Thomas Laqueur

Thomas Laqueur is emeritus professor of history at Berkeley. His most recent book is The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.

While Statues Sleep

Thomas Laqueur, 18 June 2020

Coming to terms with the past in the United States is a different temporal matter. At issue is the entire national past: it is four hundred years since African slaves came to these shores, more than a hundred and fifty since the Fourteenth Amendment made African Americans full citizens; almost sixty since the longest-lived legally grounded racial regime in world history ended with the legislation and judicial decisions of the 1960s. This is a past that demands we explain not, as in the German case, the reason we succumbed to an evil ideology, but the reason it has been so difficult to do what Lincoln hoped for at Gettysburg, to rededicate ourselves to the proposition that all men are created equal and to come to an agreement about what this might mean. Ten years as against four centuries makes a big difference. Comparison is a mug’s game on this timescale. The presence or absence of victims’ descendants is also of huge significance in the comparative emotional history of atonement.

It is hard to escape the enormity of the crimes the Equal Justice Initiative documents, and for which no one was ever punished. All this narrative work has been carried out in the hope that the recognition of past wrongs and moral blindness will make those in the present not only recognise our complicity in this history but also the continuity of past and present. The black man lynched for ‘standing around’ in a white neighbourhood in 1892 or the man lynched after being accused of vagrancy in Garyville, Louisiana in 1917 ought to remind us of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old shot in 2012 in Sanford, Florida by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who thought he looked out of place in a white neighborhood, or of Eric Garner, choked and killed on Staten Island in 2014 by police who were arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes. These are not lynchings but they are the offspring of the forces that sustained lynching and of an unequal criminal justice system.

Nothing Becomes Something: Pathography

Thomas Laqueur, 22 September 2016

We live​ in the golden age of pathography. Before the middle of the 20th century there was very little writing devoted to the experience of living with illness. There were many reports of bodily ills in the letters and diaries of 18th-century men and women but no sustained narratives of disease. Autobiographies in the shadow of death were rare and brief. In David Hume’s six-page-long...

Devoted to Terror: How the Camps Were Run

Thomas Laqueur, 24 September 2015

The KL were in a sense the quintessential National Socialist institution. The Nazis were adept at responding to the ever changing needs of the state: instrumental political terror, social cleansing, genocide, slave labour, medical experimentation and more. This is the first book to try to give a comprehensive account of the camp system in its entirety. Wachsmann disentangles the history of the KL from that of the Holocaust.

Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time. Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910.

The dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible.

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Too Much: a history of masturbation

Barbara Taylor, 6 May 2004

Lounging in a boat​ anchored near his home, daydreaming about a ‘pretty wench’ he’d spotted in Westminster earlier that day, Samuel Pepys became so aroused that he ejaculated...

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Do women like sex?

Michael Mason, 8 November 1990

The other day I came across an article by Professor Laqueur, written some fourteen years ago, which makes a striking and dismaying contrast to the book he has just published. The contrast is...

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