometimes feel depressed by investigating the scope of historic atrocities. Students and teachers report dreams about the subject, sometimes resulting in a preoccupation with death and a sense of futility. There is a variety of techniques for helping lessen the students' sense of powerlessness. For example, Ervin Staub emphasizes the need for community and connection and gives assignments which allow students to explore acts of human kindness as well as cruelty. By writing letters for human rights organizations such as Amnesty International or petitioning governments about the treatment of indigenous populations, students begin to get a sense of how they can go beyond being bystanders in history. Research projects provide students with a way to explore one event or reaction in detail; this often results in their recognizing the politics of genocide and helping demystify evil in history. Roger Smith, in response to a questionnaire given to teachers whose syllabi are included in this Guide, astutely points out the need to "grapple with the complexities as well as horrors of mass destruction, and to find inner resources that prevent one from being overwhelmed, and thus made powerless, when confronted with the need to prevent genocide." He explains:

As a teaching technique, I think there has to be a kind of in-out approach: if one is dealing with rather abstract or, on the other hand, historical material of a rather bland sort, then one begins to forget what genocide is about. On the other hand, if one confronts genocide in its horror and immediacy, then it becomes too painful for us all. A rhythm of distance and immediacy seems necessary: one must confront the horror but not be overcome by it. The latter is the way of despair and impotence; the other gives distance but also only the surface. One needs to respond to genocide both cognitively and existentially, neither by itself is adequate in my opinion.
The challenges and difficulties of effectively teaching about genocide have undergone significant changes from 1970 to the present. As historians and others began to teach and write about the inequities in American history, students become exposed to such previously neglected areas as Afro-American, Women's and Labor History. Beginning in the early 1970's, there was more and more public exposure to the Holocaust through memoirs, movies and television. At the same time, the Vietnam War gave new generations of American students an awareness that their country's foreign policy could result in devastation and suffering to innocent civilians. Increasing domestic problems such as violence, crime and drugs changed students' attitudes about how they would react to violence.

During the 1980's there was a shift away from idealized notions of resistance to more understanding and empathy for victims of genocide. Students talked about passing by homeless people or being confronted with violence and how they tried to protect themselves. They were less likely to talk about the victims "going like sheep to the slaughter" and were more ready to understand the difficulty of avoiding or getting through the net of violence and destruction. However, stereotypes about the single villain in history, especially Hitler, remain. The lack of awareness of political efficacy of genocide persists as does the notion that victimization ends when the killing stops. Students now have greater empathy for victims and are very interested in knowing about events related to terror and killing, such as the auto-genocide in Cambodia, murders in Uganda, disappearances in Argentina and massacres in Iraq. The popularity of courses on utopias and communes in the 1970's has given way in the 1990's to interest in genocide in history is, I believe, a positive development. Students' interest in knowing about what went wrong in history may educate a new generation who want to take an active role in helping prevent future atrocities. As teachers we face the challenge of informing students about the magnitude of historic atrocity: of understanding particular genocidal events within the larger comparative framework. The increase in denial of the Holocaust and other genocides underlines the importance of documenting and analyzing genocide in history. At the same time, we must present possible alternatives for individual and societal action to help prevent, monitor or stop genocidal atrocities. Most syllabi and accounts cited here tell of the cost to the victims; however, there are also long lasting costs to the perpetrators. Both the human cost and the political success of past genocides compel students and teachers to continue teaching and learning about and from this disturbing subject.

References Frank Chalk, "Comment Sheet on Teaching about Genocide." A series of questions about teaching about genocide was submitted to all teachers whose syllabi are included in this Guide. Some of their written responses are quoted throughout this essay.

Clive Foss, "Comment Sheet on Teaching about Genocide."

Kurt Jonassohn, "The Costs of Genocide: The People of the Perpetrator States as Victims," Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies Occasional Papers, (Montreal: Concordia University, 1991). To order, contact Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies, Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. West, Montreal, Quebec, H3G 1M8 Canada.

Margi Nowak, "Comment Sheet on Teaching Genocide."

For a collection of syllabi from sociologists for sociologists, see, Jack Porter (ed.). The Sociology of Genocide / The Holocaust: a Curriculum Guide (Washington DC: American Sociological Association, 1992), 1782 N. Street, NW, Washington DC 20036, USA.

For a compilation of syllabi on the Holocaust and articles about approaches to teaching, see Gideon Shimoni (ed.), The Holocaust in University Teaching (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1991).

From Teaching About Genocide, Joyce Freeman-Apsel and Helen Fein, eds. Human Rights Internet, 1993, American Sociological Association 1998. Used with the permission of the author.

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 1997.

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