Philip Spencer gave a keynote introductory address at CHGS’ International Symposium on April, 2017 entitled Comparative Genocide Studies and the Holocaust: Conflict and Convergence. Following the symposium, he and Bruno Chaouat (UMN, French and Italian) gave a book talk (recorded in full here), where Spencer introduced the book he co-authored with sociologist Robert Fine, Antisemitism and the Left. On the return of the Jewish question. After his talk, Spencer sat with Wahutu Siguru (UMN PhD Candidate, Sociology), Alexandra Tiger (UMN undergrad in Sociology), and Demetrios Vital (CHGS Outreach Coordinator), and offered thoughtful, warm, and inspiring answers to a range of questions on topics in his book and talks. What follows are three of those questions and answers.
On April 6-8, 2017, CHGS held a symposium in celebration of its 20th anniversary titled, “Comparative Genocide Studies and the Holocaust: Conflict and Convergence”. Timothy Snyder, a professor of History at Yale University gave the keynote on “The Politics of Mass Killing: Past and Present”. Joe Eggers was able to sit down and talk with him.
CHGS: What drew you to studying the Holocaust?
I became an eastern European historian because I was interested in intellectual history, and I was interested in the history of diplomacy, and the history of power. The late 80’s, early 90’s were a time when suddenly one could see those two sets of interests coming together, which is eastern Europe. It was only becoming an east European historian that I realized that the Holocaust and other mass crimes, German and Soviet alike, were the responsibility of east European historians. The problem with the Holocaust, or one of them at least historiographically, is that it’s not quite Jewish history because the Jews are of course the victims, but the perpetrators are from many other places. It’s not quite German history either, because although it was a German policy, more than half the perpetrators are not German and it takes place almost entirely beyond the borders of pre-war Germany. So it has to be both Jewish and German history but it also has to be east European history because that’s where it happened.
What I tried to do was write about the Holocaust that brought together these various historiographies. It was out of a sense of responsibility and then out of a sense of trying to make different things make sense together. How can we make sense of the fact that the Germans and Soviets were present in the same territories, juxtaposed or overlapping? How can we bring these things that we know are important – nationalist history, German history, Soviet history, Jewish history together? That was Blood Lands. Blood Lands was a kind of clearing of the deck, saying that these things happened at the same place and the same time. As I was talking about Blood Lands I thought ‘Okay, can I actually develop the arguments that I made in there about the Holocaust and not just say, as I do in Blood Lands, that if we know that all these events happened in the same place and time, are contemporary events that only bring so much sense.’ That led to Black Earth.
I think of myself as a historian, and not as a historian of the Holocaust. That is to say I wrote about other things and I intend to write about other things.
You talked about the differences of living in and recognizing the memory of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe, especially in terms of the reluctance of some Eastern European countries to acknowledge their role in it. Could you expand on that?
In terms of East European memory, there’s an inherent plurality that we don’t necessarily see in the West because the average person living in Warsaw or Kiev is going to be thinking of not just a single German crime. An American memory of German crimes is going to be mostly limited to the Holocaust, but no one in Eastern Europe will be thinking of it that way because there was a plurality. The Germans also executed the intelligentsia, they also deported people, and they also had millions of forced laborers, so it’s not possible from an East European perspective to see the Holocaust as the only crime. Then the Soviet Union is also present, which we don’t like in the West. We would like for it to be like France, where the Germans came and people righteously rose up; something like that – we like that. We want for it to be sort of simple and dramatic. As Americans, we want for the Americans to provide the muscle.
The whole Eastern Europe story where the Soviets commit some of the crimes and the Soviets are some of the liberators is very hard for us to handle. From an East European point of view, you can’t just come in with the idea that the Holocaust is the only thing that happened, which is a bit more like where our memory is.
You’ve talked about your reluctance to use the word ‘genocide.’ Why do you feel like it is a problematic term?
In the East European context, the idea of genocide becomes very problematic. On the one side, you have people who understand that genocide is the coin of the realm morally. They therefore say the execution of the Poles at Katyn was genocidal, which legally speaking I think it was, but I fear the reason they say it is that it will be compared to the Holocaust. Or people say the Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine, was genocide, which I also believe that legally it was but I’m also afraid that the reason they say it is so people see it as equal to the Holocaust.
Then the response is that you have many more people who are in Eastern Europe who say they’re defending the memory of the Holocaust by saying the Holocaust is the only genocide. Which is legally speaking totally wrong, but in some political sense they are playing the same game as the other side, because the other side say genocide when they mean Holocaust, and so when this side says Holocaust they’re trying to say genocide. It ends up going around and around and around. The only way that I’ve been able to find some way of building out some kind of historical understanding of the various crimes in Eastern Europe is to just not use the word [genocide] because the word is like a roadblock in every chapter and you cannot write a sentence without people saying “what about this?” or “what about that?” and genocide becomes the only thing you can talk about, and so in my own work I don’t use the term.
Joe Eggers is a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota. His master’s thesis explored the cultural genocide of indigenous people through the boarding school system.
On the 29th of November 2016, State representative Frank Hornstein (DFL) organized a public lecture through the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College entitled The Use of Holocaust and Nazi Analogies in American Politics. The speaker for the event, Professor Gavriel Rosenfeld (Fairfield University), was interviewed for this month’s scholar spotlight.
This year, Dr. Hollie Nyseth Brehm (Ohio State)* and Dr. Chris Uggen (UMN) received a Sociology research grant from the National Science Foundation for their project “Enhancing Public Access: Archiving Court Cases to Study Genocide and Transitional Justice.” Wahutu Siguru recently conducted an interview with Professor Nyseth Brehm.
In March, Gender & Society published an article titled, Gender-Based Violence Against Men and Boys in Darfur: The Gender-Genocide Nexus. The paper, co-authored by Dr. Gabrielle Ferrales (Sociology, UMN), Dr. Hollie Nyseth-Brehm (Ohio State) and Suzy McElrath (Ph.D. Candidate, UMN), analyses gender-based violence against men and boys during mass atrocity. Demonstrating new theoretical connections between gender, violence, and hegemonic masculinity, this work significantly advances our understanding of how genocidal violence is gendered, but also more broadly how gender inequalities can be reproduced and maintained in diverse settings and social structures.
Natan Sznaider, Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo
This is the second half of Natan Sznaider’s critique of Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust. You can find the first half here.
Multiple Modernities and the Memory of the Holocaust
We do need to talk about modernity (the concept as such makes sociologically no sense), but about multiple modernities and multiple Enlightenments. One of the clues is Arendt’s book “On Revolution” where she compares and contrasts the French and the Anglo-Saxon traditions of Enlightenment
When we look at the Scottish Enlightenment, for instance, it is grounded on the sentiments or a moral or common sense as a kind of intuitive judgment. Capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, exercising power of judgment, anchored in religion and balancing between morality and utility in the basis of a liberty seen as granted to all. Look at Adam Smith’s exploration of virtues like compassion and benevolence. Arendt was working in this tradition when she in her “On Revolution” takes side with the legacy of the American Revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment against its French contender. Thus, in the French tradition (and we are talking caricatures) there is a strong opposition between reason and religion, while the Scots tried to reconcile reason and faith. I think these distinctions are important even though they do not play much or a role in Bauman’s text.
Natan Sznaider, Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo
Many of us were deeply impressed when Zygmunt Bauman published his “Modernity and the Holocaust” almost a quarter century ago. When I studied sociology in the 1970s there was not much sociological thinking going around about the Holocaust.
When the book came out we weren’t very aware of the consequences. The book came out when the Berlin Wall fell and one year later, Germany was reunified and I would argue that these things are connected. Bauman himself was much more aware of the context. In his Amalfi Prize lecture Bauman was very clear about the context of his book and I quote him: “The ideas that went into the book knew of no divide; they knew only of our common European experience, of our shared history whose unity may be belied, even temporarily suppressed, but not broken. It is our joint, all European, fate that my book is addressing“ (p.208 of the second edition of Modernity and the Holocaust).
In February, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies welcomed Pedro Correa Martín-Arroyo to discuss his research. Correa presented a lecture titled “The Spanish Paradox”, which examined the Spanish government’s policies towards the Jews, and how these were influenced by actors both within and outside the country.
Pedro Correa Martín-Arroyo is currently the Diane and Howard Wohl fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies (US Holocaust Memorial Museum); as well as PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. His doctoral research addresses the international management of the Jewish refugee crisis in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa during World War II.
This is the second half of a two part interview with Dr. Adam Muller from the University of Manitoba. CHGS interviewed Dr. Muller after his November presentation on campus in which he highlighted the Embodying Empathy project, a collaborative project at the University of Manitoba that will bring Canada’s residential schools alive with an immersive digital experience.
If you’d like to get caught up, you can find the first half of the interview here.
In November, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies welcomed Dr. Adam Muller from the University of Manitoba to discuss his upcoming project, which creates a virtual First Nations residential school. Dr. Muller is part of the Embodying Empathy project, which seeks to create a digital immersive experience for educate visitors about the settler-colonial interactions at Canada’s residential schools. The project is also exploring whether immersive representations can bridge the empathetic distance separating victims from secondary witnesses to atrocity.
Dr. Muller is Associate Professor of English at the University of Manitoba (Canada). He specializes in the representations of war, genocide and mass violence, human rights, memory studies, critical theory, cultural studies, and analytic philosophy.
CHGS followed up with Dr. Muller to learn more about his innovative project. You can find a recording of the original presentation here. This is part 1 of our conversation.