I still remember my utter perplexity at a so-called professor of Genocide Studies at a Canadian university having accused me of “voyeurism” for having travelled to Germany, Poland, and Rwanda on genocide study trips.
Now, I can see that such a bizarre accusation might stem from failing to see the way in which studying genocide properly can actually constitute an education in moral sense. By learning about perpetrators and meeting with rescuers and survivors, my friends and I with whom I studied and travelled encountered the moral drama of human action and responsibility in persons and deeds, not in mere systems or abstractions.
When that professor was trying to pitch that course (which I did not end up taking), she said that it would be about: “Definitional and legal origins and debates; typologies of genocide; Explaining genocide: theories of the causes and processes of genocide (actor-orientated social psychological, strategic choice, and collective identity models; cultural, social fragmentation, and regime type; security, political, and economic crises as triggers; system-level processes – rise and decline of empires, colonization and colonialism, the advent of the modern nation state, modern exclusionary ideas thesis, etc.).”
Today I had the opportunity to visit the Houston Holocaust Museum with my friend and it is striking how different the experience of visiting the museum is to what I presume it would be like to take a course such as the one above.
One key difference is that it is as though the museum says to visitors, ‘This concerns you. Do not have any conceits about your own sophistication or progress. As you meander these exhibits, you will be implicated in the questions they raise.’
Throughout the Houston Holocaust Museum, there are “To Think About” sections that list a series of questions for reflection such as:
– Why did the Nazi regime keep placing ever more restrictions on the Jews?
– Why did so few Germans come to the defense of Jews?
– Why should we be wary of any instance of the removal of rights, however minor it might seem?
– How did the Nazi regime isolate and dehumanize Jews?
– What does it mean to leave your home, your community, your job, and your place of worship?
– What is the impact on people when they are forcibly confined to one area?
– How do these changes affect a person’s identity?
These questions demand something quite different from memorizing theories, typologies, and models.
It is highly unlikely that the problem of studying genocide will be that we see too much; the more likely problem is that we will not observe enough of what we need to see in order to realize that we must change our lives.
Photo of Sophie Scholl of the White Rose Resistance taken at the Houston Holocaust Museum