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Eric Markusen

Activist genocide scholar

Eric Markusen, genocide scholar: born Detroit 8 October 1946; Assistant Professor, Southwestern Minnesota State University 1983-85, Professor of Sociology 1990-2007; married 1981 Randi Morrau (one daughter); died Marshall, Minnesota 29 January 2007.

The genocide scholar Eric Markusen spent most of his life trying to understand genocide, trying to fathom how perpetrators and accomplices could act as they did, and to explain the willingness of governments, and their citizens, to engage in the mass killing of innocent people. Markusen's research took him to former Soviet satellites, Cambodia, Croatia and Bosnia, Poland, Serbia, the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, to Rwanda and to Chad.

He was part of the team of experts chosen by the Coalition for International Justice to interview more than 1,000 refugees in camps in Chad, people who had fled Darfur. The findings were incorporated into the US State Department's Atrocities Documentation Project, after which a determination was made that genocide was taking place in Sudan.

The finding was acknowledged by the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in September 2004 in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The subsequent failure to take effective action to stop the genocide was a profound disappointment which Markusen believed further diminished the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He later toured the United States to give talks to describe the suffering he had witnessed.

Markusen was the author of many articles and books on genocide, but also on nuclear warfare and strategic bombing. At the outset, his interest had been the mass slaughter of civilians in the probable effects of nuclear war, and he had wanted to challenge how the national security policies of powerful states relied on a threat to kill millions of people. Markusen became a friend of Daniel Ellsberg, famous for his release of the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971. Ellsberg had been a top-level nuclear war planner in the Kennedy administration and he later became an ardent anti-nuclear advocate.

It was in 1981, while studying nuclear weapons issues at Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, that Markusen met Robert Jay Lifton and helped Lifton research The Nazi Doctors (1986), for which dozens of former Nazi doctors, as well as surviving victims were interviewed. Markusen and Lifton later co-authored The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi holocaust and nuclear threat, published in 1990.

There are today courses on genocide studies at a growing number of universities around the world and in the early Nineties Markusen welcomed the newly emerging field of the study of genocide and the establishment of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. He believed it necessary for new generations of students and citizens to appreciate just how serious the epidemic of genocidal killing had become. While the study of genocide was a profoundly distasteful task, it did require a critical and realistic look at modern society.

Since many of the world's political and economic problems took place in societies with a heritage of festering racial and ethnic animosities, he believed that the danger of victimisation was ongoing. Modern warfare was itself genocidal and reflected a tendency for war to create the necessary social and psychological conditions conducive for genocide.

Markusen believed that whenever groups were deliberately targeted for destruction - and when members of the groups were killed simply because of their membership in the group - then the label genocide was appropriate. This was consistent, he argued, with the spirit of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who had coined the word genocide and whose conception of genocide was published in 1944 in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It was his belief that the mass killing of civilians and the scale of killing were the moral issue of the age. The ongoing debate about the definition of the term genocide was used increasingly as a tool to delay or completely avoid moral and political imperatives and legal obligations.

For several years Markusen was director of research at the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Copenhagen. His own research took him on extensive travels including to former Yugoslavia in 1994 where he experienced the shattered cities of Vukovar, Mostar, and Sarajevo. He would describe how in Croatia and Bosnia he had passed through village after village wrecked by war. It was here - and later reinforced by stories from Rwanda - that he came to appreciate the courage and dedication of United Nations peacekeeping forces and others who risked their own lives in an attempt to reduce the suffering.

Like many genocide scholars Markusen possessed a sad realism about human beings. But he also had a passionate commitment to justice. The ray of hope for his generation had been the creation of the special tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to try perpetrators of genocide. For him this represented a real and progressive milestone in international law, in the history of the human rights movement and in the struggle against genocide.

Eric Markusen, born in 1946, had a difficult childhood. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and committed suicide while Eric was a schoolboy. His father, who had served in the US Navy during the Second World War, was an alcoholic who some years later also committed suicide. After graduating from Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, with a BA in sociology and psychology in 1969, Eric Markusen considered a career in social work but he met Professor Robert Fulton, a founder director of the Center for Death Education and Research at the University of Minnesota, who became a mentor and friend.

Markusen taught sociology and social work at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall from 1983 to 1985, and was appointed Professor of Sociology in 1990. He was Contributing Editor and Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide (1999), of which Professor Israel W. Charny was the founding Editor in Chief.

Eric Markusen was gentle, straightforward, committed and decent. He was teacher, a researcher but also an activist for genocide prevention. He was pivotal in the world of genocide scholarship and in July the 2007 conference of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, to be held at Markusen's suggestion in Sarajevo, will be dedicated in his memory.

Linda Melvern