Brucken brings human-rights experience
to international conference in Poland © Jan. 11, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich University history Prof. Rowly Brucken [left] with former Polish president and Nobel prizewinning human-rights advocate Lech Walesa at the Third International Conference on Human Rights Education at the Jageillonian University in Krakow, Poland, in December 2012.

photo courtesy of Rowly BruckenNorwich University history Prof. Rowly Brucken [left] with former Polish president and Nobel prizewinning human-rights advocate Lech Walesa at the Third International Conference on Human Rights Education at the Jageillonian University in Krakow, Poland, in December 2012.

Norwich history Prof. Rowland [Rowly] Brucken experienced a curious dichotomy during his first trip to Central Europe in December 2012.

There was a cheerful, "magical Christmas" atmosphere of winter in Poland, a run along the Vistula River and the pleasures of a new culture with a deep history to discover. Brucken, a human-rights scholar and activist, was also able to visit an old friend and network with like-minded experts from all over the planet as he presented a paper at the International Conference on Human Rights Education at the Jageillonian University in Krakow.

On the other hand, there was the “cold, desolate monument” of the Auschwitz Birkenau Nazi concentration camps, which he and others visited toward the end of the conference. This experience offered no easy takeaway messages, said Brucken, and threw a sobering perspective on the conference, which was all about finding better ways to educate the world on human-rights issues. That final day it was difficult to talk about anything else.

“It was kind of a pall that hung over us,” he said.

If I went back again and again, I think I would take something different away every time.

Rowly Brucken,
Norwich history and
political science professor

No stranger to the examination of human suffering, Brucken works for Amnesty International USA as its expert on the country of Zimbabwe, where there are widespread reports of abuses to people demonstrating any opposition to the dominating political party. He has testified on behalf of more than three dozen Zimbabwean refugees seeking political asylum, and teaches classes on human rights, international politics and diplomacy to Norwich graduate and undergraduate students.

The visit to the camps, however, was not an experience that proved approachable in a scholarly frame of mind. The enormity of the loss and horror represented by the surroundings often failed to register, but he would find himself becoming emotional over small details picked up during the tour.

“It’s not the mounds of shoes. It’s the individual shoe,” said Brucken. “If I went back again and again, I think I would take something different away every time.”

Brucken learned about the conference from Natalia Zajac, a 2011 Norwich graduate, friend and native of Poland who wrote an extensive report as a student on a Polish resistance fighter who worked from within Auschwitz’s barbed wired. He had a chance to visit Zajac while learning from a wide variety of people and speakers at the conference.

His own paper and presentation focused on the steps that well-informed nonlawyers can take to help asylum seekers make it through the intimidating obstacles of expense, paperwork and legal processes while protecting themselves and relatives in their home countries.

Human-rights lawyers tend to know a little bit about a lot of countries, he said, and appreciate and benefit from academics’ deeper knowledge of a country and its politics. Nonlawyers also are helpful when they testify, write letters and review paperwork. He hopes to encourage others to get involved.

“It really put into writing what I’ve been doing for Amnesty,” said Brucken.

He added that Norwich University is an interesting place to teach, as many students become passionately involved with international issues. Students, many on track to enter the military as officers, are frequently well informed in current events and have traveled to foreign countries. He feels a background that includes some study in human rights and diplomatic history is crucial to all students.

“It’s absolutely necessary, particularly at a place like Norwich where students are going into the military,” said Brucken.

Norwich, the country’s oldest military college, includes civilian students and is located in the middle of “progressive” Vermont, he said. All of these factors create an atmosphere where the skills of critical thinking co-exist with military discipline in a way that breeds interesting research and discussion.

“That’s a unique kind of balance that students are grappling with,” said Brucken.

Brucken is chairman of the History and Political Science Department at Norwich, where he has worked since 2001. His courses include U.S. Diplomatic History, Nation Building and Human Rights and Conflict with a focus on the history of international human-rights law, American foreign policy and 20th-Century American history.