DB: You claim that the breakdown of states and institutions is what, on a practical level, enabled the mass extermination of Jews. Does that mean part of the answer is to shore up the nation-state system? Because in many parts of the world today, the nation-state is under attack.
TS: If we look at it statistically, we see that in places where the state was destroyed, Jews had a 1 in 20 chance of surviving. In places where the state wasn’t destroyed, it was about 1 in 2. Whenever you wipe out states, it is always ethnic minorities who end up getting treated the worst. I come to the conclusion that it’s important that states — even imperfect states — stand, because the process of destruction is harmful for everyone, but especially for minorities.
And what does the future hold?
DB: So what, then, do the historical realities of the 1930s tell us about the world we live in today?
TS: I see a couple of things that trouble me a lot. The first thing is ecological panic: What the 1930s show is that a developed, competent, modern, educated society can get into a situation where worries about standards of living can justify horrifying bloodshed. And we are now drifting toward a world where that kind of thing can very well become likely again, as [we see] poor societies becoming richer societies. The second trend is the state. Everyone seems to take the state for granted. In 2003, we casually did away with the Iraqi state, without really having anything to replace it with, and look how wonderful things are now. And Russia is nihilistically casual with the Ukrainian state, thinking it’s not really a real place. And if you look at our political dialogue in the U.S., there isn’t very much respect for the state either. And [all this] worries me. There is an atmosphere of dread, wherever you go almost — whether it’s Beijing or Tokyo or Kiev or Moscow or Berlin — there is this sense that things are making a turn in the wrong direction.