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Walter Laqueur, the Indispensable Pessimist

(Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
The epitaph that the wide-ranging historian wrote for Europe a decade ago appears ever more prescient.

Last week the acclaimed historian and journalist Walter Laqueur died, age of 97. In an age of specialists Laqueur was a great generalist, writing dozens of books that spanned a range of topics including terrorism, Communism, Zionism, nationalism, and European history. Consistent throughout his work, however, was a streak of pessimism that could only have come from someone who saw the worst of what humanity was capable of.

Laqueur was born during the Weimar Republic in the Silesian town of Breslau (today Wrocław, Poland) to a Jewish family. He was an athlete and competed in boxing, swimming, and running events as a teenager at a time when talented Jewish athletes in Germany found few opportunities. In 1937 in Breslau, he represented his school in a 100-meter relay race attended by Adolf Hitler. A year later Laqueur, then 17, decided to emigrate, leaving Germany for Palestine only days before Kristallnacht. His parents were killed in the Holocaust, and Laqueur never saw them again. In Palestine he worked on a kibbutz, studied briefly at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and then worked as a journalist. In his career as a historian he co-founded the Journal of Contemporary History, served as the first editor of the Washington Quarterly, and held academic appointments at universities including Brandeis, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown. He also spent years as director of the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide (in London) and as chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (in Washington).

Laqueur’s was starkly prescient, especially on the subject of terrorism. He began his research into terrorism during the Cold War, when great-power conflict seemed the norm. Even then he saw the danger that a small group of dedicated fanatics could do. In his histories of terrorism he focused on the character of terrorists and on how societies respond to terrorist attacks. Several decades before the 9/11 attacks, Laqueur noted that terrorists prefer to attack democratic societies rather than dictatorships because they perceive democracies as weaker. Terrorism was also the subject of Laqueur’s last book, written with cyber-security analyst Christopher Wall. There they analyzed the similarities between the alt-right and ISIS and warned starkly, as Laqueur had in the past, that terrorism would continue because often terrorism worked. It is a grim picture, but even Laqueur believed that terrorism could be contained and managed, depending on how societies reacted to terror groups.

Russia was another subject of fascination for Laqueur. Even during the 1990s he maintained a deep skepticism that Russia could join the ranks of the liberal nations of Europe. In his 1993 book on the Black Hundreds, an extreme-right group in czarist Russia, he offered a prophetic warning of what Russia could become. He saw in the Black Hundreds an extreme nationalism and extreme paranoia, a conviction that Russia was always the object of conspiracies comin from the West, and predicted that the nation would recede further into “an authoritarian system based on some nationalist populism.” As it did so, Laqueur added to his repertoire, in 2015, a book about Vladimir Putin. Laqueur placed Putin in the nationalist-populist Russian tradition and explained how he sought to reorganize the nation along the lines laid out by his intellectual guide, the emigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

Laqueur’s pessimism extended to Europe’s immigration crisis. In contrast to Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” optimism, Laqueur saw mass immigration as a huge challenge that Europe was not ready for. In The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (2007), Laqueur foresaw that large-scale Muslim immigration would result in new cultural clashes and the self-segregation of immigrants into ghettos that would make assimilation impossible. A decade later, Laqueur’s warnings can be seen to have been prophetic. Europe’s Jews are emigrating in growing numbers, and far-right anti-immigrant parties are putting pressure on Merkel and other centrist political leaders. The European Union is struggling to curtail the authoritarian and anti-immigrant impulses of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, while the United Kingdom is on its way out of the European Union entirely. A critic might have objected in 2007 that it was too early to write, as Laqueur did, Europe’s “epitaph,” but it would be much harder to make the same argument in 2018. Laqueur did not believe that Europe was inevitably doomed, but for Europe to recover, he believed, it had to reassert its values and stand up for them.

This past summer he published one of his last articles, “The Generation That Shaped Our Understanding of the 20th Century Is Gone.” He was reflecting on the passing of his colleagues Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who had died within days of each other in May. Like Walter Laqueur, they grew up in a Europe shattered by the Nazis and went on to become acclaimed historians in the United States. Pipes specialized in the Soviet Union, Lewis in the Middle East, whereas Laqueur (perhaps because he lacked a university degree) could move fluidly from one historical subject to another. He was neither a fatalist nor a prophet of doom, but he knew that humanity’s worst instincts could always triumph. He had seen it firsthand.

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