By Vicky Brockman
A tribute to genocide scholar and alumnus Eric Markusen
Throughout my life, I have marveled at those people who have stepped outside of the easy path, rattled our cages, and challenged our complacency. Like many publicly engaged scholars and activists, professor Eric Markusen linked personal issues to broader social and political concerns. Eric was among those who refused to remain blind or mute to tragedy and injustice.
After earning a B.A. degree in sociology and psychology from Macalester College, Eric served as a social worker and a psychotherapist, working with troubled youth in a variety of settings. He later earned a master of social work degree from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Minnesota, where he focused on the sociology of death and dying and served as a research associate at the Center for Death Education and Research.
In the spring of 1985, I audited Eric’s special topics course on Holocaust and Genocide at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). I still have those yellowed notes. Despite its grim focus, that course became a popular, “must take" course on campus.
Eric’s early courses on the Holocaust centered on ideas that Eric had developed in his dissertation. They explored the psychological, social, and political dimensions of deliberate, government-sanctioned mass killing of civilians during the Holocaust and the United States’ genocidal preparation for nuclear war.
As mass killings around the world escalated in the early 1990s, Eric began to travel to witness the horror of genocidal killing firsthand. He made four trips to the former Yugoslavia, visiting villages and meeting with officials on all sides, documenting the horrors committed by both Croats and Serbs. After every visit abroad, he returned to SMSU, bringing what he learned into his classrooms and public lectures.
In 2001, Eric became the research director at the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Copenhagen. He organized numerous international conferences on the causes and prevention of genocide, continued his field research, and guided other scholars.
Eric soon found himself in the forefront of a group of genocide scholars and human rights activists who were pressuring the international community to respond to mass killings. He consulted in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and in the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda. He also was part of a multinational team of investigators of the Darfur genocide whose research findings were included in a U.S. State Department report. He worked intensely to bring worldwide attention to the genocide in Darfur, an effort that many continue today.
Believing that education is an important first step to end the horror of mass violence, Eric returned to teaching at SMSU full time in 2005. Perhaps it was time to slow down and appreciate the prairie landscape that he had grown fond of on his trips to his home in Vesta. Perhaps it was just time to return to the classroom and the students he loved. At the time of his death from cancer, he was teaching full time, writing, serving as an editor of the journal Genocide and Prevention, and planning more international conferences.
Eric Markusen was a dedicated teacher and scholar, a tireless advocate of human rights, whose work was defined by some of the most vexing tragedies of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet he remained optimistic and, above all, was focused on the quest of becoming human.