This month we are pleased to recognize Dr. Elisabeth Anstett for the INoGS member spotlight. Dr. Anstett is a social anthropologist, senior tenured researcher at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and member of Adès (Anthropologie bio-culturelle, Droit, Ethique et Santé), an interdisciplinary research unit at the Faculty of Medical and Paramedical Sciences of Aix-Marseille University. Her research focuses on dead bodies, and human remains management and care in genocide, mass violence, and crisis contexts. She is co-editing the ‘Human Remains and Violence‘ book series and interdisciplinary academic journal at Manchester University Press.
Interviewee: Dr. Elisabeth Anstett
Interviewer: Allen Schocken
Date: Friday, March 19, 2021
Meeting place: Zoom
Attendees: AS = Allen Schocken (interviewer) EA = Dr. Elisabeth Anstett (interviewee)
AS: Why did you become a scholar of genocide and mass atrocity, and how did that come about?
EA: Well …it has never really been my intention to become a genocide scholar. I am a social anthropologist, and I did my Ph.D. on kinship ties. I was working in Russia… in the provincial town that was one of the headquarters of the Gulag, and I was not working on the Gulag at all. Actually, I was working on the way kinship ties had been transformed by the Soviet period, so it was really remote from the issue of the Gulag. … One day, we were walking along a lakeshore with a Russian historian [colleague] of mine, and I stepped on bones. It was a lake that had been built by Gulag convicts. And, I didn’t realize immediately what these bones were. I thought that they were many pieces of wood. And I said, “Oh, it’s hard to cross these pieces of wood.” My Russian colleague [who] was walking behind me just [said], “This is not wood.” And that’s all, that’s it. And actually, everybody knew, he knew, everybody knew, but it was not an issue worth mentioning or discussing. …This moment was like a punch in the stomach.
How is it possible that a society, a whole society, lives in a quiet denial or disinterest of this kind of past? It was really a turning point in my work. And I kept on studying this little town, this society, but I put my focus on the issue of mass violence legacy. … How can you just cross someone’s grave and do as if nothing has happened? So, that was a really bizarre moment, but then I started to read [about] the history of the Gulag, and I understood that very little work had been done at that time, but it was understandable because the Soviet Union had been closed for study and travel until the mid-90s. So, the issue of the Gulag legacy had not really been studied as such. So, I started to work on this, and still, to some extent, I’m still working on it now.
AS: Well, I can only imagine going through something like that and actually have something physical completely change your direction. That’s amazing.
EA: Definitely, and then you start to look at the reality around you completely differently, and then you start to ask yourself, “Okay, are they just lying or pretending that they do not know? Or, maybe they know but don’t want to remember?” So, you have a lot of issues around memory and denial and things like that. So, I think it’s really an interesting issue to study in many countries and many sites concerned [with] genocide and mass graves. How can you live with it? How can you live being the neighbor of it? So yeah, it was a kind of reality check. So, it was also a kind of a pin [poking gesture] for me as a scholar to drop the kinship and start to work on more important topics.
AS: When you’re teaching an undergraduate course at the undergraduate course level, do you have any advice on how to introduce students to genocide and mass atrocity? Because, you know, the topics can be pretty heavy.
EA: Yes, and I think that the main issue is to grasp the reality of it, the reality that genocide is real. We are not working as historians on something that had only happened in the past. So, I think that the most important for me is to have them understand that genocides are not rare or distant processes or events that happened a long time ago or far away. It has happened everywhere. It is happening now, I mean today, in Asia, in [the] Middle East. So, it’s not always possible, but I like to start with maps showing the territoriality of the genocide in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America because many countries are literally covered with mass graves. If you stop in Europe, you know, I’m living in France, many French people are going to Spain for holiday, and Spain is covered with mass graves. This map exists. So, if you show this map to students [and say], “Okay, you think that genocide [is something] that happened a long time ago? Okay, let’s look at that map, and let’s stop to reflect on what genocide implies for a place, for territory, for a country, for a society. Maps are very powerful tools to start with.
A more analytical way to enter the topic, I think that it’s important to understand that hate and hate speech is a pivotal element for the mechanism of destruction and segregation. I like to have my students listen to public speeches given by very famous leaders. Now, these speeches are very easy to find on the Internet, so you can have a record of Hitler, Stalin, General Franco… and that makes things real. It’s not a name you are reading on PowerPoint. You have someone saying that we need to get rid of this problem and the problem being human beings. So, I think that maps and hate speeches are a very simple and efficient way to enter the topic.
AS: Definitely, it’s something tangible that students can see, that they can actually see and hear, to bring it to reality. I think that’s definitely important for undergraduates.
EA: And, the hate speeches are also very interesting because some of the same words are still in use in other contexts, and you have all these issues with the hate rhetoric, which you can also study in the newspapers. In today’s newspapers! You take many newspapers, include, willingly or not, speeches that are in many ways related to hate speech. It’s also a very efficient way to show them that it’s real, it’s now, it’s potentially everywhere. It’s not something from the past or from far away.
AS: Okay, so do you have any goals with your students pertaining to graduate mentorship in genocide studies?
EA: It’s a hard question. I have many goals… But, I think that the most important is probably to have them find their own way because a lot of things have been done and studied, but a lot of things are left to understand and to study. My main goal is probably to raise their curiosity [and] their will to know more. I always tell them to stop me and to interrupt me whenever they want because a lot of questions already have their answers, but a lot of questions haven’t, so it’s important for them to ask questions. When one question doesn’t have its answer, then, okay, it’s your way [referring to the students] … You found the question, so you can work on it and contribute to the genocide study and knowledge on these processes of human destruction. So, the main thing is to have them choose their way.
AS: I like that. … As an undergraduate, I’ve found [myself] trying to tie different disciplines together and interpreting different topics from a different discipline and seeing how that interpretation changes the view of a certain topic. For yourself, I think it’s amazing that, like we said in the first question, how you completely changed focus on what you were doing, but just one life experience actually gave you focus to the field, and that could happen that to any undergraduate, and that’s excellent advice.
EA: And there is also always a kind of serendipity. You are turning your head a little bit on the left or on the right, and then you see something that you haven’t spotted, and then you try to understand why you haven’t spotted it before, and then you go further. So, it’s important for every one of us to be sure that a lot of things remain to understand. So, it important to remain curious and have a will to ask questions. This is probably not only for students; I think it’s worthwhile for any academic.
AS: Yeah, I agree, just in life, to be inquisitive, for sure. So, of all the case studies in genocide and mass atrocity, is there one case study you think is essential in any course you teach?
EA: …It’s an easy answer, but it still sincerely mine. I think that the case study [that] is absolutely essential to teach is the Holocaust. Definitely. I do believe that you can’t have a course compete without studying this case because the Holocaust remains the most complex, the most organized, the most elaborated project of mass destruction of human beings by other human beings. If such a complex project had happened, then anything can happen at any time. So, you have to know how this happened, how complex this was, how long it took, how many people it involved, and how many types of processes were linked to one another to have this kind of genocide happen. Because if this has happened, then any other type of event can happen, and when you are studying another genocide or another mass violence, you always have in mind: Okay, we know that in the Holocaust, no matter how complex it was, they did it.
So, in this case, in my case, [you think to yourself], “Am I not missing something? Am I not underestimating something? Am I not forgetting something?” It’s always hard to believe what has been done in the field of destruction. So, when you are faced with a study of something that hasn’t been studied before, especially, you find yourself in a position of, “Oh no, that’s not possible. Yes, it’s possible!” And, something that you didn’t think about had been possible. So, in a way, the Holocaust for us is kind of an example that everything is possible. So, don’t forget when studying another one that you can be facing a much more complex process than you think, initially.
AS: Definitely, so it kind of goes back to what you were saying about being inquisitive, you know, in the previous question; there are so many different avenues that you could study within the Holocaust that could open doors for other students in different mass atrocities and genocide studies. That’s definitely something that I’m sure there are still many questions left unanswered within the Holocaust.
EA: Definitely, definitely. I know that it has been a much-studied topic, and I know that some may say that, “Okay, everything has been told…” and no, no, actually no, [there is] still a lot of things we don’t know. And I also found it very dangerous for scholarship when we consider that we already know too much; you never know too much about such things as genocide. So yes, it’s important to bear in mind that it’s always more complex and harder to understand than we think. It’s also an example, the Holocaust, on which we had very good scholarship because not all the genocide are studied the same way. So, it’s important to teach the genocide [the Holocaust] because we have very good scholarship on it. So, it’s also a way to have a good quality teaching and a good solid way to approach such a complex event as this one.
AS: Okay, so with that being said, how does your work engage some of the main issues and questions in the field today? With your background in social anthropology, how does your work engage with some of the main issues in the field today?
EA: I think that I have been working for almost 20 years now on the material traces of genocide and mass violence and the legacies of these traces. So, this work engaged, I would say, with the main issues of the field today in two ways. The first one is probably all the works that are questioning how these traces have been produced. And I’m thinking about the field of perpetrator studies, which is a comparatively new field of study; which is very important because it enables us to understand [not only] by whom, but how the genocide is produced. I am also studying the mechanism of the production of violence. So, this is one line of research, and the second is related to what these traces are used for now.
I’m always touched/ impressed by the fact that some people deny the reality. So, all the scholarship produced on denial impunity on the people working on the judicial mechanism; I’m trying to contribute to this line of research by questioning the material traces as proof of reality [and] as proof of the genocide. I think that there is a lot of work to come in the near future on these issues of the materiality of the destruction and the way you can understand violence through object artifacts [and] the material legacy of it.
AS: Do you have any specific examples?
EA: Yes, for example, you have a lot of studies on the museums, and one of the questions that are raised regularly is how can you show violence because destruction is destroying, so it’s hard to show what has been destroyed. You can tell, but in a museum, you have to show, you have to show artifacts and objects. It’s precisely interesting to work on how can a little thing, a little piece of remaining thing, explain by being there why it is left, and only this is left because all the rest has been destroyed. So, I think that the studies on the materiality, on material culture also important trend of research that is important for me at least.
AS: Okay, do you have maybe like a specific example, just to get a better understanding of, maybe like an example of something that was left that can really tell a story?
EA: Yes, well, when you’re working on places of custody, for example, you can study the traces that are left on the wall. And these traces can be graffiti. So, with something that is literally said (handwriting gesture). But these traces can also be drawings, or signs, or places where people put their hands to try to see over the window. So, this you can study the materiality of a wall and tell a lot of things about what has happened in the room. So that’s also a way to approach the materiality of the production of violence, which enables us to show in a museum some artifacts like a pair of glasses, which has been broken and repaired ten times and with one glass missing, but that’s the only thing that the convict had at that time. You can also explain the lives of the convicts this way.
AS: That’s an excellent perspective because it actually gives the story of the person that was going through this atrocity, and it’s something that, as we talked about earlier, that brings reality to it. Okay, so, with that being said, what do you feel is your greatest strength or contribution to the field?
EA: I’ve been thinking about this one. It’s not an easy one. I’ve been lucky. I always have been lucky in life, but I’ve been lucky to have been among the first scholars to be able to work on the issue of exhumation on the issue of genocide and mass violence victims’ exhumation. This process has started in Latin America in the late 1980s, and it spread all over the world since the turn of the century. It’s really boomed in Europe after the year 2000, and I’ve been able to study this process.
The fact that exhumation had become the kind of norm or kind of necessary moment in the history of the genocide when violence is made, produced and then a society tried to recover, and the societies are now looking for their dead. And I’ve been studying the rise and progressive globalization of what now is called the forensic turn for a decade now. But I’ve been lucky just to be embedded in the historical moment when these exhumations started. So, I’ve been lucky to be in the right place in the right moment in Europe, where these exhumations happened at a very large scale in Spain or central Europe. This has been, yes, probably my main contribution to the field so far.
AS: Well, that’s awesome, I mean, you have a wonderful career in this field, and you have definitely contributed a lot. So, that is definitely appreciated by the community, I’m sure.
Well, I mean that’s all I got for you.
EA: Thank you, Allen. Thank you for your time and also for your interest in the topic. It’s nice to have a young student involved in this field.
AS: Well, I tell you, you know Dr. Murray, when I first had her in Intro to International Relations, and she talked about what brought her into the field, and her experience as a young student, and one of her teachers taught her about the Holocaust, and it’s one of those things that, it just, you know, sparked my interest.
As you said, you know, your story is inspiring as well to the fact that you were physically somewhere (walking on a mass grave), and it was something that people just completely overlooked, and it gained [you] focus to your field of study. And, I think that’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It really is.
EA: Well, I don’t know if I wish you to come across a mass grave. I’m not sure I’m going to wish that to you. But, I wish you to find your way; yes, to find also a way to look at something that has been overlooked and to contribute also to this field.
AS: We’ll see; I graduate this semester, so we’ll see what’s in store for me.
Well, Dr. Ansett, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.
EA: Thank you, Allen. Thank you very much.