Sunday, May 9, 2010

Walter Laqueur: An Intellectual for All Seasons Brings His History to Life

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By Barry Rubin

Almost one-third of a century ago, I first met Walter Laqueur--one of the greatest historians, thinkers on international affairs, and political analysts of this or the past century--and he remains for me a role model. He is also one of the few remaining exemplars from the golden generation of Western intellectual life with its tremendous Jewish component and dedication to Enlightenment values.

When Walter was already 87 years old, last year, he mentioned to me that he was looking for a topic for his next book. I suggested an intellectual autobiography, to share what he has learned with the contemporary generations, and now the result is available as Best of Times, Worst of Times, Memoirs of a Political Education (Brandeis, 224pp.).

I knew the book was going to be great when reading some of the draft chapters. Yet only when I sat down with the published book did I realize how truly great and important it is and why you should definitely read it. I’ll explain that in a moment but first some background.

Laqueur was born in Breslau, then in Germany and now in Poland, in 1921. When he was a boy the Nazis came to power and he lived for about six years under that regime. He escaped by becoming a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, soon leaving to work on a kibbutz where—among other things—he quickly learned Russian and served at times as a mounted guard. He covered the 1948 Independence War as a journalist.

In the 1950s he began writing books, with his scholarly focus over the next 60 years including the USSR, German intellectual and cultural history, Zionism, the Middle East, Europe, guerrillas, the role of intelligence in Western decisionmaking, how news of the Holocaust reached the Allies, and terrorism. He practically created the field of terrorism studies. His career has stretched long enough that I own two books he wrote a half-century apart. The first was entitled Out of the Ruins of Europe, as the continent recovered from World War Two; the more recent called, The Last Days of Europe. He covered the full length of that up and down cycle.

Living in Jerusalem, London, and Washington, he created the Institute for Contemporary History, played a central role in the development of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and taught in several of the world's great universities. Indeed, Laqueur, as much as anyone, created the field of political analysis which has been my profession since the day we met.
If you think this is too effusive, remember I’m holding back because he is going to read this and tease me by saying: You exaggerated as usual.

But from the standpoint (or low point) of intellectual life in 2010 how can one possibly exaggerate what a role model Laqueur is for us today. There is the breadth of his experience and the breadth of his knowledge (it is hard to bring up a name of an author he hasn’t read or intellectual figure he hasn't known), or of his modesty.

And the mere thought that one could become a great international intellectual figure without even having a BA from a university makes one want to cry in our era of credentialed buffoons.

I once sat in on a chat between Walter and a famous Soviet expert who bragged that he spoke eight languages. Walter, who at least equals that, remarked: “Oh, you’re including Bulgarian! Well, everyone who knows Russian can understand it already so that doesn’t count.

His flexibility is also something I admire, and his constant demonstration of the interconnection of all knowledge--he's also a photography and film enthusiast--is a vital reminder in an age of narrow scholastic specialization which is predictably arid and unimaginative.

When I bought my first computer (a Lexitron behemoth consisting of a television screen mounted on a big table and one step beyond the type of thing seen in 1950s' science fiction films), he teased me that the greatest works of literature were written with a quill pen. Today, he puts most teenagers to shame given his computer literacy.

And so you should read all his books. But I want to get back to why you should read this latest book. One of the greatest deficits today is the ignorance or distortion of history (most often into an anti-democratic, anti-Western, anti-capitalist narrative), especially the last 90 years since the end of World War One. Walter has lived through this and it has left him with sound and sober judgments.

"Some of the main sources of error [in comprehending history and predicting politics include] mirror imaging ["They are people like you and me"]; the belief of academics that the main assignment of an intellectual is to be critical; the contention that conflicts can always or almost always be evaded; the idea that in the case of a conflict, truth is more often than not to be found somewhere in the middle and that one's own country is very likely to be in the wrong." (p. 17)

The romance of extremism is one of the greatest of temptations. He compares Rosa Luxemburg, the failed quasi-Communist who is celebrated today though she led a disastrous uprising that ultimately contributed to the triumph of fascism, with Eduard Bernstein, the democratic socialist who is forgotten but did so much to create the modern democratic state and improve the lives of workers. (p. 47) Why does the revolutionary failure become a heroine and the successful former a non-entity?

Laqueur explains why the concept of totalitarianism is needed to understand the Soviet Union. He shows what Nazism was actually like and how that name should not just become some insult to be hurled at anyone with whom one disagrees politically. (“One of the Nazi slogans was, “The individual is nothing, the community—everything.”)

There is one story Walter tells in the book that particularly haunts me given attitudes today. During the period before the Nazis came to power, his parents took him on a river cruise. One of the passengers jumped off the boat, swam around for a while, and climbed back. He used the boat’s Weimar Republic flag as a towel to dry himself. Some of the passengers laughed and applauded. When people no longer appreciate their democratic country and the freedom it provides they are well on their way to losing it.

And he also writes why the West was right and the USSR was wrong in the Cold War. Indeed, I think this analysis is very useful for today in considering states like Iran today:

“Of course the Soviet leaders were, on the whole, not prone to act recklessly. When there were great risks involved they would not take the offensive. Someone compared them to a hotel thief trying all the doors on a certain floor. When he found a door locked he would not persist but instead would pass on to the next door.”

He has taught me about the importance of boredom and incompetence in shaping history, of the ridiculousness of “experts” who prattled on about matters they didn’t really understand. He also taught me that being prolific is not a sin and that the best way to be really productive is to avoid going to meetings whenever possible.

In this present day, his career is a reminder that a scholar should be someone who does creative and insightful work rather than someone driven by a passion to be a celebrity.

You should read this book, then, for his charming style, eyewitness accounts, and most of all his sound judgment. Walter writes:

“I thought of myself as a person of the center-left, and in most ways I continue to do so….The problem is, of course, what is left?….I did not believe that Stalin was a left-winger, nor his followers, nor the various post-modernist schools, such as postcolonialism, nor the German or the Italian terrorists of the 1970s, nor North Korea, nor the Albania of Enver Hoxha or the Cambodia of Pol Pot, nor the Islamists whether following Osama bin Laden or other versions of that ideology.” (p. 70)

These are all excuses for authoritarianism or totalitarianism against human liberty and they should not be allowed—this is my sentiment—to dress themselves or be prettified as anything else.

In other words, if you read this book you will be given a quick and entertaining (in the best sense of the word) course on how we arrived where we are today (“how did we reach this impasse—proceeding from the optimism of Victor Hugo to the dire prospects of the early twentieth century”) and how to think reasonably about that recent past, a field that Laqueur practically created and which he called contemporary history.

He doesn’t give easy answers but always persuasive ones. Go and read this book and as many of his earlier works as you can, including his novels, then thank me for recommending them. You can find a list here.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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