Walter Laqueur obituary

Distinguished historian, journalist and scholar who focused on terrorism, the Holocaust and the decline of Europe

The contemporary historian and journalist Walter Laqueur, who has died aged 97, made the great issues of the past century accessible to a wide readership in the almost 100 book titles that bear his name as author or editor.

His own experience of political upheaval started with fleeing Nazi Germany as a teenager, and his work helped create the academic study of communism, nazism, fascism and terrorism, continuing to the present day with The Future of Terrorism (with Christopher Wall, 2018). He taught at a number of universities and was consulted by policymakers in Washington, who valued his sober, non-ideological take on contemporary affairs.

Laqueur had long been aware of the threat of political violence by non-state actors. Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical and Critical Study (1976) was followed by The Guerrilla Reader: A Historical Anthology, and Terrorism (both 1977), the latter beginning with the assertion that “urban terrorism is not a new stage in guerrilla warfare, but differs from it in essential respects, and is also heir to a different tradition”.

It provided a wealth of historical and contemporary information on terrorist movements, questioned claims along the lines that “terrorism is a response to injustice” and went through several editions before and after the attacks of 9/11.

His characteristic combination of historical depth, wide research and analytic scepticism was evident in A World of Secrets: The Uses and Limits of Intelligence (1985). He also applied it in yet another area of expertise: the Holocaust.

The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s “Final Solution” (1980) and then Breaking the Silence (1986, with Richard Breitman) dealt with the ways in which information about the Nazi murder of the Jews reached the west, and the reasons for its lack of effect. Laqueur even tried his hand at historical fiction, publishing two novels about the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany and its immediate aftermath. He explored the fates of his generation of German Jewish refugees in a group portrait, Generation Exodus (2001).

In his prescient book The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (2007), Laqueur offered a subtle exploration of demographic decline, the growing weight of Muslim minorities, the challenges facing the welfare state, and growing discontent with European unity, and wondered whether the future of Europe lay in serving as a vast museum for tourists from abroad.

Putinism: Russia and Its Future With the West (2015) argued that while the personality cult of Vladimir Putin will not survive, the cultural sources of Putinism will survive the Russian leader.

Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Breslau (then in Germany, now Wrocław in Poland), Walter was the son of Fritz, a clothing manufacturer, and his wife, Elsa (nee Berliner). He graduated from a humanist school, worked briefly in a factory and received a visa to Palestine, to which he emigrated more out of opportunity than conviction at the age of 17, just before Kristallnacht in 1938.

From 1939 to 1944, he lived on a series of kibbutzim – an institution that he regarded as one of the few successful utopian experiments of the 20th century. There he met Naomi Koch, the daughter of a distinguished German physician who had taken refuge in the Soviet Union, and they married in 1941.

Laqueur was interested in Arabs as well as Jews, and soon began to study Arabic. Though he was involved in groups devoted to Jewish-Arab cooperation and a binational state, the lack of interest in any such arrangement on the Arab side soon became clear to him. While living on a kibbutz in 1942, he broke his leg, and unable to work, used the opportunity to learn Russian from the mother of one of his comrades.

In the spring of 1946 he moved to Jerusalem and began to write for the daily newspaper of the leftwing Zionists, Al-Hamishmar, where he learned to write in Hebrew. He soon began to produce work in English as well, for the Palestine Post (later the Jerusalem Post), and for magazines abroad, mostly of a liberal, anti-communist hue, such as the New Leader in New York.

In 1949 he became a freelance writer, as well as a regular commentator on world politics for Israeli radio. He reflected in his memoir Dying for Jerusalem: The Past, Present and Future of the Holiest City (2005) that his experience there had saved him from the self-consciousness about being Jewish that seemed to haunt many of his counterparts in Britain, mainland Europe and the US, who dismissed an interest in Israel or in their Jewish heritage.

In the early 1950s he published articles in foreign journals and got to know Raymond Aron, the French sociologist sceptical of ideologies, and others connected with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, supported by the US government.

Antipathy to the Soviet Union was not the rule in Israeli political culture at the time, but Laqueur was appalled by the obvious mendacity and cult of the leader that he discovered in the Soviet press, and by the descriptions of Soviet reality offered by social democratic exiles from Russia, and by recent émigrés to Israel from the Soviet Union.

He recognised that despite important differences between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, there were undeniable parallels as well, such as concentration camps, secret police, all-pervasive propaganda, and a cult of the omniscient leader.

After moving to London in 1955, Laqueur edited Soviet Survey, a journal funded by the CCF. The next year, he published the first of his books in English, Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East; half a dozen books (some written alone, others edited) on the Soviet Union and on the Middle East followed in the late 50s and early 60s. His books on German history included Weimar: A Cultural History (1974), remarkable for its coverage of high culture and low, and for its treatment of the culture of the right as well as the culture of the left.

In 1964, the Wiener Library of London – a remarkable collection of materials relating to the history of Nazi Germany and to recent Jewish history – appointed Laqueur as its director. He expanded the library into the Institute for Contemporary History and together with his friend George Mosse founded the Journal of Contemporary History. Perhaps his crowning project as director of the institute was the edited volume, Fascism: A Reader’s Guide (1976).

After the six-day war, Laqueur turned back to the history of the Middle East, now with an emphasis on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Road to War 1967: Origins of the Arab-Israel Conflict (1968), pointed to a series of faulty assessments by the various parties of one another. He also noted that there was no greater potential disaster than a great victory – except a crushing defeat.

Israeli policy in the decade that followed only strengthened that conviction, though Laqueur emphasised the unlikelihood of real peace given the difficulty of the Arab world in accepting the existence of a Jewish state. The History of Zionism (1972) was a remarkable work of synthesis, and Europe Since Hitler (1970) was the first of a series of overviews of recent European history.

In the course of the 60s Laqueur became increasingly based in Washington, where from 1973 he chaired the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative, though non-partisan, thinktank.

For decades he maintained an anchored yet peripatetic lifestyle, with regular annual stops in London, Tel Aviv and New York, along with frequent visits to West Germany. He served not only as a merchant of information, conveyed through his writings, but as a personal link between scholars and journalists. Unpretentious and approachable, he frequently assisted younger scholars with leads and suggestions.

Of a distant uncle, Alexander Borisovich Lakier (1825-1870), who wrote a travelogue of the US, Laqueur noted that “he did not engage in far-reaching conceptualisation, nor was he a political prophet. But he had common sense, was a shrewd observer and worked hard, and thus correctly discerned trends in American life that escaped the more sophisticated French count [Alexis de Tocqueville]”. The same virtues apply to Laqueur himself.

Naomi died in 1995, and the following year Laqueur married Susi Genzen Wichmann. She survives him, as do the two daughters of his first marriage, Sylvia and Shlomit, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

• Walter Louis Laqueur, historian and journalist, born 26 May 1921; died 30 September 2018


Jerry Muller

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Felicia Langer obituary
Holocaust survivor who became a human rights lawyer in Israel and defended Palestinians in the country’s courts

Daphna Baram

12, Jul, 2018 @3:56 PM

Article image
Ernst Nolte obituary
Controversial German historian catapulted to fame by his 1963 book Three Faces of Fascism

Richard J Evans

29, Aug, 2016 @4:11 PM

Article image
David Cesarani obituary
One of the leading exponents of modern Jewish history and an expert on the Holocaust

Lawrence Goldman

26, Oct, 2015 @4:20 PM

Article image
Rafi Eitan obituary
Former Israeli spymaster who captured the SS officer Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in a daring 1960 secret mission

Ian Black

25, Mar, 2019 @4:56 PM

Article image
Martin Walser obituary
Journalist, writer and novelist who played a controversial role in the cultural life of postwar Germany

John Kampfner

14, Aug, 2023 @4:57 PM

Article image
Benjamin Ferencz obituary
Last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor who played a key role in advancing the cause of international justice

Owen Bowcott

11, Apr, 2023 @12:01 PM

Article image
Stephen Cohen obituary
US historian who argued that the Soviet Union could have been reformed and need not have ended when it did

Jonathan Steele

13, Oct, 2020 @4:33 PM

Article image
Norman Stone obituary
Historian and controversial media commentator who taught at Cambridge, Oxford and in Turkey

Richard J Evans

25, Jun, 2019 @10:32 AM

Article image
Menahem Pressler obituary
Pianist, academic and teacher who was a co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio

Barry Millington

31, May, 2023 @3:55 PM

Article image
Heinz Skyte obituary
Other lives: Chief executive of Leeds Jewish Housing Association

Peter Skyte

12, Feb, 2020 @4:50 PM