By: Carissa Bernard
Henry Krisch: My name is Henry Krisch. I came here to UConn in the summer of 1969 as a faculty member in political science and I’ve been around here ever since. I’m retired from the university, but I’m still active in the Human Rights Institute, which is probably why I wound up here.
Carissa Bernard: Well isn’t that [wonderful]! (laughs) Still get to be here all the time and hang around with students and contribute!
HK: Yes, [it’s] a real community of like-minded and very [nice] people, and so we get along well and we cooperate with things so it’s been a good experience.
CB: So how long did you teach political science as a professor here at UConn?
HK: I taught for 30 years sort of straight on through, and then I taught once or twice after I retired, particularly human rights courses that were jointly human rights and political science at what used to be called the 200-level. I think the numbers have changed –advanced undergraduate, basically.
CB: Since you’ve been active in the human rights field for quite some time now, why don’t you tell me about your book Politics in Germany? According to a summary I read, you explore different types of governments as you examine Germany’s progress. Can you expand on how it helped you to see Germany in a global context?
HK: Well, the book Politics in Germany, which I co-authored with an old friend of mine from grad school who was at that time at Vanderbilt, Don Hancock [M. Donald Hancock]… we tried to give a textbook about Germany that would appeal to a general audience, so it had some historical background. I contributed most of the stuff about East Germany because that had been my specialty, and then we did a lot of things in common, chapters in common, you know back and forth. And it was fairly successful. At least I still get the occasional, very tiny royalty check.
When I became more interested in human rights research rather than German politics, which I did for years and years and years (I also taught German politics when I was on the faculty), I decided I would lead into working on human rights by using some materials that I had researched about, and written about, and taught about in terms of German politics. So, for example, there are restrictions on certain kinds of speech that are thought to advocate the overthrow of the democratic political system, and the one I picked out in particular, that I’m just about finished with, is the fact that Hitler’s infamous book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) –it was banned to published and printed in [East] Germany. And that, of course, on the one hand, follows along with the Germans’ feeling they needed special precautions to prevent the recurrence of Nazi power. On the other hand, however, contradicted their very explicit and sincere (I think) commitment to vehement speech, vehement discussion, and so forth.
So the odd thing about all this [… is] that when Hitler in power… The book was actually published in the mid-1920s, I should say, and was bought mostly by dedicated followers, the odd journalist who wanted to read it and so on. But when he came to power, it became so obligatory in case anybody stopped by, and, for example, whenever couples got married in Germany during the 1930s… In Germany, you have to go to the equivalent of city hall to get a license. You can also have, of course, a religious ceremony, but when they went to get their license, they got a free copy of Hitler’s book. So there were copies everywhere, and Hitler made a lot of money actually out of it. So there was a publishing house that was owned by the Nazi party that had the rights to this book, and this was headquartered in Munich (in Bavaria, the capital of Bavaria, which was part of the U.S American occupation zone when the war ended). And so we were in charge of all sorts of stuff and somebody had to decide what to do about this publishing house. Well, the publishing house was abolished because it was a Nazi party organization, but the rights to its books were given to the state government of the state of Bavaria, and so Hitler’s book got into the hands of the finance ministry which was in charge and they would not publish it for years and years and years. Although, it was actually legal to sell old copies in the 1930s in Germany […]
So it was published abroad in foreign translations, and you could get it over the internet in several languages, but the holders of the copyright (the state government in Bavaria) refused to publish it. However, time passed by. […] The copyright expired 70 years after the death of the copyright holder, and since Hitler died in 1945, the copyright expired in 2015. I hope I have my arithmetic right! (laughs) And so then the question was “Well, is anybody going to publish it? Will anybody be free to publish it?” And the sort of middle ground solution they came up with was that a very reputable and excellent research institute in Munich that specializes in (among other things) in research on the Nazi period would publish a new edition, which would have lots of sort of footnotes and explanations and editions and would be heavily annotated. The odd thing is that, therefore, all the Nazis (who you would think would rush to buy a new copy) won’t buy it because they suspect it’s been fiddled with by Hitler’s enemies. (laughs) So there’s a hectic black market in old 1930s copies of this book, but not– I don’t know actually the sales figures are ‘cause they’ve only –it was published last year, but only hit the market this year in 2016. And I actually have a copy now, but it’s a good thing to use, if you’re not interested in the content, as doorstoppers because they’re two enormously heavy volumes. (laughs)
So I’ve gone on from that to work on the more general question of “What’s the political framework in which decisions to grant free speech rights or not grant them, restrict them, that takes place? The question is about the nature of hate speech. Would it be permitted? Does it hurt someone? So that’s where I’m sort of heading down the road toward future work.
CB: Wow, that’s pretty fascinating! You also consulted for a 2002 documentary called The Burning Wall, directed by Hava Kohav Beller. How did you contribute to the film’s creation and what did you bring to the table that was unique in comparison to other consultants on the film?
HK: Well, Hava… I knew her vaguely from just around and [I] heard that she was making –this was an earlier film of hers called The Restless Conscience, which is actually a very good documentary about people resisting Hitler. And I used it in my classes, I showed it to classes here at UConn and […] we kept in touch. And when she told me she was going to make a kind of follow-up and talk about people who were resisting the East German regime, would I be interested in helping her out in various ways? Of course I said yes, and so I think my role was a small one, although it got me my one and only film credit. She asked me to do [three] things, basically: one [was] to suggest people to be interviewed or topics […] to be considered that she hadn’t thought of (that was one thing); secondly was to check on certain –basically, check the scripts to see if there was some terrible mistakes; and the third thing was to write her a lot of letters to get her financing because… What was admirable about Hava is that she made both of these really well-received documentaries on a sort of, you know, getting a starting grant and then getting a follow-up grant and then she had to get more money to edit and finish it and so on.
We’ve somewhat lost touch, and I haven’t heard and don’t think she’s making more of these, but the second movie was quite good. My wife and I went down to New York. It premiered in Film Forum on [West] Houston Street, and there was a party afterwards, and thought, “Hey, why not?”
CB: That sounds like a lot of fun! Do you feel the film made an impact in the way that it was intended to or were there some gaps in the research and topics that she covered?
HK: No, and of course, I’m not a filmmaker, so I can’t say whether some editing would’ve made it more effective. It seemed effective to me. No, I think she covered the main points. She especially focused on some of the important, dissident figures in the later years of East Germany, not in the early, say 10 or 15 years, and did interview some of those people after the collapse of the wall and so on. So I think she gave […] a good balance between people who really opposed the regime and left or opposed the regime and stayed to work within the country. What can I say? I thought it was a good film. I’ve talked to one or two East Germans who’ve seen it, and they seem to think it was a good job.
CB: Well that’s good to hear! At least it’s received well internationally, and that’s one of the most important things in doing human rights is that you’re respecting the history and the perspective of other groups, correct?
CB: So, going back into your personal history with human rights, what human rights organizations are you currently involved in, and to what capacity do you serve?
HK: Well, by belonging, if you mean do I send them money once a year to keep up membership, sure. The most important one is Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and there are some other smaller ones. One I’m mostly connected with personally is the Human Rights Institute and its program here at UConn. So one thing about the human rights field that makes it somewhat different from other academic pursuits is that there’s no human rights association of all the scholars that work on human rights. As a result, to go out amongst your colleagues and present papers and so forth, there are really two options. One is that many organizations (for example, the American Political Science Association, which I belonged to forever) have a human rights sections, and they have programs, panels on the annual conference program. I’ve meant to do that. I haven’t gotten around to that yet, but I think the next conference, I’m going to try to do that and go there.
In addition, […] the Human Rights Committee of the APSA and the equivalent little groups in the International Studies Association (ISA) (whose sort of working offices is actually on campus here. It’s my old colleague Mark Boyer, who was the head of Political Science for a period of years here) and they have a human rights section. And the International Political Science Association has a human rights committee, of which I’m, at the moment until the middle of this month [July 2016], the secretary, afterwhich I’ll be happy to pass the baton on to someone else (laughs). And there’s a European research group, so these four groups get together and they’ve had a number of meetings. We just had one at the Lincoln Center campus at Fordham University in New York City. It’s very interesting because there were people from many countries and different disciplines. The panel I was on, oh let me see, there was a woman who was Italian but was teaching in Spain. She wanted to present good things about the EU. And then there was someone from Quebec, Canada, the University of Virginia, myself, and […] Marymount College in Manhattan, actually. And they weren’t all in the same discipline; we had some who were historians, some were sociologists and so on. So […] everything on the program is bound to be interesting, right, because it’s about what you’re working on, human rights matters. It was a good thing.
CB: Do you feel like there are ways to get more of the humanities and other subjects involved into the human rights movements in a way that would increase the involvement of the student body, that would kind of make it so they would see the issues through the other subjects that they’re learning?
HK: Well, yes. So there are [several] things […] One thing which the Institute here does very well it’s, if you look at who teaches, who’s on the roster (so to speak), of the Human Rights Institute, they’re not only all over liberal arts but they’re also at the law school, business school, fine arts, engineering I think. Those people go back to their departments and teach stuff that involves human rights [… We] have a pretty active internship program. There’s an internship requirement to both the minor and the major in human rights, and so people from different fields get people internships at different places. And we have a very good student group, I think. I’ve met some and I’ve taught some, and they’re sort of self-selected. You know, if they weren’t interested at all, they wouldn’t be around, but they are interested and they remain interested. What more could you do? I’m not entirely sure. What interests me is that, although one hears in social conversations or in the press that the young generation is not interested or not activated much, you know, unless there’s some special thing going on like Bernie Sanders or something, but we actually have a lot of people interested in human rights, which I think is a great thing.
CB: One big question: How do you feel that political science connects to human rights? What made you make that connection in your own life, and how do you feel we can continue to make that connection as the faculty teaches?
HK: Well, part of this is the historical background. It’s a big discussion, which I won’t bore you with, about when exactly did modern human rights arise. But it certainly was around by the end of World War II. So we have the Dodd Center here, and back in the mid-’90s… It’s there because in the mid-’90s, we had a terrific program, which I must say (totally immodestly) I was involved with, called 50 Years after Nuremberg: Human Rights and the Rule of Law. What the hook here was that then-Senator Tom Dodd, the father of our recent senator Chris Dodd, had been the assistant American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II, and so we had like a fiftieth anniversary event. We had speakers, we had films, we had […] everything you could imagine, and we had Bill Clinton, who was then president, come and dedicate the center and speak in Gampel.
So human rights had ties for years with international law, international criminal courts, that sort of thing, right, and that is still an important part and it’s the part that personally I’m most involved with. But human rights as a field, and here at UConn especially, has branched out into many other fields. So if I met someone in Chicago and they said, “What’s human rights like at UConn?,” I would say our special mark is that we have very extensive human rights work in economics, sociology, in development studies, in gender studies, and so on. So the kind of political interest I have in restrictions on speech and so on are, of course, important, but they’re not the main focus of the Institute. So whether that gets more people involved, I don’t know. When I taught courses in political science and human rights, there were some people –so it was for administrative visas and to be nice to my department chairman– I reserved half the seats for political science majors and the other half for people interested in human rights, and of course after a while, I noticed that the two groups seemed to sort of blend. There were people who were just taking it because they needed another political science course and became interested in it, and I think some human rights majors (we didn’t have majors then, but those who were interested in human rights) got interested in some of the political aspects. I taught one course, this was around 2004. I had working groups simulating they were preparing for the trial of Saddam Hussein and what were the issues and how did human rights come into play. So I think that sort of thing keeps political science relevant to human rights.
CB: Do you believe that there is anything else that my listeners [readers] (or our listeners at this point) should listen to or have knowledge of? [Are] there any particular points about human rights or political science or the mixture of the two, or anything in general that […] you think other people should know?
HK: Wow… that’s a big burden…
HK: Well, I don’t know that there’s any one thing in particular. I think maybe I can… this is going to sound a little evasive, but I think that maybe one thing to think about is to get in the habit of looking at other issues from the standpoint of their connection to human rights. For example, a very good journal is one put out by the Carnegie Corporation called Ethics and International Affairs, and they’ve had articles about drones, for example, and the implications of drone warfare for human rights law and human rights, feelings about the dignity of the individual and so forth. So you can often find connections that you didn’t anticipate, and […] some of my colleagues teach fiction in language and cultures department, and there are interesting novels that take up such issues as well. I think you have to just keep your mind sort of open. If you’re interested in human rights, you’ll find that you’ll notice it here and there and somewhere else.
CB: […] What does someone who’s taught for 30 years do with their free time?
HK: (Laughs) What free time? Well, when I first retired actually, I thought I should do some of the things I never had time for, so I went back to practicing the recorder, which didn’t get me too far. I volunteered for some things in town here, in the town government and the association of our condo group down by the post office there, so I thought I would be a good citizen. Of course I vacation more, and we’re in the process of moving actually from one part of town to another, so that’ll keep me busy this summer . But as my wife likes to say, “You just got rid of all the parts of the job you didn’t like, and now you can sit and study and read books and write and do things.”
I found actually there are two groups of retired professors, and that’s not that any one is better than the other by any means. One is “I’m sick of what I’ve been doing, and I’ve sold all my books, give all my stuff away, and go do something entirely different.” And then there are the people who really still like what they used to do, or at least parts of it, so when I first retired I thought, “Well I gotta think about doing something else.” And then one day I sat down and realized that what I want to do is what I’ve been doing, reading, writing, thinking about these human rights issues, and so on. And there it’s helpful to have something on campus like the Human Rights Institute ‘cause you […] get stimulated by talking to the younger people with new ideas or going to their events. I think if we had not had the Human Rights Institute, then I might have drifted away from all that.
CB: Do you and your wife have any children together, or is it you and your wife and maybe a couple of pets?
HK: Oh yes, I have two children. I have three grandchildren, one is just past teenage, one is a teenager, and one is five months old, their little cousin. And they live fairly nearby so that keeps us involved. And my wife was, for many years, a high school guidance counselor. She can still tell you about every four-year school east of the Mississippi, and some west of it as well. If you’re married to someone in the public school system, you wind up vacationing in the hot summer months because that’s the timing of the school. So the first thing we did when she retired was to take a trip in September, went to a country that would’ve been too hot earlier. We went to Morocco actually.
CB: Oh very nice!
HK: Interesting place there.
CB: Well thank you so much for coming in today, and I really enjoyed our conversation. If there’s anything else you’d like to add?
HK: No, just thank you for the opportunity to babble on about my favorite subjects!
NOTE: This interview was conducted and recorded at WHUS Radio on July 7, 2016 by Carissa Bernard. The above is the *slightly edited* transcript from that conversation; all edits are clearly marked. Special thanks goes to Prof. Henry Krisch. If you have any comments, questions or concerns, you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more interviews related to this, you can view them by searching “Candlelight” on whus.org.
- Henry Krisch: http://polisci.uconn.edu/person/henry-krisch/
- Film Forum: http://filmforum.org/
- Hava Kohav Beller: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0068874/
- Gladstein Committee: http://humanrights.uconn.edu/the-gladstein-committee/
- Politics in Germany: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/politics-in-germany/book236360
- M. Donald Hancock: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/political-science/bio/donald-hancock
- Mein Kampf: http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/
- American Political Science Association: http://www.apsanet.org/
- International Studies Association at UConn: http://global.uconn.edu/home/administration-staff/international-studies-association/
- Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/
- Amnesty International: http://www.amnestyusa.org/
- International Political Science Association: https://www.ipsa.org/
- Dodd Center: http://thedoddcenter.uconn.edu/