Sophomore Seminars

Mass Atrocities: Reckoning and Reconciliation


Imagine you live in a country in which a delusional dictator imprisons untold masses in labor and concentration camps, and kills millions of them. Imagine you live in another country, in which one ethnic group slaughters the other. Imagine you live in yet another country in which a racial white minority terrorizes and violently discriminates against a huge majority of black population. Or, imagine you live in a country in which members of one group engage in an "ethnic cleansing" of their former neighbors.

Now imagine this: Some big political change comes to each of these societies, and the perpetrators lose their power and are finally stopped from committing any more crimes and atrocities. Now comes the time to decide how to bring about justice for the past wrongs. It is also a question of how to come to terms with the terrible past. How to remember it?  How to confront it? How to judge the perpetrators? How to identify them?  How to punish them appropriately if at all? Also, is it possible to ever reconcile with the former oppressors and enemies? Maybe even to forgive them? If so, under what circumstances?  What is necessary for such reconciliation? What if some of the victims were also perpetrators?

The scenarios mentioned above are real ones—they happened in Germany, Rwanda, South Africa, Bosnia, and elsewhere. In this IntroSem we will explore the social, political, and legal arrangements societies debated about, negotiated, and used to deal with the atrocities of the past.  We will assess their utility in the process of “transitional justice.”  We will scrutinize crimes tribunals and truth commissions, and inquire whether they enabled the victims to gain a sense of justice and fairness. Likewise, we will consider under what conditions those victims might ever be capable of a genuine reconciliation.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Pawel Lutomski

"I was born in Poland during the Cold War, under the reign of an authoritarian regime, run by the Soviet-controlled Communist party. In other words, I grew up behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain.’ To avoid the political oppression, I escaped Poland when I was 21 to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in Western Europe. Some years later, I came to the United States as a political refugee and started graduate studies. I earned my Ph.D. in German Studies at Stanford and a law degree at the University of Michigan Law School. Because of my own life story and my interest in social and political change, I have been committed to learning how societies deal with deep injustice and how (or whether) they can reconcile after collective traumas, mass atrocities, and other political conflicts. I strongly believe that collaborative reflection on the events that have taken place elsewhere in the world can enhance our ability to consider reckoning and reconciliation in other contexts, some of which may be much closer to home."