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Dr. James Waller, New Cohen Endowed Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies

November 2, 2010
Dr. James Waller
Dr. James Waller

Dr. James Waller comes to Keene State College from the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation to fill the new Cohen Endowed Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a position on the faculty of the College's distinctive academic program in Holocaust and genocide studies.

A social psychologist, Dr. Waller grew up in Atlanta at the height of the Civil Rights movement and, even as a child, questioned the social divisions he saw in the society around him. That questioning - and his desire to see people treated fairly - naturally formed the basis for his interest in intergroup conflict and relations - specifically race relations, which led to his graduate work in social psychology at the University of Kentucky. "I"m interested in how people get along and, too often, why they don"t get along," he explained. "Why do differences in race, culture, class, or religion often cause such conflict?"

From 1989 to 2008, Dr. Waller was a professor of psychology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and he spent the summers of 1990 and "92 as a visiting professor at two universities in Germany, where he taught classes on intergroup relations. During the class discussions, he was struck that so many of the native German students referred to the Holocaust. He concluded that they were trying to understand what their parents and grandparents had done during that persecution. "Their questions and their connections led me to think about how the issues of racism and intolerance manifest in the Holocaust and other cases of genocide," Dr. Waller said.

When he returned to Whitworth, where he taught courses in social psychology, the psychology of prejudice, and public policy making, he noticed that, as a result of the issues his students in Germany raised, he had begun making reference in his classes to the Holocaust and aspects of genocidal violence. That led him to attend academic conferences on Holocaust studies, and he developed a professional interest in the field.

Dr. Waller realized that his discipline could make a contribution to Holocaust and genocide studies in helping to understand perpetrator behavior - the rank- and-file killers. He began to investigate the motivation of those who committed acts of genocide, when intergroup conflict goes to the extreme. "When I think about intergroup conflict, I think of it on a continuum, and genocide is the extreme end of that continuum," Dr. Waller said. "It starts off seemingly fairly innocuous as one group begins to define 'the other." Then they begin to denigrate and then demonize 'the other." At some point along that continuum, the group that had been saying, 'I no longer want these people to live with me," begins to say, "I no longer want them to live - period."

His study of this phenomenon led him to write Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, now in its second edition with Oxford University Press, in which he synthesizes a wide range of studies to create an impressive theory of how average citizens can come to participate in acts of unspeakable atrocity.

Dr. Waller also plans to continue his work as an instructor at the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention at the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which brings government policy makers, military leaders, and NGO activists to Auschwitz in Poland so they can learn to recognize the signs of genocide and use their influence to stop it. "If you hope to prevent genocide, you have to understand the process by which it unfolds, so you know the critical points at which intervention is absolutely necessary," Dr. Waller explained.

Dr. Waller will give his inaugural campus address, the Genocide Awareness Lecture, on March 28, 2011, in the Mabel Brown Room at the Student Center.