When Walter Laqueur died in Washington on Sunday, he left behind a vast oeuvre of scholarship and commentary on modern history that is unusual not only for its volume and its range, but also for the fact that much of it will continue to remain relevant and enlightening for decades to come.
True, Laqueur’s prolificacy can in part be explained by his longevity: He lived to the age of 97, and remained intellectually active up to the end. Nonetheless, he made important contributions to multiple fields: Zionist history, Holocaust studies, postwar European history and the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as seminal studies of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. And Laqueur accomplished all this without ever earning a university degree: he left the Hebrew University after a year, never to return – at least, not as a student.
Walter Laqueur was born on May 26, 1921, in Breslau, Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland). His father, Fritz Laqueur, was a clothing manufacturer; his mother was the former Elsa Berliner. Walter graduated from a German gymnasium in 1938, but within a half year he fled Nazi Germany, on the day before Kristallnacht. His parents saw him off at Breslau train station, and they never met again. He began the journey to British Mandatory Palestine, while they became victims of the Holocaust.
Laqueur was admitted to Mandatory Palestine on a student visa, but after a year at university he moved to a kibbutz. Over the next six years, Laqueur lived and worked on several collective agricultural settlements connected to the Kibbutz Ha’artzi movement, among them Hazorea. In 1944, he resettled in Jerusalem, where he worked as a journalist until he moved to London in 1955. Nonetheless, he continued to remain connected to Israel, both on the personal level and professionally. (One of his two daughters lives in Jerusalem.)
Although the rest of Laqueur’s career was spent in academia, he was a scholar who was deeply engaged with some of the most compelling political questions facing contemporary society.
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Historian Jeffrey Herf once described him as “a participant-observer of the Cold War,” but though Laqueur was indeed prescient and outspoken about the threats of communism and later “Putinism,” as well as militant Islam, he could not reasonably have been described as doctrinaire.
Pessimistic might be more like it. As the New York Times noted in its obituary for Laqueur, “While much of the world was basking in the breakdown of Soviet communism” in the 1990s, “Mr. Laqueur, whose London apartment overlooked Karl Marx’s grave, was predicting the emergence of ‘an authoritarian system based on some nationalist populism.’” One of Laqueur’s final publications was the 2017 book “Reflections of a Veteran Pessimist: Contemplating Modern Europe, Russia and Jewish History.”
When Laqueur warned in his 2007 book “The Last Days of Europe” about the dangers posed by mass immigration and radical Islam to the continent – and to the European Union specifically – there were those who did not appreciate his tone. But today, most would have to acknowledge his prescience.
Laqueur wrote about the rise of Nazism, about anti-Semitism and about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he remained a supporter of Israel throughout his life. For him, it was no contradiction that he also was critical of the settlement enterprise, He also retained a nostalgia for pre-state Jerusalem, which he recalled as cosmopolitan and pluralistic.
As a pioneering writer about terrorism, he warned from early on of the catastrophic consequences that could result from terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction.
From 1965 to 1994, Laqueur was director of the Institute of Contemporary History and the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, in London, where he and historian George Mosse co-founded the peer-reviewed Journal of Contemporary History. Laqueur also founded the journal Soviet Survey.
In the United States, Laqueur belonged to and later led the research council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and taught at Brandeis, Georgetown and Harvard universities, among others. In Israel, he taught at Tel Aviv University.
Laqueur wrote, co-wrote or edited some 70 books, including two memoirs and two novels about a German Holocaust survivor, “The Missing Years” and “Farewell to Europe” (published in 1980 and 1981, respectively). Reviewing the former in the New York Review of Books, Neal Ascherson described it as “social history expressed through fiction,” and judged it “the shrewdest and most observant study of German Jewry I have read.”