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Comparative Study of Genocide


Teaching, Learning, and Researching Genocide Comparatively

Lauren McArthur Harris, Marcie Jergel Hutchinson, Volker Benkert, Jason Bruner, Anders Erik Lundin


     In this article, we propose a comparative approach to teaching genocide.1 We contend that such a comparative approach could be based on the historical analysis of survivor testimonies using comparative themes. The notion of identifying comparative themes as an analytical tool informed a pilot program we conducted with high school students and teachers.

Challenges to Teaching Genocide Comparatively

     Utilizing a comparative approach in the investigation of genocide is nothing new, and the field itself can probably be traced back to Ervin Staub in his 1989 book, Roots of Evil.2 Teaching and representing genocide in comparative ways, however, does appear to be a fairly novel approach, which has received some attention by historians and history teachers.3 In considering U.S. schools, one typically finds that whereas curricula treat the Holocaust in a cursory manner, there is even less time devoted to other genocides and mass atrocities.4 In a recent review of the world history standards of the ten most populous states, we found that most of the states paid little or no attention to certain genocides by excluding them or merely listing them with no indication of historical context or significance. For instance, Texas includes the standard: "identify examples of genocide, including the Holocaust and genocide in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur."5 Although Texas includes other standards on the Holocaust, this is all teachers get for the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur. The California standards, on the other hand, do not mention Rwanda, but do include the Armenian Genocide: "Discuss human rights violations and genocide, including the Ottoman government's actions against Armenian citizens."6

     Even though different genocides are often listed together in standards documents, there is typically no indication in the documents how teachers might pedagogically approach the genocides (i.e., individually, comparatively, or both). Given that teachers often feel uncomfortable or underprepared to teach about genocide,7 the lack of information in the standards documents may lead to further marginalization of these topics. Additionally, whereas some teachers may be somewhat more familiar with the Holocaust due to increased exposure of representations over the past couple of decades, other genocides (such as those that have occurred in Guatemala or Cambodia, for example) have not been well represented in curriculum, textbooks, or popular culture.8 The banning of textbooks that speak about the oppression of Native Americans, Latinos/as, and African-Americans may further seem to present little hope for greater representation of these injustices in schools, including, as an example, the outright ban on ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District in 2010.9

     Even where standards or curriculum imply a comparative approach to genocide, comparisons may be facile. For example, Arizona high school standards call for an examination of "genocides as manifestation of extreme nationalism in the 20th century (e.g. Armenia, Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Sudan)."10 However, there is little space in the standards devoted to these topics, and extreme nationalism, by itself, cannot link these atrocities—Cambodia was an "autogenocide" committed by Khmer against Khmer and the genocide in Darfur occurred amidst civil war, with an Islamist state power manipulating competition over scarce resources among its populace. Educators must strive, therefore, to derive pedagogical norms that justify the application of the comparative approach.

     Thus, we argue that educators could benefit from a forum that facilitates the instruction of various genocides in a comparative manner to their students. A project dealing with issues pertaining to genocide and aiming for these goals must aim to enable the acquisition of knowledge about particular genocides even as it teaches students how to examine historical evidence comparatively.11 Such a program should also be designed so as to provide access to various forms of survivor testimony and to engage those students directly in the process of conducting historical research through their analysis of these testimonies. Individual testimonies should then appear, in some form, alongside testimonies from other atrocities in such a way as to allow students to locate and delineate common themes, such as prejudice, violence, perpetrators, survival, resistance, conformity, ideology, and coming to terms with the past. These themes, which are found in many testimonies, can form the basis for further comparative education, representation, and research. We believe that this methodology can provide an intellectual framework that meaningfully establishes connections drawn from survivors' testimonies. These connections provide a basis for comparative research and teaching that is not dependent upon creating hierarchies of suffering among victims of genocide. Such contextualization and comparison of testimony from different atrocities can help to transform the ways of representing violence and genocide by engaging students and encouraging self-guided learning.12

     While this learning may alter the student's understandings of mass violence in general, we also believe that the results of students' research could facilitate the creation of a comparative database that would itself be generative of comparative genocide research and representation. For example, metadata generated by student researchers could then be utilized to construct an online digital exhibition on comparative genocide. What is more, digital exhibitions can allow for more comparative learning by tagging onto survivor testimony new layers of information and connections to other testimony from other genocides. Though lacking in conveying the power of the artifact or the historical place, digital exhibitions have different ways to address the past alien to traditional museums. Equally important would be this kind of digital space's capacity to display dynamically comparative themes by allowing its visitors to juxtapose testimonies from different atrocities according to their relevance to a given theme. These different layers then create an exhibition that is both self-guided as well as multilayered, thereby offering as much information or comparison as the visitor may choose.

Comparative Genocide Testimony Pilot Project

     We have recently begun to pilot such a comparative genocide project at Arizona State University. Our goal is to engage students in the process of historical thinking, research, and inquiry by connecting them to both the expertise of university faculty as well as valuable historical sources from various genocides from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Project participants, high school and undergraduate university students, use digital tools to analyze and annotate genocide survivor testimonies using a set of comparative terms. As students add material to an online database, we will have the ability to tag more layers of information onto an individual testimony. These layers can introduce additional information in the forms of scholarly interpretations, video, or maps pertaining to the events described. Yet, other layers will also link the testimony at hand to testimony from the same genocide as well as those from other atrocities on the basis of common themes. Through engaging students in this way, educators can draw students into wider conversations, which are absolutely essential for creating future awareness concerning new possible instances of mass violence and for contributing to processes of reconciliation. In analyzing testimonies of the survivors of genocide, students should find themselves engaging in questions of personal and communal reconciliation through Margaret Urban Walker's concept of social moral repair, which includes "validation, voice and vindication" for the victims as well as "humane punishment, shame and compensation" for perpetrators.13 Participating students can, therefore, not only learn about different genocides and the process of comparative research, but also contribute immediately to the larger body of proactive research occurring in the field of genocide studies.

     We developed a tool—the Comparative Genocide Reporting Form (see Appendix)—to assist teachers in using testimony more fully as a primary source. We have introduced this tool to teachers through conference sessions and professional development workshops, and we have also conducted a pilot project at a local Arizona high school. With this tool, students were guided through seven steps of analysis including detailing testimony and publication information, examining the historical context, examining the testimony for the comparative themes, and assessing the usefulness of the testimony for classroom and research use. To complete the Reporting Form students needed to use historical thinking skills to consider the historical perspectives and context of a particular testimony. Since we did not include pre or post-exercise measurements of students' knowledge of the Holocaust or any other genocide, we cannot make claims to this exercise's effectiveness in filling in lacunae in students' understanding of particular genocides. Instead, however, we sought to demonstrate whether students would be able to identify thematic content from survivor testimonies, and we intend to examine how this project might fit into a broader curriculum and pedagogical concerns in future studies.

     We found that student participants were able to identify and articulate common themes in diverse testimonies (see the Appendix for more on the themes we have developed). For example, using the Rwandan Genocide testimony by Josephine Uwamahoro, a student was not only able to tag the interview correctly with respect to comparative themes such ostracism, persecution, and survival, but she also identified key phrases and excerpts relevant to each theme.14 What is more, the student started to make connections about the importance of neighbors and acquaintances in genocide, pointing out that the key instigator of the massacre at the church in Nyamata was someone well familiar to Ms. Uwamahoro. Another student participant noted a similar phenomenon in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum testimony of Steven Fenves (Holocaust, Yugoslavia), where neighbors played a key role.15

     Through the stories of genocide survivors, students in the pilot project wrote about the wider implications of prejudice. In the framework of this process one student in particular was able to discern from a testimony on the Rwandan Genocide complex features of the genocide's development, writing:

Even though religion and citizenship were constant, the nationality (based on the period before colonization) was fuel enough to ignite the fire. The judgment was very deep rooted and only increased by the forced unity of the tribes.

This student was not only able to catalog survivor testimony along comparative themes, but also critically locate the ethnic quality of the antagonism amongst disparate related factors that added to the dynamics of the genocide. In the end, this is exactly the kind of engagement and reaction that educators should be seeking from their students on topics of this nature, as it reveals a developing critical approach to examining the term "genocide" and its varied application.


     The comparative approach to genocide, as treated through testimonial observation and critical engagement across digital mediums, provides the context by which such a result might occur. As mentioned, we are currently in the early stages of this project, but we have been pleased with students' and teachers' work in the pilot program. We hope that educators will find this approach to be an important and effective way to draw students into the conversation concerning genocide, and, eventually, to be numbered among those voices that will help to name those future atrocities as they happen. For if educational institutions fail to address genocide comparatively or only treat its study as a mere afterthought, we might well find in the famous rhetorical reaction to the Holocaust of "Never Again" an unrealized ideal.

Jason Bruner is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His first book, Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda, is forthcoming with University of Rochester Press. He can be reached at

Volker Benkert is an Assistant Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the impact of sudden regime change on biographies after both totalitarian regimes in 20th century Germany. He can be reached at

Marcie Hutchinson, after thirty-one years as a high school history teacher, is currently Director of K-12 Initiatives for the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS) at Arizona State University. She has instructed ASU secondary education students in history teaching methods and is project coordinator, curriculum designer and presenter for Jazz from A to Z an interdisciplinary program of Mesa Arts Center and SHPRS in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center. He can be reached at

Lauren McArthur Harris is an Assistant Professor of History Education at Arizona State University. Her work focuses on issues in history/social studies teaching, learning, and curriculum, particularly related to world history. She can be reached at

Anders Erik Lundin is graduate student pursing a Master's Degree at Yale Divinity School, where he is studying religion and media. Before that he wrote screenplays for short films.



Please review the entire form before watching/listening to/reading the testimony

1. General Information

Note: "testimony" is used to describe any account provided by a witness

Name of testimony (for example, "Diary of Anne Frank")_______________________________

Name of the genocide (e.g., The Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide):________________________

2. Student Researcher Information

Your name __________________________________________________________________

Date: _________________________

Grade level and course_______________________________School______________________

Teacher's name_________________________________________________________________

3. Testimony and Publication Information

Date of testimony given: _____________ Date of event(s) discussed: ___________________

Place where testimony was recorded: ___________ Place where events occurred___________

Where and how is it stored now (link to web location): ________________________________

Type of the testimony (interview, court testimony, diary, autobiography, other):


Type of rendition: (text, video, audio): _____________________________

Length (pages, minutes): ____________________________

Person or institution who collected the testimony (for example, the person asking the questions):

Name: _____________________________________________

What role did the person play in the process (for example, interviewer, collector or editor, all three)?


If possible, identify the person's motivation for generating the testimony:


Witness (fill in as much information as possible about the witness at the time of the event):

Name of witness: __________________ Gender: ________Age (at time of event)____

Nationality/ethnicity: ________________________ Education level: ______________

Occupation: ____________________________________________

Religion: _____________________________

Identify which experiences are personal and which were reports from others:


How does he/she know about the events he/she describes?



4. Context of the Events described

Please look up the event(s) described in the testimony (be sure to cite your source). Do the events described corroborate or contradict the description and function of the place at the time the witness was there? Why or why not?



If other people are mentioned in the testimony, can you find out anything about them (be sure to cite your sources)?



Are there any historical figures mentioned? ______________ If so, does the description in the testimony corroborate or contradict other descriptions of that person? Did you find evidence that the person mentioned actually was or could have been at that place in that time?



5. 100-word Summary

Please summarize the events described in the testimony in no more than 100 words.

6. Quote

Cite the most memorable or powerful quote from the testimony:



Why did you choose these words?



6. Comparative Themes

Please address the following questions for the themes below. Please indicate if the testimony does not address a particular theme. See below for theme explanation.


Yes or No

Explanation (using the questions below as a guide)

1. Prejudice


2. Violence


3. Survival / Resistance


4. Perpetrators


5. Conformity


6. Ideology


7. Coming to Terms with the Past


Theme explanations and questions:

(1) Prejudice

Genocide and atrocity often erupt suddenly, yet rarely without a prior history of conflict and hatred. One precondition to genocide is to define a group as fundamentally different, often building on long existing racial, religious or ethnic prejudices. This can occur in many ways through segregation and ostracism enacted by state bureaucracies and supported by mainstream society. Did the author of the testimony you investigate experience prejudice, segregation or ostracism? How did prejudice by others manifest itself, how was segregation enforced? Who ostracized the author of your testimony, and how exactly was he/she subject to ostracism such as theft his his/her property, violence against religious symbols and social isolation.

(2) Violence

Physical violence aimed at persecuting or enslaving others often, but not necessarily, has led to ethnic cleansing and genocide. All ethnic cleansing entails large-scale murder. Some instances of mass murder, like the murder of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, are aimed entirely at the killing of an entire group. Other instances, like often happened among Native Americans, were often aimed at decimation and displacement. Which forms of violence such as beating, rape, ethnic cleansing and murder did the author of the testimony you are investigating witness first hand?

(3) Survival / Resistance

No people were killed and no group was destroyed without resistance, yet resistance could take on different forms. Survival in itself is an act of resistance. Yet, some went even further by sabotaging the work of the persecutors, helping others or offering armed resistance. Which strategies of survival did the author of your testimony employ and how did he/she resist the persecutors, such as hiding and aiding others or even bearing witness to crimes after the atrocity? Did the testimony mention any use of counter-force against the perpetrators of genocide? If so, in what ways? Did the survivor act alone or with a group? How did their strategies of survival and/or resistance change through the course of the genocide?

(4) Perpetrators

People commit genocides, not faceless bureaucracies led by a dictator and his madmen. Who were the perpetrators, and in what kind of military or bureaucratic structures were they organized? Does the testimony you worked on say anything about the motivations of perpetrators? Which role did economic considerations play and how did perpetrators benefit from the crimes? Does the testimony mention the role of the state and its main actors?

(5) Conformity

No atrocity can be committed without the tacit consent of the mainstream population. Such conformity can be achieved by threatening the mainstream population, yet indifference or, worse still, willing complicity for personal gain were also important factors that made ordinary people go along with the atrocities that were unfolding around them. As such, many members of the mainstream society benefitted by taking over land, water rights, or possessions of those persecuted while others stood idly by. What does the testimony you are working on say about ordinary members of the non-persecuted group? Was there a vast change in intergroup relations? If so, was this a sudden or gradual change? Did the survivors feel threatened by others in the community? Did the speaker see ordinary people complicit in these atrocities, and how so?

(6) Ideology

Encompassing ideologies and the propagandistic tools to spread them are essential to elicit enough support from perpetrators, bystanders and beneficiaries to the crime. How were ideas spread and which media are mentioned in your testimony? In which way did they build on preexisting prejudice? How did the state justify or explain its decisions to commit these atrocities? How did state ideologies change in order to facilitate the murder of others? To what extent were those persecuted blamed for their own suffering or made scapegoats for the contemporary problems?

(7) Coming to Terms with the Past

Justice, commemoration and reconciliation are ways for survivors to address the past. Does the testimony offer any insights as to how to commemorate the atrocity, how and if perpetrators were brought to justice and how those who idly stood by were held responsible? Finally, is there any mention of reconciliation and what would be the prerequisites of reconciliation in the eyes of the victims? Does the speaker come across with having found some sort of justice and/or reconciliation? Does he/she feel that the crimes has been officially recognized and/or compensated in some form? Is there a sense of hope for the future? If not, what is the survivor's disposition to his or her past?

7. Recommendations for classroom/research usage

Do you think this testimony should be used for a historian researching genocide (check one):
yes_______ no _______

Do you think this testimony should be used for teaching genocide in high school (check one):
yes_______ no _______

If you think this testimony should be used, please list three reasons why below:




If you think this testimony should not be used, please list the reasons why below (e.g., not reliable, poor quality recording, not informative, not representative of the experience of the group):





1 Please also see Jason Bruner, Volker Benkert, Lauren McArthur Harris, Marcie Jergel Hutchinson, and Anders Erik Lundin, "Developing a Critical Comparative Genocide Method," World History Connected 14, no. 2 (2017).

2 Ervin Staub, Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Group Violence(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

3 Brenda Melendy, "World History Analysis and the Comparative Study of Genocide," World History Connected 9, no. 5 (2012); Anthony Pattiz, "Using a Japanese War Crime Trial Simulation to Expand Students' Understanding of the Roots of Wartime Atrocities, Mass Killings and Genocide," World History Connected 6, no. 3 (2009).

4 Samuel Totten, "Introduction." In Teaching About Genocide: Issues, Approaches, and Resources, edited by Samuel Totten (Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, 2004), vii-xi.

5 Texas Education Agency, "Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies," (2011),, 17.

6 California Department of Education, "History–Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve," (2000),, 44. California and some other states have supplementary documents that provide more information about the genocides included in the standards.

7 Samuel Totten, "Addressing the "Null Curriculum": Teaching About Genocides Other Than the Holocaust," Social Education 65, no. 5 (2001), 309-13.

8 ibid; Simone Schweber, ""Holocaust Fatigue" in Teaching Today," Social Education 70, no. 1 (2006), 48-55.

9 See the report on this decision in an article by Jeff Biggers, "Who Is Afraid of the Tempest?" Salon, 13 January 2010,; see also J. Weston Phippen, "How One Law Banning Ethnic Studies Led to its Rise," The Atlantic, 19 July 2015,

10 Arizona Department of Education, "Social Studies Standard Articulated by Grade Level: High School." (2006),, 13.

11 Pattiz, "Using a Japanese War Crime Trial Simulation."

12 Melendy, "World History Analysis."

13 Margaret Urban Walker, Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), chs. 6 and 9.

14 Hugh McCullum, The Angels have Left Us: The Rwandan Genocide and the Churches (WCC Publications, 1995), xix. "We will never come back to this church. The Angels have left us." The video is available here:

15 Podcast and full interview with Steven Fenves available here:

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