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.