Beyond Morality: Teaching about Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide

James Frusetta, May 2010

In 2002, I was offered an unusual opportunity to teach a comparative course on genocide and ethnic cleansing to a classroom of undergraduate students universally drawn from post-socialist countries.1 Then researching in Bulgaria for my dissertation, I had been recommended by a friend in the region to a local university and subsequently invited to give a seminar. The welcome challenge was to teach the subject to a group of students with significant personal knowledge and experience of ethnic tensions.

Given the diversity of the students—Bulgarians, ethnic Turks from Bulgaria, Romanians, ethnic Hungarians from Romania, Russians, Macedonians, Georgians, Albanians, and Serbians—several local instructors cautioned me about classroom discord. Yet little disagreement was in evidence through the first month of the term. The classroom dynamic was exceptionally harmonious with students broadly praising the virtues of multiculturalism and deploring past outbreaks of violence. Ethnic cleansing, they agreed, was wrong.

My rosy picture of the classroom dynamic was shattered in an extracurricular setting. I had run into one of my students at a late-night takeaway, and continued a classroom discussion on current tensions in his hometown. In class, he had stressed the need to reintegrate the town as a multiethnic community and punish perpetrators of violence on both sides. His argument was now slightly different: If “they” ever tried to come back to his town, he said, he’d shoot the first one of them that came to his house. He had to say “nice things” in class, but overall he was pleased they were gone.

Several other students I approached outside of class confirmed this: they asked me candidly, why would I think they would risk saying what they actually believed on these issues? Several were recipients of scholarships from Western foundations, others hoped to work for non-governmental organizations after graduation, and all said that they knew “what Americans wanted to hear.” The students as a whole were bright and articulate, but had no perceived self-interest in mentally engaging the subject matter in the confines of the course. Although several had lived through episodes of political violence, dealt with ethnic intolerance, or were familiar with partisan national histories of their homeland, for them these were not controversies suitable for the classroom (or for their final grade).

Thinking about the Unthinkable

Conceptualizing any historical event in its context is a difficult process. For historians, let alone students, thinking deeply about and questioning their understanding of past events is a challenge. But unpleasant historical events like ethnic cleansing pose particular dilemmas. Atrocities lie beyond the scope of most students’ daily moral compasses: in the face of historical horrors, they may understandably be reluctant to engage these concepts. In subsequent teaching, I have found this as true (if for different reasons) in the United States as in Southeastern Europe. What struck me in teaching my first class as an instructor of record, however, was the nature of the “escape valve” students used to avoid engagement.

Nicholas Kinloch, notoriously, has criticized attempts to “teach morality” with regard to the Holocaust.2 Whatever the merits and flaws of his argument, I found the dilemma in teaching a comparative course on ethnic cleansing to be the students’ retreat to morality. Most sane members of society will find prejudice, atrocities, mass killings, and (in the ultimate case of the Holocaust) the attempt at the total liquidation of a people to be abhorrent and morally wrong. For students, retreating to a moral argument—that cleansing is inconceivable, mad, evil—can be a path to avoid deep consideration of atrocity in the historical past. With such a consensus forged, these acts lose some of their controversy.

That term in 2002, after consideration and conversation with colleagues, I changed the class discussion format. Discussion of that week’s readings, I explained, would be focused on what the logic was of the specific case (that day, the Balkan Wars). Why did the state actors undertake cleansing? Why did the soldiers carry out cleansing operations? How did they rationalize their acts, both to themselves, as well as to others? When the class began to assess the justness or morality of the actions, I stopped discussion, stipulated that we were in agreement on the immorality of the atrocities involved, but then pressed the class to address the central question: why cleansing in spite of its immorality?

This was not, I explained, a way to redeem (or to express in class) racist, eliminationist, or other beliefs. It was to reframe the central question of the course. Initially, I had asked students to think about “Why have ethnic cleansings occurred in history?” Now, I reframed this: we would try to answer the question, “Have ethnic cleansings proven useful to their perpetrators?” The intent was not simply to reframe the question in an amoral fashion, but rather to encourage students to think about questions of utility—and how such utility could be stripped away in the future. Although in specific case studies students did ask to speak about the moral and ethical implications, they increasingly asked questions like “Was the morality of these actions raised at the time? What was the response? Why was it allowed to continue?”

Posing the course in this light was not without its risks. Any comparative history class runs the risk of applying false analogies between thematically similar historical events that occurred in different contexts. One of the earlier classes in the new format degenerated into a shouting match (in four different languages!) about regional issues of ethnic separatism. Several students stated suspicion of Western scholarship (or of scholarship in general) in addressing such issues. One student noted in their end of the term evaluation that they felt class discussions alienated them by failing to recognize historical injustices committed against their ethnic minority in their home country.

The rewards were well worth it. The tempo of discussion improved; several of the research projects (redefined as to focus on the motives of perpetrators of ethnic cleansing) were excellent, with two students going on several years later to write exceptional senior theses on related topics. Several students suggested in the course evaluations that case studies in their homelands might be integrated into the course. Above all, most of the students subsequently told me that they felt liberated by the change: they could talk about these issues without having to conform to their assumptions of the professor’s beliefs. They could engage issues of morality, but the expectations of the class had moved from passing judgment on history.

Integrating the Unthinkable

One of my goals in creating a comparative class stemmed from my own work on Southeastern Europe, a region often tarred (falsely) with the stigma of enduring ethnic hatreds. I sought to create a comparative context that would challenge concepts of Balkan exceptionalism by exploring ethnic cleansing’s prevalence in broader European history.3 Later, as I developed the seminar in further semesters, it was to challenge similar narratives of “Third World” exceptionalism. Most recently, in teaching at a school without a dedicated history course on the Holocaust, it has been to situate the unique aspects of the Holocaust (and debates about those aspects) within the broad literature on ethnic cleansing.

Ultimately, I have gone on to expand my broader survey classes to engage the issue of cleansing.4 Often, historical cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing are relegated either to specialized thematic courses, to discrete cases within national surveys, or as an interjection into the broader survey. Asking students to think about the utility of these acts in a thematic seminar, however, has made me reconsider their relationship to other historical processes—national homogenization, the emergence of the centralizing state, revolutionary ideologies, and so forth. Integrating cleansing into the survey—and interjecting controversy—not only challenges comfortable exceptionalism (“It happened there because that society/state was flawed, it couldn’t happen here”), but also encourages students to consider the narratives of history they bring with them into the survey.

James Frusetta is an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College and teaches Central and Eastern European history.


1. The concept of the comparative course on genocide is, itself, controversial—but beyond the scope of this article. I would thank Lydia Krise, John Lampe, Jeffrey Herf, Donald Bloxham, and Frederick Corney for sharing their thoughts on the merits and flaws of such courses. I would particularly thank Ana Antic and Anca Glont, both of whom took my course in 2002 and have provided feedback and suggestions over the years while going on to become historians themselves.

2. Nicholas Kinloch, “Learning about the Holocaust: Moral or Historical Question?” Teaching History 93 (1998); for other perspectives, see Michael Marrus, “‘Good History’ and Teaching the Holocaust,” Perspectives 31:5 (May 1993); Steve Illingworth, “Hearts, Minds and Souls: Exploring Values through History,” Teaching History 100 (2005); and Ian Davies, Teaching the Holocaust: Educational Dimensions, Principles and Practice (New York: Continuum, 2000).

3. For comprehensive sociological exploration of this subject, see Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

4. I would particularly thank Christian Gerlach for discussion on the utility of broadening this teaching focus to include other forms of political cleansing.