Growing up in Langenberg, Germany, in the 1980s and 1990s, Natalie Bormann was occasionally asked if she was related to Martin Bormann. One of the most powerful Nazi party officials and Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann was tried in absentia at the Nuremberg trials, having disappeared shortly after Hitler’s death. He was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1946 and sentenced to death by hanging. (He most likely committed suicide in May 1945; his body was finally unearthed in 1972 and identified in 1973.)
Not surprisingly the young Natalie was embarrassed by the question. German education in this period focused heavily – and often stiflingly – on the Holocaust. “It was left, right, and center in all subjects,” Bormann recalls. “The aim was to produce guilt and shame, and it worked.” Like many of her generation, Bormann found this emphasis on the Holocaust more alienating than compelling, and her teenage instinct was to reject it.
This stance was compounded by the environment in Langenberg. Adjacent to the Ruhr valley, the region was dominated by industries that had depended on Jewish slave labor, and many people in the area still admire these industrialists and believe that the Nazi regime was in some ways justified. “At least we have good roads” is how Bormann wryly sums up the prevailing attitude. She later discovered that her paternal grandfather had served in the Wehrmacht but no one had ever talked about it; like many post-war families, they preferred silence.
After finishing high school, Bormann left the German educational system’s uncomfortable focus on the Holocaust behind and turned her attention to other subjects. She studied political science and economics at the University of Cologne and went on to earn an MA in International Political Economy and a PhD in International Politics from England’s University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Her first book, published by Manchester University Press in 2008, was National Missile Defence and the Politics of US History: A Poststructural Critique; in 2009, she co-edited Securing Outer Space: International Relations Theory and the Politics of Space (Routledge). She held teaching positions at Manchester University, the University of Stirling, the University of Edinburgh, and Brown University before joining the Northeastern Department of Political Science in 2007, where she is now an Associate Teaching Professor.
In 2013, Bormann became interested in leading one of Northeastern’s signature Dialogue of Civilizations faculty-led study abroad programs. A focus on the Holocaust seemed a natural choice, given her background and the substantial infrastructure that already existed to support education on the topic. With her students, Bormann travelled to Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin, and Auschwitz. They visited Ravensbrück women’s camp, the Villa Wannsee, the Anne Frank Center, the White Rose Resistance Movement Museum, the Nuremberg Trial Room, and many other sites of history and memory. The focus was on two main themes: through the lenses of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, students learned about the history and politics of the Holocaust, and through oral histories, personal survivor testimonies, and memorials, they explored questions of memory, trauma, and the Holocaust. The group visited concentration and death camps, museums, and memorials; they interacted with survivors, museum professionals, and scholars. They thought about the role of gender and genocide, evaluated commemorations and memorials, explored questions of resistance and rescue, and probed the similarities and differences between the Holocaust and Genocide. After five weeks, they returned home, drained, but with their eyes opened to both the past and the present.
The program was a watershed for Bormann, both personally and professionally. As she struggled to take care of both herself and her students on an emotionally difficult trip, she found herself, as she describes it, “unlocked.” As a mature scholar with a long-standing interest in questions of trauma, memory, identity, and global politics, she now had the intellectual framework to approach the deeply personal topic from which she had previously distanced herself.
Today, the Holocaust stands at the center of Bormann’s teaching and research. In addition to leading the Dialogue regularly, she now teaches a graduate seminar on “Genocides” and will be teaching an undergraduate class on “The Holocaust and Comparative Genocide” beginning next year.
In her own research, Bormann is particularly interested in questions relating to pedagogy and the Holocaust and pedagogy of genocide and mass atrocity more broadly, an interest shaped both by her experience as a teacher and by her own experience of compulsory Holocaust education. She is currently focusing on two related projects: in one, she explores the role of perpetrators in the study and teaching of genocide, and in the other, she probes the role and (ab)use of atrocity footage in teaching about genocide, a question she is also examining as a Faculty Teaching Fellow at Northeastern’s Advanced Center for Teaching and Learning through Research. She is also the co-convener, with Associate Professor of Sociology Gordana Rabrenovic, of a collaborative research cluster on “Crisis and Pedagogy: Teaching about Conflict and Mass Atrocity,” a continuation of a previous cluster on “Horrific Blindness: Mass Atrocities and Genocides from Armenia to Darfur.”
Bormann is currently preparing a book manuscript that draws on the Dialogue, using the ethical complexities she sees as inherent in teaching at sites of trauma to interrogate accepted norms of Holocaust education. Entitled The Ethics of Teaching at Sites of Trauma and Violence: Student Encounters with the Holocaust, the book is due out from Palgrave in 2017.
For several years, Bormann has served on the Holocaust Awareness Committee, playing an important role in shaping Northeastern’s distinguished annual week-long series of events commemorating the Holocaust. Last year, she joined the Jewish Studies Advisory Board, and this year she has joined our Executive Committee as well. Her teaching, research, and service are an invaluable contribution to the Jewish Studies Program.
Read the rest of the Spring 2017 Haverim Newsletter here.