The layman very often talks about the lessons of history. A real historian's historian will tell you there are no lessons of history . -- Walter Laqueur
Historian Walter Laqueur was thumbing through old newspapers when he found that first item in The New York Times. "It was dated July 2, 1942," he recalls. "It said, 'One Millon Jews Killed.' And it appeared on page nine.
"Page nine ," he repeats, his voice, even now, raised in helpless incredulity.
But it was even earlier when he first stumbled on newly available bits of information and evidence that impelled him to write his just-published book, "The Terrible Secret." He was doing research for a novel, his first about a German-Jewish family against the background of Nazi Germany and World War II.
"I was sitting in the Swiss Archives -- they gave me access to all kinds of files people hadn't seen before -- and suddenly I came across evidence I realized had not been known . . . in other words it [Laqueur objects to the use of the term Holocaust to describe the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews, saying it's inappropriate] was known much earlier and from many more sources than we had imagined."
Laqueur, Georgetown University government professor and chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaks English with a indeterminate accent, not quite Germanic. It becomes even thicker as he describes the emotions that led him to write "Secret."
These included personal recollections.
He was born in 1921, in Germany. An only child, and a precocious one, he was sent by his parents to the Hebrew University in Palestine. He was 16. It was 1937.
"And," he says, as, across years, across worlds, he sifted this new information, "I was thinking, when did I hear the last time from my parents, for instance, and how could I immediately realize what had happened . . ."
He pauses. Then says, very quietly, "There are personal moments. I was in Palestine and they were in Germany . . . they were killed."
But Walter Laqueur is the consumate historian, and "The Terrible Secret" is scrupulous and unemotional in a way that only serves to underscore the chilling horror of what it relates.
It describes in painstaking detail the flood of evidence -- from postcards to cables to phone calls to the eyewitness accounts of horror-stricken escapees -- about the true extent and intent of the Nazi "final solution to the Jewish problem." And how the inability to absorb its truth led countless Jews to their deaths.
At the same time it documents how disbelief about its enormity and how sometimes clear anti-Semitism in Western capitals -- neutral and Allied alike -- resulted in suppression of the facts and failure to act. Even when, at the end, the train tracks leading to the extermination camps could have been bombed at no cost to the general war effort, with the potential of saving tens of thousands. And earlier, when pressure on the Vichy government might have saved thousands of French Jews.
He writes, "When all allowances have been made, when all mitigating circumstances have been accorded, it is still true that few come out of the story unblemished. It was a story of failure to comprehend, among Jewish leaders and communities inside Europe and outside, a story of failure among non-Jews in high positions in neutral and Allied countries who did not care, or did not want to know or even suppressed the information."
"Of course," says Walter Laqueur, "of course, nobody can be totally objective . . . there's no such thing. But you have to try. But if you write partisan stuff in good conscience, then you're a bad historian.
"This is, " he says, "the book of a historian. By emotional outbursts I don't think I would have helped an understanding of the issues involved. It would give an outlet for my feelings, but that is not [appropriate].
"An indictment," he says quietly, in the academic austerity of his Washington office, "is far more effective if you don't use harsh words.
"It would be easy," says Laqueur, "if one could say it was only anti-Semitism. It was also anti-Semitism. It was the natural tendency of each bureaucracy to reject any unexpected requests. It was the fact the war was on and people are preocupied with their own affairs and the tendency to say 'I am not my brother's keeper' is even stronger than in times of peace."
But what is so mystifying to Laqueur was the inability of the Jews themselves to accept what was before their eyes when they could have escaped.
"What does it mean to nknow ," he says. "You know it, but that doesn't mean you accept it.
"And what fascinated me of course, again as a political commentator, is so often I have come across people who refuse, however glaring the evidence, however obvious, to accept the facts."
Laqueur was late in turning his attention to the events of World War Ii, at least partly because he has an illdisguised contempt for those he feels have fed off of it. ("It is a whole industry.")
He is a bit surprised at the success "The Terrible Secret" is already enjoying the silent treatment [in England] but there was a tremendous reception, and even on the Continent . . . you see, they all have a bad conscience."
But as mystified as he is at humanity's talent at self-deception, there can be no mistake that governments, both neutral and allied, the Vatican, the International Red Cross, all come in for their share of responsibility in in his book.
Of the Vatican he writes, for example, "From the little evidence that has become accessible it emerges that the Vatican was either the first, or among the first, to learn about the fate of the deported Jews . . . Yet the official line . . . throughout 1942 remained that it could not confirm the news about the 'final solution' and that, in any case, the information about the massacres seemed to be exaggerated."
Vatican inaction, he suggests, stemmed from "probably . . . a case of pusillanimity rather than anti-Semitism. If the Vatican did not dare to come to the help of hundreds of Polish priests who also died in Auschwitz, it was unrealistic to expect that it would show more courage and initiative on behalf of the Jews."
Among perhaps scores of new disclosures is one involving former UN Ambassador and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. Goldberg, in 1942, was organizing a London office of the labor division of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. He was introduced to a Polish-Jewish refugee named Shmuel Zygielbojm, with whom he became friendly on both a social and official basis, Laqueur writes. In a footnote, Laqueur quotes a letter he received from Goldberg, written in November 1979:
In the course of these meetngs Mr. Zygielbojm informed me about Hitler's programme for the "final solution." He also provided me with evidence supporting the information he furnished. I forwarded the information to General [William] Donovan [head of OSS] through OSS channels. At this point my memory becomes faulty. I believe that he not only advised me about the death camps but also about the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and requested either a bombing of Auschwitz and/or the Warsaw Ghetto . . . I recall that upon receiving an answer to my urging that his request be honoured and that it was negative, I asked him to have dinner with me at Claridges where I was staying. With understandable pain and anguish I told him that our government was not prepared to do what he requested because in the view of our high command, aircraft were not available for purpose. The next day he committed suicide -- this I recall vividly. . . .
Zygielbojm was the Jewish representative on the Polish National Council.
It was information in a secret report sent to him that formed the basis for the stories in British newspapers on which the July 1942 New York Times story was based.
Walter Laqueur sits at his desk, toying endlessly with an old-fashioned pocket watch on a heavy metal chain, snapping the case open and then again closed, with an occasional surreptitious glance at the face.
Sometimes he will lean back preciptioulsy in his chair, and then he becomes almost expansive. Walter Laqueur is intense about his work and proud of it. He likes to talk about it. Yet ego is disarmingly tempered with humor -- often self-directed -- and a compassionate understanding of political motivations and human foibles. And how the one acts upon the other.
In his 60th year Walter Laqueur is a success at three careers, by his own count.
He is a college professor -- at Tel Aviv University as well as at Georgetown. He is a political commentator -- author of a dozen books and countless articles on contemporary affairs, editor of the Journal of Comtemporary History in addition to his CSIS post and other prestigious positions here, in London and in Israel.
Finally, he has become a novelist. The sequel to "The Hidden Years" is due out in a few months.
He is also husband and father -- and grandfather of a pair of appealing toddlers who splash, naked imps, in their bath, caught forever in the photo prominently displayed on his desk. He spent his youth as a "cowboy" on a kibbutz in Palestine during the war after he dropped out of the university even before the end of his first term. And he "drifted into journalism" for a time after the war.
He never did stop long enough to pick up a degree, but managed to slip into an assortment of visiting professorships after the persuasive cogency of his international commentary became known. In addition to German, Hebrew and English, he is fluent in Russian and other Slavic languages.
He became a specialist in Soviet affairs as well as in modern German history and the Middle East, terrorisma and Zionism. He scoffs at the designation of the Center for Strategic Studies as "right wing," and has just written an article about the impossiblity of applying terms like liberal, conservative or right or left in foreign policy. ("Is Khomeini a neo-conservative? What does it mean? . . . Is Khadaffi a revolutionary? What is a revolutionary? Is he a conservative? It doesn't make sense. He's neither left nor right." Then, irrepressibly, "Of course he may be meshugge .")
"You know," he says, referring back to his role as novelist, "it's not considered comme il faut . Academics feel you should stick to your own narrow field. I was never a narrow specialist and I've published much." He grins. "You see, in the academic world, if you publish one book you're competent. If you publish two, you're a genius. If you publish three you're a charlatan. So that places me.
"On the other hand, if you live long enough, you become an elder statesman whether you want it or not and that brings a certain respect . . ."
Dressed casually in a light blue turtle neck sweater that deepens the blue of his eyes, Laqueur is looking a trifle more like a novelist, an effect, one suspects, he does not mind.
But in the end, it is the historian who triumphs.
He is not surprised that some find expiation for their inaction in his book, or that to others it confirms a guilt they always believed was there. He is not surprised that some who lived through the experience live in horror lest the world forget, or that others feel just the opposite.
"I have a cousin," says Laqueur, "who was a case like Anne Frank, but with a happy ending. He was hidden in a tiny room in Holland until at age 14 he simply could stand it no longer. His parents said, 'OK, try to escape. So at 14 he walked through Europe and ended up in Spain. Now he is a successful computer man in Sweden.
"And he says, 'I don't want to hear about it . . . let all the books be burned.'
"It's so terrible for some that you have to forget.
"Otherwise you cannot live."