Last weekend Peter Scholl-Latour, German professor, journalist and expert in all things political died at the advanced age of 90. He was still very active till about a year before his death, and frequently invited by German television channels as the expert par excellence on the Middle East.
The man had such a full life that it's almost impossible to describe it. For those who have German, please consult the German wiki page (see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Scholl-Latour ). The English version (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Scholl-Latour ) is alas rather rudimentary and has left out quite a few important details.
Just a few interesting details about the man :
He was partly of Jewish descent, and therefore went to gymnasium in Freibourg, Switzerland, during the second world war. The gymnasium was run by Jesuits, and he said that their teaching helped him thinking logically and always willing to consider both sides of an argument.
After the second world war, he fought in the Indochina war for France in a paratroopers division. There he learned to deal with all kinds of people and also got involved in the messy side of war. Later as a journalist he would always say that it was one of his talents to get equally well along with crooks and bandits as with his friends in high places. After that, he studied politics at the famous Sorbonne (he was perfectly bilingual and had both German and French citizenship) and Arabic language and history in Beirut. He spoke fluent Arabic as well, which more than once saved his life when he was captured by muslim fundamentalists : he just had to recite the first lines of the Koran in fusha (Literary Arabic) and was freed instantly, since this is proof of one's belief).
After his studies he became journalist for the German television in Paris. He had frequent love affairs with gorgeous Parisian ladies, which earned him the nickname of "Peter Scholl-l'Amour" (a detail which you will not find in the official obituaries;I was informed of it by another great admirer of his, an elder German lady). Then he became government speaker for the State of Saarland (one of the German Bundesländer), later editor of the famous periodical "Stern" and then director of the WDR (Westdeutsches Fernsehen, the German state television channel). But the life in an office did not please him, and he returned to independent journalism, travelling all over the world with his camera team (at the end of his life he said he was probably the only journalist who had travelled all the countries in the world, "except perhaps a few coral riffs in the Pacific and a few islands in the Caribic").
His first field of interest was Vietnam. When he and his team got captured by the Vietcong, he convinced them that they would film a documentary about the Vietcong, which they then did ("8 Days with the Vietcong") and was freed afterwards. Later he turned his interest to the Middle East, which he knew best. He was on the plane that took Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris to Teheran, and also later was a frequent interviewer, visitor and perhaps friend. I remember an anecdote in one of his books, when he was interviewing the ayatollah together with Oriana Fallaci, a famous Italian female journalist well known for her feminist views. During the interview she had removed her chador, and was now waiting for the ayatollah's undoubtedly angry response. But the ayatollah simply continued answering the questions, and after a while Fallaci could stand it no longer : "Well, aren't you saying anything about me removing my veil?" Upon which Ayatollah Khomeini : "My dear lady, after a certain age Islam considers the wearing of the veil not an obligation, but rather a form of politeness towards the opposite gender." Peter Scholl-Latour was also well-acquainted with Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze fraction in Lebanon, and Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, the famous nearly blind and wheel-chaired leader of Hamas, who was eventually killed by an Israeli bomb when returning from prayers.
Later his interest shifted to Africa, to China and the neighbouring countries, and to Russia.
He wrote many books, and all are well worth reading. They are very erudite, yet easy reading. In the last decade however there is a tendency to (too) much detail. As one of his critics said : "The man simply knows too much about everything." I enjoyed most the following :
Der Tod im Reisfeld (Death in the Rice-Fields), about Indochina and the war in Vietnam
Afrikanische Totenklage (African Dirge) about the problems Africa is confronted with;many countries pass the review
Das Schlachtfeld der Zunkunft (The Battlefield of the Future) about the oil-rich countries that were once part of the Soviet empire
Lügen im Heiligen Land (Lies in the Holy Country).
Of course, his best expertise was on the Middle East, and I can also recommend all his many books upon that subject. He was the first one to condemn both invasions in Iraq, warning that the destruction of the delicate balance between Sunnites and Sjiites would lead to decades of instability and civil war. It is said that chancellor Schröder took the decision not to take part in that war after consulting with Scholl-Latour (or at least PSL's opinion was important when he took that decision). The most interesting fact about Peter Scholl-Latour is the long period in which he has published his books. He was never afraid of giving his straightforward opinion, and make predictions. In most cases, one sees that he was right (For instance, he was again one of the first to warn that nobody had ever succeeded in successfully occupying Afghanistan, starting with Alexander the Great). One of his last books, from 2008, is about the West's relations with Russia, and titled "The Road to a New Cold War" in which he highlights the deteriorating relations of Russia with the West.
For those who have German, I can recommend the following excellent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that highlights the most important aspects of PSL's intriguing personality : http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/zum-tod-von-peter-scholl-latour-keinem-gefaellig-allen-ein-lehrer-13103121.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2