Stanley Payne: Walter Laqueur Dies at Ninety-Seven

Laqueur and MosseWalter Laqueur, close friend of and long-time collaborator with George L. Mosse, died in Washington September 30, 2018, ninety-seven years of age. In 1966 Mosse and Laqueur co-founded the Journal of Contemporary History, apparently the first in any language devoted exclusively to contemporary history, initiating the longest and closest professional collaboration in the careers of both historians. Laqueur initially served as the Journal’s managing editor, basing it out of the Wiener Institute and the Institute of Contemporary History in London, which he directed. Mosse spent much less time in England and served as a kind of traveling co-editor, more in contact with professional organizations, assiduous in generating new ideas, planning special issues, contributing key new articles and participating in numerous editorial activities. The most frequent communication between the two co-editors consisted of lengthy telephone conversations, often on Sunday afternoons. Mutual dedication to this collaboration remained profound until Mosse’s death in 1999.

Mosse and Laqueur’s personalities and backgrounds were quite distinct, for, though both had been teenage German Jewish refugees from Nazism, their experiences had been strikingly dissimilar. As I have noted elsewhere, “Mosse was born into great wealth in the German capital, Laqueur a scion of the provincial middle classes. Mosse’s exile was timely, well-subsidized by his family and led to an elite education at Harvard. Laqueur barely escaped with his life and scarcely attended university, very much the self-made man and scholar. Their private lives were also dissimilar. Mosse was a gregarious academic, though for most of his adult life a closet homosexual; Laqueur was more withdrawn, though a devoted husband and father; Mosse a cultural historian of ideas, styles and perceptions, Laqueur much more oriented toward political history and toward narrative and systematic analysis. Mosse pioneered interpretations and methodological innovation, though after leaving the early modern period behind, these were always focused on central and western Europe. Laqueur’s methodology varied comparatively little, but covered a broader range of countries, continents and themes.”[1]

At the age of seventeen Laqueur was saved from the Holocaust by a last-minute fellowship from The Hebrew University, which permitted him to emigrate from his native Breslau only weeks before the notorious Kristallnacht.  At that point the academic world bored him and he soon abandoned it for life on a kibbutz, where he remained for five years, marrying and later serving in the Jewish military force that assisted the British in World War II.  By 1945 he had added English, Arabic, and Russian to his German and Hebrew, and was ready to return to intellectual work. Laqueur became a professional journalist and established a rapidly growing reputation with articles in Hebrew and occasionally in English. In 1955 he was invited to London to edit the key new Cold War journal Soviet Survey. From that point he published primarily in English, his first English-language book being Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East (1956).  In 1964 Laqueur was appointed director of the Wiener Library in London. He quickly expanded it into the Institute of Contemporary History, which also provided a long-term home for the Journal of Contemporary History.

Work in international relations and security studies took him frequently to Washington, which became his base in 1973 when he accepted the directorship of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  For some years previously he had taught one semester per year at Tel Aviv University, and also taught at Georgetown as well as briefly at Brandeis and Johns Hopkins. For decades an inveterate traveler, his principal destinations were London, Israel and Germany.

Over a period of more than six decades Walter Laqueur was one of the most prolific scholars in the Western world in the area of contemporary history. He wrote dozens of books, all with greater clarity both of expression and of analysis than is common among historians. This partly reflected his initial experience in journalism, which requires greater concision and clarity in writing. From the mid-1950s books flowed from his pen in such quantity that in a brief space most can be mentioned only in terms of the general themes under which they fell.

In the broadest sense, the greatest significance of Laqueur’s work was that, as Niall Ferguson once observed, he became “the preeminent historian of contemporary Europe,” producing a series of volumes treating the evolution of European affairs after 1945. His work had nonetheless begun in contemporary Middle Eastern history, and connected the latter with European affairs in his outstanding History of Zionism (1972). This clear, objective and well-researched account probably still stands as the leading one-volume history of this major movement, obviously still a significant force in the twenty-first century.

Laqueur was one of the creators of the new field of the history of terrorism, producing the first general account of modern terrorism, which he updated several times. He published work on several aspects of the problem, his final commentary appearing in the form of a co-authored volume during the last year of his life.

Laqueur initially came to prominence as a Sovietologist and Russianist, though his key works on Russian affairs would only appear after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Using the new materials that then became available, he prepared a surprisingly original study of Stalin, followed by his remarkable The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union (1994).

Though he did not devote as much attention as George L. Mosse to fascist studies, Laqueur made major contributions to this area, not least through co-editing the Journal of Contemporary History. Initially he published key background studies, beginning with the first historical treatment of the German youth movement, followed by the striking account Weimar: A Cultural History (1974).  His first important work on fascism was the edited volume Fascism: A Reader’s Guide- Analyses, Interpretations, Bibliography (1976), probably the most comprehensive single volume that had yet appeared, though largely devoted to fascism outside Germany. He was later the first to extend fascist studies to Russia in a significant way; his Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia (1993) treated both Russian pre-fascism prior to 1917 and the re-emergence of an extreme right after the fall of Communism. Laqueur then prepared a final study that combined the history of fascism with an analysis of neofascism and the question of whether the latter had any political future in Fascism: Past, Present, Future (1996).

He devoted numerous volumes to individual themes, penning an illuminating autobiography and producing, among many other studies, the best succinct history of anti-Semitism and then the pessimistic, if largely convincing, The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (2007).  Ferguson termed the latter “an eloquent and eye-opening epitaph for a civilization as much as for a continent….  The preeminent historian of postwar Europe has become the prophet of its decline and fall.” A decade later the book would seem prescient.

Walter Laqueur retired from co-editing the Journal in 2005, leaving the task to Richard Evans and myself, but, even at a considerable age, his pace slackened little. In 2015, at the age of 94, he brought out his final volume of new research, Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, an extremely informative account of the recent evolution of Russia, particularly dealing with policy and cultural and ideological trends.

The achievement of Walter Laqueur in the field of contemporary history is unparalleled for its combination of range and depth. Among autodidacts, his preeminence is unchallenged. He has contributed more to our knowledge in more areas of European and Middle Eastern history than anyone else during the past half century.

[1] S. G. Payne, “George L. Mosse and Walter Laqueur on the History of Fascism,” Journal of Contemporary History, 50(4) (October, 2015): 750-67.

Stanley PayneStanley G. Payne taught in five American universities, from 1968 to 2005 at the University of Wisconsin, where he was Hilldale-Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History. He followed George L. Mosse as co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary History from 1999 to 2015. He has published numerous books on Spanish history, the most recent in English The Spanish Civil War (2012), Franco: A Personal and Political Biography (2014), with Jesús Palacios, and Alcalá Zamora and the Failure of the Spanish Republic, 1931-1936 (2017). His works on European History include A History of Fascism 1914-1945 (1995) and Civil War in Europe 1905-1949 (2011).


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