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The Generation That Shaped Our Understanding of the 20th Century Is Gone

The scholars, historians, and political advisers who shaped the West’s understanding of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Islamist Middle East, make way now for—what?

Walter Laqueur
July 26, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Wikipedia.
L-R: Ernst Nolte, Fritz Stern, Richard Pipes, Peter Gay, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Wikipedia.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Wikipedia.
L-R: Ernst Nolte, Fritz Stern, Richard Pipes, Peter Gay, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Wikipedia.

Some of those who shaped our views on the world after World War II have disappeared in recent weeks and months. I believe I have known all of them, admittedly some better than others. Today’s media reports the demise of Pierre Hassner. How to define him? He was one of the most profound and original thinkers on world politics in our time. Whereas many in this field became more and more specialized and narrow, Pierre went in the opposite direction. He was, while he lived, among the most intelligent commentators of global affairs. It would be an exaggeration to claim that many or even all of this generation, a phalanx of geniuses unprecedented in history, were individuals of exceptional ability, knowledge, judgement, and influence. In fact, I could think of some whose ability and influence was perhaps exaggerated in their lifetime, and it is likely that future generations will set the record straight. There is an old Latin saying, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, or of the dead nothing but good is to be said. There is also another Latin/English saying, de mortuis nil nisi bunkum, or of the dead nothing but nonsense. In the following, I put down some of my recollections, having known personally all of them without falling into one extreme or the other.

It is true that all things considered, this generation had exceptional influence on how our views on recent history were shaped. It is also true that historians and political scientists had great influence on our thinking about the new world order, which emerged after WWII. Many of the leading scholars from that era have now disappeared; it is, if you will, the disappearance of a generation.

The influence of historians in politics has dwindled during the last hundred years. In 19th-century France, some of the leading historians were also involved in politics (Michelet, Guizot), but this was no longer the case during the following century. In 19th-century Germany, the confrontation between the liberal Mommsen and the aggressively right-wing Treitschke was one of the main issues in general political debate of the intellectual class. Mommsen, the great historian of the Roman Empire, has among his offspring two worthy historians, Wolfgang who died in 2004 while swimming in the Baltic Sea, and his twin brother, Hans, who died on his 85th birthday in 2015. These two shared a love for German political and social ideas as well as the hereditary bond of being twin brothers. In my opinion, Wolfgang was more talented and more realistic than Hans, but Hans also became of some importance. He was among the main protagonists of the theory that Hitler was, all things considered, a weak dictator. However, this was the usual technique of the “revisionists,” whether a ruler was strong or weak was after all a relative statement. But stating a dictator was strong raises the question—compared to whom? The ruler of a country of many million inhabitants could not possibly intervene and direct everything that went on in daily life. He had to restrict his supervision to the most important events and developments. Seen in this perspective, there is no doubt that the fascist dictators were not at all weak compared to their contemporary Chamberlain or Daladier.

The postwar period was of great interest above all, because of the so called Historiker Streit, and the most prominent of the German historians involved was undoubtedly Ernst Nolte (died in August 2016). He was born in a small town in West Germany, and his father was the head of a local primary school. He was interested above all in the sources and the development of Nazism. I remember our first meeting after he had published Fascism in Its Epoch. I had reviewed an English translation in The New York Times. When he came to London a few months later, he came to dinner to express his gratitude. I had criticized his book in my review, but still, I had found it interesting because it forced the reader to reconsider the causes of the rise of Nazism and fascism in general.

In the years after, Nolte’s views became more and more radical, or “revisionist,” until he found himself very much isolated, at least among professional historians (especially with colleagues at the Berlin University, where he held a professorship). Yet, among the general public, he found supporters with the rise of neo-Nazism. Nolte believed that the character of Nazism had been described in a far too negative way—he thought Nazism had its positive aspects. In a series of articles, books, and public appearances, Nolte stated that only the crimes of Nazism had been commented upon, and its social policy or its restoration of law and order had instead been ignored. The Holocaust and the destruction of other minorities were left out from Nolte’s purview. Several historians were ready to forgive Nolte—and some of his idiosyncrasies, not to put it any stronger—but the majority remained or became opposed. The so-called dispute among historians, which had begun in the 1980s, was more or less over by the end of the millennium. By that time, Nolte was a rank outsider, no longer taken seriously by the serious figures in the field. He on the other hand was not for a moment willing to engage in self-criticism or to admit that his views in any respect had been mistaken and not born out of historical facts.

One of Nolte’s early major antagonists was Karl Dietrich Bracher (died in September 2016) who was among the most important figures dealing with Hitler’s rise to power and the early years of Nazism. He did not mean to describe the barbaric character of this populist movement. Bracher also became a friend after many meetings at a variety of conferences. I learned later on that he suggested my name for one of the highest German orders. But I was persona non grata in Germany at the time, and those in charge found a way not to accept me since I was not a German citizen. In any case, I’m not at all sure whether I would have accepted such an honor bestowed by Germany in this early period of modern German history. Bracher served as a young solider during WWII and became an American prisoner of war. It was in these years of captivity that he developed his views on Hitler’s rise to power.

Nolte died about two years ago. There must be some scholars and others continuing his work, but they are not well known and I am not familiar with their work. But Holocaust ignoring (rather than denying) was not only Nolte’s preoccupation. He was also among those of two other series which have caused some confusion among those studying the period I refer to as “functionalism” and “intentionalism.” The concept of functionalism appears in many forms and in various sciences and pseudosciences. What it should mean in the context of Nazism will take a long time to explain and it is, in my view, a waste of time, so those interested will find more than enough information on the internet.

Some other leading students of Germany have died of late, two of the best known were Fritz Stern and Peter Gay. Stern owes his fame to the biography of Bleichroeder, a banker involved in activities all over the globe, who eventually became the personal banker of Bismarck. He also collected and published useful work on historiography since the early days. I am also told that he was a good teacher and he mentions in his biography and elsewhere countless times his conversation with Einstein about the choice of a profession at a time when he was aged 17. He was born in my own hometown and his parents attached themselves to many celebrities in their time, including Fritz Haber, who was other than Einstein perhaps the leading scientist of the time. He also played an important role in the development of Columbia University’s politics department.

Fritz Stern died May 2016, and Peter Gay left us in 2015. Whereas Stern in his working life concentrated on one issue, namely Germany, his contemporary Peter Gay was a man of many parts. Both had their admirers as well as their critics. The 1960s and ’70s were the high tide of “centers” at Harvard and elsewhere. Interest was not that great in Germany, which had not yet emerged as a leading center in building a European Union. I was invited to lunch by people from various centers, but they did not find me suited to join them, which I found slightly amusing. My ambition was not to teach, even at Harvard because I knew that I would not be a good teacher. I wanted to do my work in other fields. Peter Gay wrote the story of Weimar culture (paralleling my own book on the subject) but he was also a well-known student of the Enlightenment, and he also wrote about a widely read book on Freud among other subjects. Both Stern and Gay had difficulties with their Judaism. Stern’s family converted in the late 20th century and Stern wrote and published more than once about his origins. As far as I know, the Gay family, originally known as Froelich, did not convert, but Peter simply tried to ignore his roots. Religiously, he was not “musical” as the great Max Weber would have put it.


Of these who died in the month of May 2018, the most prominent was Bernard Lewis, professor of Oriental Studies in London. Bernard was a man of very many parts as he graduated not only in London but also in Paris. He is the only historian I came to know who is also a solicitor. I first met Bernard Lewis in the 1950s, when both of us appeared in a conference arranged by Johns Hopkins in Washington devoted to communism and nationalism in the Middle East. Both of us were at that time living in Britain and became members of a small circle, which included also Elie Kedourie, P.J. Vatikiotis, and a very few others. We met quite often in Lewis’ home. I was a rank outsider, for all these who were major figures in their fields whereas I was not. They all were masters of Arabic, where my command of the language was that of a villager, or Bedouin, and my knowledge of Arab history and culture was extremely limited. The others were master linguists having been born in Jerusalem or other major cities in the Middle East. Bernard even knew Aramaic, the language which Jesus Christ spoke. I owed my presence to the fact that I had written in the early 1950s two books dealing with issues that had been neglected by the scholars in the field so far—communism in the Middle East and also Soviet policy in this part of the globe. Writing these lines more than 60 years later, I would have put much in these books differently, but as I said, these were the first on these subjects and much was forgiven at the time which would be criticized and contradicted today.

After the conference, we returned to London, where we became friends and visited each other often. Bernard was a wonderful raconteur, and I happily listened to his stories on his experience in British intelligence during WWII. He once told me how he was commissioned by the command to compose an English-Albanian dictionary, when all the help at their disposal was one old dilapidated book that only covered the words from A to K or L. He also loved telling the story of how at the airport from Kabul, well before the current events, he was desperately trying to recollect the words for piece of luggage, only to detect that it was the same as in most other Middle Eastern languages. After his army years, Bernard returned to teaching at London University (SOAS-School of Oriental and Asian Affairs). Bernard’s achievements as a scholar have been described by others far more learned as I am in this field.

Bernard’s marriage broke up and not all of those familiar with the circumstances fully understood the reasons why he decided to leave Britain together with his two children as a consequence. But it was not up to outsiders to comment or criticize his decision. Bernard was a gentleman of the old school, a mild man, but he would always stick firmly to his principles and was not deflected from them. It could be that his decision was connected with a feeling that with all his knowledge about the Middle East and the Islamic world he had no influence whatsoever on the conduct of his native country. In this respect, the situation in the United Kingdom was quite different from the United States and other countries; those in charge of the conduct of British policy were not to be found in the academic world. Academic studies and the conduct of politics were two worlds apart.

Those whom he had known in Washington had told him that in America use would be made of his wide knowledge on Middle Eastern affairs, and this proved to be correct at least for a while. Senator Jackson became a friend and also those working with him. He appeared in a variety of Congress hearings, and it is reported that President Bush Senior kept a marked copy of one of Bernard’s essays near his bed. But while Bernard now exerted a certain influence, this also generated a considerate amount of hostility with the Arab/Middle Eastern lobby. There was a long controversy with Edward Said. Said was a distinguished scholar in the field of literary theory, but he was not a distinguished scholar in the field of Middle Eastern history as he had claimed. He was born in Jerusalem, but he was not a Palestinian expert either. His father had a stationery business in Cairo and Said received most of his education in Egypt and later in America. He had the support of the Arab lobby both in the academic world and in politics.

Bernard was not only attacked by Edward Said and his followers but also by Armenian spokesmen who claimed that he was a Turkish agent; he had begun his academic career as an expert on Turkey. Bernard’s enemies were many and some of them were influential. His vast knowledge of the Middle East was derided, and he was described as an intruder into a field of which he knew little or nothing about; all this while these people had not remotely the knowledge and the experience of Bernard.

There was yet another problem. While Bernard had some influence on policy, he had no impact on how his advice was followed up. While Bernard was probably over optimistic when believing that an American intervention in Iraq would provoke great enthusiasm among the local population, he was uncertain, not enthusiastic, if such an intervention would be carried out in a halfhearted way. The same I am sure was his opinion regarding the situation in Syria.

In the academic world, among the experts, the main issue remains the decline of Arab and Islamic influence after the “Golden Age” (the Golden Age, known as the age of the caliphates, lasted from the 8th to the 14th century, was the reign of the Abbasids, above all the legendary Harun al-Rashid, and witnessed both economic development and cultural works of considerable renown). Lewis believed since that period the Arab world had fallen not only behind in comparison with Europe but also with Asian countries, and there has never been a concerted effort to catch up. Bernard, therefore, was an imperialist spokesman respecting only power whereas those in the “progressive” camp abhorred power. These critics failed to mention that Bernard’s scholarly achievements dealing with the Middle Ages (as Europeans would define it) were head and shoulder above, taken in their totality, what others have done. They were motivated by political enmity and therefore their judgement was not just one-sided, but altogether wrong.

Bernard’s preoccupation after Sept. 11 was mainly with the Arab world. Originally, he had been preoccupied with Turkey; one can easily fathom what he thought about developments in that country under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Having arrived in the U.S., he found after some years a new home in Princeton. He also found a new companion, Buntzie Ellis Churchill, with whom he lived in Philadelphia. He celebrated his 100th birthday in the presence of his students and others close to him. He died in New Jersey on May 19, 2018. It would be wrong to maintain that his death was not a milestone in the history of Middle Eastern studies for the simple reason that while there were outstanding experts on certain countries and periods, there was no one with the breadth of Bernard’s preoccupations and achievements.

I never became a Middle Eastern expert but still I learned a great deal from Bernard. I was glad to see him represented in a Festschrift dedicated to the present writer. His work is continued by his star pupil, Martin Kramer, the leading figure in the field of contemporary Middle Eastern studies. Martin studied at Princeton under Fouad Ajami, L. Carl Brown, Charles Issawi, and Bernard Lewis, who directed his thesis. Those aforementioned were also outstanding scholars but their preoccupation was with specific topics and not with the general subject of the Middle East. Eventually, Martin became director of the Dayan Center and was a guest professor at many prestigious American universities. Like Bernard Lewis, he was attacked for advocating American involvement in the Middle East odyssey. Among Kramer’s fields of research and publications are political Islam, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival, and The Islamism Debate: 1997.


American interest in the Soviet Union was very small until WWII; it should be remembered that even diplomatic relations between the two countries were only established early in the 1930s. This changed radically during the war. There were certain individuals writing about the subject, refugees of one thought or another. The Harvard Russian Research Center became the most prominent center of Soviet studies and the leading personalities could be found there at one time or another. Among them, and perhaps the leading figure, was Richard Pipes who also died in May 2018. His father was a Polish patriot who fought in WWI with Pilsudski’s Legionaries. Pipes went to Kreczmar’s Gymnasium, the school attended by the offspring of the assimilated Jewish middle class, and among his schoolmates was Leopold Labedz, about whom I shall report presently. Labedz was a son of a Polish father who found himself far away in the depth of Russia. It is a long road from Sibirsk to the capital of Poland especially if the only means of transportation is horse and buggy. Twenty years later, both Pipes and Labedz escaped from Poland after the German occupation. Labedz had a hard time in Central Asia, where he found himself. He arrived in London together with the Anders’ Army, which had been established in Central Asia by Polish soldiers with the permission of the Soviet authorities. He eventually settled in London. On the other hand, after the war had already broken out, Pipes escaped together with his parents by way of Italy to the United States. He served in the U.S. Armed Forces and later studied Russian. Eventually he became a leading figure in the field of Russian studies at Harvard.

More than a few American academic experts specializing in Soviet affairs worked for the government during certain periods, some for a short time, others for many years. Zbigniew Brzezinski had been assistant professor at Harvard but did not receive tenure; when Harvard changed its mind and after all invited him to join, he had settled at Columbia University and declined the offer.

A few years later, in 1974 to be precise, Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, unhappy with the information received, insisted on the establishment of “team B” to counterbalance those in CIA who in his opinion were painting too rosy a picture of Soviet policy intentions. This was the age of détente, a policy advocated by Nixon and Kissinger, who believed that an understanding could be reached on many issues in dispute between the two superpowers. Team B undoubtedly had an influence on the conduct of American policy, but the extent of such an impact is difficult to say even with the benefit of hindsight.

I met Brzezinski during his early years at Harvard, but our first encounter was unfortunate. I had invited him for dinner but had forgotten about it and when he arrived at our house, being an extremely hot day, I was in an advanced stage of undressing. It is ironic that Brzezinski the hawk again joined government under President Jimmy Carter. He served as the nation’s security adviser, and I respected his views in some respects but not in others. I believe he was the first proposing American intervention in Afghanistan, which had as we now know unfortunate consequences in the way it was executed. Brzezinski passed away May 26, 2017.

All three just mentioned were of Polish origin and therefore not considered in Moscow to be neutral, let alone friendly commentators as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. Russian-Polish relations had been unfortunate for a long time, and it so happens that much of the information and evaluation of this subject at the time came from Soviet sources.

The Poles were livid about the Brzezinski appointment. The reason for their anger was that Brzezinski was a Pole (his father was appointed to diplomatic service of Poland in Canada). Although Pipes too was originally from Poland, he was seen as less of a threat by the Poles because, unlike Brzezinski, he never intervened in Polish affairs. Another leading Soviet expert was Adam Ulam. He also had an excellent knowledge of the Russian 19th century and wrote a novel on Sergei Kirov. There were the Erlich brothers, one specializing in the Soviet economy, the other in Russian Soviet literature. Generally speaking, scholarly interest in Russian affairs was not limited to covering politics, but probably equal importance was given to Russian and Soviet literature and the Soviet economy. As it subsequently appeared, the economic experts overrated considerably the Soviet economic performance, but this was probably inevitable in lieu of the absence of reliable statistics. The picture nonexperts received from those who were permitted to emigrate was quite different. Even though still only very few experts predicted the downfall and disintegration of the Soviet Union, by and large they knew considerably more of the state of affairs of the Soviet Union from overseas. Why? The Soviet Union after all was a superpower, so the foreign interest in the country and its system was dictated by security reasons.

Soviet studies centers could be found not only at Harvard but also in other universities, and the prospects for experts in academic Soviet studies were considerably greater than those specializing in Bulgaria for instance.

The confrontation continued between the proponents of détente and those who like Pipes believed that the character of the Soviet regime was expansive and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and other such events seemed to confirm their suspicions.

In the field of Soviet studies, more perhaps than in any other field of world affairs, important groupings were made not only of academics but others such as journalists resident in the Soviet Union or diplomats having concluded that tour of duty. Two of them should be mentioned above all, Leopold Labedz, cited above, and Robert Conquest.

When I founded the journal Soviet Survey, I worked together with Jane Degras. Later on, he became an editor of the journal up to its disappearance in the early 1990s. Labedz was a polymath, but suffered writer’s block. His books were usually written in correlation with other experts. Therefore, he remains largely in the shade and was posthumously attacked for a lack of knowledge. But in truth, he was an individual with enormous knowledge in the social sciences and history. He was also active in the field of Polish studies and his visits to Warsaw in the early 1990s became a triumph. The real reason for the attacks were found on another level; the fact that he was a Pole made him a priori suspect.

The issue of generations passing has preoccupied previous generations: José Ortega y Gasset wrote about it and also Karl Mannheim. The term “generation” is not a synonym for shared political ideology. When a generation disappears, a new one will take its place. However, sometimes there is a void. Sometimes the new generation is a carrier of a message, but sometimes it is not. We will have to wait and see.


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Walter Laqueur was head of the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library in London and concurrently university professor at Georgetown University.

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