It’s Complicated

English: Nyamata Memorial Site, skulls. Nyamat...

Nyamata Memorial Site, skulls. Nyamata, Rwanda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my years before moving to Germany, I was always frustrated by American teachers who were so quick to place the blame of the Holocaust on the civilians of Germany.  “I would have stood up to those Nazis!  There is no excuse for what those people did.”  Yes, all those who saw what was happening in Nazi Germany and did nothing are to blame for the deaths of millions of Jews, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witness, Communist Activists, Gypsies, Common Criminals, Juvenile Delinquents, Disabled….  But it wasn’t just the German civilians who knew what was happening; didn’t Great Britain, the United States and others know what was going on too?

My intent is not to excuse or place blame on what anyone did or didn’t do in the face of Genocide.  My intent is for us to consider our human nature.  It’s complicated.  Few of us have experienced Genocide for ourselves.  We view Genocide through the filter of television, movies and other eyewitness stories.  I am forever grateful to every survivor of Genocide I have met.  Their experiences are a testament of hope that someday, maybe, Genocide will never be within the realm of possibility again.  Yet when it comes right down to it, most of us will never know what we would have done had we been a frontier settler in Canada or United States in the 1800’s, a German in 1941, a Cambodian in 1975, or a Hutu in Rwanda in 1994.

Do the Victims of Genocide ever receive Justice?

My 10th grade students are currently at the end of their unit on Genocide.  I wanted them to sit in the quagmire of the complexities of the issues.  Who is to blame?  Who is to pay?  What would you have done?  So I decided to have them do a SOLE type activity to find the answer to the question: Do the victims of Genocide ever receive justice?

The students at first were puzzled.  What do you mean by victim?  What is the definition of Justice?  With each question I shrugged my shoulders and replied, “well…what do you think?”  I reminded them that they only had 45 minutes to find the answer.  I encouraged them to just write down what they found.  They struggled, wanting to analyze their findings.  I kept saying, “don’t analyze just list your findings, there will be time to analyze and reflect later.”

Some students took the approach of categorizing their findings.  They made a poster with the question at the top.  They then made a T with Yes on one side and no on the other.  They then put down where they felt justice was served to the victims and where it wasn’t.  Then in their final presentation they made their own conclusions.

Some students took a different approach.  They made a poster with the question in the middle.  Then they made a web diagram with 4 to 5 genocide names around the question.  From there they recorded information on the justice that was received for each of the genocides they researched.  And like the previous model, they made their own conclusions about the question when they presented to the class.

What were the students’ conclusions on this subject? They realized that placing blame or administering justice for Genocide is complicated.

Who were the victims? 

When they really looked at the situation they realized that the victims weren’t just the people killed in the genocide.  The victims were also the survivors, the families of the dead, and generations of people living with the reputation of what their country’s government once did.  The list of victims got longer and longer as the students continued to analyze the effects of genocide.

Then one brave student raised her hand.  “What about the prison guards?  What about those in the country that went along with it willingly, but then later realized they were brainwashed?  What about the people who went along with it because they thought they would be killed if they didn’t?”  She realized that the perpetrators, in a way, are victims too.

Other students wouldn’t let the perpetrators off that easy.  They began to argue with her that these people should still be punished. So I showed them a short clip from a documentary on the Zimbardo Prison Experiment.  We also discussed Milgram’s experiment on Obedience to Authority.  And the students were then further confused and muddled at who was a victim, who was to blame, and who should pay.


At first it is so easy for them to place blame on the perpetrators, to place blame on a country of bystanders who seemed to do nothing to stop it.  Then they realized the power of an extreme environment, the power of years of brainwashing, the power of perceived authority, can make man do terrible things.  Yet we also discussed the instances in various genocides where people clearly went against authority, they stood strong and declared what the perpetrators were doing was wrong and they were unharmed and survived.  We talked about the “Helpers” at the Boston Marathon who ran toward the blast to help, rather than running away from it in fear.

What is Justice?

Is it execution?  Is it prosecution?  Is it money?  Is it a memorial?  The students all agreed that ultimately, there is no justice.  People died, their property destroyed, and there is no way to get that back.  They realized that justice isn’t always something formal like a court decision.  Memorials and Remembrance Days also could be seen as a form of justice.  Organizations that help support victims, lobby for rights within government, and grant aid to rebuild lives and communities are also forms of justice.

So then who should pay? 

They then read the recent article from the New York Times.  If a past prison guard from Sobibor is 97 years old and needs to be wheeled into the courtroom, should he be charged for all of the deaths that occurred there?  If a man killed 200 people with his machete does he deserve forgiveness?  Again: It’s complicated.  The students were torn.  They felt in the case of some genocide, reconciliation councils would be the best way to go.  For other genocides, students felt prosecution was imperative.

The Unanswerable Question:

The point of the lesson was not for them to make a firm conclusion, but to live in the reality of our world today.  Sometimes there are no answers, just well-formed opinions.  We do not know why people do the things they do.  We can only speculate.  And even in free countries where people are exposed to religious tolerance, open-mindedness, and democracy, people still want to kill each other.

The day ended with a student saying “Thank you.”  He said “You know, you as a teacher and a historian could just manipulate the information and give me your opinion as truth.  You could tell me what to believe.  Thanks for always making me discover the truth for myself. “  As he walked away I realized I should have said thank you.  Thank you for being the kind of student who seeks the truth.

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