U. of Southern California Creates New Center for Genocide Research

April 25, 2014

Several universities have made a specialty of studying genocide. Yale founded a program devoted to the topic in 1998. Clark, in Worcester, Mass., offers Ph.D.’s in Holocaust history and genocide studies. Now the University of Southern California wants to create a West Coast hub of genocide scholarship.

The university on Friday announced the formation of a new Center for Advanced Genocide Research. The center will function as the research arm of the USC Shoah Foundation, known for its enormous archive of video testimony from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides.

The center will study the origins of mass violence, as well as how to intervene against it. Interdisciplinary research there will focus on three themes: resistance to genocide; how genocide affects emotional, psychological, and other behavior; and how technology can mine data to find patterns in violence and resistance. The university is looking to add faculty members steeped in those topics. The center also plans to offer conferences and fellowships. Its director will be Wolf Gruner, a professor of history at USC.

The center is the latest evolution of an organization originally founded by the filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994 to record interviews with Holocaust survivors and witnesses. Over the years, the USC Shoah Foundation has amassed nearly 52,000 testimonies. It has also widened its focus beyond the persecution and killing of Jews during the Nazi era, bringing in new collections of testimony about atrocities like the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi genocide, the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in China, and the 1915 Armenian genocide.

In an interview, Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, spoke of his organization’s work in the context of the growing field of digital humanities. One of the new center’s projects, he said, will involve mapping aspects of the Holocaust. The foundation’s archive abounds in geographical data; each time a testimony mentions a place, that location is marked on a map.

The center’s colloquia, Mr. Smith said, may include a meeting on the subject of "music as resistance." Some victims turned to music to express defiance and maintain humanity during the Holocaust. In the Shoah archive, more than 2,000 people sing songs or play instruments during interviews to show how music was relevant to their experience, Mr. Smith said.

"What we don’t know, and this is why we want to research this, is whether this cultural form of resistance has occurred in other genocides," he said. "And if so, in what form?"

That model—research programs that look across multiple genocides—will be a focus of the new center. It can be a delicate subject. In a 2011 New York Times article about the Shoah Foundation’s expansion to other atrocities, for example, some historians expressed concerns that "the voices of Holocaust survivors could be lost in a deluge of voices from survivors of all sorts of conflicts, its significance and singularity diminished."

Asked about the attention to other genocides, Mr. Smith said: "What we are going to be careful to avoid is the comparison of human suffering. That’s not our area of interest."