Walter Laqueur: Toward an Intellectual Appreciation

Alex Joffe

The passing of Walter Laqueur at age 97 is a sad watershed in the intellectual life in the West. We will not see his likes again.

The facts of his life are astonishing enough: born in Breslau, he left his native Germany for Palestine at age 17, never to see his parents again. He worked on a kibbutz, learned Hebrew and Arabic, attended Hebrew University briefly, and then became a journalist. His first book was published in 1950, his last in 2018. Along the way he traveled throughout Europe and beyond, directed the Weiner Library in London, co-founded the Journal of Contemporary History, taught at Brandeis and Harvard, and became the intellectual core of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. This is the merest thumbnail sketch.

But how can we begin to appreciate the intellectual output of someone who wrote and edited dozens of books, hundreds of papers, and countless newspaper items, over a period of more than 75 years? The scope of his scholarly writing itself, as many have noted, is astonishing if not unprecedented: foundational works on German, Russian, Jewish, European, and Middle Eastern history, the Holocaust, strategic intelligence, the history of warfare, of terrorism, extremist movements, youth movements, education, and more.

To this must be added policy pieces on Europe, Communism and the Soviet Union, Zionism, Israel and the Middle East, antisemitism, cultural politics, as well as reminiscences, portraits of individuals, reviews, memoirs, novels, and newspaper reporting, going back to 1941.

The first thing to acknowledge is our own comparative unworthiness; the second our profound debt. This short appreciation can only begin to chart his unique intellectual contribution.

I met Laqueur only once some 15 years ago as I was writing a short monograph on Jewish historians of nationalism. We spoke in part about his Journal of Contemporary History colleague and fellow German refugee George Mosse of the University of Wisconsin, who had written foundational pieces on nationalism and fascism, as well as on the world wars and masculinity, and other historians Laqueur had known, including Elie Kedourie and George Lichtheim.

Laqueur, then in his 80s, had difficulty walking, but I immediately sensed that he was still restless — he had, after all, spent his life in near constant movement. We emailed occasionally thereafter, including an exchange on antisemitism that was later published. But meeting him was at once an alien and familiar experience. I have known many important scholars but none who had been so closely enmeshed with pivotal world events, who had themselves known so many towering figures, from Ben Gurion on down, or who, in his writing, could move so effortlessly, from the Bible to Montaigne to obscure German pulp writers.

His manner, however, was familiar; friendly but not warm (why should he be?), helpfully informative about the personalities of figures we discussed (mention of Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm caused him to snort derisively, a “rootless cosmopolitan, I think Laqueur called him, although I wrote down and later published “ruthless cosmopolitan,” which was closer to the truth). His manner was that of a German Jewish intellectual, who had loosened the grip of the German part of his personality. He was restrained but not cold, understatedly humorous but not mordant.

I had read his autobiography, which basically took his life story into the early 1950s, and gently pressed that he should write a follow up. He dismissed the suggestion. But in more recent years he began to write shorter pieces that addressed people and places he had known in his youth in Germany and thereafter, particularly for Tablet and Mosaic. There have been countless books and articles written about German Jewish culture, all of which Laqueur had apparently read, but he was a living emissary, unsentimental and honest, tinged with sadness, a sense of loss that was a persistent subtext.

His great fortune was to have been enmeshed into countless events and narratives, and thanks to his intellect and curiosity, to have understood the backstories. These more intimate narratives often drew on his own experiences, such as German high school sports, or being one of the few remaining individuals who understood the impact of obscure Communist books on impressionable pre-war youth, or his pre-1948 geography of the Talbiyeh neighborhood in Jerusalem, and Edward Said’s misrepresentations of the same. These became the foundation for explaining larger realities, which often centered on Germany and Israel. Sheer luck also played a role; who would have the opportunity to debate 1930s French tennis with French sociologist Raymond Aron while waiting at Dulles Airport? Who would have the knowledge?

Laqueur’s world had been lost, irrevocably, irretrievable except for through literary and historical reconstructions. This, it seems to me, is basis for much of his work: understanding vanished worlds and worlds on the edge, closed systems of thoughts, and the ideologies and movements that both animate them and do them in.

The Weimar Republic, Fin de Siècle Vienna and France, the fall of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, worlds united by self-delusion from within and misunderstood from without, were a continuing fascination. He also saw through the pretenses spun around contemporary events, such as the Arab Spring, touted for its youth culture and social media prowess, and recognized the underlying reactionary power politics. But, in books like The Terrible Secret, about the widespread knowledge of the Holocaust outside of Nazi territories, he emphasized how knowing was not believing; we may know what it happening but still lack the mental or even spiritual ability to believe it to be so. His final books on Putinism may also be in that vein, trying to explain the fatal attraction of a system that everyone knows, but does not necessarily believe, to be evil, if not doomed.

He was a man fascinated by doctrines, as his many writings on Communism and Zionism indicate, worlds shaped in collective minds by ideas that provide both boundaries and explanations. He had sympathy for believers in humanistic doctrines like Zionism, and nationalism more broadly, as expressions of the human need for place and for community. And like Mosse, he tried to get into the heads of those who followed inhumane doctrines, like Nazism. Laqueur also understood the attraction of religion, both his own and those alien to him. But he was not a believer. In his memoir he writes that one of Breslau’s rabbis called him “religiös unmusikalisch.”

Containing those forces through thoughtful policy was also important for Laqueur. This explains some of his writing about Communism but also about Israel, containing the former, without overreaction and excess, and sustaining the latter. Much more can and will be written about his approach to Israel and Zionism, about which he authored perhaps the most important sourcebook and textbook, respectively. His dissatisfaction with the lack of imagination and daring of Israeli leaders appear to have led to a break with Commentary magazine where he had been a vital contributor for decades. Simply reading his more than 70 contributions in that one source is the work of many days.

Laqueur sought to draw sympathetic pictures of people with limited options. For this reason Hannah Arendt’s “contempt and conceit” and “wholly misdirected” attitudes towards people generally and Israel and the U.S. specifically annoyed him. While his writings on Afro-Communism and other issues of the 1950s-1970s have in all probability been superseded, those on terrorism will not, or should not be, not simply for his insights but because of his relentless insistence to call things as they were: “To call a terrorist an “activist” or a “militant” is to blot out a dividing line between a suicide bomber and the active member of a trade union or a political party or a club.”

Definitions and communities mattered to Laqueur. Many Jewish historians who grew up in the same era felt aloof from religion; Communists like Hobsbawm expressed disdain but followed another faith. But Laqueur never made the break from the community. Not coincidentally he wrote widely about antisemitism, describing it as a persistent yet morphing historical force: “In Lessing’s “Nathan” — the classic 18th century play — there is a famous repetitive scene: “Tut nichts, der Jude wird verbrannt,” (“Never mind, the Jew is for burning”). Well, for the time being the Jew is not for burning, only for boycott.” Self-hating Jews were a particularly sad case: “It would have been more sensible and certainly more dignified if these non-Jewish Jews would have distanced themselves from the community to which their forefathers had belonged calmly, less neurotically, without creating a great deal of sound and fury, following their calling as saxophonists, linguists, or other worthy professions.”

Despite his experiences, he was not alienated from the Jewish world, merely pessimistic about it, as he was with most things: “people learn from suffering setback and disaster more effectively from lectures or books.” A persistent late theme was the decline of Europe, which still is not facing “a crisis of survival, for unless facing such a threat, there would be no sense of urgency.” He described his upbringing as having created “something of a political hypochondriac,” still, because despair was not a dignified option, the title of one of his last collections of essays was Optimism in Politics.

Why do people misjudge? Laqueur was suspicious of theory, for he had a lifetime of experience as an observer and forecaster of the misjudgments of others, charting constellations of folly and error. Are these really maps of possible futures? For these, for his incomparable erudition as a scholar, the delicacy of his recommendations as a political thinker, and for being a non-lachrymose chronicler of worlds now gone, we should be grateful.

Alex Joffe is a Shillman-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Senior Non-Resident Researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.