The Gadfly

John Lukacs, R.I.P.
Portrait of John Adalbert Lukacs (September 2006 / Photo © Effigie / Bridgeman Images)

John Lukacs, one of this country’s greatest narrative historians, passed away on May 6 at the age of ninety-five. His longevity was matched by the breathtaking scope and scale of his body of work, which reached back as far as the Middle Ages and ranged beyond America, Europe, and the fate of the West to address universal concerns about man’s place in the cosmos. Best known for his books on twentieth-century European history, especially those covering World War II and the Cold War, he also wrote absorbing biographical sketches (e.g., on Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler) and thought-provoking studies in historiography. He once told me in an interview that his favorite work and proudest accomplishment was Historical Consciousness (1968), a pathbreaking treatise that pondered how history gets written.

So far the memorial tributes have focused, and justly so, on Lukacs’s remarkable achievements as a scholar and public intellectual. I was privileged to know him not only as a scholar but also as a teacher and mentor, and those dimensions of his life—in some respects far more important to him—warrant mention here.

He was fifty-two, and already an historian of international standing, when I met him in 1976 as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at La Salle College (now University) in Philadelphia, where he regularly taught one or two seminars in European history for thirty-five years. Although the course topic was nominally “Backgrounds to the Second World War,” everyone knew that the real topic—and priceless value—of any Lukacs class was...Lukacs. Many of the classes would turn into fifty-minute monologues, whose digressions and tangents resembled the fascinating page-long footnotes (never endnotes) that always competed with the main text for space on the pages of his narrative histories. That semester the featured text was his newly published 562-page blockbuster The Last European War: September 1939–December 1941 (1976), in which he argued that December 1941—the month Hitler declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbor—represented the end of the last war in Europe and the beginning of a “world” war encompassing the entire globe, after which Europe would become a mere pawn in the superpower rivalry between the United States and U.S.S.R. Seldom, however, did Lukacs expound on that point. Instead his book and the other assigned readings served as the “background” (or pretext) for innumerable Lukacsian anecdotes and aperçus.

 

Janos Adalbert Lukacs was born in Budapest into a well-to-do bourgeois family on January 31, 1924. His mother was Jewish, his father Catholic. After they divorced in 1932, eight-year-old Janos grew up with his mother (who had converted to Catholicism) and stepfather, and was also reared by his beloved grandparents. He had an English-language tutor during his boyhood and was sent by his Anglophile mother to a private school in England during two summers in the late 1930s. There he deepened what he called his lifelong love affair with English culture and the English language. Back home in Hungary by the time war broke out in September 1939, Lukacs—despite his devout Catholicism—was classified by the invading Nazi army as a Jew and sent to a labor camp. He would never again see a single member of his family.

Having welcomed the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, he quickly concluded that the new occupying army of the Soviets was hardly better: Hungary had exchanged one tyrant for another. A brilliant student, he moved quickly to complete his doctorate in history at the University of Budapest in 1946 and, with his command of English, ingratiated himself with American occupation officials. As it became clearer to him that Hungary was fast becoming a satellite of the U.S.S.R., he managed to arrange his emigration—and arrived on American shores in July 1946. He soon began teaching part-time at Columbia University. When a friendly colleague (the Austrian polymath Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn) decided to return to Europe in 1947, he arranged for Lukacs to replace him at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic women’s college in Philadelphia.

By mid-century, Lukacs was writing occasionally for select academic journals in modern history and Slavic studies. His turn toward literary journalism and public argument occurred in 1952. At the age of twenty-eight, he burst onto the New York intellectual scene with his regular contributions to Commonweal, publishing fourteen essays and reviews in its pages during the next two years. These included commentary on prominent thinkers (e.g., Daniel Boorstin, Lord David Cecil, and the historian Waldemar Gurian) and on his soon-to-be signature topics: containment, Communism, Cold War diplomacy, and Churchill. Lukacs’s most significant essay in the magazine, “The Totalitarian Temptation” (January 22, 1954), was widely discussed in Washington (and was reprinted in the anthology Commonweal Confronts the Century). Here Lukacs first discussed how the lure of populist rhetoric paves the way to totalitarian tyranny. The “totalitarian temptation” is nurtured by the illusion that class or ideology matters more to a populace than “nation,” he argued, a lesson he himself he had learned from bitter experience in Hungary under Nazi and Stalinist domination. Despite his commitment to social justice, that lesson inoculated him against the appeal of tyrants who presented themselves as champions of socialism, and forever marked him as a “post-ideological” thinker.

Having established himself as a national voice, Lukacs began to receive attractive offers to join Ivy League faculties in the 1960s. He did not succumb. Although he occasionally taught at prestigious institutions elsewhere (Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania), he remained at Chestnut Hill College until he retired in 1994, supplementing his income with his part-time teaching at nearby La Salle.

Conservative by temperament and radical in the true sense of the word, Lukacs was the kind of intellectual who always found himself locking horns with other intellectuals.

A scholar and intellectual of high standards and impeccable integrity, Lukacs was completely content to teach at these modest Catholic colleges. He always despised the empty plumage of academe, its titles and honors and pecking orders. He lamented that most of his colleagues had abandoned historical scholarship for what he called “historianship” (i.e., careerism). But it wasn’t just academic culture: Lukacs had a combative relationship with intellectual conventions and conformities of all sorts. Courtly though he could be with students (and with priests and nuns), he had the temperament of a rebel. His iconoclasm expressed itself variously. More than once, he wrote—sometimes within weeks—on a topic such as Communism for both National Review and the New Republic, only to fall out with their editors over some point of intellectual honor, whereupon he wiped his shoes and moved on to other publications. Lukacs welcomed allies, but he did not need them. What his admirers cherished as chutzpah, his detractors derided as hubris.

If he was impossible to classify politically, in later years he was often feted by paleo-conservatives. It was the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute that published a one-volume collection of his works in 2005, a 922-page volume titled Remembered Past. He dubbed himself a “reactionary,” partly for effect—he was a provocateur and contrarian in his self-presentation, as in everything else—but he was allergic to being pigeonholed and joined no groups. Labeling himself a reactionary was one way to avoid being yoked to those who proudly called themselves conservatives and with whom he often disagreed.

Lukacs had a loyal following, but his temerity and outsider status limited his audience. “Few intellectuals seriously cherish their own or anyone else’s critical Independence,” he once wrote. “The most important consideration for most intellectuals is the achievement of position.” Conservative by temperament and radical in the true sense of the word, Lukacs was the kind of intellectual who always found himself locking horns with other intellectuals, the “herd of independent minds,” in the acrid phrase of Harold Rosenberg. He represented an endangered species, the gadfly as man of letters. He was among the most prolific scholars of modern history, dealing with topics as diverse as World War II, atomic physics, and the epistemology of historical knowledge; the craft of historiography, the rise of American democracy, and the specter of demagogic populism. It is in fact the extraordinary range of Lukacs’s scholarship that partly accounts for why he was never properly valued by his contemporaries, and why he never acquired a collection of followers. Nonetheless, his admirers included some of the keenest and most original twentieth-century American minds—for example the historian and diplomat George Kennan, a longtime friend about whom Lukacs wrote a biographical study.

 

In his feisty autobiography Confessions of an Original Sinner (1980), Lukacs declared himself a pious Catholic believer, and it is this firm commitment to a traditional, indeed pre–Vatican II Catholicism, that prompted many observers to consider him a conservative. His bracing independence of mind, unequivocal contempt for ideological sects, and hyper-vigilant avoidance of intellectual coteries endeared him to his most loyal readers. But it certainly curtailed and complicated (and probably confused) his reputation in some quarters. For example, Lukacs never subscribed to the standard anti-Communist view of the Cold War, shared by both liberals and conservatives. He regarded Senator Joseph McCarthy as an opportunistic thug. Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles were stupid nationalists who missed an opportunity to end the Cold War after Stalin died. Even worse were Lyndon B. Johnson and the Establishment liberals who launched the Vietnam War. But Lukacs also despised the New Left and the counterculture of the 1960s, with its decadent contempt for tradition and proud ignorance of history. (He was proudly, defiantly bourgeois.)

He considered Ronald Reagan bumptious and was both amused and outraged by the neocon con-artists of the George W. Bush era. He credited Pope John Paul II—not Reagan or George H.W. Bush or Mikhail Gorbachev—with ending the Cold War. In his view, the populist enthusiasm for Reagan reached its height, or nadir, with the administration of President Donald Trump, whose vulgar populism represented for the nonagenarian Lukacs the accelerating decline of the West. In his last months, he worried that the “America First” follies of this Pied Piper of Populism were leading both America and Europe toward a nationalism reminiscent of Mussolini in Europe and Huey Long in the United States.

Lukacs’s capacity to execute the grand projects he envisioned was legendary. Self-inoculated against intellectual fashions, he was willing to take on battles for the sake of ideas he believed in. I suspect that this temperamental capacity to “go it alone” was reinforced by his wartime experience and family losses, leaving him with a belief that he could not rely on anyone or anything but himself. Having reached maturity in a war-shattered Eastern Europe, he grew a tough shell. This indomitable Old World émigré was also, from another point of view, a classic rugged individualist in the nineteenth-century American style.

At the age of ninety-three, he published We at the Center of the Universe (2017), an essay collection ranging widely from epistemological (and historiographical) reflections on “our place in the universe” to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to reconsiderations of Churchill and Stalin. Unstoppable even in the throes of the congestive heart failure that eventually killed him, he was still writing until almost the end. In 2017, in the last substantial essay he ever wrote, his literary life came full circle when the title “John Lukacs on World War II” graced the cover of Commonweal.

Although he resented those academic historians who dismissed his writings as literary oddities or too “popular” to be scholarly, Lukacs took the long view. History—not historianship—would vindicate him. But we don’t have to wait for history. It is not too soon to celebrate him for his contributions to the intellectual life of this country, and for his defense of a Christian humanism that ideologues of both the left and right did their best to bury. He will be missed.

John Rodden is the author of The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of 'St. George' Orwell and other books. He teaches at the University of Texas.

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