A Visit to the Holocaust Museum

As part of a course on applying what is known about mass atrocity prevention to the United States, I accompanied Doug Irvin-Erickson and some of his students to the U.S. Holocaust Museum on Friday.

Because of the course, I focused on the top floor of the permanent exhibit which deals with the Nazis rise to power and what happened in the first years after Hitler took office. In past visits, I’d thought more about what happened later to the millions of victims (which undoubtedly included a goodly number of my relatives) and why the Allies had not done something sooner to stop the killings.

This time, I had the key lessons from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die fresh in my head.  The brilliance (and scary nature) of this book lies in their focus on four factors that they have seen in the “deaths” of many democracies and not just Weimar Germany:

  • Rejection or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game
  • Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  • Toleration and even the encouragement of violence
  • Readiness to curtain civil liberties.

All four of those dangers were on display in those first exhibits we saw, and we all found ourselves worrying just how much each of those is present in the United States and Western Europe today. After all, that is the concern that led the two Harvard political scientists to write the book in the first place.

I am by no means making the case that we are just a few steps away from our own version of the Holocaust. Our democracy has plenty of built in institutional safeguards, and our political culture is more conducive to sustaining democracy than Weimar’s ever was.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that the U.S. and much of Europe are facing challenges on each of their bullet points. You don’t need me to fill in examples for each of them. All you have to do is pay attention to the news on just about any day. Don’t stop with news here in the United States. Look at Brexit. Or developments in Poland and Hungary.  Or the most recent elections in France and Germany. In other words, the danger goes far beyond the Trump presidency, although I’m plenty worried about that.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in all that good a mood as I walked from the museum to our office. It would have been even worse had I gone by a half hour later when someone tried to breach security at the White House by ramming her van into a barrier at the entrance I had just walked past.

But my spirits did get lifted, because I was heading to my office to meet a friend who has worked in peacebuilding abroad and is just back from three years living in Namibia. Mindy has decided to take some time off from work and do a PhD in conflict resolution. Initially, she had planned to do something on neuroscience which is also on the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s agenda. After returning to the U.S., she has decided to write on some aspect(s) of peacebuilding here.

In the next two weeks, she will be developing a proposal on what to include in her PhD research. While she has plenty of possibilities, she will be looking at efforts that address the four bullet points I drew from the Levitsky and Ziblatt.

She definitely will be looking at organizations like Better Angels and the Bridge Alliance. She will also be studying some of the mostly locally based organizations that we at AfP and Peace Direct surfaced in doing a preliminary “map” of American peacebuilding efforts.

But, she and we are looking for other initiatives that she could study and that we could include in our efforts to create what I called an architecture for peacebuilding in my post last week.

So, if you have any suggests, send me an email at chip@charleshauss.info and I’ll pass them on to Mindy and the rest of our team.

Also published on Medium.