Historian cannot be removed from his story: A look at John Lukacs

The nature of thinking is one of the core elements of this autobiographical memoir by Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs, or ‘autohistory’, as he calls it. That’s only one of the elements, but it’s a key one, as demonstrated by Lukacs putting his summarised views about history and historiography at the beginning of the book. Summarising a summary, Lukacs believes strongly in the interrelation between the historian and history, almost to the point of saying that without the historian there is no history. There is a past, and there is ‘history’ as written, understood or remembered by people. It’s not an entirely new idea, but Lukacs stresses it strongly, which perhaps explains his estrangement from orthodox or mainstream ‘academic’ historians more concerned with alleged ‘objectivity’.

Lukacs left Hungary towards the end of the Second World War. He emigrated to America in search of freedom, found it – or so it seemed – and set about the task of becoming a historian and, importantly for him, a writer in the English language. His two goals have been achieved: Lukacs has lucidly authored many books about the past, though interestingly only one major work, Budapest 1900, has so far concerned his mother country.

A low pH value

Part of Lukacs’s apparent estrangement from academia may well be due to his candid criticism of people in that set. Taking a pot shot at a typical definition of history in the Dictionary of the French Academy, which refers to “accounts of… matters worth remembering”, he pulls no punches in remarking: “What nonsense is this! Is the historian the kind of person whose training qualifies him to tell ordinary people what is worth remembering, to label or authenticate persons or events as if they were fossil fish or pieces of rock? Is there such a thing as a person and another such thing as a historical person?” Quite right! But then we ordinary people are treated to a fair amount of Lukacs’s own labelling. Thus George Orwell, we are told, is a “minor writer”, fellow historian A.J.P. Taylor’s autobiography is “dreadful”, Thomas Kuhn’s admittedly “much celebrated” The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is dismissed as “an essentially useless and worthless book”, a noted scientist is described as an “idiot savant” and even a whole period such as the 1960s is dismissed as a “sordid decade”. It’s all good knockabout stuff and enjoyable to read, even if you don’t go along with all the assertions...


Questions remain

As mentioned, this book is very much about thought and ideas. It is odd, therefore, that we are not given more insight into the author’s obviously profound Catholicism. As he tells us and emphasises, “ … people do not have ideas, they choose them”. So why has he chosen to be or remain a Catholic? Why not a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or even an atheist? We are rather left in the dark.

Like them or loathe them, the many ideas put forward by John Lukacs are certainly thought-provoking, which is presumably his intention, though there’s a hint that he may be more interested in conversion. Either way, it helps enormously that his style is clear and easy to digest, which is surely intentional. Reading John Lukacs is as comfortable as sliding into the thermal water of the Lukács Baths in Budapest. That is certainly an admirable accomplishment, though some critics might note that, as on-site notices in the baths inform you, spending too long wallowing in the hot waters may not necessarily be good for your constitution.

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