Academics & Research

Genocide course returns to UH

The University of Houston will offer a course on genocide in the 20th century this fall for the second time since its professor returned to the University after leaving in the mid ’90s.

“A Crime Without a Name: 20th Century Genocide,” which is taught by Irene Guenther, starts by examining Africa under colonialism and moves on through other genocides in Europe, Africa and Asia in the 1900s.

“I started by focusing on the Holocaust — It’s sort of become the paradigm for horror in the 20th century,” Guenther said. “It became really clear to me that instead of just focusing on the Holocaust, we should really focus on the whole century.”

The course places emphasis on the experiences of individuals during the genocides.

“I try to engage them with personal accounts as well as academic accounts,” Guenther said, “because if it’s just academic accounts, I think it becomes really easy to distance yourself.”

The course is partly in lecture format, but much of the time in class is spent on class discussion with a portion of the grade coming from participation in these discussions.

“What I hope is that people become politically smart enough and concerned enough and active enough that perhaps they’ll speak out when crimes of genocide take place,” Guenther said. “I’m really interested in understanding what makes some people stand up and speak out and what makes so many people turn away.”

Guenther said she has already seen former students become more involved in human rights.

“I’ve had two or three students go on to work in human rights law,” she said. “There’s a couple that have been very involved in (human rights organizations), where they travel around the world and oversee elections and report to the international Red Cross when there’s a catastrophe occurring.”

Guenther said her interest in the subject was sparked when she was very young, and her family moved to San Antonio from Germany. She and her sisters went outside to discover a sign in their yard that said, “Nazis go home.”

“I remember so clearly that my dad was visibly upset,” she said. “(He) told the four of us girls to sit down and proceeded to tell us in words we could understand that the Nazis did horrible things that were motivated by hatred.  He went on to say that there should never be a place for hatred in our lives or in our hearts, and that we should always stand up for the rights and respect of other human beings, not just for ourselves.  That conversation, which occurred when I was so young, stuck with me for a long, long time.”

The class will fill a capstone credit for history majors, an advanced credit for history minors, a senior seminar in the  phronesis minor, a medicine and society minor advanced elective and counts for honors credit for students in the Honors College.

The most important reason to take the course, though, is interest in the subject, said history senior Johnathan Richards, who took the class in fall 2011.

“If you’re only taking the class because it fills a requirement, you shouldn’t be taking it,” he said.

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