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‘My grandfather was a Nazi’: Taking responsibility for the past

My student is atoning for what his grandfather did. Where is our responsibility for four centuries of slavery, racism, lynchings, and inequity in education, poverty, health, housing, and every single aspect of life?

Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, September 1936
Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, September 1936
Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive

Every year I teach a class at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul called “Genocide Prevention: A 21st-Century Challenge.” Students sign up for a variety of reasons: They have a Holocaust survivor in the family; they took a course in high school or college on genocide and human rights and are eager to learn more; they want to go into human rights law; or the class was simply offered at the right time to fit their schedules.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
On the first day I ask students to fill out a short information sheet about why they’re taking the course and to include anything else they’d like me to know about themselves as students.

One year a student I’ll call John wrote that his grandfather had been a Nazi under Hitler in Germany. The student was taking this course as part of his personal vow to make up for what his grandfather might have done.

Dedicated to righting wrongs

John was haunted by this personal history, by this close connection to the greatest horror of the 20th century, and he took responsibility for it. He is determined to live a life dedicated to righting various kinds of wrongs as some measure of atonement.

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I don’t know what the grandfather did, and I don’t know if John is aware of any of the specific details. The point is that it doesn’t matter – to John or to me. The grandfather was part of a huge system that perpetrated injustice, preyed on vulnerability, exploited power, terrorized the weak and the disadvantaged, exulted in cruelty and meanness.

John’s pain was obvious at every class as we studied the genocides in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust, Congo, Darfur, and Myanmar. He saw the patterns of greed, the usurpation of authority, and the malevolent thrill in destroying others based solely on their identities of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin.

Our ancestors were culpable; so are we

Four hundred years ago the first ship arrived with slaves at the colony of Virginia. For 400 years African-Americans have been without reparations, apologies, or prosecutions of the perpetrators of slavery, racism, bigotry, hate, and violence.

John is taking responsibility for what his grandfather did in the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others. Where is our responsibility for four centuries of slavery, racism, thousands of lynchings, inequity in education, poverty, health, housing, and every single aspect of life? For police brutality?

Our ancestors were culpable. John shows me that we are also culpable, all of us.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

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