In March 2006, performance artist Santiago Serra constructed a homemade gas chamber inside a former synagogue in the Cologne area and invited Germans to be symbolically gassed. Exhaust pipes from six cars were hooked to the building, which was then filled with deadly carbon monoxide and visitors entered the space wearing protective masks. What was the artist’s intention? Serra said his aim was to give people a sense of the Holocaust. The Jewish community was furious. It was considered a provocation at the expense of Holocaust victims, an insult to survivors and the whole community. “What’s artistic about attaching poisonous car exhaust into a former synagogue?” said writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano (1923-2014), “and who gave permission for this?”
This past week, the Basque town of Guernica recounted the sorrow and devastation inflicted 80 years ago. On that fateful late afternoon of April 26th 1937, German and Italian aircrafts, at the urging of their ally, General Franco and his right-wing Nationalists, unleashed their bombs on unsuspecting civilians.
Just nine months before, Franco had led a coup against Spain’s Republican government dragging the country into a civil war. The Nationalists eventually triumphed and Franco ruled Spain for the next 36 years.
For a long time, the word Guernica stirred powerful emotions among Spaniards and Europeans who witnessed the destruction wreaked by Fascism. It was a crime against humanity that shocked the world, and was later immortalized by Picasso’s famous expressionist mural. However, the 80th anniversary has received rather scant attention in the US. In my classes last week, I tried to explain to my students why Guernica should remain historically relevant to citizenry across the globe.
“I propose to treat the Holocaust as a rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society.”
“Pack your swimsuit and head on out to the Wannsee.” These are the opening lyrics to Pack die Badehose ein, a cheery German beach song of the 1950s, referring to the shores of one of the lakes found in the southwestern plains of Berlin.
But Wannsee, for non-Berliners, evokes other connotations. On January 20th, 1942, a villa on the edge of that lake hosted the infamous Wannsee Conference. Here high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathered to discuss and coordinate the implementation of what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” – the physical annihilation of the European Jews.
When I checked my departmental mailbox this week there was a postcard from the UMN administration that couldn’t be more timely: it showed two students wearing maroon and gold, hugging — one blonde and Caucasian and the other black and Somali — and a very simple phrase: “You are here. We like that.”
One might wonder why such an obvious message would be at all necessary at a major American public University. The political reality that has unfolded in this country over the last months — reaching its culmination on Tuesday — has sadly shown that this reminder is more necessary than ever. Basic democratic norms, pluralism and willingness to coexist peacefully with people of different religions, languages and origins, has proven not to be a given for millions of Americans.
This chilling eye-opener comes on a fateful date. The night of November 9th marks the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored riots known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. Before I read about Kristallnacht in books I had heard about that infamous night from my father, who remembers to this day how the police came to his home in Pirmasens, a small town in the Palatinate region, and arrested his father. By fortune, and unlike so many other Jewish families, they were able to leave Germany in time.
The Kristallnacht commemoration teaches that democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained and that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. This day reminds us what occurs when a community based on mutual acceptance has been destroyed. This day urges us to be mindful that the path that leads from verbal incitement to discriminatory policy and murderous action can be very short.
The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies November/December newsletter is devoted to this historical event and features a number of educational resources (bibliographies, testimonies, artwork, newspaper articles). In this newsletter we ask our readers to teach the lessons of the past to wind back the divisive rhetoric that has been unleashed.
Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
The semester is about to start and I find myself touching up syllabi and putting some order in my course material. While reviewing files, I came across a very helpful handout from a conference I attended at the University of Bayreuth in 2010. The topic from then is even more timely today: “Analyzing Right-Wing Populist Discourse across Europe.” In it, discourse analyst Ruth Wodak laid out the most salient features of Right Wing Populist rhetoric, which she identified in statements from political leaders across the old continent. Given the indisputable “toxicity” of this discourse, here we will label the following ten elements from Wodak’s handout as the “Acid Test” for Right Wing Populism:
The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Director, Dr. Alejandro authored this article in response to the recent passing of Elie Wiesel. It appeared in the July 6th issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
With the passing of Elie Wiesel, genocide education has lost its most important advocate. I write “genocide” and not Holocaust, in order to make a point.
There are many that contend today that the Holocaust’s global presence and iconic status obscures other forms of mass violence, and even the acknowledgment of other genocides. Elie Wiesel’s seminal role in Holocaust memorialization worldwide demonstrates exactly the opposite. The proliferation of Holocaust remembrance, education and research efforts has been extraordinarily influential in the moral and political debates about atrocities, and in raising the level of attention to past violence and responsiveness to present genocide and other forms of gross human rights violations.
Continue reading on the Star Tribune website.
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, on May 8th 1985, German President Richard von Weiszäcker addressed the country’s parliament with the following words: “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion.”
Weiszäcker’s speech became a milestone in the distinctively German process known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a composite German word which can be best rendered in English as the struggle to overcome or confront the [criminal] past.) Acknowledging the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by Germany during WWII was not an easy process. Weizäcker’s speech challenged persisting idealized or self-victimized national narratives, and it undermined citizens’ identification with their history.
States and organizations around the country and the world have set aside April to be a month of genocide awareness, education and action against genocide.
Why April? Several genocides over the last century began in this month. The events leading to the Armenian genocide started in April 1915. The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh fell to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in April 1975. Hutu extremists launched their plan to exterminate the entire Tutsi civilian population of Rwanda in April 1994.
April 1943 is also the month in which the few remaining Jews in the Warsaw ghetto rose in a desperate but heroic revolt against their oppressors. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, was later established to commemorate those events, which represent unprecedented destruction but also courage, resilience and hope.
At the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies we see anniversaries as a valuable opportunity to advance scholarship and education. It is a chance to encourage students, educators and the broader community to deepen their understanding of past events and their sequels, as well as awareness of current manifestations of genocide and massive human rights violations.
Our programs in the next weeks reflect this mission. We started the month with an educational trip to the Bdote (Dakota for “where the rivers meet”) at Fort Snelling State Park, guided by scholar and teacher Iyekiyapiwiƞ Darlene St. Clair. Bdote is where the Dakota creation stories locate their origins, and also the site of internment, starvation and forced removal in the aftermath of the US Dakota War. “A place of genesis and genocide,” as one Dakota author eloquently put it. We will close this month of remembrance and awareness on Holocaust Memorial Day with a lecture by Sidi N’Diaye, who examines the role of hateful representations in the murders of Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust in Poland and of Tutsi neighbors during the 1994 genocide.
As we move through April, it is important to remember the quote from Holocaust historian Robert Abzug: “We must recognize that if we feel helpless when facing the record of human depravity, there was always a point at which any particular scene of madness could have been stopped.” In that spirit, this month we remember the victims of genocide and honor those who have worked tirelessly to stop it.
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In 1999 Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and a member of the Green Party with strong pacifist roots, used the phrase “Never Again Auschwitz” to support German military intervention during the Kosovo crisis. In 2005, at the main ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the Red Army for “liberating Europe” (an assertion that obviously did not resonate positively among Poles). In the summer of 2014 Turkish President Recep Erdoğan slammed Israel for betraying the memory of the Holocaust by “acting like Nazis” during the operation against Hamas in Gaza. At the same time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the Holocaust to warn the world of a nuclear Iran.
The Twitter account @HistOpinion recently reminded us of the prevailing opinion on raising the immigrant quota for refugees who were fleeing Nazi Germany. Two-thirds of the respondents polled by Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion in July 1938 agreed with the proposition that “with conditions as they are we should try to keep them out.”