A Historian's Historian: An Unorthodox Traditionalist, John Lukacs Challenges Both the Right and the Left

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Historian's Historian: An Unorthodox Traditionalist, John Lukacs Challenges Both the Right and the Left


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


Visiting Kansas City, Mo., to give a lecture on World War I, John Lukacs is reading The New York Times when we meet. "It's a chore--reading the paper today," says Mr. Lukacs, putting the newspaper down. "I read it with a slightly sickly feeling in my stomach. What's in the paper has less and less to tell me that will interest me."

At age 84, Mr. Lukacs can be forgiven a certain world-weariness. The author of 25 books, the Hungarian-born historian has spent a lifetime studying the condition of the world, a condition that does not generally improve much. World War II has been a major focus for him--he's written nine or 10 books on that topic--and so is the nature of historical knowledge, another subject he's written about voluminously. "The how in history is always important," he muses. "This is what no machine can answer. In every question the how and why are combined."

The man whom David McCullough, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Truman and John Adams, once referred to as "the greatest living American historian" came to the United States in 1946. Except for occasional visiting professorships, he spent his career teaching at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic college for women. Now retired, Mr. Lukacs continues to write. In 2005, he published Democracy and Populism: Fear and Loathing, a brilliant tour de force that flits back and forth between observations on contemporary American politics and reflections on 20th-century history and such towering figures of the age as Churchill, Stalin and Hitler. In 2007, he published George Kennan: A Study of Character, a biography of the American diplomat and historian with whom Mr. Lukacs maintained a long and close friendship. He's currently at work on a book called Last Rites, about which he will disclose only the title--"It may be the only good thing about the book"--and that it may well be his last one.

Readers of Mr. Lukacs' books, many of them such as The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler and Five Days in May, 1940 absorbing narrative histories appealing to a broad audience, know that he believes the historical significance of communism has long been overrated. America's entrance into World War I in 1917 was a far more decisive event in his view than the Bolshevik Revolution that took place that same year. "Twenty-eight years after the Russian Revolution, the only country that was communist was Russia," he noted. Communist intellectuals were everywhere in the West, but their influence was very limited. They were like chicken droppings, he said; the emergence of communist regimes in the Third World owed more to anticolonialism than to the power of Marxist ideas.

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Nationalism, not communism, was the principal political force of the 20th century, he said, and with it populism, the danger of which he believes is underrated. Hitler was perhaps the most popular revolutionary leader in history, he writes in his book The Hitler of History. While the baffle between liberalism and conservatism dominated the 19th century, Hitler realized earlier than most that the chief forces in the 20th century would be nationalism and socialism and that of the two the former was stronger. Mr. Lukacs notes that it took the short-term alliance of Western liberal democracies and communist Russia to defeat the dynamism of National Socialist Germany in 1945. "Now of course we are all national socialists," he remarks, observing that nationalism as a sentiment and socialism in the form of the welfare state have become almost universal.

Mr. Lukacs came to his interest in history and wariness of mass politics partly through experience. He grew up in Budapest, the son of a doctor and a mother who was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. Despite being raised a Catholic, during World War II, he was forced to serve in a Hungarian labor battalion for converted Jews. Conscripted into the Hungarian army when Hungary was allied with Germany, he became a deserter and survived the Siege of Budapest. …

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