Historian Walter Laqueur: A full Life of Political Education in Germany, Israel and the U.S.
An exceptional biography is the basis for an exceptional memoir written by the old wise man Walter Laqueur: "Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education.", who is a member of the International Advisory Board of the World Security Network Foundation. By the way it is his book number 21. (Order this latest book in amazon.com here)
Walter Laqueur was born 88 years ago in the German town Breslau, which is since 1945 now Wroclaw in Poland. In 1938 he emigrated to Palestine. He was co-founder and editor of the Journal of Contemporary History in London and the Washington Quarterly. Professor Laqueur taught at the universities of Georgetown, Chicago, Harvard, John Hopkins, Brandeis, and Tel Aviv. He chaired the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. for a long time, where he is living. See his fascinating curriculum vitae here.
Walter Laqueur has been writing, teaching and acting as a policy adviser over sixty years in three continents, primarily in the field of twentieth century history and politics. In this engaging memoir, Laqueur focuses on the political and historical events that have shaped his thinking and inspired his intellectual work.
He describes growing up in Nazi Germany; discusses Marxism, the Soviet Union, and the part he played in Cold War politics; and reflects on the image his generation had of Zionism, Israel, and the Middle East. Walter Laqueur shares his appraisal of Beltway politics and think tanks, concluding with his views on guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and the future of Europe.
Walter Laqueur has resolved the tension between being a highly respected historian, normally arms length from events themselves, and having been an active observer and player during 'his' twentieth century. With the knowledge and experience of his long life, he deserves the title of an 'old wise man'.
BrigGen (ret) Dieter Farwick, WSN Global Editor-in-Chief, took the opportunity to interview Walter Laqueur:
Dieter Farwick: You grew up in Germany between 1920 and 1938. It must have been a hard time, especially for a young Jew. What are your main memories?
Walter Laqueur: As I relate in my book my youth in Germany,Weimar and Nazi, was not that different compared with other young people of my background. I graduated however from a German school in 1938 and left not long thereafter. It was not the last railway, but a late one. My generation became politicized very early on-how could it have been different? Growing up in these conditions was a useful education-one which young people in America or England other other democratic countries never had-living in a dictatorship, In other words-we were not as naïve, there was little room for wishful thinking and illusions. Of course there was a danger. I had to remind myself quite often in later life that not every dictatorship was Nazi Germany and not every dictator- a Hitler.
Dieter Farwick: You fled Germany in time to survive and went to Palestine, later Israel. You worked in a Kibbutz and then in the 'young state of Israel'. What do you remember best from that time?
Walter Laqueur: The years in the Middle East were fascinating. By the way, I lived as much among Arabs in their villages and towns, as among Jews, not among politicians, and intellectuals but among simple people and this gave me insights in their way of life and psychology. The years in the kibbutz too were extremely interesting--a new way of life. These were the early "heroic" days, to day's Kibbutz has been largely privatized. But I would not at all be surprised if the idea of the Kibbutz, in a different way of course, will be in future picked up again in other parts of the world. Present day life in big cities and even suburbs is not that wonderful and attractive.
Dieter Farwick: Vladimir Putin describes the demise of the Soviet Union as the "greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century." In your view, what were the most important factors behind this demise? Will Russia become just another example of great powers which rise and eventually fall?
Walter Laqueur: For many Russian patriots the breakdown of the Soviet Union was indeed a terrible disaster-they lost Kiev, the cradle of Russian civilization. . Unfortunately, they tend to put the blame always on others, America and the West, and fail to understand that the house Stalin built was bound to collapse sooner or later. And I do not think that Russia's strength, based almost entirely on the export of oil and gas will last, given Russia's demographic and other weaknesses. Will they be able to reform in time? Possibly, but the prospects are not good. I admire the relentless confidence in Russia's future in Putin's speeches. But can he really believe all this?
Dieter Farwick: U.S. President Barack Obama has described himself as "the first U.S. Pacific President". Is this another signal that the political centre of gravity has shifted away from Europe, as you have repeatedly argued in your work?
Walter Laqueur: He is certainly less interested in Europe, and given China's growing economic strength he will be more preoccupied with the Far East. He is not particularly interested in foreign affairs-no American president was. They all wanted to concentrate on domestic affairs. They all were, much to their chagrin, compelled by foreign political crises to change their agenda.
Dieter Farwick: You are a renowned expert on all aspects of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. What are the main differences between terrorism and guerrilla warfare? Do you see a correlation between poverty and terrorism? What are the main constraints on democracies when fighting terrorism?
Walter Laqueur: The difference was obvious in the past. China is the the classic example for guerrilla war, building up an alternative army (and state) from very small beginnings somewhere in the remote countryside-and eventually taking over state power. Terrorism mainly takes place in the cities where it cannot operate in big units-it would expose itself to its enemies and suffer too many casualties. However, in recent years guerrilla and terrorism have been used side by side, even though essentially they are quite different in character.
Dieter Farwick: What is going wrong in the fight against terrorists?
Walter Laqueur: I am always surprised how little use is made of the great weakness of the terrorists, especially the Islamists. They deeply believe in all kind of conspiracy theories, the stranger and more fantastic, the more plausible they appear to them, they frequently cannot differentiate between truth and falsehood, they are mostly paranoiacs-or at least paranoids. They spread fantastic stories-and they are willing to believe fantasies. They are easily misled by their propensity to believe in cock-and-bull stories. This is where an anti-terrorist campaign should come in-but the West (and especially Western bureaucracies) have never been good at this sort of things. A bureaucracy must not spread lies-except in extremis. In a famous essay on Machiavelli in 1859 the great British historian Macaulay wrote " qui nescit dissimulare. Nescit regnare "which, freely translated, means that he who does not know how to dissimulate has no business to be in politics. This principle is now "unacceptable" (a fashionable term today) but I doubt whether any other will work.facing an antagonist who does not believe in Kant and the Geneva conventions.
Dieter Farwick: I was surprised to read about the self-hatred of some Jewish intellectuals towards the state of Israel. Could you expand on this issue?
Walter Laqueur: It is often forgotten that up to world war two Zionism was a minority ( a small minority in Western and Central Europe) among the Jews. Assimilation was widespread. Much of my own family (to give an example) had converted in the 19th century. The state of Israel came into being because of the disaster in Europe which befell the Jewish people. The Zionists had foreseen more realistically than others this horrible possibility. But more than sixty years have passed since and assimilation has received a fresh impetus. For some Jewish intellectuals (admittedly a minority) Israel has become an embarrassment given the lack of popularity of the state of Israel.in Europe.
Dieter Farwick: The secret services are another topic in your book. What is the impact of factors such as: selection and training of personnel, cultural awareness, the danger of mirror imaging and access to political leaders? What is the significance of HUMINT and OSINT?
Walter Laqueur: I was once asked by a major American foundation to prepare a long report about the impact of intelligence on the conduct of foreign policy. For this purpose I had to talk to most leading figures in American intelligence past and present (at the time) and some in Europe. They did not share their innermost secrets with me but on general issues they were willing to talk. It helped me to understand that intelligence per se is not very important unless it is correctly interpreted and (even more important) it is conveyed and accepted by the leading policy makers. Most policy makers were not particularly interested in intelligence nor did they fully trust their intelligence chiefs. American intelligence (but also European and Russian) were traditionally better in "bean counting" (finding out about weapons and military plans). rather than about the intentions of the other side. American intelligence depended far too much on technical intelligence and too little on human resources because it did not have sufficient human intelligence of high quality. And even if such intelligence was received there was always doubt-can this source ( or sources) be believed? This was shown again in the Iraq war where human intelligence was often misleading.
Dieter Farwick: You wrote: "Warning in democratic societies will usually come late, and sometimes too late." Why is there no effective symbiosis between think tanks and political leaders to overcome this?
Walter Laqueur: Warnings in democratic societies usually come late and sometimes too late. To be precise-there are usually warnings, but they are not believed. The tendency in such societies (today perhaps more often than at any time in the past) is to live in peace and calm and to suppress anything that does not confirm this desire. Unfortunately, as Trotsky once wrote, anyone wishing to live in peace should not have chosen the 20th century. And I fear-neither the 21th. And Spengler said-trying to opt out of world politics does not protect one against the consequences. I am not a great believer in Trotsky and Spengler but in this case the were quite right.