Book Review on Genocide

I try to get a fair amount of writing done over the break, and that usually includes some book reviews. A few weeks ago, I published a review of a book on LSD guru Timothy Leary’s flight from law enforcement, and just this week a review in the Wall Street Journal of a powerful Holocaust study by historian Omer Bartov. I have pasted it in below.

In hyperpolarized environments, many take comfort in the idea that our conflicts with other people arise mainly from misunderstandings, that if we just took the time to get to know those people as human beings, we might all get along. It will be harder to take such comfort after reading Omer Bartov’s “Anatomy of a Genocide.”

Mr. Bartov, a professor of European history at Brown University, has spent his professional life trying to understand the efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. He has written on Nazi ideology and the German military; on total war’s relation to genocide; and on questions of representation and memory in regard to traumatic historical events. For several years, he has been interested in the role of Eastern European interethnic relations in the Holocaust and its aftermath. “Anatomy of a Genocide”—a detailed examination of deadly events in the town of Buczacz, in present-day Ukraine, during World War II—is the product of his decades of research into the ways in which ideology, ethnic tension and war become a recipe for mass murder. It is also a powerfully personal project. Mr. Bartov’s mother immigrated from Buczacz to what is now Israel in the mid-1930s. Family members who didn’t emigrate were murdered in the “cruel and intimate” events of the following decade.

If you google Buczacz, you will probably be redirected to Buchach, the currently acceptable spelling for the Ukrainian version of the city’s name. There are also Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkish versions, because today’s western Ukraine, part of what is sometimes called Galicia, has been home to a variety of ethnic groups for centuries. In the late 1700s, the province contained about 200,000 Jews and an even greater number of Christians who identified as either Polish or Ukrainian (Ruthenians). Throughout the 19th century, the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in 1867 “emancipated” the Jews: As citizens, they could now engage in commerce and own land. As more and more Jews took advantage of these freedoms, tensions arose with other groups.

Mr. Bartov notes that the “rules of the game” changed completely after World War I and the Russian Revolution. Intensified religious and ethnic identification, along with violent swings in political control, led to increased violence. Russia occupied Buczacz for more than a year near the end of the war, and fighting among Poles and Ukrainians left legacies of resentment and a “competition of atrocities in which there could only be losers.” The Poles and Ukrainians seemed to agree on one thing: that the Jews were the friends of their enemies. This meant that whenever conflicts arose, the Jewish population was vulnerable.

And in Buczacz conflicts did arise, not least in the late 1930s and early 1940s—from the Soviet occupation of the city as World War II began, to the fierce fighting between Poles and Ukrainians, to the coordinated effort to murder or expel Jews from the region. Families that had managed to live together peacefully turned on one another with startling ferocity. “The intimacy of friendships that served as a barrier to stereotypes,” Mr. Bartov writes, “was now transformed into an intimacy of violence.” Although there had been sporadic violence in the region for a long time, even the shrewdest observer “could not anticipate the scale of the horror that was about to envelope Galicia.”

There is by now an enormous body of literature on the depravity of those who organized, implemented, or just stood by and watched the mass killings of Eastern European Jews in 1942-43. But even readers familiar with this literature and the gruesome events it describes will be shaken by Mr. Bartov’s story of this single town. It is brutal. Killers knew their victims personally, and most of the time such familiarity only added to the sadistic glee with which they slaughtered children or buried entire families in mass graves. Many of the perpetrators were known as decent folk before the killings began, not displaying any particular tendencies toward violence or ideologically fueled hatred. And afterward they were able to return to their normal lives without a trace of their capacities for cruelty or any indication of remorse or shame. The bloodshed seemingly left no stain.

German overseers were brought in to Buczacz to ensure that the extermination of the Jews would be efficient. Mr. Bartov draws our attention to the gratuitous nastiness of many of the killers—this wasn’t just a military operation or a case of merely following orders. Murderers and their lovers, families and friends “appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region,” Mr. Bartov writes. After all, they were powerful for a while; they held life and death in their hands, and they had access to all the food, booze and sex they could possible want. “For many of them,” Mr. Bartov says, “this was clearly the best time of their lives.”

This is not a story of industrialized murder of the sort that occurred at centers like Auschwitz. This is a story of close-up killing—of shooting a young girl in the face, of smashing a toddler’s skull against a rock or a wall. There was little effort at secrecy. The mass graves on Fedor Hill, a popular recreation site, were easily visible, and in a small place like Buczacz, everyone knew the final destinations of Jews who were marched away. Recruiting townsmen to be shooters was never a problem, Mr. Bartov notes, and participation in the murders of neighbors “nourished a grotesquely merry intimacy.”

Mr. Bartov does devote some pages to accounts of people in the region who spared the lives of Jews on the run, often at risk to themselves. These rare acts of goodness, he concludes, demonstrate that “there always was a choice”—in many cases the decision to help was a mercenary calculation, in precious few was it motivated by “altruism and grace.”

The defeat of the Nazis did not bring respite to the region. As the Soviet armies approached, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists intensified their attacks on each other. Scores of thousands were killed before the Ukrainians succeeded in 1944 in driving Polish citizens from the region. By then the Jews were gone. When the Soviets seized control, they decided that there could be no return to normal after such massive trauma. They moved hundreds of thousands of people in order to separate the competing nationalist groups. By the end of the 1940s, the once multiethnic region had become homogeneously Ukrainian.

Today, Buczacz’s citizens memorialize the martyred Ukrainian nationalists who fought for their cause. The Polish population has all but disappeared, and there is just the occasional Jewish visitor to a Holocaust monument buried deep in a dense forest. Mr. Bartov’s anatomy of genocidal destruction is a monument of a different sort. It is an act of filial piety recollecting the blood-soaked homeland of his parents; it is a substantive contribution to the history of ethnic strife and extreme violence; it is a harrowing reminder that brutality and intimacy can combine to destroy individual lives and reshape the destiny of a region and its peoples: history as recollection and as warning.

Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. Among his books is “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

Against Cynicism in Higher Education

I published this  op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, which followed a book review I wrote for their Sunday edition.


Across the political spectrum, too many Americans have lost faith in college education. Liberals and conservatives have few talking points in common, but they have come to agree on this: Campuses have replaced teaching and learning with indoctrination and political posturing.

That should trouble us all. If U.S. higher education comes to be seen first and foremost as a political endeavor, the country as a whole will suffer.

When education is framed as necessarily partisan, only cynicism triumphs. And cynicism is what we see growing on the left and the right in the United States. In recent years, higher education has become a punching bag for “knowing cynics” — conservative and progressive — who seem to discount the very possibility of rigorous inquiry that proceeds without certainty of how things might come out.

Some on the left are confident they have discovered that education was always political and that the promise of social mobility has long been an illusion foisted on the poor to keep them in line. Some on the right are sure they have discovered that education is just a device to indoctrinate the young into the ways of radicalism popular among otherwise unproductive professors.

In both cases, however, these “discoveries” are at heart little more than the adoption of an attitude of cynicism — the price of admission to a desired group. Cynicism is a pose one takes on to win friends while giving up on influencing people. Cynics think they know enough to know that they have nothing more to learn; they purchase an air of sophistication by condescending to people still trying to broaden their thinking and sharpen their skills.

The cynical pose toward education isn’t based on facts. There is no evidence that recent graduates of colleges and universities are far more radical than those who preceded them, or that they have been indoctrinated into the political beliefs of their professors in significant numbers. The most popular majors at American universities — including computer science, business and communications — show no evidence of such indoctrination. Nor is there evidence that U.S. colleges are mostly turning out selfish, would-be masters of the universe whose creed is greed. On the contrary, volunteerism is robust on college campuses, as is participation in forms of engagement that build a healthier civil society.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my parents, who didn’t attend college themselves, little understood what happened at institutions of higher education. But they nonetheless sacrificed a great deal so my brother and I could continue our educations after high school. They had faith that doing so would give us better chances in life. Have we reached an inflection point in this faith — a point at which higher education is no longer seen by most as a source of problem solving and opportunity creation, a vehicle for social mobility and a resource for personal thriving?

That possibility is nothing to be cynical about. The alternative to learning, to experimenting with other points of view and new domains of inquiry, is parochialism, what philosopher Richard Rorty labeled “self-protective knowingness about the present.” We already see this in very public refusals to listen to people with views different from one’s own, in the rejection of basic science, and in the petty nastiness that comes from the resentment that other people are learning something you don’t know.

Our colleges and universities thrive when they cultivate inquiry on the basis of a variety of points of view. Their combination of research and teaching still provides the most fertile soil for creating opportunities and solving urgent problems — from medicine and technology to public policy and the arts. This doesn’t mean higher ed is immune from critique; on the contrary, calls for expanded access for low-income families, greater intellectual diversity and enhanced freedom of expression are having positive effects. More of this is needed. We learn to improve through attentive criticism, not the cynical embrace of tribal partisanship.

The American pragmatists taught that the mission of philosophy was to help people construct a sense of who they are, what matters to them and what they hope to make of their lives. That’s also a central part of the mission of higher education. Yes, the process of questioning oneself and the world can be disturbing — whether one is on the left or the right. But this mission, whatever forms it takes, is ultimately not about constructing a partisan position; it’s about developing self-awareness, subtlety of thought and openness to the possibility of learning from others.

The cynical dismissal of that mission, from liberals and conservatives alike, is dangerous at a time when we need adventurous, rigorous inquiry more than ever.

Greeting the New Year at Wesleyan

After picking up our daughter Sophie from her study abroad semester, we hunkered down in the cold but beautiful Berkshires. As 2017 came to an end, we made a visit to MASS MoCA, and were treated to the incredible installation by Liz Glynn there. The artist had take-away posters there, and this seemed like a good, end-of-year message. Many Wesleyans (especially my students, I hope!) will recognize the quotation:

At Liz Glynn’s installation at MASS MoCA

Kari and I were back in Middletown for the new year, and the first morning of 2018 was just lovely.

We are waiting for what may be a good snow storm this week, but meanwhile the campus is a little frozen, but very beautiful. Here’s the moon over Wesleyan this morning (Wed, 1/3).










It’s a little too quiet, though, and we look forward to welcoming students back soon. Winter session starts next week! Happy New Year!


What College is For

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed I wrote about the three things everyone should learn in college. These will be familiar to many in the Wesleyan family, and it they may be useful for those stressing out over their admission application essays as deadlines approach. 

The holiday season for many is an anxious time, but for high school seniors facing application deadlines there is an extra level of worry. Although as youngsters many in this generation were routinely praised for almost everything they did or tried to do, suddenly as junior year rolls around, the messages change.

Some are told that college is not for them and that they should do their best to get some short-term training for immediate job prospects. Others are encouraged to head off to a university or community college but discouraged from setting their sights too high. And some talented high school students vying for spots at selective institutions are advised to polish up their résumés with activities that admissions officers will find most exciting. Some are coached not to make any mistakes that might blemish their records; a fortunate few have tutors paid overtime to provide every advantage on what are fictitiously labeled “standardized” tests.

In the process, all too many receive a sorry message, indeed: “The goal of high school is to get into the college that rejects the most people; the goal of college is to gain access to employers or graduate programs that turn away the greatest number of qualified candidates; the goal of life is to have more of the stuff that other people are unable to acquire.” No one puts it quite this way, but that’s what our young people are hearing. It is a message that kills the soul: Value things only to the extent that other people are deprived of them.

Whatever school they attend, college students should get three things from their time as undergraduates. The first is the opportunity to discover what they love to do. Many smart high school students arrive at college thinking that they will continue to pursue those subjects in which they already performed well. It seems to make sense – “I got A’s in history, or in English, so I should continue taking classes in that area.”

Wrong. College is a time to experiment with new fields of knowledge and new methodologies of discovery. Whether it’s the science lover experimenting with music or the would-be economics major trying out classes in literature, the undergraduate years offer the possibility of finding out what one really finds fulfilling. It’s not just about the reward of good grades or a hefty paycheck. It’s about thriving – and especially about thriving through work.

Don’t be fooled by the grade inflation rampant at the fancier (read: most selective) institutions. Find professors who will be candid about how far you need still to go before the work is ready for prime time. This is as true in physics as it is in poetry. Students might discover that they love a field; professors can make them see how much better they’ll have to become in order to really participate in that field at a level that counts. You don’t go to school to be told how smart you are; you go to find out how much more you have to learn.

Students, regardless of which college they attend, will build resources for lifelong learning if they discover what they love to do and get better at it. But there’s one more thing. They should learn how to share what they’ve gotten better at with others. This means developing the skills to show other people that the work one finds rewarding also has value for them. Students who get the most out of college have enhanced their abilities to translate what they’ve learned on campus so that people beyond its borders understand how they can add value to an organization, a team or a company.

Wesleyan, Actually

Whenever I get gloomy about the state of the world, I think about the beginning of the next semester and the pure uncomplicated love felt as Wesleyans return to campus and find one another in the Science Library, at Olin, at the CFA or on Foss Hill. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that Wes-love actually is all around.

So with hope and agenda, I hope to see you on Foss Hill. And if you can’t get to Middletown anytime soon, there are plenty of other ways to keep in touch with alma mater. – Connect | Volunteer | Give .   If you are in a giving mood these days, your generosity will be amplified. Now through December 31st, our Board of Trustees (who feel the Wes-love more than most) will match every gift dollar for dollar. Please give back to support students and faculty at Wesleyan today:

With hope and agenda,  Wesleyan, Actually.

Stop the Deportation of Francisco Acosta!

Francisco Acosta has made many friend in his years working as a custodian on the Wesleyan campus. He is now facing the struggle of a lifetime, as the federal government has denied his appeals for political asylum and is trying to deport him to Colombia. Francisco left that country during a surge of violence there in 2001, and much of his family has lived in the United States for years. ICE has demanded that Francisco leave the country, and he is appealing this order.

You can read more about Francisco’s case here, and you can sign a petition expressing support for him here.

Wesleyan has tried to be helpful to Francisco, and we will continue to reach out to his union and attorney to see how we can be most useful. I am contacting key congressional members to enlist their support, and we will do our best to reverse what seems to be an unjust, mean-spirited effort to deport a valued member of our community.

A STARR in Physics

Earlier this semester Francis Starr was elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society. This is a distinct honor — only about one half of one percent of American physicists are elected to the society on the basis of  “exceptional contributions to the physics enterprise including outstanding physics research, important applications of physics, leadership in or service to physics, or significant contributions to physics education.” Prof. Starr’s research group focuses on soft matter physics and biophysics, combining computational and theoretical methods in their exploration of lipid membranes, glass formation, DNA nanotechnology, polymers and supercooled water.

You can read more about the Starr group.

Prof. Starr is the founding director of the College of Integrative Sciences (CIS) as well as a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. The CIS is dedicated to providing students with translational and interdisciplinary science education through original research. The CIS summer research program hosts around 180 students annually.

Congratulations Prof. Starr!!

Basketball: We have the PLAYERS!

The first half of the season has started off with a blast for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. This week, players from each squad were chosen as NESCAC Players-Of-The-Week.


Maddie Bledsoe ’18 has had a most impressive start to the season. This past week she led the Cardinals to victory in the Courtyard by Marriott tournament. She averaged a double-double with 14.5 points and 14.0 rebounds in two wins over the University of Maine-Presque Isle (98-22) and Westfield State (88-76). On Friday, she scored 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting while also pulling in seven rebounds and dishing out four assists in 17 minutes of action. The following day, in the tournament championship game, she recorded career-highs of 18 points and 21 rebounds in the win over a strong Westfield State team. Maddie was 12-of-13 from the charity stripe and also dished out three assists, blocked a shot and recorded a steal. Maddie leads the conference in rebounding and has helped lead the team to its 5-1 record.


Jordan Bonner ’19 has been a scoring machine from the guard position. He has had at least 20 points in two road wins against Emmanuel (88-68) and highly ranked Williams to help keep the perfect season intact as Wesleyan improved to 6-0 on the year. In the win over the Saints, he dropped 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting while grabbing six rebounds, dishing out two assists and recording two steals. He concluded the week with a 22-point, five-rebound performance at Williams in which he scored six points in OT and converted clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

Basketball players have a short break after this week’s games, and then there will be plenty of opportunities to see both teams play in the new year. Congratulations to Maddie and Jordan. Go WES!!

Final Push to the End of the Semester

Although it seems like just a short time ago that I was writing about Arrival Day, we now suddenly find ourselves in the final week of the semester. Students are finishing class projects, professors are writing up exams and grading them, and the staff is working extra hard to support the entire community in this pressure-packed season. The weather is finally giving us signals that the season is indeed changing. No snow yet, but you can feel it won’t be long…

Soon I’ll be hosting the “December Completions” reception for students who are finishing up at Wesleyan mid-year. Some of these are students who took some time off, while others are undergraduates who are finishing a semester early. Each year a few more students are choosing the latter route, many through our three-year option. One can save a substantial amount of money on this program, while still getting the same array of academic offerings available to those who choose the eight-semester path.

There are lots of great events still to come as we get to the end of the semester. I’ll just mention the event at which Amanda Palmer ’98 and Michael Pope, along with the students from ‘The Art of Doing” course, will showcase their work. Amanda will perform on December 9th, and we’ll also get to see a music video students have made this term. You can find out more about the showcase here.

Good luck as the semester draws to a close!