Dialogue of Civilizations | Holocaust & Genocide Studies

The Program

Since 2013, I have been taking a group of Northeastern University’s finest undergraduate students from across disciplines to study the Holocaust in Europe during the summer term.

This program offers students insights into the role and legacy of the Holocaust – as one of the most significant and traumatic topics of Europe’s shared history and politics. We travel to Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin, and Auschwitz – places that played central roles during the Holocaust and that continue to be central as sites of struggle, remembrance, memory, and trauma.

The program reflects my own research interest in questions of remembrance, trauma, forgetting, and denial. Students are confronted with the different ways in which we commemorate and remember the Holocaust, to what effect we do so, and with what kind of ethical imperatives. Why do we need to ‘see’ and visit sites where violence occurred? Why do we need to remember; do we have a right to forget? 

The program ties together different kinds of encounters for the students. The group confronts the darkness and scale of sovereign power and mass atrocity (eg., at German concentration and death camps); we think about the role of gender and other perspectives in the study of genocide (eg., at Ravensbrück women’s camp); we discuss the role of remembrance and forgetting in our visits to memorial sites and museums; we evaluate practices of commemoration and remembrance; we speak with survivors; we hold seminar and workshops with experts at places that were central to the planning and executing of the Holocaust (eg., at Villa Wannsee); we confront questions of resistance, rescue, intervention (eg., at the Anne Frank Center and the White Rose Resistance Movement museum); we explore the (im)possibility of justice after genocide (eg., at the Nuremberg Trial Room); we debate the role of history and the Holocaust for other genocides and our own role as citizens and ethical leaders.

This program is part of Northeastern University’s Dialogue of Civilizations initiative. It is a 5-week, 8-credit program, covering two courses:

POLS4937 | History and Politics of the Holocaust: Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders

The course offers students immersion into the role and legacy of the Holocaust – as one of the most significant and traumatic event in Europe’s shared history and politics. The main questions still remain how, and why, Germans and other European societies were able commit the Holocaust – from the political elites of the Nazi regime to ordinary men and women who served in Police battalions, worked as camp guards, and were neighbors. Students will learn about the origin, implementation, and impact of the Holocaust through an examination of the perspectives of perpetrators, victims, helpers, collaborators, and those resisting the Nazi movement.


POLS4938 | Memory, Trauma, and the Holocaust

The course focuses on the large-scale experience of suffering and violence by consulting oral history, personal testimony of survivors, and practices of commemoration and remembrance. In their travels to Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin, and Auschwitz, students will explore the continuing, central, role of these places as sites of memory and trauma.

Few themes have preoccupied postwar Germany as much as the struggle to ‘come to terms’ with its National Socialist past. How does one wrestle with the legacy of the Holocaust in particular, and genocide in general? The course will chronicle the evolution of a nation’s confrontation with its Nazi legacy, and evaluate the impact and limits of such efforts. Explorations of key sites of trauma and memory, such as former concentration camps; everyday practices of commemoration, such as the use of Stumbling Stones; visits to Holocaust memorials across Germany; and interactions with survivors, experts, and scholars will provide a first-hand experience of how the unspeakable history of the Holocaust is being narrated and memorialized in different ways – and to what effect.

For more information, and a sample itinerary for the current Dialogue, please contact me at  n.bormann@northeastern.edu

Read past Students’ blogs and an excerpt of my own Travel blog.

Excerpts of the 2015 Travel Blog.

Arriving in Munich

I begin this year’s May/June journey through Germany and Poland with 24 of Northeastern’s finest undergraduate students – here, in Munich.  Before our official Holocaust Program starts, we are settling into Munich and Bavaria.  [Check out the students’ blog here

Tales of courage and resistance

Against the backdrop of the city’s dark past – having played a central role in the beginnings and rise to popularity of Nazism – Munich also houses many memories of resistance and courage of those against the Nazi regime.

Former Jesuit, Father Rupert Mayer, is commemorated at Munich’s St. Michael’s Church as one of Nazism’s most persistent Rupert Mayeropponents.  He was imprisoned three times in camps for his brave protest against the Nazis including Sachsenhausen. Of course, the story of his arrest is also a bluntly reminder of much larger ‘issues’ regarding the Catholic Church during that time, especially in form of the 1933 Concordat it signed with the Nazi regime.

WeisseRoseLess controversial is the memorialization of Hans and Sophie Scholl as symbols of resistance in Germany.  The siblings dedicated their young lives, while students at the University of Munich, to resisting Hitler’s regime. The “White Rose” movement wrote and distributed flyers and pamphlets in public spaces, appealing to people’s humanity to denunciate Hitler.

Liberation and trials
Vergiss Mein Nicht at Dachau Memorial Site

Dachau is a historical place in two ways; one, for the Nazi crimes that took place in this first regular concentration camp in 1933.  Two, for the legal processes that followed the liberation of the camp in April 1945.  Immediately after its liberation by the US army in April, the first trial – for SS guards, Kapos, and camp doctors in form of a US-led military tribunal – opened on the camp grounds in November 1945. More than 1600 perpetrators were put on 500 trials until 1948.  This legal process did not go without controversy; the trials did not receive much public attention in Germany nor was the ‘victor’s justice’ (here, by the US) much appreciated.

The larger complexities of these trials will be discussed in detail when we reach Nuremberg next week.

“Why Munich needs a new documentation center”…or does it?

documentation center“With right-wing extremism rearing its head in Germany, reflecting on the country’s Nazi past is more relevant than ever”, we can read, for instance here, and we are being told in the context of the opening of Munich’s new NS-Documenation Center 70 years after the end of WWII.  The new Center is an impressive ‘cube’, standing on the foundations of what was once the Braune Haus (the Brown House) – the former NSDAP headquarters.  And with that, it is a rare ‘perpetrator site’ and an acknowledgement of Munich’s Nazi past.

The Center begins its documentation in 1914 – on the building’s top floor; the idea being that visitors begin their journey through Munich’s dark history on the bright, airy, upper floors before slowly moving down the exhibition – and history – floor by floor into a much darker space and time.  Being strictly a ‘documentation center’, no objects can be found here – the Center features original footage and narrative only.

inside documentation centerAs is to be expected, the opening of this new Center was not without tensions; between those who felt it to be unnecessary to create ‘yet another place of documenting Germany’s history’ and for perhaps too much money to spare (close to 30 million Euros), and those who insist that Munich’s acknowledgment of its role in the rise of the Nazi regime was long overdue.

Difficult heritage

Nuernberg is always a strange place to visit on this program. I can never quite wrap my head around the face of the city; On the one side of town, Nuernberg is host to the Palace of Justice where the Nuernberg Trials took place.  The other side of town is home to some of the largest remaining Nazi architectural sites – the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.  They are not in contradiction to each other as such; clearly, the International Military Trial was held in Nuremberg (at least) partially exactly because it was a symbol of victory over the regime and its structural presence in that city.  zeppelinparkBut whereas one – the Palace of Justice – is a site that invites us to remember the significance of these trials in so many ways (be it for justice, elucidation, or even prevention), the other seems to struggle with exactly what it wants to be today. Once a place where the Nazis celebrated their megalomania,the infamous Zeppelin field, for instance, was just preparing to host one of the larger summer festivals.

Some things forgotten

Ravensbrueck Women’s Camp – relatively unknown – “because it does not fit the Holocaust narrative”.  One of the most moving days of our program.


Berlin – Warsaw
On dignity during dark times
“Motherhood” by Helena Glokowska ca. 1937. Jewish Historical Institute, Krakow

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2015 Student Blogs.

Dialogue of Civilizations - 2015
Dialogue of Civilizations – 2015

There is a wonderfully written note from one of my former students about her experience on this Holocaust Dialogue, which you can read here:  A student’s perspective on the Dialogue_Summer2015

Jaclyn Birnbaum     Amanda Knightly     Erika Smitten     Taylor Dadmun

Gabriela Garcia     Caroline Bynum     Nicole Harvey     Avery Schnell

Erin Callahan     Lenny Bohbot     Claire Paige     Mikaela French

John Corry     Kellianne Reale     Jessa Silver     Jameson Johnson

Maria Schwartz     Vitoria Galbier     Mikayla Formoza     Alexa Kacin

Emily Barlow     Manish Laungani     Hannah Sattler     Erika Smitten

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