Larry DeWitt: Review of John Lukacs’s Last Rites (Yale University Press, 2009).
[Mr. DeWitt is a public historian and a doctoral student in public policy history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the principal editor of Social Security: A Documentary History (Washington, D. C., Congressional Quarterly Press, 2008). ]
At the End of an Age
The father of French Romanticism, François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand, led a fractured life, defined by the great divide of the French Revolution. Born in pre-Revolutionary France, Chateaubriand was barely 21 when the Revolution cleaved his world in two. A lapsed Catholic, Chateaubriand recovered his faith in the afterlife once the Revolution had shattered his faith in this one. As a Catholic, Chateaubriand accepted that universal time was divided by the event of Christ’s birth, but for him, his personal sense of time was forever separated into two parts by the unbridgeable gulf of the Revolution.
“Man does not have a single, consistent life,” he wrote. “He has several laid end to end, and that is his misfortune.” “Friends leave us, others take their place, there is always a time when we possessed nothing of what we now possess, and a time when we have nothing of what we once had.” 1 Melancholy by nature and fragmented by experience, Chateaubriand lamented the loss of history produced by the rupture of the Revolution. It was not so much that like Edmund Burke he was affronted by a loss of conservative principles, as it was that he was made disconsolate by the loss of continuity with the past—by a breach in the flow of history. He wrote often, for example, of the vast crime committed by the revolutionaries when they plundered the abbey of Saint-Denis and smashed to bits the hallowed bones of the French kings whose remains were interred there. This visible breaking with the past was, for Chateaubriand, a breaking of the past, in some way that left him without guideposts to his life. All of this caused him to fall into a mood of nostalgic longing for an imagined world before the Revolution. “The old men of former times,” he lamented, “were less unhappy and less isolated than those of today: if, by lingering on earth, they had lost their friends, little else had changed around them; they were strangers to youth, but not to society. Nowadays, a straggler in this life has witnessed the death, not only of men, but also of ideas: principles, customs, tastes, pleasures, sorrows, opinions, none of them resembles what he used to know. He belongs to a different race from the human species among which he ends his days.” 2
For John Lukacs, the shattering of the bones of his ancestors occurred, ironically, with the smashing of the Berlin Wall, and with the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union. By our enemies we also define ourselves, and when they disappear from the scene it can be as disconcerting as when our friends pass away. Thus, this émigré to America who fled the communist takeover of his native Hungary found himself lamenting communism’s passing. This was, Lukacs says, “the end of an age”—the age being the one in which Lukacs lived his life, the twentieth century. Indeed, he defines the era of the twentieth century quite precisely, as only a professional historian is tempted to do, as the period 1914-1989. This was the “sweet-spot” of Lukacs's own life; but more than that, everything in his life experience, everything which defined his world—from the traumas of World War II, to the Soviet invasion of his native Hungary, to the long march of the Cold War—seemed to come undone after the collapse of Soviet communism. In the process, all the ways in which Lukacs defined himself by reference to his world seemed to come unraveled at their ends. He could well have written “He belongs to a different race from the human species among which he ends his days,” as that is very much the theme of these disconsolate “Last Rites.”
A Leaking Ship
“Old age is a shipwreck,” observed Charles DeGaulle, repeating a line from Chateaubriand, and aiming it at 84 year-old Marshal Pétain, long before DeGaulle’s own timbers had begun to creak. For DeGaulle this was not yet a lived-truth, it was a dart aimed at a foe. For Lukacs, it expresses something more personal. He is very much consumed by the social and cultural indignities of old age, and he likens himself to a ship with a leak, which is slowly sinking beneath the waves. That metaphor pretty much captures the tone of his book. This memoir is the depleted reflections of a man who has outlived his time.
Lukacs's latest is an autobiography (he calls it an “autohistory”)—his second. At age 65 he gave the world a very different autobiography, and now at 85 he is giving us his second thoughts. The difference between the two works is marked, and is explained by Lukacs in stark but elegant terms: “Twenty years ago I was still traveling ‘dans les faubourge de la viellesse,’ ambling in the suburbs of old age. The gates and walls of that stony city I saw at a distance. No longer.” 3 At age 65, he says, he thought the life was what was important and the ideas it led to came second in the sequence. In the new book, the order is reversed: Lukacs is now passionately obsessed with his big ideas, and they definitely come first—virtually to the exclusion of the life.
A devout Catholic, Lukacs was forced to retire from his university teaching position at a small Catholic university in Pennsylvania when he turned 70. But he always was, he says, an outsider in the “guild” of scholarly history. Twice he was let go unceremoniously: once from his small college and once again from a position at the University of Pennsylvania. “Through fifty years of college teaching and writing, often I have run into ignorance, disdain, exclusion, professional snobbery, gray ice on other professors’ faces!”4
Lukacs is bitter about all this—as about so many other things that he has lost in the course of his too-long life. My uncle Vance is a prince of a fellow, and at age 91 he lamented to me the other day that he had outlived his money. Lukacs has outlived his time. Both suffer from lives that are in some sense too long.
Of course, when Lukacs mentions these various disappointments, he immediately says he considers them of no importance, thus frosting his disappointment with a feigned indifference. This technique might work once or twice, but the book is littered with things of no importance, which he nevertheless feels compelled to make mention of.
Thanks to the shortsightedness of his academic employers, Lukacs's productivity really took off after he was sent out to pasture. Half of his 30 books have been written since his forced retirement. These works include masterful accounts of the Second World War and the Cold War; two books on Winston Churchill, and a biography of his long-time friend, George Kennan. Lukacs was also one of the first historians to take on David Irving and his revisionist apologetics for Hitler and the Nazi regime. His writings range from straightforward histories and biographies, to political and philosophical treatises. His 2005 book, Democracy and Populism, argued that modern America is on the verge of debasing its democracy through a ignorant populism, which he sees as essentially Fascist in nature. His last strictly historical work was a slim little volume on a single speech by Churchill. All of this impressive work justifies a final volume of more personal reflections, I suppose. But this volume is mostly a disappointment after what has gone before.
History Below the Line
One annoying stylistic habit in this book is that a large part of it appears “below the line,” that is, in a series of footnotes in the form of excerpts from his diaries. Sometimes a contemporaneous diary entry enlivens a remembered event; but too often it is a way to claim something he does not want to defend in the body of the text. Here, for example, is the entry for September 10, 2005:
The dark, very dark corners of American history. CIA operations now are more secret and horrid doings than “intelligence.” Probably in 1963, too, when it seemed to me that this frenetic fool Oswald had been taken up by the CIA a few months before he shot Kennedy. With that shooting the CIA had nothing to do; but they were frightened by the prospect that Oswald, when arrested and interrogated, would spit out his once CIA connection. Hence getting that gangster Ruby to shoot him the next day; and—perhaps—their getting rid of Ruby a year later. Am not sure about this but think it quite plausible.5
Other instances are less monumental, but are troublesome as well. On page 58 we find this, undefended and un-argued, proposition: “The real and only ‘modern’ decade was the 1920s, not the 1960s. The latter was but the last, exaggerated, and often superficial application of the former.” This sort of thing might serve suitably as a note to himself, for later development. But including it in a finished book turns it into a reckless assertion.
Sometimes this below the line dialog with himself is a way to make a bitter comment seem not so bitter (after all, it is only in a mere footnote); other times, the diary entries are simply embarrassing. An editor with some starch in their red pen probably should have dissuaded him from this one:
People ask me how much fun it is to write. No, I say: the fun is not writing, that is work, the fun (if it is fun at all) is having written. It occurs to me that this is the v. opposite of sex. (A good aphorism perhaps, but not really true in every instance, esp. not for women.) The “finish” in lovemaking means much to me, as in the case of fine wine.6
Outliving One’s Era
One consequence of outliving one’s time is that Lukacs has outlived two American wives, and is on his third. Thus he gives us an entire chapter devoted to recounting the virtues of his three wives. Some parts of this chapter are touching, some parts insightful, and some parts, embarrassing. What, for example, is one to make of this: “marriages between European men and American women tend to turn out better than those between American men and European women.” Apparently his own experience with a sample size of three validates such a wild claim. Again, a stern editor is conspicuously absent.
Large parts of this little book are littered with petty complaints, the complaints of an old person—who more typically feels compelled to mention each of their physical maladies—but for Lukacs, his maladies are social and cultural, but the effect is much the same. Lukacs regrets many aspects of modernity. The list is long. Among those features of the current age of which he disapproves: mechanization (à la C.P. Snow); genetic engineering; the blurring of gender distinctions; slang such as “body language” (“a foul-smelling phrase, is it not?”); the 1960s; the fact that his rural surroundings have been encroached on by suburban sprawl (he can now see the houses of people he does not know within eyeshot of his own); the use of sloppy language (“This is the same man who speaks of his grandchildren as ‘grandkids.’ No gentleman would have ever used such a word.”); the decline in decorum; the Information Revolution; legal abortion; legal pornography; sexual permissiveness; the decline in nobility of the profession of female homemaker, etc. On the whole, Lukacs sees modern American culture as decadent, depraved, corrupt and amoral.
This is the list of a cranky old man, obsessed with the both the grand and mundane changes in his world, changes he no longer has the flexibility to accept without regret. That such trifles cross the mind of one of the greatest historians of his generation, is a sad commentary on life in its winter term, and on the great leaking ship himself.
Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams—a work which Lukacs's Last Rites is very much in the genre of— was saved from being a mere catalog of his life’s disappointments because it was leavened with his wicked sense of humor. It was Adams’s wit, and his ability to periodically rise above his own world-weariness, which make the Education an enduring masterpiece. There is not a speck of humor in Lukacs's Last Rites—his sense of humor seems to have deserted him, along with the world he knew—and his disappointments are all he really wants to write about now.
More is the pity as Lukacs has been a gifted writer, especially in his essays, with quite a wicked sense of humor of his own. There are still flashes of that literary flair in this little book of regrets, but not nearly enough. A reader as yet unacquainted with Lukacs's literary charms would do better to rummage through his scholarly sampler (Remembered Past), 7 as in that large collection of short essays and excerpts from his longer books one will encounter the mature, but not yet life-weary, master writer and scholar.
A Fine Fifteen Minutes
Lukacs begins the new book with a chapter entitled “A Bad Fifteen Minutes,” in which he lays out his mature philosophy of history. The title is by way of sly apology for the “heavy lifting” of doing all this theorizing and epistemology in the opening chapter of what purports, after all, to be an autobiography. Actually, the first fifteen minutes are the best thing in the book.
Lukacs sees himself as a pioneer in proposing a new historiography, one that is an alternative to the traditional historiography of the modern era, which again, he sees has having ended; and one that also rejects most of what we have come to think of as postmodern historiography. As I have argued in various essays here on the HNN, in my view postmodern historiography has as its defining characteristic a denigration of the ideals of both truth and objectivity in historical scholarship. Lukacs grabs only half the nettle here: he thinks that objectivity is impossible but truth is not.
Lukacs's historiography is what I call Postmodern Humanism. Postmodern Humanism wants to return human beings to the center of a human-centric universe. Human beings as merely another creature in a complex, immense, puzzling universe, is an “old-fashioned” Enlightenment idea that Lukacs thinks we should leave behind.
For Lukacs, truth is in some vague way the product of the refinement of human understanding. The slogan that recurs again and again in his writing is that historical knowing is not about an increase in the quantity of our knowledge about the past but rather an increase in its quality. As a slogan, this seems inoffensive; but Lukacs seems to think it deeply epistemologically instructive in some way that it unfortunately is not.
For Lukacs, truth is a matter of inner knowing, not externalized social consensus, nor external features of the objective world in the way that the truths of the natural sciences are. If I may put it rather paradoxically: for Lukacs, truth is internal but objective. In my view, the truths of interest to us—even the truths of history—are external and objective. Most postmodernists want the “truths” of history to be external and subjective. And a few historians —like Collingwood —have wanted the truths of history to be both internal and subjective. So Lukacs is sort of filling out the logical dance-card for us.As an historian, Lukacs is accomplished, and as an essayist he is one of the finest our profession has to offer —any randomly selected essay of his easily being worth a dozen monographs of the usual academic product. There is much to admire about his scholarship: from his vast erudition, to his wry observations, to his wonderfully tart writing style, so full of insight, and emitting not just a little whiff of pompous condescension. He has a disdain for the limp prose of the standard academic monograph, and the willingness to call a fool a fool.
I have a great deal of admiration for Lukacs's writing in this area, even though I think he is almost completely wrong in his epistemology. I admire the effort, the reach, the ambition, to address these grand issues in the foundations of the discipline. The effort—quite apart from the results—is what marks a great historian.
The thing that is grand about Lukacs's historiography is that it is so grand—he does not piddle in the puddles of the topic. His mind moves in quite oceanic scales of thought. Alas, this makes his errors as well as his insights of rather colossal scale as well. Two errors in particular cry out for some debunking.
An Infuriating Bit of Postmodern Nonsense
In this new memoir Lukacs has a whole section on his philosophy of science, and its imagined implications for historical scholarship. Lukacs is quite taken by the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics, thinking it deeply parallel to the uncertainty in historical research. This is a theme he has been pounding hard in recent years. He devotes considerable space in his At the End of an Age8 to this claim that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle from quantum physics implies many strange and wondrous things for historians.
In a truly wacky addendum to Chapter 4 of End of an Age Lukacs provides a summary chart in which he lists nine major “correspondences” between the uncertainties of modern physics and the uncertainties of historians’ understanding of Hitler’s role in history. For example, he tells us that in physics the idea that it is “Impossible to determine the position and the speed of the particle in the same instant” corresponds to the idea that “We will never know exactly why Hitler became the ruler of Germany.” If that is a self-evident correspondence for you, how about this one: “Electoral or opinion-statistics are not adequate for the understanding of Hitler’s impact on Germany and its people,” is vouchsafed by its obvious correspondence to the nature of quantum physics since “In subatomic situations P x Q is not always equivalent to Q x P.”
This is cartoon philosophy of science. But Lukacs really means it. He really thinks there is some deeply insightful parallel between the position and momentum of an elementary particle in quantum mechanics and his own theories about Adolph Hitler.
This would not matter so much if Lukacs were alone in this delusion. Over the years the results of quantum mechanics have become popularized and adopted in many venues, including by historians. The general idea being that science is now understood to have proven that, at bottom, the universe is unknowable and that the very act of trying to discern the condition of the world distorts and “biases” that world. This is a pleasing viewpoint for sundry postmodernists as it assists them in their agenda of undermining our confidence in objective knowledge. Lukacs—although no postmodernist—uses this same sloppy idea about quantum physics to overturn the historiography (and indeed, the science) of the Enlightenment.
Five centuries ago, the Copernican/Keplarian/Galilean/Cartesian/Newtonian discovery . . . removed us and the earth from the center of the universe. . . . this movement led to our and to our earth having become less than a speck of dust at the rim of an enormous dustbins of a universe. . . But the physicists’ (perhaps especially Niels Bohr’s) recognition that the human observer cannot be separated from things he observes . . . reverses this. We and the earth on and in which we live, are back at the center of the universe—a universe which is—unavoidably—an anthropocentric and geocentric one.9
In other words, because one interpretation of the findings of quantum physics is that the observer influences the physics, this allows us to conclude that this is true in the macro domain too and in the domain of history as well! This is such a widespread folly among contemporary intellectuals that perhaps a brief refresher is in order. 10
The most fundamental result in quantum physics is the discovery that we cannot simultaneously predict both the position and the momentum of a quantum particle. As a result of this finding, some philosophically inclined physicists developed a view known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. The Copenhagen Interpretation got its name from a debate that took place in Copenhagen between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and the Viennese physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Both Bohr and Schrödinger had made fundamental contributions to quantum physics and Bohr thought that certain philosophical conclusions suggested themselves—basically the idea that the universe is at bottom an uncertain realm. This is where the popular conception of the Uncertainty Principle gets its origin. Schrödinger vigorously resisted this idea, as did Einstein. Einstein entered into a debate with Bohr, starting at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 and lasting until Einstein’s death in 1955. (Although I think even Bohr would blush to see the use to which his ideas have been put by scholars like Lukacs.)
The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics is not, however, coextensive with the physics—it is a philosophical gloss on the subject. And it is that gloss that has now filtered its way into popular ideas of science and historiography. While the science is obligatory, the philosophical gloss is not.
In fact, if our concern is to be in step with contemporary science, we should appreciate what that science in fact tells us. Contemporary physics is structured as a collection of discrete theories of two main domains (that of gravity and that of the physics of the quantum domain) each with its own explanatory schema and set of laws. There is no accepted Unified Field Theory in physics and the theoretical constructs of quantum physics in fact have no current application in the macro domain. That is the state of the science. So if our real concern is to have a philosophy that mirrors our science, then we should conclude that the problems of quantum physics tell us next to nothing about the physics problems of the macro domain, and hence less than nothing about the problems that face historians.
Even if it is true that in the domain of the very small there are important facts we cannot discover,it does not follow that these same lacunae exist at the macro level. The quantum limitations simply do not obtain in the macro world inhabited by historians. It is witless to assume that what is the case at the quantum level is also the case at the macro level. It is just plain silly to construct one’s philosophy of such macro-level phenomena as the nature of history based on the physics of the infinitesimal fragments of matter that are contained within the sub-microscopic interior of the atom.
The Center of THE Universe?
God how religion makes fools of wise men! John Lukacs is besotted with religion. This leads him into some very brackish shallows. Here is perhaps the most extravagant claim in his entire historiography:
We must recognize, we must understand, that we are at the center of the universe. Contrary to all accepted ideas we must now; and the end of an age, at the beginning of a new one, understand and recognize that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. 11
Notice how Lukacs elides the profound distinction between THE universe and OUR universe. For most of us, these are not the same claim. The second might be a relatively modest form of subjectivism, while the first is an audacious claim to a self-importance that should boggle the mind. Lukacs is not being coy. He flips back and forth between the two usages because he is oblivious to the difference. He really believes that human beings are in fact not only the center of the universe, but that we are all there is in the universe, and so THE universe and OUR universe come to the same thing! He is driven to this, of course, by his religious beliefs:
Does it not . . . behoove Christian believers to think that the coming of Christ to this earth may have been the central event of the universe: that the most consequential event in the entire universe has occurred here, on this earth two thousand years ago?12
John Lukacs believes that the entire manifest universe is empty of intelligent life (and perhaps all life) save for planet Earth, as proven by the fact that Jesus of Nazareth once lived here. “For those readers who believe in God: the world, [here he means what the rest of us mean by the “universe”] and this earth were created by Him for the existence and consciousness of human beings.”13 No doubt many a Christian believes precisely this—even many a historian perhaps—but we are expected to compartmentalize our theology and our physics somewhat, so as not to embrace a medieval conception of the universe. But for Lukacs the mere possibility of life on other planets threatens his sense of his world—and the central importance he wants human beings to have—so profoundly that he is forced to scoff at the very idea and to mock and insult anyone who thinks otherwise.14
This belief in “cosmic exceptionalism” is then another argument for Lukacs's attack on the Enlightenment and a brief for his vaguely explained “personal and participant” epistemology. After all, if the whole universe was created by God just for human beings to perceive and think about, then our perceptions and ideas are obviously the most important thing in the universe. Thus the old-fashioned Enlightenment idea (the idea from the age that has just ended) that there is an external universe and that we are merely one figment of that universe, can be left behind as we enter the New Age (a new age, I might note, that seems oddly reminiscent of the pre-Enlightenment world).
For a modern-day believer, this idea that we are alone in the universe presents certain problems one would have to think. Consider: why would any sane God create all the vastness of this universe and only populate one solitary planet with life? We on planet Earth have no particular need for a universe of trillions upon trillions of planets that we or our descendents will never visit in the entire future history of this universe. What is the point of all of this cosmic debris if human beings are indeed the sole mindful product of God’s creation? Can we really think God is that nuts? Or is it, perhaps, that we are that vain?
In any event, Lukacs's theological dogmas are part of a two-pronged attack on Enlightenment historiography. His other entry-gate is a critique of Descartes. In Lukacs's view, Descartes’ project was that of establishing a hardened distinction between the objective and the subjective. Lukacs wants to obliterate this distinction. Thus Descartes comes under attack as well.15
If Lukacs understands Descartes, he manages to misrepresent him. Descartes was obsessed with the silly project of trying to prove his own existence—“I think therefore I am.” But his aim was not to fortify the distinction between the objective and the subjective; rather, his aim was to prove the existence of God. To do this, Descartes—as so many other philosophers before and since—thought he had to start from a position of certainty, and with this little rag of a thought about thinking, he thought he had found it. So his aim was to go from the certainty of his own existence to the derived certainty of God’s existence.
But Descartes proved not much at all, since thinking presupposes being, which is what the argument is intended to prove. “I am, therefore I think. Thinking, I think that I am; therefore I am.” This little bit of logical do-si-do does not prove much of anything, although it does point out that thinking presupposes being. But from that thin reed, neither Descartes nor anyone else can prove the existence of God.
But a more damaging point lies nearer to hand. It perhaps owes its inspiration to Descartes, but its effect is to show the magnitude of Lukacs's folly of doing historiography by theological fiat.
If we start out with zero knowledge of the universe (that is, with something like a complete Cartesian skepticism) then we would have to say, in all honesty, that the existence of living creatures—creatures capable of deluding themselves with religion and confusing themselves with philosophy—is profoundly implausible. Knowing nothing of planet Earth, looking at the observable universe we would have to deny the existence of any such creatures. And yet, here we are. Our existence is profoundly implausible, but it seems that sometimes the implausible is the case. Given, then, that we exist—despite the wild implausibility of this fact—it becomes a virtual certainty that the universe is populated with others with similar traits, i.e., with what we please ourselves to call “intelligent life.” This is so, due to the large numbers involved. In a universe of trillions upon trillions of planets, even the implausible becomes likely, and the likely is wont to be repeated.
So the existence of us, proves the existence of others. Simply as a matter of probabilities, it is close to certain that the universe is teaming with other “intelligent” beings—beings worthy of notice by even an ungenerous God. This being so, it becomes an exercise in the most outrageous arrogance to suppose that among all those planets, with all those lifeforms, that this desolate outpost in the backwaters of the Milky Way galaxy, is the center of THE universe!
The reason all of this matters, again, is because of the mischief that Lukacs wants to make with his theologically driven epistemology. Hence, again, the need for a quick refresher.
The core question for epistemology is not “what is the nature of knowledge?” Nor is it any variation on the question of “how do we know what is true?” Nor, even less, is it the question “what can we be certain about?” The core question for epistemology has always been: “How do we know when we have gotten it wrong?” Theses which cannot by their nature describe a set of potential falsifying evidence—here on this Earth, in this realm of discourse—are not knowledge; they are dogma, or ideology, or mere belief, but they are not knowledge.
So the critical question for Lukacs is: “How would he ever discover that he was wrong in his idea that Jesus of Nazareth’s appearance on the Earth is the most important event in the history of the universe?” Given that he has no answer for this core question, his epistemology, his musings on the nature of historical knowledge, are not knowledge at all, but dogma dressed up with historical allusions.
Here is the point: historians ought to understand their role as being in some ways similar to that of the astronomer, or the scientist or the knowledge worker in any other field. That is, the astronomer’s job is to look out into the cosmos —the real, substantial, objective, enduring reality of the cosmos —and describe for us what they find there. It is not to create myths or narratives that please the astronomer and his/her peers. Nor is it to “understand” the universe in Lukacs's sense of constructing a subjective model of the universe which we find to be intellectually satisfying. The astronomer’s job is to capture an important aspect of the objective truth about the reality in which we find ourselves.
The job of the historian is very similar. Our task is to look back into the past —into the realm of the real, substantial, objective, enduring reality of people acting in time and circumstance in conditions of uncertainty —and describe what we find there. It is not to create myths or pleasing narratives. Nor is it to advance a subjective understanding. Our job is to capture an important aspect of the objective truth about the reality in which we find ourselves —in our case the reality of the events of the past. To strive for less than this is an error on the order of mistaking our little invisible dot in space for the center of the universe.
Away and Farewell
At the end of these “Last Rites,” Lukacs seems to suggest that this will be his last book—although he tells us that he continues to write. He quotes Thackeray to explain: “As there are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.”16 Those of us who admire and enjoy the vast corpus of work from this vast figure of the 20th century, can only hope that the moving pen records those thousand thoughts and that Lukacs eventually shares some of them with us.
Although I think that Lukacs's philosophy of history is a shambles, and this last book a sad and disappointing denouement to an impressive career, all of that has to be placed in the context of his larger body of work. John Lukacs is, quite simply, one of the giants of the history profession of the twentieth century. He has written serious and significant works on Hitler, WWII, Churchill, democracy, etc. Lukacs has produced massive and important works of historical scholarship. He has also produced slim little volumes on very small topics (his book, Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat: The Dire Warning, is an examination of a single speech by Winston Churchill—his first as Prime Minister). He has moved the body of scholarship in several areas. His biography of George Kennan is a singular contribution. He major works on Hitler have helped move that scholarship more out of the realm of the fantastic (Hitler as sui generis monster) to the realm of ordinary scholarship (Hitler as a human actor in history’s drama). He has suggested novel and interesting theses: for example in his Five Days in London: May 1940 he argues that Churchill was wrong to consider 1942 “the hinge of fate,” the year in which the Nazis’ defeat became certain. Rather, Lukacs says that five days in May of 1940—near the beginning of Churchill’s tenure—were the turning point in the war because it was in these five days that Churchill convinced a reluctant Britain that they should fight the Nazis and “never surrender.” The war was not won in 1940, he says, but these five days prevented it from being lost. In his work, Lukacs can often be found challenging a prevailing consensus—in powerful and insightful ways. In a body of work that includes 30 books and unaccountably many articles and essays, Lukacs has given us deep and thoughtful sketches of vast parts of the twentieth century. He is—and will remain I suspect—one of the principal historians of that century.
It is the scope of a scholar’s ambitions—the span of his attempted reach—that defines his greatness. Lukacs is a scholar with a vast reach. That his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, is, after all, the story of us all.
This last book is really for the choir, who need no preaching to regarding Lukacs's virtues. If you are a fan of Lukacs and his work (as I am) then this will feed the hunger a little bit, but with some bitter aftertastes as part of the bargain. If you are not already among the converted, you would do better to start elsewhere in his opus.
But again, I assert my firm conviction that John Lukacs is a great historian. He ranks among the best of his era—all things considered. The proper historical comparison is hard to come to hand. As I look up from my desk, I see the antique engraved portraits of my gallery of great historians of the 18th and 19th centuries: Gibbon; Carlyle; Ranke; Acton; Macaulay; Bancroft. I am not certain who Lukacs compares to, but I am fairly certain that when I put up the portraits of the great historians of the 20th century, John Lukacs will be among them.
1 Quoted in Peter Fritzsche, “Specters of History: On Nostalgia, Exile, and Memory,” American Historical Review, December 2001: 1587.
2 Ibid, 1588.
3 Pg. 181.
4 Pg. 77.
5 Pg. 68-69.
6 Pg. 76.
7 John Lukacs, Remembered Past: on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge; A Reader, (Wilmington, Delaware, ISI Books, 2005).
8 John Lukacs, At the End of an Age, (Yale University Press, 2002).
9 Pg. 36.
10 The postmodernist historian, Keith Jenkins, for one, repeats this canard in several of his books.
11 Pg. 33-34.
12 Pg. 38-39
13 Footnote, pg. 35.
14 In another of his below-the-line commentaries, Lukacs insults the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg for opining that the universe is so vast that it is likely there is intelligent life elsewhere. (Pg. 30)
15 Cf., for example, his recent essay, “Putting Man Before Descartes,” The American Public Scholar, Winter 2009: 18-29. This is a more readable (because better edited) version of his “Bad Fifteen Minutes.”
16 Pg. 182
comments powered by Disqus
- New Hampshire professors at odds with library over discarded books
- Troubled history fuels Japan-China tension
- Independent Scotland's last gasp forgotten in Panama jungle
- LBJ was the ‘most-threatened president in American history’
- New exhibit at the World War I Museum ... Over by Christmas: August-December 1914
- Ken Burns on Colbert to promote his new documentary, "The Address"
- UC Santa Barbara History Department featuring a series on the Great Society at 50
- Historians are trying to recover censored texts from World War I poets
- Diane Ravitch blasts the NYT for failing to understand the controversy over Common Core
- Mormon history professors debate atheists in bid to foster greater understanding