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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Address to convocation

Dr. Robert Gellately

Granting honorary degrees is the greatest recognition a university can bestow. I am extremely grateful and privileged to have been chosen by the universityís Senate for such a degree. To receive this honour from my alma mater is particularly joyful.

When I came to Memorial as a student I had no idea what a university was all about, nor what I wanted to study. I thought it might be interesting to teach high school, but it was difficult to visualize much beyond that. I did not have my career neatly mapped out in advance.

I showed up for classes in my first year and I was just grateful they let me inside the doors. MUN was such an exciting place. My professors were fantastic across the board. I was drawn to history and English.

My history professors impressed me by their great knowledge and expertise. They were so cosmopolitan, spoke so many languages, and came from the best schools all over the world. I have to make special mention of Professor Gerhard Bassler, a new professor at the time. He came from Germany but did his PhD in the United States. I did not have much background in German history, so it took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. But then I began to see that it was important to study the past in order to understand our own world, and I never turned back. I was converted. It was Professor Basslerís broad knowledge of German and Russian history that inspired me. However, what struck me most in him and my other professors here was their love of learning, deep interest in ideas, and commitment to advancing knowledge. Those virtues rubbed off and have stayed with me ever since.

At Memorial I began to do research on the history of modern anti-Semitism and racial persecution. Ever since that time, I have investigated and written about the Holocaust. I am particularly honored to be given this degree on the same day as Mr. Philip Riteman, a survivor of Auschwitz.

In higher education today the Holocaust has become the subject of serious academic investigation involving many scholars from different academic disciplines. There is a great deal of research to do.

Alas, it has to be said that our world in the 21st century, like the 20th century, is haunted by the spectre of genocide. Genocide is not going away. It can happen again, it is happening now. We can see that today in Darfur. Why canít we get the UN to work better? Why canít we do better?

I was struck by what happened in Rwanda just over 10 years ago: 800,000 people murdered in 100 days. Thatís 8,000 people per day, this in the most Christian country in Africa. That happened in our lifetime. I teach about this subject in courses on comparative genocide. American students are deeply affected when they learn what happened. Contrary to what you might have heard, they are not all rushing off to make their fortunes. They join the Peace Corps and undertake many other selfless commitments, as I know Canadian students do as well.

Let me recommend one book to you about Rwanda, which is so much more than the story of the mass murder itself. The book is Romťo Dallaireís Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Dallaire was the Canadian General in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in the midst of the genocide. He writes in his memoir that he is convinced to this day that he could have stopped the whole thing with 5,000 troops and the powers to use them. Instead the UN tied his hands and took away his troops. His frustration led him to the brink of suicide. We cannot have this. Our civilization demands we find better ways.

It would be a great step forward if we could get universal acceptance of the International Criminal Court. Thatís going to take responsible work and much effort.

Memorial University opened its doors to me, for which I remain forever grateful. The University is remarkable because it gives us a chance and opens limitless opportunities. On the day I received my B.A. degree I could not imagine that MUN had already laid the foundations for what I would do the rest of my life. I was hooked on history but I still didnít know I was going to have a career as a historian!

It is difficult to realize the day you graduate that the years you have spent here will be among the great formative experiences of your life. I am here to honor you. I congratulate you on your accomplishments and wish you further success.

Graduation is a big step, a major milestone, but it is up to you what happens next. This is your century and it will be up to you to get involved and to make the world a better place. The challenges are great and the possibilities are endless. Aim high!

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