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.

Premier Exhibitions Inc. describes itself as ‘the leading provider of museum-quality exhibitions throughout the world’: Bodies lets visitors ‘see inside carefully preserved real anatomical specimens’ and Dialog in the Dark features New York in a blackout (‘and here’s the twist – your guide is visually impaired’). But Premier Exhibition’s core business is RMS Titanic Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary that has exclusive rights to salvage artefacts from the wreck that was discovered under 12,500 feet of water in 1985.

In June 2001, John Dower, a historian of Japan, wrote a comment piece in the New York Times about the blockbuster movie Pearl Harbor. The problem with it, he thought, was not its predictable romantic digressions or historical errors but its moral obtuseness. Like earlier films on the subject, it was ‘a paean to patriotic ardour and an imagined American innocence … sanitised to an...

We Are All Victims Now: Trauma

Thomas Laqueur, 8 July 2010

In formal Japanese, I’m told, the word ‘trauma’ is written as a compound of two Chinese characters: one meaning ‘external’ and the other ‘injury’. Trauma is thus a hurt on the outside, as in ancient Greek – a wound. We still use the word in this way when we speak of ‘trauma surgeons’ or ‘trauma wards’, but this is not the...

Among the Graves: Naming the Dead

Thomas Laqueur, 18 December 2008

Stonewall Jackson, the deeply neurotic but irresistibly romantic, swashbuckling Confederate commander, thought that the great and swift destruction of life and property seen in the American Civil War was the essence of war generally. But this war was not swift. It was long and gruelling: 425 men, on average, died every day for 1458 days. And like the First World War, the Civil War got bloodier and more destructive as it ground inconclusively on. Five of its six costliest battles, with casualties in the tens of thousands on each side, took place after April 1863, roughly the war’s midpoint. It ended, as the Second World War ended, in an epic struggle for the enemy’s capital. A century and a half later one can still see the miles of ramparts at Petersburg and Richmond; the crater blasted by Union miners in an attempt to breach Confederate defences is still there. Casualties of this final battle were more than 60,000.

Stern’s ancestors stood at the pinnacle of the Bildungsbürgertum, the cultivated middle class, who regarded culture generally and Wissenschaft – science in the broadest, purest sense – as the core of an ethical and useful life, both private and public. All four of his great-grandfathers, both grandfathers and his father were successful, well-regarded doctors. The physician’s white coat, as Stern writes, ‘was the one uniform of dignity to which Jews could aspire and in which they could feel a measure of authority and grateful acceptance’.

Diary: My Dead Fathers

Thomas Laqueur, 7 September 2006

I remember only one occasion when I wished my father dead: in early December 1983. He was 73 and it was less than a year before he died of cancer, a little more than a year after he learned that there was no treatment for his particular neoplasm. I heard him furtively, or not so furtively, whingeing to someone on the phone, to a woman. (I had returned to the small West Virginia town where my...

Unquiet Bodies: Burying the 20th Century

Thomas Laqueur, 6 April 2006

I should say at the outset that I know István Rév; that I have walked with him through the cemeteries of Budapest and have seen in his company some of the graves he writes about. He is a remarkable man, the product of a culture and a time in which one either drowned or saved oneself through erudition, wit, irony and an unremitting conversation with history. I once told him that I...

Adolf Eichmann is not an obvious candidate for a full-length biography, and before his capture in 1960 and trial the following year no one would have thought of writing one. The historical record would have been too thin; much of what we know about his life and crimes emerged from his interrogation by the Israeli authorities and from the vast research effort that went into preparing the case...

Diary: memories in German

Thomas Laqueur, 4 December 2003

I seem to have had a peculiar loyalty to the German language from about as early as a child can have articulate views. I was told by my parents that when they urged me as a three-year-old to learn Turkish, so that I might communicate more effectively with my playmates in Istanbul, where we had come in our flight from Hitler, I would have none of it. Let them learn German, I supposedly said;...

Travelling in the Classic Style: Primo Levi

Thomas Laqueur, 5 September 2002

Primo Levi is among the most read and most resonant witnesses to the greatest human disaster of a disastrous age. He created more powerful images, more mind-sustaining turns of phrase through which to think about these matters than any other writer. The ‘drowned and the saved’, for example: that appallingly stark, Darwinian division between those who managed to secure a few extra...

As Lévi-Strauss might have said, ‘the dead are good to think with.’ But the thoughts they give rise to are seldom as reassuring as one might hope. The dead, and memories of the dead are disruptive, unruly and unpredictable.

Festival of Punishment: On Death Row

Thomas Laqueur, 5 October 2000

For most of its history the United States has been within the mainstream of Western enlightened thought and practice with respect to the death penalty. Sometimes ahead of the curve: Michigan abolished capital punishment in 1846, well before most of Europe; Rhode Island and Wisconsin got rid of it in 1853; North Dakota has never had it; sometimes a bit behind: seven out of nine states that had...

Pint for Pint: The Price of Blood

Thomas Laqueur, 14 October 1999

Aids – or, more specifically, the lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and political recriminations that followed the transfusion of whole blood or blood products wittingly or unwittingly tainted with HIV – has renewed our interest in the sanguinary, and Douglas Starr has now set this interest in context. He describes his book as ‘the story of blood – the chronicle of a resource, the researchers who have studied it, the businessmen who have traded it, the doctors who have prescribed it, and the lay people whose lives it has so dramatically affected’. The ‘scandals that killed thousands of haemophiliacs and recipients of transfusions’ form the story’s dénouement. The moral, according to Starr, is that the safe use of this ‘precious, mysterious and hazardous material’ depends on a successful resolution of two sets of questions.’‘

Even Immortality: Medicomania

Thomas Laqueur, 29 July 1999

No one should take comfort from the title of Roy Porter’s shaggy masterpiece of a history of medicine. ‘The Greatest Benefit to Mankind’ – the phrase is Dr Johnson’s – begs for a question-mark, a rising inflection of incredulity, if not outright disbelief. Porter is too ebullient, too much of an optimist, too little of a polemicist to supply the Rousseauian rejoinder: ‘An art more pernicious to men than all the ills it pretends to cure’. But no one who follows Simon Schama’s advice helpfully prescribed in the blurb – ‘take a dose of the book at least once a day and retire early to bed’ – will sleep easy.’‘

Both these books are about recovering and redeeming a past: the past of Dan Jacobson’s grandfather, Heshel Melamed, the rabbi of a community of Jews in the obscure Lithuanian village of Varniai (Vorna it probably would have been to him); Eva Hoffman’s past and the past of Bransk, a Polish shtetl 180 kilometres east of Warsaw, whose history – alternately dismal and cheering – she interpolates into that of Poles and Jews generally, from the Statute of Kalisz to the present. (The statute was signed by Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1254 and launched the ‘official experiment in Polish-Jewish co-existence’ with a set of laws ‘that could serve as an exemplary statement of minority rights today’.) It is a past lost, soiled, distorted, devastated seemingly beyond comprehension, most obviously by the Holocaust but in any case by modernity, befogged in the ‘Talmudic wilds’ – the phrase is Osip Mandelstam’s, used admiringly by Jacobson.’‘

The Sound of Voices Intoning Names

Thomas Laqueur, 5 June 1997

In a happier age, Immanuel Kant identified one of the problems of understanding any of the genocides which come all too easily to mind. It is the problem of the mathematical sublime. The arithmetician has no more difficulty in principle comprehending one murder than 600,000 – the number murdered in the Armenian atrocities of 1916-17 or by Nazi Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front in 1941 before the death camps were fully geared up – or five to six million, the best estimates we have of the number of Jews murdered in the camps. At a purely cognitive level any number can be understood by adding, unit by unit, to the unit that comes before. But for Kant, the ability to take in great magnitudes – to feel their sublime terror – is ultimately an aesthetic act and one which depends on gaining the right distance from the subject. His example comes from a French general’s account of a visit to the Pyramids and his anxiety about how to feel the emotional effect of their sheer magnitude. Too close and we see only stone by stone without taking in the full sweep from base to peak; too far away and we lose the sublime wonder predicated on the sense that something so massive was made discrete block by discrete block.’

The Past’s Past

Thomas Laqueur, 19 September 1996

We understand explicitly, as Nietzsche remarked in the Genealogy of Morals, what earlier generations felt in their bones: ‘Only that which does not cease to hurt remains in memory.’ Remembering and mourning demand that the past is somehow kept present; they demand recollection as the pain of immediate loss diminishes. And yet we – that is, we moderns – are also acutely aware of just how utterly past the past is, how historical it is, how even the worst horrors lose their sting. As Walt Whitman wrote of the Civil War:’

Simply Doing It

Thomas Laqueur, 22 February 1996

The Facts of Life is symptomatic of the tensions to be found in its sources: it is an elusive book, offering vistas of liberation and oppression. In all but their barest outline the facts of life are not really facts, and ‘sexual knowledge’ does not, by and large, come to be known; while ‘creation’ is so protean a notion here as to encompass everything from 18th-century advice on married love, to 19th-century soirées where women told men about their sexual lives, to 20th-century anti-venereal disease campaigns. The book’s object never really comes into focus. Knowledge, finally, of what? The repeated promises of teen and women’s magazines, month after month, to reveal ‘The Secrets of Sex in just Ten Minutes’ (this in January’s Cosmopolitan) suggest that maybe there is nothing to tell, only telling itself.

Closing Time

Thomas Laqueur, 18 August 1994

‘He had never had a moment when death was not terrible to him,’ reports Boswell on the occasion of needling his famous friend with the news that the atheist philosopher David Hume had died well and without repentance. ‘The horror of death, which I had always observed in Dr Johnson, appeared strong tonight.’ Sherwin Nuland a surgeon from Yale, speaks to the Johnson in each of us, to our hunger for knowledge of our inevitable end: ‘Everyone wants to know the details of dying … we are irresistibly attracted by the very anxieties we find most terrifying.’…


They weren’t looking

25 November 2019

Adam Tooze reviews the edited volume Emil Nolde: The Artist during the Third Reich, which adds a great deal to what we know about Nolde’s commitment to National Socialism and to the discussion of the relationship between his politics and his art (LRB, 5 December 2019). But I don’t think it is quite right to say that the basic facts of the case awaited ‘exposure’ in 2003 when...


8 July 2010

Dominic Al-Badri is right that the Japanese have a word, torauma, for ‘trauma’ in the sense that it is used in the book I reviewed (Letters, 5 August). My point in opening my essay with a discussion of the formal term gaishou – made up of the Chinese characters for ‘outside or external’ and ‘wound’ – was to highlight the historical shift in meaning from...

Casus Belli

18 December 2008

Clifton Hawkins argues that I am wrong in claiming that President Polk saw in ‘the disputed lands of Texas’ a casus belli for the Mexican-American War and that slavery was a central issue in the conflict (Letters, 29 January). To the contrary, he says: Texas was already in the Union as a slave state before the war began; the cause of the war was expansionism; and I was too quick to dismiss...

Anything but Shy

7 June 2007

Thomas Laqueur writes: I’d like to be clear here. I was not passing judgment on the life or the honour-worthiness of Fritz Stern in my essay. I was not reviewing his CV; I was reviewing his book. Of course, when that book is a memoir, the lived and the literary blur, but I tried very hard to maintain the distinction. I speak of ‘Stern’s exemplary life of liberal civic involvement’,...

Hungary, 1956

6 April 2006

Peter Fryer argues on the authority of the journalist Endre Marton, who in turn got the information from unnamed sources, that far from having Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian revolutionary government, murdered as I claimed, Janós Kádár, his successor, was ‘desperate … when Nagy was abducted and when he was executed eighteen months later’ (Letters, 11 May)....

The Old Country

4 June 1998

I certainly did not mean my review of Eva Hoffman’s Shtetl to return us, as she says, to ‘square one’ (Letters, 30 July). I do not believe, as she thinks I do, that ‘anti-semitism is the underlying, essential – finally the only significant – feature defining Polish-Jewish relations.’ I explicitly say that I thought her book put the lie to that intrinsically...

One Sex or Two

8 November 1990

I was aghast when I read Michael Mason’s diagnosis that I had succumbed, without even knowing it, to the destructive virus of New Historicism, although, as someone interested in the cultural power of medicine, I love the metaphor. I could show the ways in which your reviewer either overlooked or misinterpreted, wilfully or by inadvertence, 1. the first four chapters of my book, Making sex: Body...

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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