You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Wise Man

In this sobering overview of what he has learned as a historian and political observer, Walter Laqueur regrets that the lessons he has drawn from Europe’s twentieth century are not more widely shared. “There are more attractive and less tragic historical figures than Cassandra,” he writes. “She had the gift of prescience, but Apollo had put a curse on her that no one should believe her.” In the 1970s, Laqueur raised the danger of the “Finlandization” of Western Europe by the Soviet Union. In the same period, Raymond Aron came to the “defense of a decadent Europe” and Jean-Francois Revel described “how democracies perish.” These Cassandras struck a nerve in the corridors of power. In Best of Times, Worst of Times, Laqueur worries that this time his role as Cassandra may be less successful. But now as then, Laqueur never uses the fashionable language of cultural despair. If the future does not look brilliant to him, neither is doom inevitable—so long as we learn the right lessons from history.

This wise and interesting book condenses a lifetime of political learning into a few hundred crisply written pages. Laqueur came of age as Europe entered the worst of times. He grew up in Weimar and then Nazi Germany, and then worked as a journalist in the Middle East from 1938 to 1953. In London, he helped to found and edit two important journals, Survey and the Journal of Contemporary History, before moving to Washington and working as a scholar of international affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the last decade of the Cold War. (He is certainly the least K Street-like man ever to work on K Street.) Laqueur has been a significant figure in historical scholarship regarding Nazism and the Holocaust, the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the history of Zionism, anti-Semitism and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Middle East, European history since 1945, and the academic study of terrorism—the latter was his theme long before September 11. He may be the only scholar of contemporary history who has made important contributions to all of these fields. Along with Aron, he is one of those few intellectuals who, for decades, was an important voice in both the academy and the policy world.

All the more remarkable is that he did so as a contemporary historian rather than as a political scientist. Best of Times, Worst of Times is an emphatic defense of the virtues of writing contemporary history. Proximity to events and the inevitable bias about them can be a huge advantage in the historian’s effort to grasp a deeper understanding of a period. He points to illustrious predecessors such as Thucydides, Burke, and Gibbon, whose personal experience, strong convictions, and proximity to events offered the “deeper understanding of a period that only immediacy can convey.” Laqueur regards his own youth in Germany as a painful schooling that enhanced his ability to understand dictatorship. Conversely, citizens of the United States and Britain, or Europeans who came of age after World War II and who have never lived under a totalitarian regime, found it exceedingly difficult to understand “the general all-pervasive climate…in an unfree society” or the fanaticism that drives it. Indeed, “the greater danger as far as democratic societies are concerned is the lack of memory and understanding of the dynamics of societies and governments that are not like them.”

This danger is not overcome, in Laqueur’s view, by the social sciences, with their rational actors and their futile search for laws of politics. It is contemporary historians, who are equipped with knowledge of the relevant languages, culture, and history of foreign affairs, who may offer the best prospect for the deeper understanding—the political analysis and the political judgment—that Laqueur seeks. His argument implies that money spent on the chimera of a science of politics would be far better spent on the less expensive humanities, which emphasize the importance of local knowledge, languages, culture, and the contingencies of history and politics.

Partly as a consequence of such intellectual deficiencies, the major countries do not possess, in Laqueur’s pessimistic view, the ability to confront the danger posed by “mega-terrorism,” that is, the ability of very small groups with weapons of mass destruction “[f]or the first time in human history” to have “the potential, to kill a great number of people, to cause immense destruction, and perhaps to paralyze normal life for considerable periods.” Massive military force has reduced terrorism to “manageable proportions” in the past, but it is difficult for democracies to engage in such a policy. The cultural diplomacy and battle of ideas that Laqueur regards as an important factor in the Western victory in the Cold War will “have no impact on radical Islamists, who abhor democracy, who believe human rights and tolerance are imperialist inventions, and who do not want any ideas circulating except those that appear in the Koran–as they interpret it. They do not want compromise and peaceful coexistence. They do not believe in diplomacy. They want to annihilate the enemy.”

The book addresses many things: historical debates about Nazism, the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the Middle East, terrorism, the successes and shortcomings of Washington think tanks, and Europe since 1945. Laqueur takes issue with those who find it hard to imagine that Nazism had popular support, or who de-emphasize Hitler’s role in decision making. He criticizes Cold War revisionists who at the time refused to blame Stalin as the primary cause of the Cold War or who sought to diminish the proportions of the Soviet purges and the Gulag. In view of what has come to light since 1989 from the Soviet archives, he finds it “more interesting to ask why the revisionist school arose in the first place, why it gained so much influence, and why it lasted so long despite the fact that in its essentials it was manifestly wrong.” Answering his own questions, he locates the sources of Cold War revisionism in Americans’ lack of understanding of how a dictatorship works, their deficient appreciation of the role of nationalist and religious ideologies in politics, and the political biases of the American left in the 1960s. He notes the reluctance of revisionists to revise their own views in the face of new evidence. Historians of science have long recognized that such reluctance to abandon wrong but treasured hypotheses is not unusual.  

Laqueur could be described as a participant-observer of the Cold War. He offers a spirited defense of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the association of intellectuals who waged a political battle against communism in Europe. He recalls the journals Encounter and Der Monat, and the efforts of Raymond Aron, Daniel Bell, Arthur Koestler, Melvin Lasky, Edward Shils and Ignazio Silone, among others, to offer a centrist and center-left ideological challenge to the communists. Laqueur celebrates the CCF for being right about the key issues regarding Soviet totalitarianism and aggression, and cites George Kennan’s comment about CIA funding for the Congress as a “flap” that was “quite unwarranted.” Instead, Laqueur looks back on the CCF as a superb example of what we now extol as “soft power.” When the Cold War ended, the Soviet archives opened to some extent and the Congress for Cultural Freedom was shown to have been right about the main issues. Yet some were “unwilling to forgive the Congress that it had been right prematurely.”

Laqueur correctly points out that there are multiple studies of the political and military aspects of the Cold War, but that “very few have focused on the contest for the hearts and minds of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain.” He rightly challenges historians to focus on the intellectual dimensions of the history of the Cold War. Under the umbrella of the American-Soviet nuclear stand-off, the Cold War in Europe was primarily a political and ideological battle. Its intellectual history is central to the understanding of the kind of war it was.

Laqueur has written extensively on the history of anti-Semitism, but he cautions—he is a completely unhysterical student of political hysteria—that this does not fully explain why Israel has been singled out for denunciation in the United Nations and elsewhere.  “The basic reason [for the disproportionate criticism of Israel] was that the state that emerged was small and relatively one in his right mind would have dared to show a similar attitude toward a state ten times as populous and powerful.” An early critic of the messianic visions that flourished in some segments of Israeli society after the 1967 war, he ruefully notes that “[s]ome Israelis have been slow to accept the basic facts of life in international politics: that there is not one measure of justice in the world, that a small country will be treated not like a great power, and that it cannot afford to behave like one.” Especially when so many critics, including self-described realists, presume to possess great courage in attacking Israel, Laqueur’s reminder of the perils of the small in international politics is a more humane sort of realism, in the tradition of Thucydides and Aron.      

In the world of Washington think tanks, Laqueur found some of the same shortcomings as he did in the positivistic methods of university-based social science. Understanding the intentions of other countries remained the most difficult challenge for political analysts, he recalls, owing to “the inability to understand the mental makeup of leaders rooted in a wholly different tradition.” The intelligence failure of Middle East experts who, with some exceptions, did not recognize the arrival of militant Islam “must have been motivated to a large extent by political bias” in favor of the Arab world. The study of militant Islam, let alone terrorism, was discouraged in that field. Political biases and reluctance to abandon cherished theories, such as the notion that political repression and poverty produce terrorism, proved remarkably resistant to empirical refutation, even when faced with terrorists who came from affluent backgrounds or emerged in conditions of relative freedom.

In a chapter on postwar Europe, Laqueur recalls the alternating waves of optimism and pessimism that accompanied the end of World War II, economic recovery and political stability of the 1950s, gloom again in the 1970s, euphoria in the aftermath of the collapse of communism in 1989 and sobriety in the face of the persistence of national interests and differences in the European Union. He summarizes recent scholarship on trends in demography and immigration. As Europe’s population is shrinking and ageing, it will need “many millions of immigrants to keep its economy going and its social institutions functioning.” Yet it will be more difficult for Europe “to obtain the kind of immigrants needed—workers who are qualified and industrious and enterpriseing.” He does not foresee a Muslim “Eurabia” and rejects the use of that term. Over half of the immigrants to the UK are not Muslim. Most British Muslims come from Pakistan, not Arabia. But fear and rejection of terrorism is not “Islamophobia.” He argues against the use of that term as well. That said, he points out that children of Muslim and other overseas parentage are 30 percent to 45 percent of the age cohort in many French, Belgian and German cities. He then asks: “Once the minority in a certain town or region turns into a majority, once schools consist predominantly of children of foreign origin, with what right will the authorities impose the teaching of standard curricula to a young generation that is not part of this cultural tradition and is not particularly eager to become part of it?” Why, for example should Turkish children in Berlin or the Ruhr be taught poems of Goethe rather than Turkish literature? Laqueur is not predicting that Europe cannot integrate its immigrants into its own version of multi-ethnic democracy. He is raising important questions about a Europe that is “greatly changing.”

His view of Europe as a factor in world politics will come as no surprise to readers of his past work. Europe has “become weaker and weaker.” The obstacles to a common defense, and foreign policy “seem insurmountable.” Europe has “very little moral confidence left.” It may experience “helplessness in the face of storms in the years and decades to come” due in part to pressures from “countries less squeamish about power politics.” “As the current century is likely to be one of savage conflicts” fueled with “fanaticism, not to mention the spread of weapons of mass destruction…there will be no significant role for a civilian or moral superpower” that Europe prides itself on being. It will thus “count for less and less in a bigger world.” Laqueur thinks in terms of tendencies and possibilities, not predictions and certainties. Obviously, he is making these arguments with the hope that the trends in question are changed.

Coming from someone who has seen the best of times followed by the worst of times, Laqueur’s warnings about possible disasters to come—as well as his argument for the importance of contemporary political, intellectual and cultural history in the realms of policy and world affairs—deserve to be taken very seriously. His antidote is political clarity that is based upon historical learning. He offers no simple solutions, but he does remind us of mistakes we should not repeat. His understanding is especially pertinent to the present era in American history, which has been anything but innocent. The war on terror, begun under Bush, continues under Obama. The United States has expanded its role in Afghanistan and is contemplating sanctions against Iran. The President who came to office intent on engaging our enemies now expresses his understanding that yes, there is evil in the world. Whether the Obama administration acts forcefully to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons remains to be seen. Laqueur has seen enough accident and contingency in history to know that another era of major catastrophe is not inevitable; but his point is that if it is to be prevented, the democracies must not repeat the same mistakes that brought about the worst of times in twentieth-century Europe, or that allowed the danger of militant Islam to gather momentum with far too little notice. Is this too dark? Recall that when Osama Bin Laden issued his fatwa in 1998, Washington, D.C. was too preoccupied with a sex scandal to pay much attention. We are not the same country we were before September 11, but then we are not a wholly different one either. Countries and their habits and mentalities do not change so quickly.

Our country and our culture have never suffered from an excess of informed and thoughtful pessimism. And pessimism, if this is what Laqueur is offering, is not a conclusion so much as a challenge: it may be useful in goading us to act to thwart its fulfillment. Walter Laqueur’s calm and candid reflections deserve a wide readership among scholars, journalists, politicians, and anyone willing to cast an unflinching gaze at the past and present. 

Jeffrey Herf’s most recent book is Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009).