Walter Laqueur in 1981. Photo Credit: Fred Sweets/The Washington Post, via Getty Images
By: Benjamin Aziza, Columnist
According to former SSP Director Bruce Hoffman, the late Georgetown Professor Walter Laqueur once observed that “only pessimists survived the Holocaust. Optimists believed that Hitler could either be controlled or that common sense and decency would somehow eventually prevail.”[i] Laqueur, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, ultimately became one of the world’s leading scholars on terrorism, a success which Hoffman attributes to Laqueur’s pessimistic nature and “predilection to avoid the over-exaggeration of threats”.[ii] Laqueur wrote or edited over 50 books, spoke half a dozen languages, and his work has been translated into several languages and read across the globe. His 1977 work titled A History of Terrorism earned him the title of the “dean of terrorism” from Peter Bergen.[iii]
On November 29, 2018, Georgetown held a memorial service in honor of Laqueur after his passing at the age of 97 on September 30. Laqueur taught the first terrorism and counter-terrorism class to undergraduates at Georgetown some forty years ago and was a professor at Georgetown from 1976 to 1988. At the service in Gaston Hall, Professor Hoffman discussed his close relationship with Walter and Walter’s incredible journey from escaping Nazi Germany to becoming one of the most prolific terrorism scholars in the world, all without ever obtaining a university degree. Joe Spieler, his literary agent and publisher, also spoke about his professional and personal relationship with Walter. Finally, Edward Luttwak, another former Georgetown professor and one of Walter’s closest and oldest friends, spoke about the memories that they shared over 40 years of friendship.
Up until the time of his death, Walter met daily with his research assistants, most of whom are students in the Security Studies Program. I had the honor of working with Professor Laqueur for the past 9 months. His ability to recall world events that occurred half a century ago to such great detail was incredible, and a testament to just how amazing of a scholar he truly was. During our weekly sessions, we would work on a wide variety of projects ranging from the various threats the world currently faces from terrorist organizations to classical music. We both shared a strong connection with the state of Israel, Professor Laqueur having served as a journalist during the establishment of the state and its early years and myself as a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. We would often switch back and forth between Hebrew and English as we discussed Israeli politics and the various threats in the Middle East. Walter would tell me stories about life in Israel during the 1950’s and we would talk about its evolution from a young nation to the regional powerhouse I experienced when I lived there.
Following his death, his wife Susi, hosted a group of about a dozen of Professor Laqueur’s research assistants from the past decade. It was incredible to see the impact that Walter had on all of our lives and the field that we are all a part of today. All of us had worked with Walter on different projects, most of us having assisted in the publishing of his last book, The Future of Terrorism: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Alt-Right, published this year and co-authored by SSP alum and incoming SSP Professor Christopher Wall.
The impact that Walter Laqueur has had on my life, is very difficult to comprehend and convey here. He taught me how to look at the world more critically, how to be a better writer and most importantly, how to deal with criticism. I couldn’t possibly be more grateful for the little time that I got to spend with Walter, and for everything he taught me.
May his memory be a blessing.
[i] Hoffman, Bruce. “Walter Laqueur, 26 May 1921–30 September 2018”. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Issue 11. 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1532175?af=R
[iii] Langer, Emily. “Walter Laqueur, eminent scholar who probed the 20th century, dies at 97”. The Washington Post. September 30, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/walter-laqueur-eminent-scholar-who-probed-the-20th-century-dies-at-97/2018/09/30/a6d2acd0-c518-11e8-9b1c-a90f1daae309_story.html?utm_term=.32d485d46f65