Illuminating a Path Toward Genocide Prevention

Matt Levinger, associate professor of history, heads a genocide prevention effort at the Holocaust Museum.

When the full accounting of the Holocaust became known, the world famously vowed, “Never again.” Yet the world has failed repeatedly on its promise. In the last 30 years, the United States and its allies have failed to halt the mass murder of ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa.

Why has the U.S. not acted more decisively to stop genocide? It’s a question to which Matt Levinger, associate professor of history, has found himself increasingly drawn. Over the last few years, his search for answers has led him from the classrooms of Lewis & Clark to a plum fellowship at the U.S. Department of State to the helm of what may be America’s most promising genocideprevention initiative to date.

In May 2005, Levinger began a one-year leave of absence from the College to direct the Academy for Genocide Prevention, a project of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. From there, he is working to raise the issue of genocide prevention from the backwaters of U.S. diplomacy to the routine work of foreign policy professionals. The academy’s goal is to become an institutional center where U.S. diplomats, military officers, humanitarian-agency leaders, and others receive training and coordinate effective approaches to preventing genocide.

Past attempts to vault genocide prevention higher onto the nation’s foreign-policy agenda haven’t fared well. But Levinger senses a “seismic shift” in thinking: Fostering peace in weak nations plagued by ethnic divisions now aligns with our nationalsecurity interests in fighting terrorism. Now is the time, he says, for an initiative that provides training in genocide prevention and response, promotes best-practices research, and brings together key people from inside and outside government who share an interest in thwarting ethnic slaughter.

“It’s like planting a seed,” says Levinger of the academy’s role. “One doesn’t control the growing conditions. But one can do one’s best to cultivate the crop.”

Levinger’s German roots and Quaker upbringing suggest a lifelong preparation for his task ahead. Born in 1960, Levinger grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, where his Jewish father, whose family fled Berlin in 1935 to escape persecution, taught social psychology at the University of Massachusetts, and his mother, raised Presbyterian in Mississippi, worked as an elementary-school psychologist. George and Ann Levinger were fervently pro-Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War, and raised their four sons as Quakers.

At Haverford College, Levinger gravitated naturally to topics related to deterring mass violence and creating peace. After graduating with high honors in history, he taught for two years at a private school in suburban New York before returning to academia. He earned master�s and doctoral degrees in history from the University of Chicago, worked as a lecturer at Stanford for three years, and joined the Lewis & Clark faculty in 1994.

Levinger’s specialty is modern European history, especially German history. Despite this scholarly focus–and its clear intersection with his family history–Levinger shied away from teaching the Holocaust during his first seven years at the College. “I didn’t want to drag my students through a semesterlong morass of horror,” he says.

Eventually, though, recognizing that “the persistence of mass violence represents one of the core issues of modern history,” he began teaching a course titled The Holocaust in Comparative Perspective. The idea was to study the conditions that led to the slaughter of 6 million Jews in order to shed light on the continuing litany of atrocities since World War II: 1.7 million Cambodians exterminated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge; thousands of Muslims murdered in Bosnia; nearly 1 million Tutsis killed in Rwanda; and, most recently, more than 200,000 Sudanese dead at the hands of marauding militias.

Teaching about genocide didn’t depress Levinger as he had feared. Instead, it gave him a feeling of empowerment and set him on a quest to learn more. “The older you get,” he says, explaining this budding passion, “the more you realize that your family history sets the direction for your own life.”

Seeking to apply his knowledge and skills in a new, nonacademic realm, Levinger applied for and won a prestigious William C. Foster fellowship and spent 2003 in the U.S. State Department. His first assignment in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs was to develop a proposal for “confidence and security-building measures” aimed at enhancing trust among rival parties in Africa’s Great Lakes region, where a war involving Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and other states has caused nearly 4 million deaths since 1997. That task led Levinger to explore how the State Department operates more broadly in the area of conflict prevention, and he soon landed in the role of “atrocities analyst” in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

In that post, he quickly organized three conferences to foster interagency cooperation on foiling genocide. One regular attendee was Jerry Fowler, staff director of the Committee on Conscience, the branch of the Holocaust Museum charged with prodding the world to confront and halt atrocities.

At the time, Fowler was sketching out plans for a genocide prevention initiative that would operate under the committee’s auspices. “It was great to meet someone who was working on a parallel track,” Fowler says. Impressed with Levinger’s intellectual prowess, research products, and State Department insight, Fowler hired him to lead the new academy. Fowler envisions the project as a way to create “a network or community of foreign policy professionals who have a shared sense that we should prevent genocide and atrocities, and a shared belief that we have the ability to do so.”

So far, Levinger has delivered presentations on genocide at the Foreign Service Institute (the State Department’s school for diplomats), organized and led roundtables on conflict in West and Central Africa, and designed curricula for future training programs. Ideally, Levinger says, the academy’s seminars, forums, and classes will become an integral part of U.S. diplomatic training. Through its programs and the fostering of a professional network, Levinger says the academy will “help usher in a new era of constructive response to genocide and atrocity crimes.”

Several Lewis & Clark students have already contributed to this mission: two students developed briefing materials for an academy forum on the conflict in Central Africa, while another is collaborating on an in-depth case study of the Rwandan genocide that will be used to train future U.S. diplomats (see related article). Levinger says more opportunities for students are forthcoming: “I’m very interested in engaging students in this work and helping them think about developing careers in this field.”

As Levinger’s own career unfolds, his sense of Quaker values and of a paternal ancestry touched by genocide remain strong. “I continue to be guided by the notion that there is the light of God in everyone, and that peacemaking is both desirable and possible,” says Levinger. “This is an area where I can work to build peace.”

Dan Sadowsky is a freelance writer in Portland.