Teaching Genocide for Human Rights

By Glenn Mitoma


This past November marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which sought to bring to justice two dozen high ranking German leaders. Over 11 months, prosecution teams from the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, led by US Supreme Court Justice Robert J. Jackson, conducted a systematic autopsy of the Nazi’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace. Alongside Jackson worked a young Connecticut lawyer named Thomas J. Dodd, for whom the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center is named. Jackson, Dodd and the other prosecutors at Nuremberg were attempting not only to convict the individual Nazi leaders like Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, industrialist Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, and propagandist Julius Streicher, but also to present before the world the architecture of death and destruction we now know of as the Holocaust. The trial was an exercise in education as much as law, and many of the participants hoped that the lessons learned would help put the world on a path to peace and justice.


Seventy-five years later, the lessons of Nuremberg are as important as ever. In Connecticut, the General Assembly recently adopted a statute requiring education about the Holocaust and other genocides to be part of the social studies curriculum in every school district. Today, reflecting on the legacy of Nuremberg, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to teach about the Holocaust and genocide in a way that supports human rights.


Teaching and learning about the Holocaust and genocide, while important, can be fraught. By definition, these topics are traumatic and include episodes of extreme dehumanization, violence, and brutality. At best, students can find genocide difficult to comprehend; at worst, students can become traumatized (or retraumatized) in the face such material. Teachers, too, will grapple with the challenges of understanding and presenting age-appropriate learning materials about something so fundamentally inappropriate. Clear guiding principles and learning objectives, such as those provided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, are essential.


Despite these challenges, the importance of learning about genocide and the Holocaust has never been greater. In recent years, rising authoritarianism, racism, and anti-Semitism have demonstrated that the building blocks of genocide exist in every society. At the same time, the spread of disinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories—often, like those targeting billionaire philanthropist George Soros, reviving anti-Semitic tropes—have found an all-too-eager audience online and in the real world. Effective genocide education can be on one important way of confronting these troubling trends and building a broader culture of human rights and democracy.


This semester, I piloted a new course for our Human Rights program, introduction to Genocide Studies. Designed as a critical, interdisciplinary, and practically engaged course, the learning objectives encompass areas of knowledge, values, and skills. These include:


• Students will demonstrate knowledge and understanding of how and why particular genocides have occurred, with reference to the key historical, political, and social contexts.


• Students will analyze social and psychological factors that enable or constrain genocide.


• Students will apply their knowledge to the world outside the classroom to identify contemporary impacts or risks of genocide.


• Students will apply their knowledge to the world outside the classroom to commemorate, advocate against, or prevent the perpetration of genocide.


• Students will develop empathy for victims or targets of genocide.


• Students will foster the respect for diversity, common humanity, and justice.


The course materials, such first-person testimonials, primary source documents, documentary films, monuments and memorial, as well as scholarship, are selected to allow students to explore the ways historians, psychologist, lawyers, political scientists, and others have tried to understand genocide, and on what and how we can know about genocide as a human experience. Reflective journals, structured classroom dialogues, and an emphasis on supportive relationships are all used to try to avoid easy moralizing and distancing of genocide and to help students think about power and responsibility in relation to genocide perpetration and prevention. In the end, my hope is that the course is fundamentally anti-genocidal in that it pushes back against the frames of mind that makes genocide possible, and equips students with the ability to take action and contribute to or develop practical efforts commemorate, advocate against, or prevent the perpetration of genocide.


The design of this course follows not only recommendations for responsible teaching and learning about genocide, but also the basic tenets of human rights education (HRE). Rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the HRE framework emphasizes not only teaching about human rights as subject, but also teaching through human rights (i.e., pedagogical approaches that honor and uphold students’ dignity and humanity) and teaching for human rights (i.e., learning outcomes that make students better equipped to claim their own rights and respect the rights of others). For genocide education to avoid leaving students feeling depressed and disempowered, it needs to embrace the opposite of genocide: a vision of justice and humanity that teachers and students together can work toward.


Like the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the result of a post-World War 2 effort to come to terms with the legacy of violence, dictatorship, and atrocity that had characterized the preceding years. The UN Human Rights Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, drafted the Declaration mindful, as the Preamble states, that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” But while Nuremberg provided the first autopsy of the horrific crimes of Nazi regime, the Universal Declaration provided a vision for how the world might build a more just, free, and equal world by centering “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Toward that end, the Commission not only recognized that the right to education was among those “equal and inalienable rights,” but that teaching and learning were at the core of how we would build that better future.


Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. (emphasis added)


As we emerge from the forced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be much work to be done to address the devasting impacts it has had on our individual and collective lives. Among the things we can take from both the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that the path to a better future often begins with learning the lessons of the past. This includes confronting difficult truths and acknowledging accountability for violations of human rights. But it also includes articulating a vision of the future, rooted in shared values and fundamental principles, toward which we can work together. Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education are an important part of that work.