Lex Fridman Podcast - #248 - Norman Naimark: Genocide, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Absolute Power

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The following is a conversation with Norman Namark,

a historian at Stanford specializing in

genocide, war, and empire.

This is the Lex Friedman podcast.

To support it, please check out our sponsors

in the description.

And now, here’s my conversation with Norman Namark.

Did Stalin believe that communism was good

not just for him, but for the people of the Soviet Union

and the people of the world?

Oh, absolutely, I mean, Stalin believed that, you know,

socialism was the be all and end all of,

you know, human existence.

I mean, he was a true Leninist,

and in Lenin’s tradition, this was, you know,

what he believed.

I mean, that set of beliefs didn’t exclude

other kinds of things he believed or thought or did.

But, no, the way he defined socialism,

the way he thought about socialism,

you know, he absolutely thought it was in the interest

of the Soviet Union and of the world.

And, in fact, that the world was one day going to go

socialist, in other words.

I think he believed in, eventually,

in the international revolution.

So, given the genocide in the 1930s that you describe,

was Stalin evil, delusional, or incompetent?

Evil, delusional, or incompetent.

Well, you know, evil is one of those words,

you know, which has a lot of kind of religious

and moral connotations.

And, in that sense, yes, I think he was an evil man.

I mean, he, you know, eliminated people

absolutely unnecessarily.

He tortured people, had people tortured.

He was completely indifferent to the suffering of others.

He couldn’t have carried a wit, you know,

that millions were suffering.

And so, yes, I consider him an evil man.

I mean, you know, historians don’t like to.

Use the word evil.

It’s, you know, it’s a word for moral philosophers,

but I think it certainly fits who he is.

I think he was delusional.

And there is a wonderful historian at Princeton,

a political scientist, actually, named Robert Tucker,

who said he suffered from a paranoid delusional system.

And I always remember that of Tucker’s writing

because what Tucker meant is that he was not just paranoid,

meaning, you know, I’m paranoid.

I’m worried you’re out to get me, right?

But that he constructed whole plots of people,

whole systems of people who were out to get him.

So, in other words, his delusions were that there were

all of these groups of people out there

who were out to diminish his power

and remove him from his position

and undermine the Soviet Union, in his view.

So, yes, I think he did suffer from delusions.

And this had a huge effect,

because whole groups then were destroyed by his activities,

which he would construct based on these delusions.

He was not incompetent.

He was an extremely competent man.

I mean, I think most of the research that’s gone on,

especially since the Stalin archive was opened

at the beginning of the century,

and I think almost every historian who goes in that archive

comes away from that archive

with the feeling of a man who is enormously hardworking,

intelligent, you know, with an acute sense of politics,

a really excellent sense of political rhetoric,

a fantastic editor, you know, in a kind of agitational sense.

I mean, he’s a real agitator, right?

And of a, you know, a really hard worker.

I mean, somebody who works from morning till night

a micromanager in some ways.

So his competence, I think, was really extreme.

Now, there were times when that fell down,

you know, times in the 30s, times in the 20s,

times during the war where he made mistakes.

It’s not as if he didn’t make any mistakes.

But I think, you know, you look at his stuff,

you know, you look at his archives, you look what he did.

I mean, this is an enormously competent man

who in many, many different areas of his life,

areas of enterprise, because he, you know,

he had this notion that he should know everything

and did know everything.

I remember one archive, it’s called, you know,

a kind of folder that I looked at

where he actually went through the wines

that were produced in his native Georgia

and wrote down how much they should make

of each of these wines, you know,

how many barrels they should produce of these wines,

which grapes were better than the other grapes,

sort of correcting, in other words,

what people were putting down there.

So he was, you know, his competence ranged very wide,

or at least he thought his competence ranged very wide.

I mean, both things, I think, are the case.

If we look at this paranoid delusional system,

Stalin was in power for 30 years.

He is, many argue, one of the most powerful men in history.

Did, in his case, absolute power corrupt him

or did it reveal the true nature of the man?

And maybe just in your sense,

as we kind of build around this genocide

of the early 1930s, this paranoid delusional system,

did it get built up over time?

Was it always there?

It’s kind of a question of did the genocide,

was that always inevitable, essentially, in this man,

or did power create that?

I mean, it’s a great question, and I don’t think you can,

I don’t think you can say that it was always

kind of inherent in the man.

I mean, the man without his position and without his power,

you know, wouldn’t have been able to accomplish

what he eventually did in the way of murdering people,

you know, and murdering groups of people,

which is what genocide is.

So, you know, I don’t, it wasn’t sort of in him.

I mean, there were, and again, you know,

the new research has shown that, you know,

he had his childhood was, you know,

not a particularly nasty one.

People used to say, you know, the father beat him up,

and it turns out, actually, it wasn’t the father,

it was the mother once in a while.

But basically, you know, he was not

an unusual young Georgian kid or student even.

And, you know, it was the growth of the Soviet system

and him within the Soviet system,

I mean, his own development within the Soviet system,

I think that led, you know, to the kind of mass killing

that occurred in the 1930s.

You know, he essentially achieved complete power

by the early 1930s.

And then as he, as he rolled with it,

as you would say, you know, or people would say,

you know, it increasingly became murderous.

And there was no, you know, there were no checks

and balances, obviously, on that murderous system.

And not only that, you know, people supported it

in the NKVD and elsewhere, he learned

how to manipulate people.

I mean, he was a superb, you know, political manipulator

of those people around him.

And, you know, we have, we’ve got new transcripts,

for example, of, you know, police bureau meetings

in the early 1930s.

And you read those things and you read, you know,

he uses humor and he uses sarcasm, especially,

he uses verbal ways to undermine people, you know,

to control their behavior and what they do.

And he’s a really, you know, he’s a real,

I guess, manipulator is the right word.

And he does it, he does it with, you know,

a kind of skill that on the one hand is admirable.

And on the other hand, of course, is terrible

because it ends up, you know, creating the system

of terror that he creates.

I mean, I guess just to linger on it,

I just wonder how much of it is a slippery slope

in the early 20s, 1920s, did he think he was going

to be murdering even a single person,

but thousands and millions?

I just wonder maybe the murder of a single human being

just to get them, you know, because you’re paranoid

about them potentially threatening your power,

does that murder then open a door?

And once you open the door,

you become a different human being.

A deeper question here is the soldier Knitsen,

you know, the line between good and evil runs

in every man, are all of us once we commit one murder

in the situation, does that open a door for all of us?

And I guess even the further deeper questions,

how easy it is for human nature to go

on the slippery slope that ends in genocide?

There are a lot of questions in those questions.

And, you know, the slippery slope question

I would answer, I suppose by saying, you know,

Stalin wasn’t the most likely successor of Lenin,

there were plenty of others, there were a lot

of political contingencies that emerged in the 1920s

that made it possible for Stalin to seize power.

I don’t think of him as, you know,

if you would just know him in 1925,

I don’t think anybody would say much less himself

that this was a future mass murderer.

I mean, Trotsky mistrusted him and thought he was,

you know, a mindless bureaucrat.

You know, others were less mistrustful of him,

but, you know, he managed to gain power

in the way he did through this bureaucratic

and political maneuvering that was very successful.

You know, the slippery slope, as it were,

doesn’t really begin until the 1930s, in my view.

In other words, once he gains complete power

and control of the Politburo,

once the programs that he institutes

of the Five Year Plan and collectivization go through,

once he reverses himself and is able to reverse himself

or reverse the Soviet path, you know,

to give various nationalities their, you know,

their ability to develop their own cultures

and sort of internal politics, once he reverses all that,

you know, you have the Ukrainian famine in 32, 33,

you have the murder of Kirov,

who is one of the leading figures, you know,

in the political system, you have the suicide of his wife,

you have all these things come together in 32, 33

that then, you know, make it more likely,

in other words, that bad things are gonna happen.

And people start seeing that, too, around him.

They start seeing that it’s not a slippery slope,

it’s a dangerous, it’s a dangerous situation

which is emerging, and some people really understand that.

So I don’t, I really do see a differentiation

then between the 20s.

I mean, it’s true that Stalin, during the Civil War,

there’s a lot of, you know, good research on that,

you know, shows that he already had some of these

characteristics of being, as it were, murderous

and being, you know, being dictatorial

and pushing people around and that sort of thing.

That was all there, but I don’t really see that

as kind of the necessary stage

for the next thing that came, which was the 30s,

which was really terror of the worst sort,

you know, where everybody’s afraid for their lives

and most people are afraid for their lives

and their family’s lives and where torture

and that sort of thing becomes a common part,

you know, of who, what people had to face.

So it’s a different, it’s a different world.

And you know, people will argue,

they’ll argue this kind of Lenin, Stalin continuity debate,

you know, that’s been going on

since I was an undergraduate, right?

That argument, you know, was Stalin the natural

sort of next step from Lenin

or was he something completely different?

Many people will argue, you know,

because of Marxism, Leninism, because of the ideology

that, you know, it was the natural,

it was a kind of natural next step.

I don’t think so.

You know, I would tend to lean the other way.

Not absolutely.

I mean, I won’t make an absolute argument

that what Stalin became had nothing to do with Lenin

and nothing to do with Marxism, Leninism.

It had a lot to do with it.

But you know, he takes it one major step further.

And again, that’s why I don’t like the slippery slope,

you know, metaphor,

because that means it’s kind of slow and easy.

It’s a leap.

And we call, you know, I mean,

historians talk about the Stalin revolution,

you know, in 28 and 29, you know,

that he, in some senses, creates a whole new system,

you know, through the five year plan,

collectivization and seizing political power

the way he does.

Can you talk about the 1930s?

Can you describe what happened in Holodomor,

the Soviet terror famine in Ukraine

in the 32 and 33?


That killed millions of Ukrainians.


It’s a long story, you know,

but let me try to be as succinct as I can be.

I mean, the Holodomor, the terror famine of 32, 33

comes out of, in part, an all union famine

that is the result of collectivization.

You know, collectivization was a catastrophe.

You know, the more or less, the so called kulaks,

the more or less richer farmers,

I mean, they weren’t really rich, right?

Anybody with a tin roof and a cow was considered a kulak,

you know, and other people who had nothing

were also considered kulaks if they opposed collectivization.

So these kulaks, we’re talking millions of them, right?

And Ukraine, it’s worth recalling,

and I’m sure you know this,

was a, you know, heavily agricultural area,

and Ukrainian peasants, you know,

were in the countryside and resisted collectivization

more than even Russian peasants resisted collectivization,

suffered during this collectivization program.

And they, you know, burned sometimes their own houses,

they killed their own animals,

they were shot, you know, sometimes on the spot,

and tens of thousands and others were sent into exile.

So there was a conflagration in the countryside.

And the result of that conflagration

in Ukraine was terrible famine.

And again, there was famine all over the Soviet Union,

but it was especially bad in Ukraine,

in part because Ukrainian peasants resisted.

Now in 3233, a couple of things happen.

I mean, I’ve argued this in my writing,

and, you know, I’ve also worked on this,

I continue to work on it, by the way,

with a museum in Kiev that’s going to be

about the Holodomor.

They’re building the museum now,

and it’s going to be a very impressive set of exhibits,

and talk with historians all the time about it.

So what happens in 3233, a couple of things.

First of all, the Stalin develops,

develops an even stronger, I say even stronger,

because they already had an antipathy for the Ukrainians,

an even stronger antipathy for the Ukrainians in general.

First of all, they resist collectivization.

Second of all, he’s not getting all the grain he wants

out of them, and which he needs.

And so he sends in, then, people to expropriate the grain,

and take the grain away from the peasants.

These teams of people, you know, some policemen,

some urban thugs, some party people,

some poor peasants, you know, take part too,

go into the villages, and forcibly seize grain

and animals from the Ukrainian peasantry.

They’re seizing it all over.

I mean, let’s remember again,

this is all over the Soviet Union, in 32, especially.

Then, you know, in December of 1932, January of 33,

February of 33, Stalin has convinced the Ukrainian peasantry

needs to be shown who’s boss,

that they’re not turning over their grain,

that they’re resisting the expropriators,

that they’re hiding the grain,

which they do sometimes, right?

That they’re basically not loyal to the Soviet Union,

that they’re acting like traitors,

that they’re ready, and he says this, you know,

I think it’s Kaganovich he says it too,

you know, they’re ready to kind of pull out

of the Soviet Union and join Poland.

I mean, he thinks Poland is, you know,

out to get Ukraine, and so he’s gonna then,

essentially, break the back of these peasantry.

And the way he breaks their back

is by going through another expropriation program,

which is not done in the rest of the Soviet Union.

So he’s taking away everything they have,

everything they have.

There are new laws introduced,

where they will actually punish people,

including kids, with death, if they steal any grain,

you know, if they take anything from the,

you know, from the fields.

So, you know, you can shoot anybody,

you know, who is looking for food.

And then he introduces measures in Ukraine,

which are not introduced into the rest of the Soviet Union.

For example, the Ukrainian peasantry

are not allowed to leave their villages anymore.

They can’t go to the city to try to find some things.

I mean, we’ve got pictures of, you know,

Ukrainian peasants dying on the sidewalks

in Kharkiv, and in Kiev, and places like that,

who’ve managed to get out of the village

and get to the cities, but now they can’t leave.

They can’t leave Ukraine to go to Belorussia,

or Belarus today, or to Russia, you know, to get any food.

There’s no, he won’t allow any relief to Ukraine.

Number of people offer relief, including the Poles,

but also the Vatican offers relief.

He won’t allow any relief to Ukraine.

He won’t admit that there’s a famine in Ukraine.

And instead, what happens is that Ukraine turns into,

the Ukrainian countryside turns into what my now past

colleague who died several years ago, Robert Conquest,

called a vast Belsen.

And by that, you know, the image is of bodies

just lying everywhere, you know, people dead.

And dying, you know, of hunger, which is, by the way,

I mean, as you know, I’ve spent a lot of time

studying genocide, I don’t think there’s anything worse

than dying of hunger from what I have read.

I mean, you see terrible ways that people die, right?

But dying of hunger is just such a horrible, horrible thing.

And so, for example, we know there were many cases

of cannibalism in the countryside

because there wasn’t anything to eat.

People were eating their own kids, right?

And Stalin knew about this.

And again, you know, we started with this question

a little bit earlier, he doesn’t,

there’s not a sign of remorse, not a sign of pity, right?

Not a sign of any kind of human emotion

that normal people would have.

What about the opposite of joy for teaching them a lesson?

I don’t think there’s joy.

I’m not sure Stalin really understood

emotion, what joy was, you know.

I think he felt it was necessary to get those SOBs, right?

That they deserved it.

He says that several times, this is their own fault, right?

This is their own fault.

And as their own fault, you know,

they get what they deserve, basically.

How much was the calculation?

How much was it reason versus emotion?

In terms of, you said he was competent.

Was there a long term strategy

or was this strategy based on emotion and anger?

No, I think actually the right answer is a little of both.

I mean, usually the right answer in history

is something like that.

A little of both?

No, you can’t, you can’t.

It wasn’t just, I mean, first of all,

you know, the Soviets had it in for Ukraine

and Ukrainian nationalism, which they really didn’t like.

And by the way, Russians still don’t like it, right?

So they had it in for Ukrainian nationalism.

They feared Ukrainian nationalism.

As I said, you know, Stalin writes, you know,

we’ll lose Ukraine, you know, if these guys win.

You know, so there’s a kind of long term determination,

as I said, you know, to kind of break the back

of Ukrainian national identity and Ukrainian nationalism

as any kind of separatist force whatsoever.

And so there’s that rational calculation.

At the same time, I think Stalin is annoyed

and peeved and angry on one level

with the Ukrainians for resisting collectivization

and for being difficult and for not conforming, you know,

to the way he thinks peasants should act in this situation.

So you have both things.

He’s also very angry at the Ukrainian party

and eventually purges it for not being able

to control Ukraine and not be able to control the situation.

You know, Ukraine is in theory the bread basket, right?

Of Europe.

Well, how come the bread basket isn’t turning over to me

all this grain so I can sell it abroad

and, you know, build new factories

and support the workers in the cities?

So there’s a kind of annoyance.

You know, when things fail,

and this is absolutely typical of Stalin,

when things fail, he blames it on other people

and usually groups of people, right?

Not individuals, but groups again.

So a little bit of both I think is the right answer.

This blame, it feels like there’s a playbook

that dictators follow.

I just wonder if it comes naturally

or just kind of evolves.

Because, you know, blaming others

and then telling these narratives

and then creating the other

and then somehow that leads to hatred and genocide.

It feels like there’s too many commonalities

for it not to be a naturally emergent strategy

that works for dictatorships.

I mean, it’s a very good point.

And I think it’s one, you know, that has its merits.

In other words, I think you’re right

that there’s certain kinds of strategies

by dictators that, you know, are common to them.

A lot of them do killing, not all of them

of that sort that Stalin did.

I’ve written about Mao and Pol Pot, you know, and Hitler.

And, you know, there is a sort of, as you say,

a kind of playbook for political dictatorship.

Also for, you know, a kind of communist totalitarian way

of functioning, you know?

And that way of functioning was described already

by Hannah Arendt early on

when she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism.

And she more or less writes the playbook

and Stalin does follow it.

The real question, it seems to me, is to what extent,

you know, and how deep does this go

and how often does it go in that direction?

I mean, you can argue, for example,

I mean, Fidel Castro was not a nice man, right?

He was a dictator, he was a terrible dictator.

But he did not engage in mass murder.

Ho Chi Minh was a dictator, a communist dictator

who grew up, you know, in the communist movement,

went to Moscow, you know, spent time in Moscow in the 30s

and went to find, found the Vietnamese Communist Party.

You know, he was a horrible dictator.

I’m sure he was responsible

for a lot of death and destruction.

But he wasn’t a mass murderer.

And so you get those, you know.

I mean, I would even argue, others will disagree,

that Lenin wasn’t a mass murderer.

You know, that he didn’t kill the same way,

you know, that Stalin killed.

Or people after him, they’re communist dictators too,

after all, Khrushchev, you know, was a communist dictator.

But he stopped this killing.

And, you know, he’s still responsible for a gulag

and people sent off into a gulag and imprisonment

and torture and that sort of thing.

But it’s not at all the same thing.

So there are some, you know, like Stalin, like Mao,

like Pol Pot, you know, who commit these horrible,

horrible atrocities, extensively engaging,

in my view, in genocide.

And there are some who don’t.

And, you know, what’s the difference?

Well, you know, the difference is partly in personality,

partly in historical circumstance, you know,

partly in who is it that controls the reins of power.

How much do you connect the ideas of communism

or Marxism or socialism to Holodomor, to Stalin’s rule?

So how naturally, as you kind of alluded to,

does it lead to genocide?

That’s also, I mean, in some ways,

I’ve just addressed that question by saying

it doesn’t always lead to genocide.

You know, in the case, again, you know,

Cuba is not pretty, but it didn’t have,

there was no genocide in Cuba.

And same thing in North Vietnam.

You know, even North Korea, as awful as it is,

is a terrible dictatorship, right?

And people’s rights are totally destroyed, right?

They have no freedom whatsoever.

You know, it’s not, as far as we know, genocidal.

Who knows whether it could be

or whether if they took over South Korea,

you know, mass murder wouldn’t take place

and that kind of thing.

But my point is, is that the ideology

doesn’t necessarily dictate genocide.

In other words, it’s an ideology, I think,

that makes genocide sometimes too easily possible

given, you know, the way it thinks through history

as being, you know, you’re on the right side of history

and some people are on the wrong side of history

and you have to destroy those people

who are on the wrong side of history.

I mean, there is something in, you know, Marxism, Leninism,

which, you know, has that kind of language

and that kind of thinking.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily that way.

There’s a wonderful historian at Berkeley

named Martin Malia who has written, you know,

wrote a number of books on this subject

and he was very, very, he was convinced

that the ideology itself, you know,

played a crucial role in the murderousness

of the Soviet regime.

I’m not completely convinced.

You know, when I say not completely convinced,

I think you could argue it different ways.

Equally valid, you know, with equally valid arguments.

I mean, there’s something about the ideology of communism

that allows you to decrease the value of human life.

Almost like this philosophy, if it’s okay to crack

a few eggs to make an omelet.

So maybe that, if you can reason like that,

then it’s easier to take the leap of,

for the good of the country, for the good of the people,

for the good of the world, it’s okay to kill a few people.

And then that’s where, I wonder about the slippery slope.

Yeah, no, no, again, you know,

I don’t think it’s a slippery slope.

I think it’s, I think it’s dangerous.

In other words, I think it’s dangerous,

but I don’t consider, you know,

I don’t like Marxism, Leninism any better than the next guy.

And I’ve lived in plenty of those systems

to know how they can beat people down

and how they can, you know,

destroy human aspirations

and human interaction between people.

But they’re not necessarily murderous systems.

They are systems that contain people’s autonomy,

that force people into work and labor and lifestyles

that they don’t want to live.

I spent a lot of time, you know,

with East Germans and Poles, you know,

who lived in, and even in the Soviet Union,

you know, in the post Stalin period,

where people lived lives they didn’t want to live,

you know, and didn’t have the freedom to choose.

And that was terrifying in and of itself,

but these were not murderous systems.

And they, you know, ascribed to Marxism, Leninism.

So I suppose it’s important to draw the line

between mass murder and genocide and mass murder

versus just mass violation of human rights.

Right, right.

And the leap to mass murder, you’re saying,

maybe easier in some ideologies than others,

but it’s not clear that somehow one ideology

definitely leads to mass murder and not.


I wonder how many factors, what factors,

how much of it is a single charismatic leader?

How much of it is the conflagration

of multiple historical events?

How much of it is just dumb, the opposite of luck?

Do you have a sense where if you look at a moment

in history, predict, looking at the factors,

whether something bad’s going to happen here?

When you look at Iraq at when Saddam Hussein

first took power, well, you could,

or you can, you know, go even farther back in history,

would you be able to predict?

So you said, you already kind of answered that

with Stalin saying there’s no way you could have predicted

that in the early 20s.

Is that always the case?

You basically can’t predict.

It’s pretty much always the case.

In other words, I mean, history is a wonderful,

you know, discipline and way of looking at life

and the world in retrospect, meaning it happened.

It happened.

And we know it happened.

And it’s too easy to say sometimes it happened

because it had to happen that way.

It almost never has to happen that way.

And, you know, things.

So I very much am of the school that emphasizes,

you know, contingency and choice and difference

and different paths and not, you know,

not necessarily a path that has to be followed.

And those, you know, and, you know,

sometimes you can warn about things.

I mean, you can think, well, something’s going to happen.

And usually the way it works,

let me just give you one example.

I mean, I’m thinking about an example right now,

which was the war in Yugoslavia, you know,

which came in the 1990s and eventually

ventuated in genocide in Bosnia.

And, you know, I remember very clearly, you know,

the 1970s and 1980s in Yugoslavia,

and people would say, you know, there’s trouble here

and, you know, something could go wrong.

But no one in their wildest imagination

thought that there would be outright war between them all.

Then the outright war happened, genocide happened,

and afterwards people would say, I saw it coming.

You know, so you get a lot of that,

especially with pundits and journalists,

and that’s, I saw it coming, I knew it was happening.

You know, well, I mean, what happens in the human mind,

and it happens in your mind too,

is, you know, you go through a lot of alternatives.

I mean, think about January 6th, you know, in this country,

and all the different alternatives

which people had in their mind,

or before January 6th, you know, after the lost election.

You know, things could have gone in lots of different ways,

and there were all kinds of people

choosing different ways it could have gone,

but nobody really knew how it was going to turn out.

It wasn’t as smart people really understood

that there’d be this kind of cockamamie uprising

on January 6th, you know, that almost,

you know, caused us enormous grief.

So all of these kinds of things in history,

you know, are deeply contingent.

They depend on, you know, factors that we cannot predict,

and, you know, and it’s the joy of history that it’s open.

You know, you think about how people are now,

I mean, let me give you one more example,

and then I’ll shut up, but, you know,

there’s the environmental example.

You know, we’re all threatened, right?

We know it’s coming.

We know there’s trouble, right?

We know there’s gonna be a catastrophe at some point,

but when?

What’s the catastrophe?

Yeah, what’s the nature of the catastrophe?

Everyone says catastrophe.

And what’s the nature of it, right, right, right.

Is it gonna be wars because resource constraint?

Is it going to be hunger?

Is it gonna be, like, mass migration of different kinds

that leads to some kind of conflict and immigration,

and maybe it won’t be that big of a deal,

and a total other catastrophic event

will completely challenge the entirety

of the human civilization.

That’s my point, that’s my point, that’s my point.

You know, we really don’t know.

I mean, there’s a lot we do know.

I mean, the warming business and all this kind of stuff,

you know, it’s scientifically there,

but how it’s going to play out.

And everybody’s saying, you know, different things.

And then you get somewhere in 50 years or 60 years,

which I won’t see, and people say, aha,

I told you it was gonna be X,

or it was gonna be Y, or it was gonna be Z.

So I just don’t think in history you can,

well, you can’t predict.

You simply cannot predict what’s going to happen.

It’s kind of when you just look at Hitler in the 30s,

for me, oftentimes when I kind of read different accounts,

it is so often, certainly in the press,

but in general, me just reading about Hitler,

I get the sense, like, this is a clown.

There’s no way this person will gain power.

Which one, Hitler or Stalin?

Hitler, Hitler.

No, no, no, with Stalin, you don’t get a sense

he’s a clown, he’s a really good executive.

You think, you don’t think it’ll lead to mass murder,

but you think he’s going to build a giant bureaucracy,

at least with Hitler, it’s like a failed artist

who keeps screaming about stuff.

There’s no way he’s gonna, I mean,

you certainly don’t think about the atrocities,

but there’s no way he’s going to gain power,

especially against communism.

There’s so many other competing forces

that could have easily beat him.

But then, you realize, event after event,

where this clown keeps dancing,

and all of a sudden, he gains more and more power,

and just certain moments in time,

he makes strategic decisions in terms of cooperating

or gaining power over the military,

all those kinds of things that eventually

give him the power.

I mean, this clown is one of the most impactful

in the negative sense human beings in history.

Right, and even the Jews who are there

and are being screamed at and discriminated against,

and there’s a series of measures taken against them

incrementally during the course of the 1930s,

and very few who leave.

Yeah, I mean, some pick up and go and say,

I’m getting the hell out of here, and some Zionists

try to leave, too, and go to the United States and stuff,

but go to Israel and Palestine at the time,

but, or to Britain or France.

But in general, even the Jews who should have been

very sensitive to what was going on

didn’t really understand the extent of the danger,

and it’s really hard for people to do that.

It’s almost impossible, in fact, I think.

So most of the time, in that exact situation,

nothing would have happened,

or there’d be some drama and so on,

and it’d be there’s some bureaucrat,

but every once in a while in human history,

there’s a kind of turn,

and maybe something catalyzes something else,

and just it accelerates to accelerate,

escalates, escalates, and then war breaks out,

or totally, you know, revolutions break out.


Can we go to the big question of genocide?

What is genocide?

What are the defining characteristics of genocide?

Dealing with genocide is a difficult thing

when it comes to the definition.

There is a definition, the December 1948 UN Convention

on the Prep Prevention and Punishment of Genocide

is considered the sort of major document of definition,

in the definitional sense of genocide,

and it emphasizes the intentional destruction

of an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group,

those are the four groups, again, comma, as such.

And what that means, basically,

is destroying the group as a group.

In other words, there’s a kind of beauty in human diversity,

and different groups of people, you know,

Estonians, you know, a tribe of Native Americans,

South African tribes, you know, the Rohingya in Myanmar,

there’s a kind of beauty humanity recognizes

in the distinctiveness of those groups.

You know, this was a notion that emerges really

with Romanticism after the French Revolution,

then the beginning of the 19th century,

with Herder, mostly.

And this beauty of these groups, then,

you know, is what is under attack in genocide.

And it’s with intent, you know,

the idea is that it’s intentional destruction.

So this is a kind of, you know,

analogy to first degree, second degree,

and third degree murder, right?

First degree murder, you know,

you’re out to kill this person, and you plan it,

and you go out, and you do it, right?

That’s intent, right?

Manslaughter is not intent.

You end up doing the same thing, but it’s different.

So, you know, the major person behind the definitions,

a man named Raphael Lemkin, I don’t know if you heard

his name or not, but he was a Polish Jewish jurist

who came, you know, from Poland,

came to the United States during the war,

and had been a kind of crusader for recognizing genocide.

It’s a word that he created, by the way,

and he coined the term in 1943,

and then published it in 1944 for the first time.

Geno, meaning people, and side, meaning killing, right?

And so Lemkin then had this term,

and he pushed hard to have it recognized,

and it was in the UN Convention.

So that’s the rough definition.

The problem with it is the definition,

the problems with the definition are several.

You know, one of them is, is it just these four groups?

You know, racial, religious, ethnic, or national?

See, this comes right out of the war.

And what’s in people’s minds in 1948 are Jews,

Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs sometimes,

who were killed by the Nazis.

That’s what’s in their mind.

But there are other groups, too, if you think about it,

you know, who are killed,

social groups or political groups.

And that was not allowed in the convention,

meaning for a lot of different reasons,

the Soviets were primary among them.

They didn’t want other kinds of groups,

let’s say Kulaks, for example, to be considered.

That’s a social group.

Or peasants, which is a social group.

So, or a political group.

I mean, let’s take a group, you know, communists killed

groups of people, but non communists also killed

groups of people in Indonesia in 1965, 66, they killed,

you know, I don’t know exactly,

but roughly 600,000 Indonesian communists.

Well, is that genocide or not?

You know, at my point of view, it is genocide,

although it’s Indonesians killing Indonesians.

And we have the same problem with the Cambodian genocide.

I mean, we talk about a Cambodian genocide,

but most of the people killed in the Cambodian genocide

were other Cambodians.

They give it the name, they’re ready to recognize

this genocide because they also killed some other peoples,

meaning the Vietnamese, Aham people who are,

you know, Muslim, smaller Muslim people in the area,

and a few others.

So the question then becomes, well,

does it have to be a different nationality

or ethnic group or religious group for it to be genocide?

And my answer is no.

You know, you need to expand the definition.

It’s a little bit like with our constitution.

We got a constitution, but we don’t live

in the end of the 18th century, right?

We live in the 21st century.

And so you have to update the constitution

over the centuries.

And similarly, the genocide convention needs updating too.

So that’s how I work with the definition.

So this is this invention.

Was it an invention, this beautiful idea,

romantic idea that there’s groups of people

and the group is united by some unique characteristics?

That was an invention in human history, this idea?

Not to see as individuals?

In some senses, it was.

I mean, it’s not, you know,

there are things that are always constructed

in one fashion or another and the construction,

you know, more or less represents the reality.

And what the reality is always much more complicated

than the construction or the invention of a term

or a concept or a way of thinking about a nation, right?

And this way of thinking of nations, you know,

as again, you know, groups of religious, linguistic,

not political necessarily, but cultural entities

is something that was essentially invented, yes.

Yeah, so I mean, you know, if you look at…

There are no Germans in the 17th century.

There are no Italians in the 17th century, right?

They’re only there after, you know,

the invention of the nation, which comes again,

mostly out of the French Revolution

and in the Romantic movement,

a man named Johann Gottfried von Herder, right?

Who was really the first one who sort of went around,

collected people’s languages and collected their sayings

and their dances and their folkways and stuff

and said, isn’t this cool, you know,

that they’re Estonians and that they’re Latvians

and that they’re these other,

these interesting different peoples

who don’t even know necessarily

that they’re different peoples, right?

That comes a little bit later, right?

Once the concept is invented, then people start to say,

hey, we’re nations too, you know?

And the Germans decide they’re a nation and they unify.

And the Italians discover they’re a nation

and they unify instead of being, you know,

Florentines and Romans and, you know, Sicilians.

But then beyond nations, there’s political affiliations,

all those kinds of things.

It’s fascinating that, you know, you start,

look at the early Homo sapiens

and then there’s obviously tribes, right?

And then that’s very concrete.

That’s a geographic location and it’s a small group

of people and you have warring tribes probably connected

to just limited resources.

But it’s fascinating to think that that is then taken

to the space of ideas, to where you can create a group

at first to appreciate its beauty.

You create a group based on language,

based on maybe even political, philosophical ideas,

religious ideas, all those kinds of things.

And then that naturally then leads

to getting angry at groups and making them the other.

And then hatred.


That comes more towards the end of the 19th century,

you know, with the influence of Darwin.

I mean, you can’t blame Darwin for it,

but neo Darwin, Darwinians, you know,

who start to talk about, you know,

the competition between nations, the natural competition,

the weak ones fall away, the strong ones get ahead.

You know, you get this sort of combination also

with, you know, modern antisemitism

and with racial thinking, you know,

the racial thinking at the end of the 19th century

is very powerful.

So now, you know, at the end of the 19th century

versus the beginning of the, you know,

the middle of the 19th century, you know,

you can be a German and be a Jew

and there’s no contradiction.


As long as you speak the language and you, you know,

you dress and think and act and share the culture.

By the end of the 19th century, people saying, no, no,

you know, they’re not Germans.

They’re Jews, they’re different.

They have different blood.

They have different, they don’t say genes yet,

but you know, that’s sort of a sense of people.

And that’s when, you know,

there’s this sense of superiority too, and inferiority.


You know, that they’re inferior to us.


You know, and that we’re the strong ones

and we have to, you know, and Hitler, by the way,

just adopts this hook line and sinker.

I mean, there are a whole series of thinkers

at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th century

who he cites in Mein Kampf, you know,

which is written in the early 1920s,

that, you know, basically pervades this racial thinking.

So nationalism changes.

So nationalism in and of itself is not bad.

I mean, it’s not bad, you know,

to share culture and language and, you know,

folkways and a sense of common belonging.

There’s nothing bad about it inherently.

But then what happens is it becomes, you know,

frequently is used and becomes, especially on fascism,

becomes dangerous.

And it’s especially dangerous

when the two conflicting groups share geographic location.

That’s right.

So like with Jews, you know, I come, you know,

I’m a Russian Jew and it’s always interesting.

I take pride in, you know, I love the tradition

of the Soviet Union, of Russia.

I love America.

So I love these countries.

They have beautiful tradition in literature and science

and art and all those kinds of things.

But it’s funny that people, not often,

but sometimes correct me that I’m not Russian.

I’m a Jew.

And it’s a, it’s a, it’s a nice reminder.


That that is always there,

that desire to create these groups.

And then when they’re living in the same place

for that division between groups,

that hate between groups can explode.

And I just, I wonder why is that there?

Why does, why does the human heart tend so easily

towards this kind of hate?

You know, that’s a big question in and of itself.

You know, the human heart is full of everything, right?

It’s full of hate.

It’s full of love.

It’s full of indifference.

It’s full of apathy.

It’s full of energy.

So, I mean, hate is something, you know, that,

I mean, I think, and, you know,

along with hate, you know, the ability to really hurt

and injure people is something that’s within all of us.

You know, it’s within all of us.

And it’s just something that’s part of who we are

and part of our society.

So, you know, we’re shaped by our society

and our society can do with us often what it wishes.

You know, that’s why it’s so much nicer to live in a

more or less beneficent society

like that of a democracy in the West

than to live in the Soviet Union, right?

I mean, because, you know, you have more or less

the freedom to do what you wish

and not to be forced into situations

in which you would have to then do nasty to other people.

You know, some societies, as we talked about,

you know, are more have proclivities towards,

you know, asking of its people to do things

they don’t want to do and forcing them to do so.

So, you know, freedom is a wonderful thing.

To be able to choose not to do evil is a great thing,

you know, whereas in some societies, you know,

you feel in some ways for not so much for the NKVD bosses,

but for the guys on the ground, you know, in the 1930s

or not so much for the Nazi bosses,

but for the guys, you know, in the police battalion

that were told, go shoot those Jews, you know?

And you do it, not necessarily because

they force you to do it, but because your social,

you know, your social situation, you know, encourages you to

and you don’t have the courage not to.

Yeah, I was just, as I often do,

rereading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

and he said something, I just, I often pull out sort of lines.

The mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard

or a prisoner tells us almost nothing.

Human kindness can be found in all groups,

even those which as a whole, it would be easy to condemn.

So that’s speaking to, you feel for those people

at the lowest level implementing the orders of those above.


And also you worry yourself what will happen

if you were given those same orders, you know?

I mean, what would you do?

You know, what kind of reaction would you have

in a similar situation?

And you know, you don’t know.

I could see myself in World War II

while fighting for almost any country that I was born in.

There’s a love of community, there’s a love of country

that’s just, at least to me it comes naturally,

just love of community and countries wanting such community.

And I could see fighting for that country,

especially when you’re sold a story that you’re fighting evil

and I’m sure every single country

was sold that story effectively.

And then when you’re in the military

and you have a gun in your hand

or you’re in the police force and you’re ordered,

go to this place and commit violence,

it’s hard to know what you would do.

It’s a mix of fear, it’s a mix of,

maybe you convince yourself, you know,

what can one person really do?

And over time, it’s again, that slippery slope.

Because you could see all the people who protest,

who revolt, they’re ineffective.

So like, if you actually want to practically help somehow,

you’re going to convince yourself that you can’t,

one person can’t possibly help.

And then you have a family, so you want to make,

you know, you want to protect your family.

You tell all these stories and over time,

it, you naturally convince yourself to dehumanize the other.

Yeah, I think about this a lot,

mostly because I worry that I wouldn’t be a good German.

Yeah, no, no, that’s right, that’s right.

And one of the, you know, one of my tasks as a teacher,

right, our students, and I have, you know,

classes on genocide, I have one now.

And another one, by the way, on Stalin.

But the one on genocide, you know,

one of my tasks is to try to get the students to understand

this is not about weird people who live far away

in time and in place, but it’s about them, you know?

And that, you know, that’s a hard lesson,

but it’s an important one, you know,

that this is in all of us, you know, it’s in all of us.

And there’s nothing, you know,

and you just try to gird yourself up, you know,

to try to figure out ways that maybe you won’t be complicit.

And that you learn how to stand by your principles,

but it’s very hard, it’s extremely difficult.

And you can’t, the other interesting thing about it

is it’s not predictable.

Now, there’s, they’ve done a lot of studies of Poles,

for example, who during the war saved Jews, you know?

Well, who are the Poles who saved Jews

versus those who turned them in?

It’s completely unpredictable.

You know, sometimes it’s the worst anti Semites

who protect them because they don’t believe

they should be killed, right?

And sometimes, you know, it’s not predictable.

It’s not as if the humanists among us, you know,

are the ones who, you know, consistently show up,

you know, and experience danger, in other words,

and are ready to take on danger

to defend, you know, your fellow human beings.

Not necessarily.

I mean, sometimes simple people do it,

and sometimes they do it for really simple reasons.

And sometimes, people you would expect to do it don’t.

And you’ve got that mix, and it’s just not predictable.

One thing I’ve learned in this age of social media

is it feels like the people with integrity

and the ones who would do the right thing

are the quiet ones.

In terms of humanists, in terms of activists,

there’s so many points to be gained

of declaring that you would do the right thing.

It’s the simple, quiet folks.

Because I’ve seen quite, on a small,

obviously much smaller scale,

just shows of integrity and character.

When there was sacrifice to be made and it was done quietly.

Now, sort of the small heroes, those are,

you’re right, it’s surprising, but they’re often quiet.

That’s why I’m distrustful of people

who kind of proclaim that they would do the right thing.

Right, right.

And there are different kinds of integrity, too.

I mean, I edited a memoir of a Polish underground fighter,

member of the underground who was in Majdanek

in the concentration camp at Majdanek.

You know, and it was just an interesting mix

of different kinds of integrity.

You know, on the one hand,

it really bothered him deeply

when Jews were killed or sent to camp

or that sort of thing.

On the other hand, he was something of an anti Semite.

You know, he would, you know,

sometimes if Jews were his friends, he would help them.

And if they weren’t, sometimes he was really mean to them.

You know, and you could, in their various levels,

you know, a concentration camp is a terrible social experiment

in some ways, right?

But you learn a lot from how people behave.

And what you see is that, you know,

people behave sometimes extraordinarily well

in some situations and extraordinarily poorly in others.

And it’s mixed and you can’t predict it.

And it’s hard to find consistency.

I mean, that’s the other thing.

It’s, you know, I think we claim too much consistency

for the people we study

and the people we think about in the past.

You know, they’re not consistent any more than we are

consistent, right?

Well, let me ask you about human nature here on both sides.

So first, what have you learned about human nature

from studying genocide?

Why do humans commit genocide?

What lessons, first of all, why is a difficult question,

but what insights do you have into humans

that genocide is something that happens in the world?

That’s a really big and difficult question, right?

And it has to be parsed, I think,

into different kinds of questions.

You know, why does genocide happen?

You know, which the answer there is frequently political,

meaning, you know, why Hitler ended up killing the Jews.

Well, it had a lot to do with the political history

of Germany and wartime history of Germany, right?

In the 30s, and, you know, it’s traceable to then.

No, like you mentioned it yourself,

you can’t imagine Hitler in the mid 20s

turning into anything of the kind of dictator

he ended up being and the kind of murderer,

mass murderer he ended up being.

So, and the same thing goes, by the way,

for Stalin and Soviet Union and Pol Pot.

I mean, these are all essentially political movements

where the polity state is seized, you know,

by a ideological or, you know, party, single party movement

and then is moved in directions

where mass killing takes place.

The other question, you know,

let’s separate that question out.

The other question is why do ordinary people participate?

Because the fact of the matter is,

just ordering genocide is not enough.

Just saying, you know, go get them is not enough.

There have to be people who will cooperate

and who will do their jobs, you know,

both at the kind of mezzo level,

the middle level of a bureaucracy,

but also at the everyday level.

You know, people who have to pull the triggers

and that kind of thing and, you know,

force people into the gas chamber

and grab people, you know, in Kiev in September 1941

at Babin Yar and push them, you know, towards the ravine

where the machine gunners are gonna shoot them down.

You know, and those are all different questions.

The question of, you know, especially the lower level people

who actually do the killing is a question

which I think we’ve been talking about,

which is that within all of us,

you know, is the capability of being murderers

and mass murderers.

I mean, to participate in mass murder.

I won’t call them laws of social psychology,

but the character of social psychology.

You know, we will do it in most cases.

I mean, one of the shocking things that I learned

just a few years ago studying the Holocaust

is that you could pull out.

In other words, if they order a police battalion

to go shoot Jews, you didn’t have to do it.

You could pull out.

They weren’t gonna, they never killed anybody.

They never executed anybody.

They never even punished people for saying,

no, I’m not gonna do that.

So people are doing it voluntarily.

They may not want to do it.

You know, they give them booze to try to, you know,

numb the pain of murder,

because they know there is pain.

I mean, people experience pain when they murder people,

but they don’t pull out.

And so it’s the character of who we are in the society,

in groups, and we’re very, very influenced.

I mean, we’re highly influenced by the groups

in which we operate.

And, you know, who we talk to,

and who our friends are within that group,

and who is the head of the group.

And I mean, you see this even,

I mean, you see it in any group, you know,

whether it’s in the academy, right, at Stanford,

or whether it’s, you know, in a labor union,

or whether it’s in a church group in Tennessee,

or wherever, you know, people pay attention to each other,

and they are unwilling, frequently, to say no.

This is wrong.

Even though all of you think it’s right, it’s wrong.

I mean, you just don’t do that, usually,

especially in societies that are authoritarian,

or totalitarian, right?

Because it’s harder, because there’s a backup to it, right?

There’s the NKVD there, or there’s the Gestapo there,

and there are other people there.

So you just, you know, they may not be forcing you to do it,

but your social being, plus this danger in the distance,

you know, you do it.

But then, if you go up the hierarchy,

at the very top, there’s a dictator.

Presumably, you know, you go to, like, middle management

to the bureaucracy.

The higher you get up there,

the more power you have to change the direction

of the Titanic.

Right, right, right.

But nobody seems to do it.

Right, or what happens, and it does happen.

It happens in the German army.

I mean, it happens in the case of the Armenian genocide,

where we know there are governors who said,

no, I’m not gonna kill Armenians.

What kind of business is this?

They’re just removed.

They’re removed, and you find a replacement very easily.

So, you know, you do see people who stand up.

And again, it’s not really predictable who it will be.

I would maintain.

I mean, I haven’t done the study of the Armenian governors

who said no.

I mean, the Turkish governors who said no

to the Armenian genocide.

But, you know, there are people who do step aside

every once in a while in the middle level.

And again, they’re German generals who say,

wait a minute, what is this business in Poland

when they start to kill Jews or in Belorussia?

And, you know, they’re just pushed aside.

You know, if they don’t do their job, they’re pushed aside.

Or they end up doing it.

And they usually do end up doing it.

What about on the victim side?

So, I mentioned man’s search for meaning.

What can we learn about human nature,

the human mind from the victims of genocide?

So, Viktor Frankl talked about the ability

to discover meaning and beauty, even in suffering.

Is there something to be said about, you know,

in your studying of genocide

that you’ve learned about human nature?

Well, again, I don’t, I have to say,

I come out of the study of genocide

with a very pessimistic view of human nature.

A very pessimistic view.

Even on the victim side?

Even on the victim side.

I mean, the victims will eat their children, right?

Ukrainian case, they have no choice.

You know, the victims will rob each other.

The victims will form hierarchies within victimhood.

So, you see, let me give you an example.

Again, I told you I was working on Majdanek.

And there’s, in Majdanek, at a certain point in 42,

a group of Slovak Jews were arrested

and sent to Majdanek.

Those Slovak Jews were a group,

somehow they stuck together, they were very competent,

they were, you know, many of them were businessmen,

they knew each other,

and for a variety of different reasons within the camp.

And again, this shows you the diversity of the camps

and also, you know, these images of black and white

in the camps are not very useful.

They ruled the camp.

I mean, they basically had all the important jobs

in the camp, including jobs like beating other Jews,

and persecuting other Jews, and persecuting other peoples,

which they did.

And this Polish guy who I mentioned to you,

who wrote this memoir, hated them

because of what they were doing to the Poles, right?

And he, you know, he’s incensed

because aren’t these supposed to be the Untermenschen?

He says, and look what they’re doing,

they’re treating us, you know, like dirt.

And they do, they treat them like dirt.

So, you know, in this kind of work on Majdanek,

there’s certainly parts of it that, you know,

were inspiring, you know, people helping each other,

people trying to feed each other,

people giving warmth to each other.

You know, there’s some very heroic Polish women

who end up having a radio show called Radio Majdanek,

which they put on every night in the women’s camp,

which is, you know, to raise people’s spirits.

And they, you know, sing songs

and do all this kind of stuff, you know,

to try to keep themselves from, you know,

the horrors that they’re experiencing around them.

And so you do see that, and you do see,

you know, human beings acting in support of each other.

But, you know, I mean, Primo Levi is one of my favorite

writers about the Holocaust and about the camps.

And, you know, I don’t think Primo Levi saw anything.

You know, I mean, he had pals, you know,

who he helped and who helped him.

I mean, but he describes this kind of, you know,

terrible inhuman environment,

which no one can escape, really, no one can escape.

He ends up committing suicide too, I think,

because of his sense of, we don’t know exactly why,

but probably because of his sense

of what happened in the camp.

I mean, later he goes back to Italy,

becomes a writer and that sort of thing.

So I don’t, I don’t, especially in the concentration camps,

it’s really hard to find places like Wickel Frankel

where you can say, you know,

I am moved in a positive way, you know, by what happened.

There were cases, there’s no question.

People hung together, they tried to help each other,

but, you know, they were totally, totally caught

in this web of genocide.

See, so there are stories, but the thing is, I have this

sense, maybe it’s a hope, that within most,

if not every human heart, there’s a kind of, like,

flame of compassion and kindness and love that waits,

that longs to connect with others,

that ultimately en masse overpowers everything else.

If you just look at the story of human history,

the resistance to violence and mass murder and genocide

feels like a force that’s there.

And it feels like a force that’s more powerful

than whatever the dark momentum that leads to genocide is.

It feels like that’s more powerful, it’s just quiet.

It’s hard to tell the story of that little flame

that burns within all of our hearts,

that longing to connect to other human beings.

And there’s something also about human nature

and us as storytellers, that we’re not very good

at telling the stories of that little flame.

We’re much better at telling the stories of atrocities.

No, you know, I think maybe I fundamentally

disagree with you, I think maybe I fundamentally,

I don’t disagree that there is that flame.

I just think it’s just too easily doused.

And I think it’s too easily goes out in a lot of people.

And I mean, like I say, I come away from this work,

a pessimist.

You know, there is this work by a Harvard psychologist,

now I’m forgetting his name.

Stephen Pinker.

Yes, yes, Stephen Pinker, that shows over time, you know,

and you know, initially I was quite skeptical of the work,

but in the end, I thought he was quite convincing

that over time, the incidence of homicide, you know,

goes down, the incidence of rape goes down,

the incidence of genocide, except for the big blip,

you know, in the middle of the 20th century goes down.

Not markedly, but it goes down generally,

that you know, more than norms, international norms

are changing how we think about this and stuff like that.

I thought he was pretty convincing about that.

But think about, you know, we’re modern people.

I mean, we’ve advanced so fast in so many different areas.

I mean, we should have eliminated this a long time ago,

a long time ago.

You know, how is it that, you know,

we’re still facing this business of genocide in Myanmar,

in Xinjiang, in, you know, Tigray, in Ethiopia,

you know, the potentials of genocide there.

And all over the world, you know, we still have this thing

that we cannot handle, that we can’t deal with.

And, you know, again, you know, electric cars and planes

that fly from here to, you know, Beijing.

Think about the differences between 250 years ago

or 300 years ago and today, but the differences in genocide

are not all that great.

I mean, the incidence has gone down.

I think Pinker has demonstrated, I mean,

there are problems with his methodology,

but on the whole, I’m with him on that book.

I thought in the end, it was quite well done.

So, you know, I do not, I have to say,

I’m not an optimist about what this human flame can do.

And, you know, I once, someone once said to me,

when I posed a similar kind of question to a seminar,

a friend of mine at Berkeley once said,

remember original sin, Norman, well, I don’t, you know,

that’s very Catholic and I don’t really think

in terms of original sin, but in some ways, you know,

her point is we carry this with us, you know,

we carry with us a really potentially nasty mean streak

that can do harm to other people.

Well, we carry the capacity to love too.

Yes, we do, yes, we do.

That’s part of the deal.

You have a bias in that you have studied

some of the darker aspects of human nature

and human history.

So it is difficult from the trenches, from the muck,

to see a possible sort of way out through love.

But it’s not obvious that that’s not the case.

You mentioned electric cars and rockets and airplanes.

To me, the more powerful thing is Wikipedia, the internet.

Only 50% of the world currently has access to the internet,

but that’s growing in information and knowledge and wisdom,

especially among women in the world.

As that grows, I think it becomes a lot more difficult

if love wins, it becomes a lot more difficult

for somebody like Hitler to take power,

for genocide to occur, because people think,

and the masses, I think, the people have power

when they’re able to think,

when they can see the full kind of…

First of all, when they can study your work,

they can know about the fact that genocide happens,

how it occurs, how the promises of great charismatic leaders

lead to great, destructive mass genocide.

And just even studying the fact that the Holocaust happened

for a large number of people is a powerful preventer

of future genocide.

One of the lessons of history is just knowing

that this can happen, learning how it happens,

that normal human beings, leaders that give big promises,

can also become evil and destructive.

The fact, knowing that that can happen

is a powerful preventer of that,

and then you kind of wake up from this haze

of believing everything you hear,

and you learn to just, in your small, local way,

to put more love out there in the world.

I believe it’s possible, it’s not too good,

sort of to push back, it’s not so obvious to me

that in the end, I think in the end, love wins.

That’s my intuition, I’ve had to put money on it.

I have a sense that this genocide thing

is more and more going to be an artifact of the past.

Well, I certainly hope you’re right.

I mean, I certainly hope you’re right.

And it could be you are, we don’t know.

But the evidence is different.

The evidence is different.

And the capacity of human beings to do evil

to other human beings is repeatedly demonstrated.

Whether it’s in massacres in Mexico,

or ISIS and the Yazidi Kurds,

or you can just go on and on.

Syria, I mean, look what, I mean,

Syria used to be a country, and now it’s been a mass grave,

and people then have left in the millions

for other places.

And you know, I’m not saying, you know, I’m not saying,

I mean, the Turks have done nice things for the Syrians,

and the Germans welcomed in a million or so,

and actually reasonably absorbed them.

I mean, I’m not saying bad things only happen in the world.

They’re good and bad things that happen,

you’re absolutely right.

But I don’t think we’re on the path

to eliminating these bad things,

really bad things from happening.

I just don’t think we are.

And I don’t think there’s any,

I don’t think the facts demonstrate it.

I mean, I hope, I hope you’re right.

But I think otherwise, it’s just an article of faith.


You know, which is perfectly fine.

It’s better to have that article of faith

than to have an article of faith which says,

you know, things should get bad, or things like that.

Well, it’s not just fine.

It’s the only way if you want to build a better future.

So optimism is a prerequisite

for engineering a better future.

So like, okay, so a historian

has to see clearly into the past.

An engineer has to imagine a future

that’s different from the past,

that’s better than the past.

Because without that,

they’re not going to be able to build a better future.

So there’s a kind of saying,

like you have to consider the facts.

Well, at every single moment in history,

if you allow yourself to be too grounded

by the facts of the past,

you’re not going to create the future.

So that’s kind of the tension that we’re living with.

To have a chance, we have to imagine

that the better future is possible.

But one of the ways to do that is to study history.

Which engineers don’t do enough of.

They do not.

Which is a real problem.

It’s a real problem.

Or basically a lot of disciplines in science

and so on don’t do enough of.

Can you tell the story of China from 1958 to 1962,

what was called the Great Leap Forward,

orchestrated by Chairman Mao Zedong

that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people

making it arguably the largest famine in human history?


I mean, it was a terrible set of events

that led to the death.

People will dispute the numbers.

15 million, 17 million, 14 million,

20 million people died in the Great Leap.

Many people say 30, 40, 50 million.

Some people will go that high too.

That’s right, that’s right.

Essentially, Mao and the Communist Party leadership,

but it was mostly Mao’s doing,

decided he wanted to move the country into communism.

And part of the idea of that

was rivalry with the Soviet Union.

Mao was a good Stalinist,

or at least felt like Stalin

was the right kind of communist leader to have,

and he didn’t like Khrushchev at all,

and he didn’t like what he thought were Khrushchev’s reforms

and also Khrushchev’s pretensions

to moving the Soviet Union into communism.

So Khrushchev started talking about giving more power

to the party, less power to the state,

and if you have more power to the party versus the state,

then you’re moving into communism quicker.

So what Mao decided to do was to engage in this vast program

of building what were called people’s communes.

And these communes were enormous conglomerations

of essentially collective farms,

and what would happen on those communes

is there would be places for people to eat,

and there would be places for the kids to be raised

in essentially kind of separate homes,

and they would be schooled.

Everybody would turn over their metal,

which was one of the,

actually it turned out to be a terribly negative phenomenon,

their metal pots and pans to be melted to then make steel.

Every of these big communes would all have little steel plants

and they would build steel

and the whole countryside would be transformed.

Well, like many of these sort of,

I mean a true megalomaniac project,

like some of Stalin’s projects too.

And this particular project then,

the people had no choice.

They were forced to do this.

It was incredibly dysfunctional for Chinese agriculture

and ended up creating, as you mentioned, a terrible famine

that everybody understood was a famine as a result of this.

I mean, there were also some problems of nature

at the same time and some flooding and bad weather

and that sort of thing, but it was really a manmade famine.

And Mao said at one point, who cares if millions die?

It just doesn’t matter.

We’ve got millions more left.

I mean, he would periodically say things like this

that showed that like Stalin, he had total indifference

to the fact that people were dying in large numbers.

It led again to cannibalism

and to terrible wastage all over the country

and millions of people died

and there was just no stopping it.

There were people in the party

who began to kind of edge towards telling Mao

this wasn’t a great idea and that he should back off,

but he wouldn’t back off.

And the result was catastrophe in the countryside

and all these people dying.

And then compounding the problem was the political elite,

which then if peasants would object

or if certain people would say,

no, they’d beat the hell out of them.

They would beat people who didn’t do

what they wanted them to do.

So it was really, really a horrific set of events

on the Chinese countryside.

I mean, and people wrote about it.

I mean, we learned about it.

There were people who were keeping track

of what was going on and eventually wrote books about it.

So we have, I mean, we have pretty good documentation,

not so much on the numbers.

Numbers are always a difficult problem.

I’m facing this problem, by the way,

this is a little bit separate with the Holodomor,

where Ukrainians are now claiming

11.5 million people died in Holodomor.

And most people assume it’s somewhere

in the neighborhood of four million, 4.5 million maybe.

So you have wildly different numbers that come out.

Then we have different kinds of numbers,

as you mentioned too, with the Great Leap Forward.

So it was a huge catastrophe for China

and now only backed off when he had to.

And then revived a little bit

with the Red Guards Movement later on

when he was upset that the bureaucracy

was resisting him a little bit

when it came to the Great Leap.

But he had to back off.

It was such a terrible catastrophe.

So one of the things about numbers

is that you usually talk about deaths,

but with the famine, with starvation,

the thing I often think about

that’s impossible to put into numbers

is the number of people

and the degree to which they were suffering.

You know, the number of days spent in suffering.

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

And so, I mean, death is,

death is just one of the consequences of suffering.

To me, it feels like one, two, three years or months

and then years of not having anything to eat is worse.

And those aren’t put into numbers often.

That’s right.

And the effect on people long term,

you know, in terms of their mental health,

in terms of their physical health,

their ability to work, all those kinds of things.

I mean, Ukrainians are working on,

there are people working on this subject now.

You know, the longterm effect of the hunger famine on them.

And I’m sure there’s a similar kind of longterm effect

on Chinese peasantry of what happened.

You know, I mean, you’re destroying.


Yes, multigenerational.

That’s right, that’s right.

And you know, it’s a really, you’re absolutely right.

This is a terrible, terrible way to die.

And it lasts a long time.

And sometimes you don’t die, you survive,

but you know, in the kind of shape

where you can’t do anything.

I mean, you can’t function.

Now your brain’s been injured, you know.

I know it’s a really, these famines are really horrible.

You’re right.

So when you talk about genocide,

it’s often talking about murder.

Where do you place North Korea in this discussion?

We kind of mentioned it.

So in the, what is it?

The Arduous March of the 1990s,

where it was mass starvation.

Many people describe mass starvation

going on now in North Korea.

When you think about genocide,

when you think about atrocities going on in the world today,

where do you place North Korea?

So take a step back.

When the, there were all these courts

that were set up for Bosnia and for Rwanda

and for other genocides in the 1990s.

And then the decision was made

by the international community, UN basically,

to set up the International Criminal Court,

which would then try genocide in the more modern period

and the more contemporary period.

And the ICC lists three crimes basically.

The genocide crimes against humanity and war crimes.

And subsumed to crimes against humanity

are a lot of the kinds of things

you’re talking about with North Korea.

I mean, it’s torture, it’s artificial,

sometimes artificial famine or famine,

that is not necessary, right?

Not necessary to have it.

And there are other kinds of, you know,

mass rape and stuff like that.

There are other kinds of things that fit

into the crimes against humanity.

And that’s sort of where I think about North Korea

as committing crimes against humanity, not genocide.

And again, remember, genocide is meant to be,

I mean, some people, there’s a disagreement

among scholars and jurists about this.

Some people think of genocide as the crime of crimes,

the worst of the three that I just mentioned.

But some think of them as co equal.

And the ICC, the International Criminal Court,

is dealing with them more or less as co equal,

even though we tend to think of genocide as the worst.

So I mean, what I’m trying to say is that,

you know, I don’t wanna split hairs.

I think it’s sort of morally and ethically unseemly,

you know, the split hairs about what is genocide,

what is the crime against humanity.

You know, this is for lawyers, not for historians.

But terminology wise.

Yeah, yeah, you know, you don’t wanna get into that.

Because it, I mean, it happened with Darfur a little bit,

where the Bush administration had declared

that Darfur was a genocide.

And the UN said, no, no, it wasn’t genocide,

it was a crime against humanity.

And then, you know, that confused things

versus clarified them.

I mean, we damn well knew what was happening.

People were being killed and being attacked.

And so, you know, on the one hand,

I think the whole concept and the way of thinking

about history using genocide as an important part

of human history is crucial.

On the other hand, I don’t like to, you know,

get involved in the hair splitting,

what’s genocide and what’s not.

So that, you know, North Korea, I tend to think of,

like I said, as committing crimes against humanity

and, you know, forcibly incarcerating people,

torturing them, that kind of thing.

You know, routinely incarcerating, depriving them

of certain kinds of human rights

can be considered a crime against humanity.

But I don’t think of it in the same way

I think about genocide, which is an attack

on a group of people.

Let me just leave it at that.

What in this, if we think about, if it’s okay,

can we loosely use the term genocide here,

just let’s not play games with terminology.

Just bad crimes against humanity.

Of particular interest are the ones

that are going on today still,

because it raises the question to us,

what do people outside of this,

what role do they have to play?

So what role does the United States,

or what role do I, as a human being who has food today,

who has shelter, who has a comfortable life,

what role do I have when I think about North Korea,

when I think about Syria,

when I think about maybe the Uighur population in China?

Well, I mean, the role is the same role I have,

which is to teach and to learn

and to get the message out that this is happening,

because the more people who understand it,

the more likely it is that the United States government

will try to do something about it,

within the context of who we are and where we live, right?

And so, I write books, you do shows,

or maybe you write books too, I don’t know.

I do not write books, but I tweet.

Okay, that’s good too.

Ineloquently, but that’s not the,

I guess that’s not the, yes, so certainly this is true.

And in terms of a voice, in terms of words,

in terms of books, you are, I would say,

a rare example of somebody

that has powerful reach with words.

But I was also referring to actions.

In the United States government, what are the options here?

So, war has costs,

and war seems to be, as you have described,

sort of potentially increase the atrocity, not decrease it.

If there’s anything that challenges my hope for the future

is the fact that sometimes we’re not powerless to help,

but very close to powerless to help,

because trying to help can often lead to,

in the near term, more negative effects than positive effects.

That’s exactly right.

I mean, the unintended consequences of what we do

can frequently be as bad, if not worse,

than trying to relieve the difficulties

that people are having.

So I think you’re caught a little bit,

but it’s also true, I think, that we can be more forceful.

I think we can be more forceful without necessarily war.

There is this idea of the so called responsibility

to protect, and this was an idea that came up

after Kosovo, which was what, 1999,

and when the Serbs looked like they were going to engage

in a genocidal program in Kosovo,

and it was basically a program of ethnic cleansing,

but it could have gone bad and gotten worse,

not just driving people out, but beginning to kill them.

And the United States and Britain and others intervened.

And Russians were there too, as you probably recall.

And I think correctly, people have analyzed this

as a case in which genocide was prevented or stopped.

In other words, the Serbs were stopped in their tracks.

I mean, some bad things did happen.

We bombed Belgrade and the Chinese embassy

and things like that.

But it was stopped, and following upon that,

then there was a kind of international consensus

that we needed to do something.

I mean, because of Rwanda, Bosnia,

and the positive example of Kosovo, right?

That genocide did not happen in Kosovo.

I think that argument has been substantiated.

Anyway, and this notion of the,

or this doctrine or whatever,

of the responsibility to protect them

was adopted by the UN in 2005, unanimously.

And what it says is there’s a hierarchy of measures

that should be, well, let me take a step back.

It starts with the principle that sovereignty of a country

is not, you don’t earn it just by being there

and being your own country.

You have to earn it by protecting your people.

So every, this was all agreed

with all the nations of the UN agreed,

Chinese and Russians too,

that sovereignty is there because you protect your people

against various depredations, right?

Including genocide, crimes against humanity,

forced imprisonment, torture, and that sort of thing.

If you violate that justification for your sovereignty,

that you’re protecting your people,

that you’re not protecting them,

the international community has the obligation

to do something about it, all right?

Now, then they have a kind of hierarchy

of things you can do, you know, starting with,

I mean, I’m not quoting exactly,

but, you know, starting with kind of push and pull,

you know, trying to convince people,

don’t do that, you know, to Myanmar,

don’t do that to the Rohingya people, right?

Then it goes down the list, you know,

and you get to sanctions or threatening sanctions

and then sanctions, you know, like we have against Russia,

but you go down the list, right?

You go down the list and eventually

you get to military intervention at the bottom,

which they say is the last thing, you know,

and you really don’t wanna do that.

And not only do you not wanna do it,

but it, just as you said, just as you pointed out,

it can have unintended consequences, right?

And we’ll do everything we can short,

you know, of military intervention,

but, you know, if necessary,

that can be undertaken as well.

And so the responsibility to predict, I think,

is, you know, it was not implementable.

Oh, one of the things it says in this last category, right?

The military intervention is that the intervention

cannot create more damage than it relieves, right?

And so for Syria, we came to the conclusion,

you know, that, I mean, the international community

in some ways said this in so many words,

even though the Russians were there, obviously,

we ended up being there and that sort of thing,

but the international community basically said,

you know, there’s no way you can intervene in Syria.

You know, there’s just no way without causing more damage,

you know, than you would relieve.

So, you know, in some senses,

that’s what the international community is saying

about, you know, Xinjiang and the Uighurs too.

You know, I mean, you can’t even imagine

what hell would break loose

if there was some kind of military trouble, you know,

to threaten the Chinese with.

But you can go down that list

with the, you know, the military leadership of Myanmar,

and you can go down that list

with the Chinese Communist Party,

and you can go down the list, you know,

with others who are threatening, you know, with Ethiopia

and what it’s doing in Tigray.

And, you know, you can go down that list and start pushing.

I think what happened,

you know, there was more of a willingness in the 90s,

and in, you know, right at the turn of the century,

you know, to do these kinds of things.

And then, you know, when Trump got elected and, you know,

he basically said, you know, America first

and out of the world,

we’re not gonna do any of this kind of stuff.

And now Biden has the problem

of trying to rebuild consensus

on how you deal with these kinds of things.

I think it’s not impossible.

I mean, here I tend to be maybe more of an optimist than you.

You know, I think it’s not impossible

that the international community can, you know,

muster some internal fortitude

and push harder, short of war, you know,

to get the Chinese and to get the, again, Myanmar,

and to get others to kind of back off

of violations of people’s rights

the way they are routinely doing it.

So that’s in the space of geopolitics.

That’s the space of politicians and UN and so on.

The interesting thing about China,

and this is a difficult topic,

but there’s so many financial interests

that not many voices with power and with money

speak up, speak out against China

because it’s a very interesting effect

because it costs a lot for an individual to speak up

because you’re going to suffer.

I mean, China just cuts off the market.

Like if you have a product, if you have a company

and you say something negative, China just says, okay,

well then they knock you out of the market.

And so any person that speaks up,

they get shut down immediately financially.

It’s a huge cost, sometimes millions or billions of dollars.

And so what happens is everybody of consequences,

sort of financially, everybody with a giant platform

is extremely hesitant to speak out.

It’s a very, it’s a different kind of hesitation

that’s financial in nature.

I don’t know if that was always the case.

It seems like in history, people were quiet

because of fear, because of a threat of violence.

Here, there’s almost like a self interested

preservation of financial, of wealth.

And I don’t know what to do that.

I mean, I don’t know if you can say something there,

like the genocide going on

because people are financially self interested.

Yeah, no, I think, I mean, I think the analysis is correct.

And it’s not only, but it’s not only corporations,

but it’s the American government

that represents the American people

that also feels compelled not to challenge the Chinese

on human rights issues.

But the interesting thing is it’s not just,

you know, I know a lot of people from China

and first of all, amazing human beings

and a lot of brilliant people in China,

they also don’t want to speak out

and not because they’re sort of quote unquote,

like silenced, but more because they’re going

to also lose financially.

They have a lot of businesses in China.

They, you know, they’re running,

in fact, the Chinese government and the country

has a very interesting structure

because it has a lot of elements that enable capitalism

within a certain framework.

So you have a lot of very successful companies

and they operate successfully.

And then the leaders of those companies,

many of whom have either been on this podcast,

or want to be on this podcast,

they really don’t want to say anything negative

about the government.

And the nature of the fear I sense

is not the kind of fear you would have in Nazi Germany.

It’s a very kind of, it’s a mellow,

like why would I speak out when it has a negative effect

on my company, on my family, in terms of finance,

strictly financially.

And that’s difficult.

That’s a different problem to solve.

That feels solvable.

It feels like it’s a money problem.

If you can control the flow of money

where the government has less power

to control the flow of money,

it feels like that’s solvable.

And that’s where capitalism is good.

That’s where a free market is good.

So it’s like, that’s where a lot of people

in the cryptocurrency space,

I don’t know if you follow them,

they kind of say, okay, take the monetary system,

the power to control money away from governments.

Make it a distributed,

like allow technology to help you with that.

That’s a hopeful message there.

In fact, a lot of people argue

that kind of Bitcoin and these cryptocurrencies

can help deal with some of these authoritarian regimes

that lead to violations of basic human rights.

If you can control, if you can give the power

to control the money to the people,

you can take that away from governments.

That’s another source of hope

where technology might be able to do something good.

That’s something different about the 21st century

than the 20th is there’s technology

in the hands of billions of people.

I mean, I have to say,

I think you’re a naive when it comes to technology.

I mean, I don’t, I’m not someone who understands technology.

So it’s wrong of me to argue with you

because I don’t really spend much time with it.

I don’t really like it very much.

And I’m not, I’m neither a fan nor a connoisseur.

So I just don’t really know.

But what human history has shown basically,

and that’s a big statement.

I don’t wanna pretend I can tell you

what human history has shown.

But technology, atom bomb,

I mean, that’s a perfect example of technology.

What happens when you discover new things?

It’s a perfect example.

What’s going on with Facebook now?

It’s an absolutely perfect example.

And I once went to a lecture by Eric Schmidt

about the future and about all the things

that were gonna happen and all these wonderful things

like you wouldn’t have to translate yourself anything,

you wouldn’t have to read a book,

you wouldn’t have to drive a car,

you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do that.

What kind of life is that?

So my view of technology is it’s subsumed

to the political, social and moral needs of our day

and should be subsumed to that day.

It’s not gonna solve anything by itself.

It’s gonna be you and me that solve things.

If they’re solved, there are political system

that solve things.

Technology is neutral on one level.

It is simply a human, I mean, they’re talking now

about how artificial intelligence is gonna do this

and is gonna do that.

I’m not so sure there’s anything necessarily positive

or negative about it except it does obviously

make work easier and things like that.

I mean, I like email and I like word processing

and all that stuff is great,

but actually solving human relations in and of itself

or international relations or conflict among human beings.

I mean, I see technology as causing as many problems

as it solves and maybe even more.

You know, the kind.


Maybe even more. Maybe.


The question is, so like you said, technology is neutral.

I agree with this.

Technology is a toolkit, is a tool set that enables humans

to have wider reach and more power, the printing press.

The rare reason I can read your books is I would argue,

so first of all, the printing press and then the internet.

Wikipedia, I think, has immeasurable effect on humanity.

Technology is a double edged sword.

It allows bad people to do bad things

and good people to do good things.

It ultimately boils down to the people

and whether you believe the capacity for good

outweighs the capacity of bad.

And so you said that I’m naive.

It is true.

I’m naively optimistic.

I would say you’re naively cynical about technology.

Here we have one overdressed naive optimist

and one brilliant, but nevertheless,

technologically naive cynic and we don’t know.

We don’t know whether the capacity for good

or the capacity for evil wins out in the end.

And like we’ve been talking about,

the trajectory of human history seems to pivot

in a lot of random seeming moments.

So we don’t know.

But as a builder of technology, I remain optimistic.

And I should say kind of when you are optimistic,

it is often easy to sound naive.

And I’m not sure what to make of that small effect.

Not to linger on specific words,

but I’ve noticed that people who kind of are cynical

about the world somehow sound more intelligent.

No, no.

The issue is how can you be realistic about the world?

It’s not optimistic or pessimistic.

It’s not cynical.

The question is how can you be a realist, right?

Yes, that’s a good question.

Realism depends on a combination of knowledge and wisdom

and good instincts and that sort of thing.

And that’s what we strive for, is a kind of realism.

We both strive for that kind of realism.

But I mean, here’s an example I would give you.

What about, again, we’ve got this environmental issue,

and technology has created it.

It’s created it.

I mean, the growth of technology,

I mean, we all like to be heated well in our homes,

and we wanna have cars that run quickly and fast on gas.

I mean, we’re all consumers and we all profit from this.

I don’t, not everybody profits from it,

but we wanna be comfortable.

And technology has provided us with a comfortable life.

And it’s also provided us with this incredible danger,

which it’s not solving, at least not now.

And it may solve, but it may, it’s only,

my view is, you know what’s gonna happen?

A horrible catastrophe.

It’s the only way, it’s the only way

we will direct ourselves

to actually trying to do something about it.

We don’t have the wisdom and the realism

and the sense of purpose, you know, what’s her name?

Greta goes blah, blah, blah, something like that

in her last talk about the environmental summit

in Glasgow or whatever it was.

And, you know, we just don’t have it

unless we’re hit upside the head really, really hard.

And then maybe, you know, the business with nuclear weapons,

you know, I think somehow we got hit upside the head

and we realized, oh man, you know,

this could really do it to the whole world.

And so we started, you know, serious arms control stuff.

And, you know, but up to that point, you know,

I mean, there was just something about, you know,

Khrushchev’s big bomb, his big hydrogen bomb,

which he exploded in the times,

I think it was the anniversary or something like that.

You know, I mean, just think what we could have done

to each other.

Well, that’s the double edged sword of technology.

Yeah, I agree, it’s a double edged sword.

There’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of people

that argue that nuclear weapons is the reason

we haven’t had a World War III.

So nuclear weapons, the mutually assured destruction

leads to a kind of like,

we’ve reached a certain level of destructiveness

with our weapons where we were able to catch ourselves,

not to create, like you said, hit really hard.

This is the interesting question about kind of hard,

hard and really hard upside the head.

With the environment, I would argue,

see, we can’t know the future,

but I would argue as the pressure builds,

there’s already, because of this created urgency,

the amount of innovation that I’ve seen

that sometimes is unrelated to the environment,

but kind of sparked by this urgency,

it’s been humongous, including the work of Elon Musk,

including the work of just,

you could argue that the SpaceX

and the new exploration of space is kind of sparked

by this environmental like urgency.

I mean, connected to Tesla and everything they’re doing

with electric vehicles and so on.

There’s a huge amount of innovation

in the space that’s happening.

I could see the effect of climate change

resulting in more positive innovation

that improves the quality of life across the world

than the actual catastrophic events that we’re describing,

which we cannot even currently predict.

It’s not like there’s going to be,

there’s going to be more extreme weather events.

What does that even mean?

There’s going to be a gradual increase

of the level of water.

What does that even mean in terms of catastrophic events?

It’s going to be pretty gradual.

There’s going to be migration.

We can’t predict what that means.

And in response to that,

there’s going to be a huge amount of innovators born today

that have dreams and that will build devices and inventions

and from space to vehicles to in the software world

that enable education across the world,

all those kinds of things that will on mass, on average,

increase the quality of life on average across the world.

So it’s not at all obvious that these,

the things that the technologies

that are creating climate change, global warming,

are going to have a negative, net negative effect.

We don’t know this.

And I’m kind of inspired by the dreamers,

the engineers, the innovators and the entrepreneurs

that build, that wake up in the morning,

see problems in the world and dream

that they’re going to be the ones who solve those problems.

That’s the human spirit.

And that I’m not exactly,

it is true that we need those deadlines.

We need to be freaking out about stuff.

And the reason we need to study history

and the worst of human history is then we can say,

oh shit, this too can happen.

It’s a slap in the face.

It’s a wake up call that if you’re,

if you get complacent, if you get lazy,

this is going to happen.

And that, listen, there’s a lot of really intelligent people,

ambitious people, dreamers.

Skilled dreamers that build solutions

that make sure this stuff doesn’t happen anymore.

So there’s, I think there’s reason to be optimistic

about technology, not in a naive way.

There’s an argument to be made in a realistic way

that like with technology, we can build a better future.

And then Facebook is a lesson in the way Facebook

has been done is a lesson how not to do it.

And that lesson serves as a guide

of how to do it better, how to do it right,

how to do it in a positive way.

And the same, every single sort of failed technology

contains within it the lessons of how to do it better.

And I mean, without that,

what’s the source of hope for human civilization?

You know, that, I mean, by way of question,

you have truly studied some of the darkest moments

in human history.

Put on your optimist hat.


That one.


There are glimmers of it.

Yes, what is your source of hope

for the future of human civilization?

Well, I think it resides in, you know,

some of what you’ve been saying,

which is the, in the persistence of this civilization

over time, despite, you know, the incredible setbacks,

you know, two enormous world wars, you know,

the nuclear standoff, the, you know,

the horrible things we’re experiencing now

with climate change and migration and stuff like that,

that despite these things, you know,

we are persisting and we are continuing.

And like you say, we’re continuing to invent

and we’re continuing to try to solve these problems.

And, you know, we’re continuing to love as well as hate.

And, you know, that, you know, I’m basically,

I mean, I have children and grandchildren

and I think they’re gonna be just fine.

You know, I’m not a doom and gloomer, you know,

I’m not a Cassandra saying the world is coming to an end.

I’m not like that at all, you know,

I think that, you know, things will persist.

Another, by the way, source of tremendous optimism

on my part, the kids I teach, you know,

I teach some unbelievably fantastic young people,

you know, who are sort of like you say,

they’re dreamers and they’re problem solvers

and they’re, I mean, they have enormously humane values

and ways of thinking about the world

and they wanna do good.

You know, if you take the kind of,

I mean, this has probably been true all the way along,

but I mean, the percentage of do gooders,

you know, is really enormously large.

Now, whether they end up working

for some kind of shark law firm or something,

you know, or, you know, that kind of thing,

or whether they end up human rights lawyers

is they all wanna be, right?

You know, is a different kind of question,

but certainly, you know, these young people are talented,

they’re smart, they have wonderful values,

they’re energetic, they work hard, you know,

they’re focused and of course, it’s not just Stanford.

I mean, it’s all over the country,

you know, you have young people

who really wanna contribute and they wanna contribute.

I mean, it’s true some of them end up,

you know, working to get rich.

I mean, that’s inevitable, right?

But the percentages are actually rather small,

at least at this age, you know,

maybe when they get a mortgage and a family

and that sort of thing, you know,

financial wellbeing will be more important to them.

But right now, you know, you catch this young generation

and they’re fantastic, they’re fantastic.

And they’re not what they’re often portrayed as being,

you know, kind of silly and naive and knee jerk leftists

and that, they’re not at all like that.

You know, they’re really fine young people.

So that’s a source of optimism to me too.

What advice would you give to those young people today,

maybe in high school, in college, at Stanford,

maybe to your grandchildren about how to have a career

they can be proud of, have a life they can be proud of?

Pursue careers that are in the public interest,

you know, in one fashion or another

and not just in their interests.

And that would be, I mean, it’s not bad to pursue a career

in your own interests.

I mean, as long as it’s something that’s useful

and positive for their families or whatever.

But yeah, so I mean, I try to advise kids

to find themselves somehow, you know, find who they wanna be

and what they wanna be and try to pursue it.

And the NGO world is growing, as you know,

and a lot of young people are kind of throwing themselves

into it and, you know, human rights watch

and that kind of stuff.

And, you know, they wanna do that kind of work

and it’s very admirable.

I tend to think that even if you’re not working

in human rights, there’s a certain way in which

if you live with integrity, I believe that all of us

or many of us have a bunch of moments in our lives

when we’re posed with a decision.

It’s a quiet one.

Maybe it’ll never be written about or talked about.

But you get to choose whether you, there’s a choice

that is difficult to make, it may require sacrifice,

but it’s the choice that the best version

of that person would make.

That’s the best way I can sort of say

how to act with integrity.

It’s the very thing that would resist the early days

in Nazi Germany.

It sounds dramatic to say, but those little actions.

And I feel like the best you can do

to avoid genocide on scale is for all of us

to live in that way, within those moments,

unrelated potentially to human rights, to anything else,

is to take those actions.

Like I believe that all of us know the right thing to do.

I know that’s right.

I think that’s right.

You put it very well.

I couldn’t have done it better myself.

No, no, I agree.

I agree completely that there are, to live with truth,

which is what Václav Havel used to say,

this famous Czech dissident talked about living in truth,

but also to live with integrity.

And that’s really super important.

Well, let me ask you about love.

What role does love play in this whole thing

in the human condition?

In all of the study of genocide,

it does seem that hardship in moments

brings out the best in human nature

and the best in human nature is expressed through love.

Well, as I already mentioned to you,

I think hardship is not a good thing for,

you know, it’s not the best thing for love.

I mean, it’s better to not have to suffer

and not have to, yes, I think it is.

I think it’s, you know, as I mentioned to you,

you know, studying concentration camps,

you know, this is not a place for love.

It happens, it happens,

but it’s not really a place for love.

It’s a place for rape.

It’s a place for torture.

It’s a place for killing.

And it’s a place for inhuman action one to another,

you know, and also, as I said,

among those who are suffering,

not just between those who are,

and then there are whole gradations,

you know, the same thing in the gulag.

You know, there are gradations all the way

from the criminal prisoners

who beat the hell out of the political prisoners,

you know, who then have others below them

who they beat down, you know,

so everybody’s being the hell out of everybody else.

So I would not idealize in any way suffering as,

you know, a source of beauty and love.

I wouldn’t do that at all.

I think it’s a whole lot better

for people to be relatively prosperous.

I’m not saying super prosperous,

but to be able to feed themselves

and to be able to feed their families

and house their families and take care of themselves,

you know, to foster loving relations between people.

And, you know, I think it’s no accident

that, you know, poor families have much worse records

when it comes to crime and things like that, you know,

and also to wife beating and to child abuse

and stuff like that.

I mean, you just, you don’t want to be poor and indigent

and not have a roof over your head, be homeless.

I mean, it doesn’t mean, again, you know,

homeless people are mean people.

That’s not what I’m trying to say.

What I’m trying to say is that, you know,

what we want to try to foster in this country

and around the world, and one of the reasons, you know,

I mean, I’m very critical of the Chinese in a lot of ways,

but I mean, we have to remember they pulled that country

out of horrible poverty, right?

And I mean, there’s still poor people in the countryside.

There’s still problems, you know,

with want and need among the Chinese people.

But, you know, there were millions and millions of Chinese

who were living at the bare minimum of life,

which is no way to live, you know,

and no way, again, to foster love and compassion

and getting along.

So I want to be clear, I don’t speak for history, right?

I’m giving you, there used to be historians,

you know, in the 19th century who really thought

they were speaking for history, you know?

I don’t think that way at all.

I mean, I understand I’m a subjective human being

with my own points of view and my own opinions, but.

I’m trying to remember this in this conversation

that you’re, despite the fact that you’re brilliant

and you’ve written brilliant books,

that you’re just human with an opinion.

That’s it, yeah, no, no, that’s absolutely true.

And I tell my students that too.

I mean, I make sure they understand

this is not history speaking, you know,

this is me and Norman and I’m, you know,

and this is what it’s about.

I mean, I spent a long time studying history

and have enjoyed it enormously.

But, you know, I’m an individual with my points of view.

And one of them is that I’ve developed over time,

is that, you know, human want is a real tragedy for people

and it hurts people and it also causes upheavals

and difficulties and stuff.

So I feel for people, you know, I feel for people in Syria,

I feel for people in, you know, in Ethiopia, in Tigray,

you know, when they don’t have enough to eat.

And, you know, what that does, I mean,

it doesn’t mean they don’t love each other, right?

And it doesn’t mean they don’t love their kids.

But it does mean that it’s harder, you know, to do that.

And to, and…

I’m not so sure, it’s obvious to me that it’s harder.

It’s, there’s suffering, there is suffering.

But the numbers, we’ve been talking about deaths,

we’ve been talking about suffering,

but the numbers we’re not quantifying.

The history that you haven’t perhaps been looking at

is all the times that people have fallen in love,

deeply with friends, with romantic love,

the positive emotion that people have felt.

And I’m not so sure that amidst the suffering,

those moments of beauty and love can be discovered.

And if we look at the numbers,

I’m not so sure the story is obvious.

That, you know, I mean, again,

I suppose you may disagree with Viktor Frankl.

I may too, maybe depending on the day.

I mean, he says that if there’s meaning to this life at all,

there’s meaning to the suffering too,

because suffering is part of life.

There’s something about accepting the ups and downs,

even when the downs go very low.

And within all of it, finding a source of meaning.

I mean, he’s arguing from the perspective of psychology,

but just this life is an incredible gift,

almost no matter what.

And I’m not, it’s easy to look at suffering

and think if we just escape the suffering,

it will all be better, but we all die.

There’s beauty in the whole thing.

And it is true that it’s just,

from all the stories I’ve read,

especially in famine and starvation, it’s just horrible.

It is horrible suffering.

But I also just want to say that there’s love amidst it,

and we can’t forget that.

No, no, I don’t forget it, I don’t forget it.

And I think it’s from the stories.

Now, I don’t want to make that compromise or that trade,

but the intensity of friendship in war,

the intensity of love in war is very high.

So I’m not sure what to make of these calculations,

but if you look at the stories,

some of the people I’m closest with,

and I’ve never experienced anything

even close to any of this,

but some of the people I’m closest with

is people I’ve gone through difficult times with.

There’s something about that.

They’re a society or a group where things are easy.

The intensity of the connection between human beings

is not as strong.

I don’t know what to do with that calculus

because I too agree with you.

I want to have as little suffering in the world as possible,

but we have to remember about the love

and the depth of human connection

and find the right balance there.

No, there’s something to what you’re saying.

There’s clearly something to what you’re saying.

I was just thinking about the Soviet Union

when I lived there and people on the streets

were so mean to one another and they never smiled.

You grew up there?

No, but you were, you’re too young to.

No, no, I remember well.

I came here when I was 13, yeah.

Okay, so anyway, I remember living there

and just how hard people were on each other on the streets.

And when you got inside people’s apartments,

when they started to trust you,

the friendships were so intense and so wonderful.

So in that sense, I mean, they did live a hard life,

but there wasn’t a food on the table

and there was a roof over their heads.

There’s a certain line.

There’s a certain, there are lines.

I don’t think there’s one line,

but it’s kind of a shading.

And the other story I was thinking of as you were talking

was not a story, it’s a history,

a book by a friend of mine

who wrote about love in the camps,

in the refugee camps for Jews in Germany after the war.

So these were Jews who had come mostly from Poland

and some survived the camps,

came from awful circumstances.

And then they were put in these camps,

which were not joyful places.

I mean, they were guarded sometimes by Germans even,

but they’re basically under the British control

and they were trying to get to Israel,

trying to get to Palestine right after the war.

And how many pairs there were, how many people coupled up.

But remember, this is after being in the concentration camp.

It’s not being in the concentration camp.

And it’s also being free to, more or less free,

to express their emotions and to be human beings

after this horrible thing which they suffered.

So I wonder whether there’s, as you say,

some kind of calculus there where the level of suffering

is such that it’s just too much for humans to bear.

And which I would suggest,

I mean, I haven’t studied this myself.

I’m just giving you my point of view,

my off the cuff remarks here.

But it was very inspiring to read about these couples

who had met right in these camps

and started to couple up and get married.

And tried to find their way to Palestine,

which was a difficult thing to do then.

When did you live in Russia and the Soviet Union?

What’s your memory of the time?

Well, so a number of different times.

So I went there, I first went there in 69, 70.

Wow. A long time ago.

And then I lived in Leningrad mostly,

but also in Moscow in 1975.

So it was detente time.

But it was also a time of political uncertainty

and also hardship for Russians themselves,

standing in long lines.

I mean, you must remember this for food

and for getting anything was almost impossible.

It was a time when Jews were trying to get out.

In fact, I just talked to a friend of mine from those days

who I helped get out and get to Boston

and the lovely people who had managed to have a good life

in the United States after they left.

But it wasn’t an easy time.

It wasn’t an easy time at all.

I remember people set fire to their doors

and their daughter was persecuted in school

once they declared that they wanted to immigrate

and that sort of thing.

So it was a very, it was a lot of antisemitism.

So it was a tough time.

Dissidents hung out with some dissidents

and one guy was actually killed.

We think by the, nobody knows exactly by the KGB,

but his art studio was,

he had a separate studio in Leningrad,

St. Petersburg today, just a small studio

where he did his art and somebody set it on fire.

And we think it was KGB, but you never really know.

And he died in that fire.

So it was not, it was a tough time.

And you knew you were followed,

you knew you were being reported on

as a foreign scholar as I was.

There was a formal exchange between the United States

and the Soviet Union and they let me work in the archives,

but then Ivanov got to work in the physics lab

at Rochester or something like that.

So it was an exchange which sent historians

and literary people and some social scientists to Russia

and they sent all scientists here to grab what they could

from MIT and those places.

How’s your Russian?

Do you have any knowledge of Russian language

that has helped you to understand?

Oh yeah, yeah.

I mean, I can read it fine.

And the speaking comes and goes,

depending on whether I’m there or I’ve been there recently

or if I spend some time there,

because I really need, you know,

I have Russian friends who speak just Russian.

So, you know, when I’m there, I then, you know,

I can communicate pretty well.

Well, I can’t really write it unfortunately.

I mean, I can, but it’s not very good,

but I get along fine in Russia.

What’s your fondest memory of the Soviet Union, of Russia?

It’s friends.


It’s friends, it’s friends.

Was it vodka involved or is it just vodka involved?

Little bit, you know, I’m not much of a drinker.

So I would, you know, they’d just make fun of me

and I’d make fun of myself and that was easy enough.

I don’t really like, you know, a heavy drink.

I’ve done a lot of that, not a lot.

I’d done some of that, but I never really enjoyed it

and would get sick and stuff.

But no, it’s friends.

You know, one friend I made in the dormitory, you know,

it was a dormitory for foreigners,

but also Siberians who had come, you know,

to Leningrad to study.

And so I met a couple of guys

and one in particular from Omsk became a wonderful friend.

And we talked and talked and talked outside.

You know, we would go walk outside

because we both knew they were, you know,

people were listening and stuff.

And he would say, well, this is, he was an historian,

you know, and so we would talk history.

And he’d say, well, this was the case, wasn’t it?

I said, no, I’m sorry, Sasha, it wasn’t the case.

It was, you know,

we think Stalin actually had a role in killing Kirov.

I mean, we’re not sure, but he said, no.

I said, yeah.

You know, so, you know, we had these conversations

and he was, what I would,

I don’t know if he would agree with me or not.

I mean, we’re still friends.

So he was a naive, maybe he’ll listen to the blog

or I’ll send it to him or something.

He was a kind of naive Marxist, Leninist.

And he thought I was, you know, I was, you know,

I had this capitalist ideology.

He’d say, what ideology you have?

And I said, I don’t have an ideology.

You know, I try to just put together kind of reason

and facts and accurate stories

and try to tell them in that way.

No, no, no, no, you must, you know, you’re a bourgeois,

you know, this or that.

I said, no, I’m really not.

And so we would have these talks

and these kinds of arguments.

And then, I mean, sure enough, you know,

we corresponded for a while

and then he had to stop corresponding

because he became a kind of local official in Omsk.

And he sort of migrated more and more to being a Democrat.

And he was then in the, you know,

democratic movement under Gorbachev

and, you know, in the council of people’s deputies,

which they set up, which was, you know,

elected as a Democrat from Omsk

and had a political career through the Yeltsin period.

And once Putin came along, you know, it was over.

He didn’t like Putin and, you know,

and Putin didn’t like the Yeltsin people, right?

Who were, tried to be, some of them tried to be Democrats.

And Sasha was one who really did.

He just published his memoirs in Russian, by the way,

which are very good, I think.

I think I’ve been hearing it.

Komanderovkifovlast, that’s what it’s called.

It’s hard to translate in English, Komanderovkifovlast.

But I mean, I translated it full points once for him.

This is so beautiful.

Like the, do you find that the translation is a problem

or no?

It’s such a different language.

Yes, translation is very difficult.

With the Russian language, I mean,

it’s the only language I know deeply except English.

And it seems like so much is lost of the pain,

the poetry, the beauty of the people.

And translators are to be treasured and good ones,

to be, I mean, those who do the translations,

when you read things in translation,

sometimes they’re quite beautiful,

whether it’s Russian or Polish or German or anything French.

Yeah, I’m actually traveling to Paris

to talk to the famous translators that Dostoevsky told story.

And I’m just gonna do a several conversations with them

about like, you could just sometimes just grab

a single sentence and just talk about the translation

in that sense, that’s, and also, as you said,

I would love to be a fly on the wall

with some of those friends that you had

because the perspective on history, nonacademic,

sort of without just as human beings is so different

from the United States versus Russia.

When you talk about the way the World War II is perceived

and all those kinds of things, it’s fascinating.

History also has, in it, opinion and perspective.

And so sometimes stripping that away is really difficult.

And then I guess that is your job and at its highest form,

that is what you do as a historian.

Well, Norman,

Spasibo bashoi shto sivonya samaya katorini.

I really appreciate your valuable time.

It’s truly an honor to talk to you

and thank you for taking us through a trip,

through some of the worst parts of human history

and talking about hope and love at the end.

So I really appreciate your time today.

Okay, thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you for having me.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

with Norman Namark.

To support this podcast,

please check out our sponsors in the description.

And now let me leave you with some words from Stalin.

A single death is a tragedy.

A million deaths is a statistic.

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.