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  • Ariel Stein '24

Whose Idea Was the Final Solution? An Interview with Holocaust Historian Michael Bryant

Dr. Michael Bryant is a professor of history and legal studies at Bryant University, where he studies the Holocaust and its impact on law. I met him during a class he taught at Providence’s Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, and we thought that an interview would provide a great opportunity for me to learn more about his research and to share it with others.


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AS:

Would you like to give a brief overview of your work?


MB:

Sure. My name is Mike Bryant. I'm a professor of history and legal studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island. I'm a scholar in the history of the Holocaust and the way in which the Holocaust has impacted post-war human rights and international criminal law. So I look a lot at the trials of Nazi perpetrators from World War II, the ways in which concepts of liability were developed in different legal traditions—trials at Nuremberg, trials in Poland, trials in Russia or the Soviet Union (at the time), and also in Germany, and really Germany has been my primary focus. So the West German trials of accused Nazi war criminals, particularly the death-camp trials of the late ‘50s and early to mid-‘60s. My second book dealt entirely with the Operation Reinhard camps (Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka) and the series of trials prosecuting guards and commandants from those camps, which really went from the late ‘50s until the mid-‘60s.


My work has expanded to also include the history of war crimes and the concept of war crimes, and how cultures for thousands of years have tried to condition war, to impose restraints on how war is fought, and how it's resorted to, and why it's resorted to. That became the inspiration behind my third book, which is called A World History of War Crimes. Recently I published a book on Mein Kampf. It grew out of a symposium that I co-organized with another colleague at Boston College. We were interested in seeing if there were linkages between Mein Kampf, which of course is Hitler's autobiography, and the Holocaust—seeing whether it presages the Holocaust. Is Mein Kampf a harbinger of future Nazi actions and policies? And we try to make an argument that it was, so there was a collection of essays that grew out of our symposium, and that was published in 2022. And that was my most recent book.


AS:

As you discuss in the book, there's a split between intentionalist and functionalist interpretations of the history of the Holocaust. While intentionalists argue that Hitler played a central role in the conception and implementation of the Final Solution, functionalists reject this top-down analysis, arguing that the Final Solution primarily emerged from the decisions of local officials. Could you explain how these two interpretations differ, where you fall on this spectrum, and what evidence led you to this perspective?


MB:

This is a distinction that began to arise in the ‘70s and ‘80s; it grew out of a series of debates between different scholars about the role of Hitler and his followers in launching the Final Solution, and then supervising the Final Solution.


Probably the first true intentionalist was a woman named Lucy Dawidowicz. She wrote a book called The War Against the Jews. And even the title, I think, is indicative of her viewpoint. She believed that Hitler conceived of the idea of doing away with the Jews pretty early on. She believed it went back to his experiences during World War I and probably the immediate post-war era. So she sees Hitler's role as being essential to the development of Nazi antisemitic ideology and its implementation in the form of the Final Solution by 1941–42. She sees him as being central to the process, and she sees the Final Solution as being an idea that germinated very early on in Hitler's thinking. The earlier you believe Hitler conceived of the idea, not just of discriminating against the Jews (very clearly, he wanted to in 1919; there's actual writing, a letter that he sent to someone, where he talks about the importance of discriminating against the Jews, so that much is not even in controversy), but of exterminating the Jews, the biological eradication of the Jewish people—the more you believe that resolution came earlier, the closer you are to hard intentionalism.


If, however, you think that Hitler either played less of a role in the Final Solution or maybe (at the extreme edge) played no role in the Final Solution, then you lean towards functionalism. Hans Mommsen is a great German historian who was a pretty hard functionalist. His view is that Hitler had little or nothing to do with the Final Solution—that he might have given a tone to the Nazi movement in terms of its antisemitism, its desire to discriminate against the Jews, but that ultimately it was lower-ranking officials within the Nazi state who were in positions of power in Eastern Europe who initiated the Final Solution. They were in the provincial administrations of Silesia or in the Reich governorship of Arthur Greiser in the Wartheland. So these are lower-ranking officials—it's not Hermann Göring in Berlin, it wasn't even Reinhard Heydrich in the Reich Security Main Office. Instead it was provincial administrators and officials who were, according to this theory, confronting demographic questions about how to feed, for example, ghettoized Jews, what to do with the ghettoized Jews, what to do with Jews who became ill (these outbreaks of cholera or typhoid or dysentery would occur and then threaten to spread throughout the area, infecting not just the Jews but also non-Jewish people). And according to this functionalist view, these local administrators developed the Final Solution at a very localized level to deal with these population crises, as they saw them at the time. So this would be the distinction between intentionalism and functionalism. It really hinges on the role of Hitler in the process of destruction.


I think that addresses the first part of your question. The second part is where I fall on the spectrum. I think when I was a younger scholar, I was much more sympathetic to functionalism for a variety of reasons. But my perspective has shifted as I've studied this subject and I actually read Mein Kampf for the first time—I'd never read it before. I read the whole thing. Every word. 


In 2016, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich reissued Mein Kampf for the first time since the war. It had been basically suppressed. Copies still circulated, but you couldn't publish it in Germany. It wasn't allowed. In 2016, the copyright expired, which means that anybody can publish it. The Munich Institute of Contemporary History developed as a very serious organization devoted to research into the Third Reich and to trying to verify the facts. Let's not forget, after the war there were still a lot of Nazis around in Germany, so it was a way to combat efforts to create a mythologized narrative of the Nazis, to portray them as martyrs or portray them as being fundamentally well-intended. “Yeah, they might have gone off the rails with excesses, but their intentions were good,” the kind of outlandish claims that revisionists will make after the fact. The Munich Institute of Contemporary History is very much committed to trying to avoid this sort of hijacking of the history. So they decided to do a republication, 2,000 pages long. Most of the work is footnotes, and it's some of the best scholarship—I can't praise it enough.


We did a symposium at Boston College in 2019 based upon the reissue of Mein Kampf. And I presented a paper called “The Auroras of the Final Solution.” Rosy-fingered Aurora from Greek mythology. You know, that red blush of the sun as it’s just beginning to rise. That's how I saw the Final Solution in Mein Kampf. I think you see presentiments of it already in Mein Kampf. So that makes me an intentionalist—I really swung around in my thinking, and it took a while to trek across that spectrum.


It's funny because Wikipedia refers to me as an extreme intentionalist. I never thought of myself as being extreme in any way. I'm a pretty mild-mannered person, really—you know, with a mortgage and dogs and a wife and a son and all that stuff, right? Living out in the country and kind of a rumpled professor with his tweed coat. That sort of lifestyle. That's how I think of myself. [laughter] No, I was a hard intentionalist. So I was on the outer edge with Lucy Dawidowicz. But really, I think that that's what I am at this point. I never thought of myself in those terms, but I kind of agree with Lucy Dawidowicz. I think Hitler had these ideas in his mind, certainly with the composition of Mein Kampf. I think the book is drenched not just in antisemitism, but in violent, vitriolic thinking about European Jews, who are identified as microbes and as the Black Death and as poisonous snakes. Every dangerous and deadly force in the world is metaphorically associated with the Jews.


And so I tried to make the argument that there's an image of Jewish people that emerges from Mein Kampf that is inherently genocidal. He doesn't say, you know, “We need to kill the Jews.” He doesn't say that, but he wouldn't, because he wanted to get out of prison. He wrote the first volume when he was in prison and his party was banned; he wanted to get out of prison on parole, and he didn’t want them to send him back to Austria. He was concerned about these things.


I think we can also gather that these genocidal thoughts were in his head from the interviews that he gives in which he talks about hanging Jews. He has these murder fantasies, one after the other, in his interviews and even sometimes in his public speeches. It's interesting if you look at those speeches where he talks about hanging all the Jews, going from one town to the next and hanging the Jews, and put that in the context of police reports. Really interesting. A source that a lot of people don't look at. These are reports written by the police in Munich talking about gatherings of the National Socialists, in which they would get together and they would have speakers and all of the National Socialists would crowd into the assembly hall, the beer garden, whatever it was, and they would have speeches, and the police were there just to make sure that things didn't get out of hand. And the police then filed reports about what was happening, and there's one report in particular in 1921 that says that the Nazis were openly talking about murdering all of the Jews at that time.


Two plus two sometimes equals four. I think academics have a tendency to obfuscate because they love to do deep dives into things and to come up with original perspectives, and sometimes we lose sight of the thing that is right in front of us. And what's in front of us is a genocidal intention. I think it's there. I really do. And I didn't always believe that. But I tried not to allow my prejudices to enter into the equation. My desire, at a certain level, to think that a single person could not bring this into motion, right? It must have been, you know, some almost accidental blundering into genocide. Human beings aren't capable of such evil, are they? Well, maybe that is the mainspring behind functionalism: the desire to avoid the implications of confronting true human evil. A charismatic leader who from early on wanted to exterminate this group that he blamed for the loss of World War I, which I think is what it goes back to. That was Dawidowicz’s view. I used to dismiss it, think, “Nah, don't see much evidence for that, right?” You start looking at the speeches, reading the police reports, looking at his interviews, and then reading Mein Kampf from beginning to end, and then reading the annotations, which place his text within a historical context. And I came away thinking this book is genocidal. It's a charter for genocide. And that's where I am today.


I'm an intentionalist, and I believe that Hitler intended the Final Solution. I believe he issued the order. I think murder was in the air. That’s a phrase that the historian Christopher Browning uses to describe the summer of 1941 when Jews are being murdered in the Soviet Union, also on Hitler's orders. Hitler orders those murders of Jews in the Soviet Union. And then Hitler’s right-hand man expands those murders to women and children by August of 1941. So probably the second or third most powerful person in the Reich in Berlin, who has constant communication with Hitler, issues the order that expands those killings to Jewish women and children (originally, it was confined to men). And that was July 31, 1941, Heinrich Himmler in Riga. And there’s lots of evidence. Adolf Eichmann in particular is a pretty good witness here, but it's not just Eichmann, other figures also say, “Yeah, Heydrich said, Himmler said.” There are a variety of sources who told the witnesses that Hitler had issued the order, that it was an oral order. He didn't want to be burned. He was already burned once by the euthanasia program because he actually had an order written on his personal stationary with his signature, saying, “Go ahead and start murdering the mentally handicapped,” and then that document emerges and it creates all kinds of consternation. In the summer of 1941, Hitler is not going to make that mistake again, especially in this matter. So it was an oral order issued by Hitler. He was at the very center of it all. That's my belief.


Can't let him off the hook, right? [laughter] Why people want to let this guy off the hook I don't understand. But again, maybe it's just a refusal to confront the implications of a single individual launching such a catastrophe as this. Why do we have this phobia about confronting these implications? I'm not 100% sure, but it has something to do with the fear that a single deranged person can cause so much misery and hardship. You know, that's what I think lies at the heart of it.


AS:

Are there any facets of Holocaust history that you think are often misunderstood by the general public?


MB:

Oh yeah, all the time. There are tons of them. Where shall I start?


How about confusing concentration camps with death camps? That's very, very common, right? I've heard journalists refer to Dachau as a death camp. It was never a death camp. I mean, people were killed there, certainly. But it wasn't a death camp. The death camps arose as a means to murder every person who was sent there. That's one fundamental misunderstanding.


What else? Here's one that maybe you've heard of before: the idea that Hitler had Jewish ancestry. I poll my students sometimes. I say, “How many of you came into this class thinking that Hitler was at least partially Jewish?” More than half the students raised their hands. Think of the implications of this. I mean, if you think Hitler was partially Jewish, [laughter] I don't need to describe to you the implications of that, you understand it, right? So I try to disabuse the students of that. There's a reason why people have this misunderstanding. It's very common. Probably the most entrenched myth about Hitler was that he was partially Jewish. Of course he wasn't, but it arose in Nuremberg. Hans Frank said that Hitler was concerned that he might have a Jewish ancestor, and it turns out he didn't. They looked into it, and subsequent research has confirmed that it is overwhelmingly likely that he did not have a Jewish ancestor. So that's another one.


You move among young people. Do you run into misunderstandings among people your age?


AS:

I think you've touched on the two big ones. The Jewish ancestry misconception is one I've heard a lot before.


MB:

It’s really important to try to combat that one. 


AS:

Yeah. It reminds me of the archetype of the homophobic, closeted, gay politician.


MB:

Yes.


AS:

It's, I think, a very similar idea. 


MB:

I'm trying to come up with some others too. Those are two really big ones. Students confusing Austria with Australia [laughter], that comes up from time to time. That has more to do with geographical ignorance than anything else.


The idea that Hitler was German. Of course, he eventually became German, but he was from Austria.


Oh, here's one: the idea that Nazism was left-wing, that it was socialism. People will see something and then draw conclusions. I mean, sometimes, as Dr. Freud said, a cigar is a cigar, but sometimes it's not. So the fact that the Nazis were called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—that sounds like they were socialist. Au contraire, Pierre. [laughter] I mean, it's ludicrous because the socialists and the communists were the ones who were fighting in the streets with the Nazis from day one. The hecklers who would come, this is where the Sturmabteilung comes into being, the brass-knuckle guys. They came to do security at Hitler's meetings, and they were fighting the socialists. The first people who were thrown in concentration camps were socialists, communists, trade unionists, liberals; Jews were much later. But Jews were not necessarily targeted for concentration camps. They were targeted for death camps, and certainly for the ghettos.


And that's another misunderstanding. “The Jews were immediately thrown into concentration camps as soon as Hitler came to power.” A patent falsehood. Those are some of the big ones.


AS:

Another common misconception that I've heard, even in news reporting, is the framing of the Holocaust as Nazis persecuting Jews for their religion, rather than for their ethnicity.


MB:

That's a tricky one, too, isn't it? I'm not even sure religious antisemitism is the first antisemitism. You could say the first antisemitism goes back to Rome, and Rome's resentment of Judea, right? And its efforts to achieve independence. The Romans dealt severely with any secessionist movement. I mean, they were hell on wheels. The Romans wouldn't tolerate any rebellion. So the original antisemitism wasn't focused on Jewish religion at all, and it probably wasn't even focused so much on their ethnicity. It was focused on the fact that they were identified with rebellion. That was probably the original, just thinking off the top of my head.


But then Christianity arises. Christianity arises as a Jewish movement—it grows up within Judaism. The original Christians were Jewish, and Jesus was Jewish—you know all this. So what does Christianity do? It has to separate itself from Judaism. It also wants to blame somebody for Jesus's death. You can't blame the Romans. They don't take kindly to being accused of killing God or anything like that. So who do you blame? You blame the Jews, the very group that you're trying to distance yourself from, from which you're drifting apart. And eventually, of course, Christianity creates its own independent identity away from Judaism. So then I think it becomes more religious—and also ethnic, it's hard to disentangle those things.


Through the Middle Ages, there are definite religious sources of antisemitism. You know, the idea of the Jews as Christ-killers. Then, because they're Christ-killers, they're so infamous, they're so evil that they could also do things that create the Black Death by poisoning the wells. And then whenever a child would go missing or would die under mysterious circumstances, who would be blamed? Either witches—and there are witch crazes that break out from time to time—or Jews. And these persecutions of Jews seem to me to be very closely connected to the witch crazes. I wish there was more work—and maybe there has been work that I haven't seen—but it would be interesting to see a study done to see if there's some correlation between antisemitic pogroms and persecutions of witches. They seem to feed off the same kind of forces. “Stuff is happening in the world that we don't like. There must be somebody responsible for it. It must be the witches, and it must be Jews,” right? And so you see these pogroms breaking out.


They seem to be driven by religion, but also by the ethnicity of the Jews. They were frequently living in ghettos, they were ghettoized. If you look at the iconography of the Middle Ages, you'll see that in portrayals of Jews, they always wear a certain kind of hat. So there's already this ethnic marker, which was also a sign that they were not Christian. It's sort of hard to disentangle those things.


The Nazis play on Christian antisemitism, but of course they take it into a different realm with racism. They conflated ethnicity and race. That's why they thought of the Germans as being biologically superior to other groups—they were the Aryans. So there's that melding of ethnicity and race, and then the ascription of qualitative differences based on racial background, with the Aryans on top and everybody else below. So sometimes it's really hard to distinguish ethnicity from religion and even from racial thinking, and the Nazis weren't clear thinkers, right? I mean, it was not an intellectual movement. You will find intellectuals among them—Heidegger, for example, and not just Heidegger. There were some really first-rate minds, unfortunately—just goes to show that really smart people can be really stupid about certain things, right? [laughter] Imagine being as brilliant as Heidegger was and becoming a follower of Hitler. Maybe that's a cautionary tale for our politics today.


AS:

What would you say are some ways in which the Holocaust impacted Germany's post-war legal system, as well as legal systems internationally?


MB:

After the war it's really clear. I teach a course in comparative law, and it's based on a book that I co-wrote with some other other legal scholars. I did the chapters on German law. I look really closely at the impact of the Holocaust on post-war law. It's very clear in the Grundgesetz, the constitutional law of West Germany. I can't speak as clearly or as informatively about East Germany, but certainly in the West, so much of their constitutional law is based upon an effort to prevent another Hitler from coming to power. So they eliminated many of the powers of the Reich President. (I say “Reich President”—it's the Bundespräsident now, but it was called the Reich President in the Weimar Republic.) And the Reich President was Paul von Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler. He had the authority to do that. He also had the authority to suspend the constitution and to govern the country through emergency decrees, which he did over and over and over again, habituating the people to think in terms of a government that would bypass the legislature and rule—kind of like a monarch. Hitler was able to make all kinds of hay out of that.


So the Grundgesetz, the Basic Law, then tries to separate these powers from the Bundespräsident, who's the post-war descendant of the Reich President. So they really clipped the wings of the president to prevent him from having the kinds of powers he did previously. And instead those powers are relocated to the Bundestag, which is more accountable to the people.


So many of the freedoms that they give, which are quite significant, are explicitly based upon what happened during the Third Reich—from freedom of speech, to freedom of religion, to freedom to form one's identity without molestation from the government, which protects minorities. There's a real concern in the German constitution with the protection of minority rights that goes straight back to the Holocaust and the events of the 1930s. Let's not forget it wasn't just Jews. Jews were the primary victims, certainly, but there are other groups too who were adversely affected to the point of genocide. The Romani, the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses—who were also persecuted here, by the way, for very similar reasons. Do you know why they were persecuted in Germany? The Witnesses?


AS:

Conscription?


MB:

Conscription comes a little bit later. But even earlier on, they wouldn't do the Hitler salute. And in the United States they would not take the pledge of allegiance. They wouldn't raise their hand up. Similar kind of thing, right? And they were persecuted in the United States and also in Germany. There were lots of groups that ran afoul of the Nazis. So there's a real concern to try to protect minority rights. And you see this, if you just read the Basic Law.


They also have a provision of the constitution that’s very different from the United States. And it's different because the Germans were the ones who launched the Final Solution, the epicenter of the Holocaust. So what it says is, “Yeah, there's freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, but the democracy needs to defend itself.” And what Hitler demonstrated is that the tools of democracy—namely freedom of speech, freedom of assembly—could be used to destroy democracy. And this is even what Joseph Goebbels says; he says something to the effect of “we will use the tools of democracy to destroy the democracy.” Pretty lapidary statement of his intentions, right? [laughter] This is exactly what they do though, right? I mean, that's really to a large extent what they're able to do. So post-war Germany says, “Freedom of speech, absolutely. Freedom of assembly, certainly. But you can't use freedom of speech or freedom of assembly to justify extremist, anti-constitutional positions. You can't advocate violence against the Jews.” They went so far as to say you couldn't deny the Holocaust. So they have Holocaust denial laws that are premised on their constitution, which itself is based upon the experience of the Holocaust. And that's one of the main legacies of Nazism today. 


AS:

How about the impact on international law? 


MB:

The international law is vast, as you can imagine; it really comes out of Nuremberg more than anything else. Nuremberg and also the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which borrowed many of the concepts from Nuremberg and applied those to Japanese war criminals: the concept of war crimes; crimes against humanity, which had never been adjudicated before in international law; crimes against peace (initiating an aggressive war—attacking other countries, basically). You are justified in defending yourself. And this is why I believe Israel is justified in going into Gaza. Now, we can argue about individual bombings. We can certainly talk about war crimes being committed in that context. But the principle of self-defense is well-established in international law. The idea of aggressively attacking for no reason—there's no provocation by the other country—and attacking them the way that the Nazis did other countries, that was charged against the Nuremberg defendants. They were charged with some other things too, like membership in criminal organizations (the SS and the Sicherheitsdienst) and conspiracy. But the three big charges were crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, and war crimes. And never before had international law recognized individual criminal liability for these crimes. Never before.


And of course, that goes on to affect everything. The UN Genocide Convention passed in 1948 was clearly connected to the Holocaust. In fact, it's explicitly looking back at the Holocaust. So when it talks about genocide, it talks about genocide committed by the nation-state. Well, as we know, genocide is sometimes committed by other groups—I would argue that the genocide that was committed in the United States was done by settler groups and state-militia groups. But the Genocide Convention and so many of the conventions of the late ‘40s really look at war crimes and violations of international law as being committed by state actors because they're looking back at what happened during the war. Who were the major war criminals? They were state actors or people acting on behalf of state interests. So there's another legacy of the Holocaust. And that continued through the development of courts in the 1990s: the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (devoted to the war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, and genocide committed in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (devoted to the genocide in Rwanda) were like miniature Nurembergs. I would suggest that they’re modeled on Nuremberg as the template.


And then, finally, the International Criminal Court, which comes into being in 2002, creating a permanent criminal court. If you look at their articles, they align very closely with the Nuremberg Charter. War crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity—but they also prosecute genocide, which Nuremberg never did.


AS:

There's often a tension in Holocaust education between teaching the Holocaust as a historically specific event in which Jews, Roma, and other minorities were targeted, versus teaching it as a broader lesson in the dangers of dehumanization and fascism. To what extent do you think that Holocaust education should focus on historical specificity versus universality?


MB:

When it comes to Holocaust education, I like the idea of focusing on the Holocaust. But, of course, the discipline itself is called “Holocaust and genocide studies.” So when you add the “genocide studies” part, then that would open the curriculum to a wider field. At the Bornstein Center, for example, the Holocaust is really the bread and butter of the center. But in our adult education program, we had a unit on Armenia, we had a unit on Cambodia, which for many people was not even a genocide.


Cambodia was sometimes called an auto-genocide or a self-genocide. Many people claim that it wasn't a genocide because the victims were not chosen based upon the victim groups recognized by the UN Genocide Convention. There are four groups: ethnicity, race, nationality, and religion. Those are the four. Most of the killing that was done in Cambodia was (at least arguably) politically driven. Now, there were individual killings that seemed to have been more racial. There was a minority called the Cham people who were targeted by the Khmer Rouge, and many of them were murdered. So that appears to have been a genocidal massacre within a larger genocide that seemed to be driven more by social and political sorts of considerations.


Most scholars do not recognize Stalin's crimes as being genocide. And again, people disagree. Some people think that his dekulakization program in Ukraine, for example, could be interpreted as an effort to get rid of a nationality, to tamp down Ukrainian nationality. Today, some people think that what's going on in Ukraine is genocidal. I think Timothy Snyder at Yale is of that view, from what I can tell. He seems to lean in the direction of thinking that it's an effort to get rid, at least in part, of Ukrainian national identity. Of course, that's a protected class within the Genocide Convention.


AS:

Do you have any recommendations for other educators teaching about the Holocaust?


MB:

That's a broad question. [laughter]


AS:

It’s also the last question. [laughter]


MB:

[laughter] I guess it depends in part on what level they're teaching. People are talking about the Holocaust already in elementary school. So what you say in elementary school would be very different from what you would say in high school, and what you say in high school probably would be different from what you would say in college, or even in graduate school.


Whenever I talk to high-school groups, I try to frame it in terms of things that they're familiar with. All of us have that experience of the unpopular kid. Maybe we were the unpopular kid. I mean, every person has a different experience at high school, but certainly everybody understands the concept of the unpopular group, the unpopular kid. And oftentimes that person was singled out for persecution. So when I've gone into junior high schools or high schools, I've tried to use that as a wedge to talk about how it is that this phenomenon really can continue—how it has a macro sort of dimensionality in which people continue as citizens, as grown adults, and their collectives can continue to persecute, badger, or harass groups who are considered outliers, who don't fit in, who are considered different. That's one approach that I think can be valuable. At least, I’ve found it to have utility. I think you have to try to meet people where they are.


When it comes to college, I think you can take a more academic sort of approach. At least I've tried to. I even try to talk some theory with my students, so I'll talk about functionalism and intentionalism a little bit. I don't get too deeply into the weeds of theory with the college students.


Now, graduate school is a different story. Then you really get into a lot of the theoretical debates—the debate between uniqueness and comparability, for example. That's one of the major axes around which the debate about Holocaust issues has pivoted. Steven Katz, for example, was a staunch defender of singularity, the incomparability of the Holocaust. He took it so far as to claim that the only true genocide in history was the Holocaust. He didn't even believe that other mass killings were genocide. So that would be one fairly staunch, so-called hard singularist.


And then other people were much more comfortable with comparing and with identifying the Holocaust as being an extreme example of genocide. I'm much more comfortable comparing, and not just comparing, but suggesting commonalities and continuities, which for me are rooted in sociobiology. They're rooted in culture—culture varies from place to place, without a doubt. But there's, to me, an undeniable sociobiological level to it, as well, because we're all human beings. We're all the creatures of a common evolutionary history that goes back millions of years; the cultural forms are much more surface-level. That doesn't mean they can't have profound impacts—they can. But for me, the sociobiology is really fundamental. So for me, the studies of social psychologists are really valuable: Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Solomon Asch, and so forth. There's a scholar whom I'm in the habit of mentioning whenever I talk about this topic. His name is James Waller. He wrote a wonderful book as a psychologist approaching the Holocaust from a social-psychological standpoint. And so he looks at the Holocaust as his main genocide, but then looks at other mass killings and genocidal events in history. He believes that they can be explained to a large extent by social psychology. And I think there's a lot of truth in that. But of course, that's the human animal and its evolutionary history as refracted through cultural lenses, which makes it a little complex. But I think we can compare. I really do. So I find myself more on the side of the comparativists. That's something that you can talk about much more easily, I think, in graduate school; maybe if you're doing a senior seminar, especially an honors seminar, you might be able to get into that with students at the college level.


AS:

Thank you so much for your time.


MB:

You're very welcome. I hope it wasn’t too long!

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