History 382: Genocide in the Modern World

Catalog Description

The last two centuries have seen mass violence on a scale unprecedented in human history. Among the most horrifying forms this violence took was the attempt to systematically exterminate whole religious/ethnic/national groups, which Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe. In this course, we examine individual historical cases of genocide (including the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and the Rwandan genocide) and also consider theoretical approaches that seek to explain its causes and dynamics. We also survey the history of attempts to prevent genocide.


Comments from the teacher, Dr. Elun Gabriel:

• Why did you decide to teach this course? How does it relate to your scholarly and/ or teaching interests?

 On the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, I realized to my shame that a decade earlier I had only been dimly aware that “something bad” was going on in Rwanda and never paid too much attention beyond that. It occurred to me that this was exactly the attitude so many people in the 1940s had had regarding the Holocaust; a lot of information was available to anyone who wanted to find it, but people were focused on other matters. As a historian who teaches about the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Civil War, and as a world citizen who had failed to such a recent horrendous genocide, I felt called to teach a course that would explore how genocides happen and why individuals and the international community have repeatedly failed to stop them, or even pay attention to them.

• What do you hope students will get out of this course?

 First, I hope students will learn about each case we consider (colonial genocides, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and the Rwandan Genocide) in its historical context and complexity. Second, I hope students will come to see the common elements in the unfolding of genocide so that they will be alert to these when they read the news and look at the world. Finally, I hope students will develop a commitment to helping stop future genocides, realizing that their awareness and political action are crucial elements in ending the phenomenon of genocide. To this end, we spend the last two weeks of the course talking about international attempts to intervene in genocide and consider the contemporary mass killings in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

• Describe some part of your pedagogical approach—e.g., how you organize a typical class; a specific successful class activity or assignment; an interesting moment that occurred in class, such as a discussion of a particular reading/ image/ song/ film or debate about an issue.

One of the central dilemmas of this course is that I want students to approach genocide in two ways that can feel contradictory: on the one hand, I expect them to analyze genocide in a critical, scholarly fashion, so that they can understand it as a historical, sociological phenomenon; on the other, I want them to confront on an emotional, intimate level the enormous human suffering of millions of individual victims which lies at the heart of our study. I organize the syllabus, and often individual class meetings so that we move back and forth between scholarly books and essays and firsthand accounts of victims, perpetrators, and witnesses.

 During the Rwanda unit of the class, I have students in small groups inhabit the roles of Hutu leaders, ordinary Hutus, Tutsis, and UN and US officials in 1994. As students look at the unfolding situation from these differing perspectives, they come to understand all of the actors as three-dimensional human beings, with complex motivations, worldviews, and pressures acting on them. It helps them realize that most of the perpetrators were not evil monsters, but ordinary men, which is a troubling but valuable insight for understanding genocide. The flip side of this is that Hutu opponents of the genocide and rescuers of victims were also ordinary people, who made the choice to take risks on behalf of others because they recognized it as a moral duty to aid those in need.

 • What is the typical enrollment in this class?


What do students say about this class?

"The gift of Hist 382 and, undoubtedly the gift of liberal arts education in general, was to demonstrate the multiplicity of approaches and perspectives surrounding the issue of genocide. It was most instructive to dig deeper into the crime of genocide to examine its roots, the unique manner in which it developed in each of the cases, how the actions were executed, the perspectives of both victims and perpetrators and lastly, complexities surrounding the formulation of an international response. With a seemingly simple concept such as genocide being an international crime that must be stopped, we saw the complexities of the living in an international community and what that entails in regards to mobilizing broad-base action."

"Prior to taking this class, I always thought genocide was just black and white, clearly defined, but after taking this course and evaluating the many definitions and cases of 'genocide,' I find it difficult classifying some of the 'mass atrocities' such as the Cambodian 'genocide' as a genocide. Genocide is complicated."

"Without a doubt, professor Gabriel conveys his passion for learning and the subject at hand. When you're fortunate to have someone work with you who loves what he's doing and believes in its importance, you immediately benefit. The reading selections are excellent and the substance they provide for discussion is fun and certainly engaging. This isn't a class where the professor simply lectures and you're caught looking at the clock waiting for it to end. This is a class where you're invited to participate, engage and through examining the past, learn how to contribute to the future."