Writing About Mass Atrocity: A Moral Consideration

Gellerman Photo

by Liza Gellerman 18C

Over the course of two years I have developed a research project surrounding the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials. When I mention to somebody that I’m in the middle of writing a thesis, of course they respond by asking me what I’m writing about. My ‘elevator pitch’ is usually something along the lines of, “A legal debate on genocide and crimes against humanity, specifically in the context of the Nuremberg Einsatzgruppen trial. That is, the trial of the Nazi overseers of mass shootings of Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union over the course of the Holocaust.” Two years is a long time to work on a single project, so at this point I normally don’t have to think before replying to those who inquire about my work in a way similar to that which I just described. After I recite the ‘elevator pitch,’ people normally get quiet, unsettled by the bleak nature of my work. In those brief moments of uncomfortable silence, I remind myself to think of my research subject as more than an academic endeavor and to consider the implications of writing about one of the darkest moments in modern history.

I have engaged heavily with disturbing information about the nature of mass murder while researching and writing my thesis. Usually, I acquire this information by reading different scholarly interpretations about genocide, crimes against humanity and the historiography of the Holocaust. Absorbing this type of material on a day-to-day basis has certainly made me more knowledgeable in my field and has equipped me to develop a thesis project that I’m proud of, however I sometimes forget to think about what I’m reading and writing as an outcome of a historical event. I get so caught up in the work that I forget to think of my topic as one that resembles an experience for those who have been victimized by mass atrocity.

At the outset of my project, I thought that studying deliberations over atrocity in the context of the Holocaust would equip me with a greater degree of sympathy towards victims of mass violence. Yet I’ve come to recognize that continuous engagement with such subject matter has had somewhat of a numbing effect on me. This realization has made me consider how historians in similar fields approach their work. For example, Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her monograph on the “age of genocide” across the world. In writing her esteemed book, did she at times forget to consider the millions of victims involved? Did studying the diplomatic relations between democratic countries trying to provide aid and the genocidal perpetrators trying to evade punishment under international law make her lose sight of those who suffered in the meantime?

The history of atrocity is elaborate and, admittedly, quite interesting. Of the many lessons that I have learned over the course of my time as an honors student, one of the hardest ones to continuously stand by is to view my thesis subject with consideration and respect. Mass violence has developed into a field of scholarship, but it should always be remembered that what gave impetus to an article on a case study of crimes against humanity, or a thesis about the Einsatzgruppen, or a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the age of genocide, was at one point a very real and hideous event.

Liza Gellerman is a senior at Emory and is double majoring in history and Spanish. Liza’s thesis for the history department is a legal debate concerning the charges of crimes against humanity and genocide in the context of the Nuremberg Einsatzgruppen trial. Her project analyzes the crucial developments in international criminal law brought about by this particular trial and Nuremberg as a whole. Liza received grants from the Emory Rose Library and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies to conduct summer archival research for her project at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C