The fine line of genocide history

The recent New York Times article, The Shroud over Rwanda’s Nightmare (January 9, 2014), had me perplexed at first. Michael Dobbs’ enquiry centers on the character of Jean-Pierre, the informant who tipped off United Nations head of mission General Romeo Dallaire about preparations for widespread killing of civilians in Rwanda 1994 as evidenced by the training of the Interhamwe militia, the presence of arms caches and the purchase of large numbers of machetes.

The fact that Jean-Pierre spoke to Dallaire and that, in turn, Dallaire deduced mass violence was imminent and requested the U.N. for permission to act, is not in doubt in the article. One may then wonder why the author feels the need to raise questions about Jean-Pierre’s identity, leaving the distinct impression to an unsuspecting reader that there is something in question about the planning of genocide itself. The author appears to cast doubt on the integrity of Dallaire and Jean-Pierre, leaving nagging doubts on the details, which in turn calls into question the established facts.

To be fair, the author does hold the premise that critical information about the genocide has been withheld and calls for archives in Rwanda to be opened. Which archives those are and whether those archives contain material classified in the same manner most states do for periods of time is not made clear. But for all my wishing it were not true, the hypothesis appeared to serve no purpose other than creating an eddy of historical disruption.

The role of the historian is critical and to our reading of history in respect to genocide and mass atrocity. Much is at stake on all sides, so clarity of key facts is essential, notwithstanding the complexity of the issues. We depend heavily on the professional skills of the historian to establish precisely what happened. Only they have the time and patience and many years of practiced analysis to deduce from minute details the meaning of the evidence we have at our disposal. That evidence is always changing as more is revealed over time and new sources become available. At times the evidence is scant, maybe too scant to form a full picture, but just as archeologists can piece together many layers of knowledge from tiny fragments buried for millennia underground, so too the skilled historian can deduce a great deal from small segments of information. We rely on those skills because proof is needed if facts are not to turn into myths. We should never be afraid of the facts; they will always ultimately speak for themselves.

In the process of reporting what is known – and not known – the historian takes on the role of storyteller. While there is a great deal of science in the work of the historian, historiography (the writing of history) is not a science. it is a skill. It draws heavily on historical discovery, but it is not itself history, it is the opinion of the historian based on the evidence available, the analysis he or she has carried out, and the hypothesis the historian is proposing, based on what he or she believe it means. In practice, when the same body of documentary evidence is accessed by two different historians, whose analysis is predicated on their own views and persuasions, two completely different, or at best nuanced explanations of the same events, emerge. Contested histories (histories that contradict each other) are completely the norm when writing about events in the past.

When dealing with the subject of genocide, historians need to do their work as they would on any other subject. We rely on their science, their critical analysis and their art to grapple and explain a set of human events that fall so far outside the norms of behavior that they challenge the very essence of humanity. They can help keep us grounded, remind us that genocide is not so extraordinary – that real people, in real time made decisions and it is not so far from any of us. They can piece together day-by-day the influence of ideology, the architecture of genocide, the causes and consequences seen through the microscope of detailed documentary analysis.

When reporting genocidal incidences, historians take on a heavy responsibility. Just 20 years after the genocide committed against the Tutsi of Rwanda, many of the protagonists are still alive and grappling their own narratives, and still feeling their pain. So we have to approach our subject with extreme care.

The first rule taught to me by my mentor, Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, is to be humble in the face of the complexity of that with which we deal, and the silence of the victims. But I have discovered more unspoken rules too. In no particular order: Think carefully about the consequences of each narrative; do no further harm; respect those who risked their lives; be courageous, though never reckless; avoid being hasty; conjecture is opinion, not truth; new facts rarely replace old facts; never present findings to demonstrate professional edge; sensational revelations about genocide are cheap and reflect poorly on the historian; do not take pride in column inches or Internet rankings; refine history, not revise it; collaborate whenever possible; be persuasive but never be arrogant; your career is worth less than one life lost in genocide; genocide is toxic; which brings me back to where I started – therefore be courageous but humble in the face of it.

In the curious case of Jean-Pierre, we do know the basic facts. For some reason he took it upon himself to warn the U.N. commander and after checking his sources, General Romeo Dallaire acted – and both were proven right. There is no shroud. The facts remain. One day with diligent research, we may yet come to know more and refine that knowledge.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.
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