John Lukacs  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

John Adalbert Lukacs (Hungarian: Lukács János Albert; 31 January 1924 – 6 May 2019) was a Hungarian-born American historian who wrote more than thirty books, including Five Days in London, May 1940 and A New Republic. He was a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, from 1947 to 1994 and chaired that department from 1947 to 1974. He has served as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, Princeton University, La Salle University, Regent College in British Columbia and the University of Budapest and Hanover College. Lukacs was Roman Catholic. Lukacs described himself as a reactionary.


Being a proponent of a liberal democracy and a staunch anti-Communist, Lukacs nevertheless wrote in the early 1950s several articles in Commonweal criticizing the approach taken by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he described as a vulgar demagogue.

Lukacs sees populism as the primary threat to modern civilization. By his own description, he considers himself a reactionary. He identifies populism as the essence of both National Socialism and Communism. He denies the existence of generic fascism and claims that the differences between the political regimes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were greater than their similarities.

A major theme in Lukacs's writing is his agreement with the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville that aristocratic elites have been replaced by democratic elites, which obtain power via an appeal to the masses. In his 2002 book, At the End of an Age, Lukacs argued that the modern/bourgeois age, which began around the time of the Renaissance, is coming to an end. The rise of populism and the decline of elitism is the theme of his experimental work, A Thread of Years (1998), a series of vignettes set in each year of the 20th century from 1900 to 1998, tracing the abandonment of gentlemanly conduct and the rise of vulgarity in American culture. Lukacs defends traditional Western civilization against what he sees as the leveling and debasing effects of mass culture.

A known Anglophile, Lukacs gives the highest historical importance to Winston Churchill. He considers Churchill to be the greatest statesman of the 20th century, the savior not only of Great Britain but also of Western civilization itself. A recurring theme in his writing is the duel between Churchill and Adolf Hitler for mastery of the world. Their moral struggle, which Lukacs sees as a conflict between the archetypical reactionary and the archetypical revolutionary, is the major theme of The Last European War (1976), The Duel (1991), Five Days in London (1999) and 2008's Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, a book which features Churchill's first major speech as Prime Minister. Lukacs argues that Great Britain (and by extension the British Empire) could not defeat Germany by itself and that winning required the entry of the United States and the Soviet Union. He points out that by inspiring the British people to resist German air attacks and to "never surrender" during the Battle of Britain in 1940, Churchill laid the groundwork for the subsequent Allied victory.

Lukacs had strong isolationist beliefs and unusually for an anti-Communist émigré also had "surprisingly critical views of the Cold War from a unique conservative perspective". Lukacs claims that the Soviet Union was a feeble power on the verge of collapse and contended that the Cold War was an unnecessary waste of American treasure and life. Likewise, Lukacs has been critical of American intervention abroad and also condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In his 1997 book, George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944-1946, a collection of letters between Lukacs and his close friend, George F. Kennan, exchanged in 1994–1995, Lukacs and Kennan criticized the New Left claim that the Cold War was caused by the United States. However, Lukacs argued that while Joseph Stalin was largely responsible for the beginning of the Cold War, the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower missed a chance for ending the Cold War in 1953 after Stalin's death, which kept it on for many more decades.

The Hitler of History

From around 1977 onwards, Lukacs became one of the leading critics of the British author David Irving, whom Lukacs accused of engaging in unscholarly practices and having neo-Nazi sympathies. In a review of Irving's Hitler's War in 1977, Lukacs commented that as a "right-wing revisionist" who had admired some of Irving's early works, he initially had high hopes for Hitler's War, but he found the book to be "appalling". Lukacs commented that Irving had uncritically used personal remembrances by those who knew Hitler to present him in the most favorable light possible. During his review, Lukacs argued that although World War II ended with all of Eastern Europe being left under Soviet domination, a victory that left only half of Europe to Stalin was much better than a defeat that left all of Europe to Hitler.

Lukacs’s 1997 book, The Hitler of History, a prosopography of the historians who have written biographies of Hitler, is in part a critique of Irving’s work. In his turn, Irving has engaged in what many consider to be antisemitic and racist attacks against Lukacs. Because of his Jewish mother, Irving disparagingly refers to him as "a Jewish historian". In letters of 25 October and 28 October 1997, Irving threatened to sue Lukacs for libel if he published his book (The Hitler of History) without removing certain passages which were highly critical of Irving's work. The American edition of The Hitler of History was published in 1997 with the passages included, but because of Irving's legal threats no British edition of The Hitler of History was published until 2001. As a result of the threat of legal action by Irving under British libel laws, when the British edition was finally published the passages containing the criticism of Irving's historical methods were expunged by the publisher.

In The Hitler of History, inspired by the example of Pieter Geyl's book, Napoleon For and Against, Lukacs examines the state of Hitler scholarship and offers his own observations about Hitler. In Lukacs's view, Hitler was a racist, nationalist, revolutionary and populist. Lukacs criticizes Marxist and liberal historians who claim that the German working class were strongly anti-Nazi and argues that the exact opposite was the case. Each chapter of The Hitler of History is devoted to a particular topic, such as whether Hitler was a reactionary or revolutionary; a nationalist or a racist; and he examines the roots of Hitler's ideology. Lukacs denies that Hitler developed a belief in racial purity in Vienna under the Habsburg monarchy. Instead, Lukacs dates Hitler's turn to antisemitism to 1919 in Munich, in particular to the events surrounding the Bavarian Soviet Republic and its defeat by the right-wing Freikorps. Much influenced by Rainer Zitelmann's work, Lukacs describes Hitler as a self-conscious, modernizing revolutionary. Citing the critique of National Socialism developed by German conservative historians such as Hans Rothfels and Gerhard Ritter, Lukacs describes the Nazi movement as the culmination of the dark forces which lurk within modern civilization.

In Lukacs’s view, Operation Barbarossa was not inspired by anti-Communism or any long-term plan to conquer the Soviet Union as suggested by historians such as Andreas Hillgruber, who claims that Hitler had a stufenplan (stage-by-stage plan), but it was rather an ad hoc reaction forced on Hitler in 1940–1941 by Britain’s refusal to surrender. Lukacs argues that the reason Hitler gave for the invasion of Russia was the real one. He claimed that Britain would not surrender because Churchill held out the hope that the Soviet Union might enter the war on the Allied side and so Germany had to eliminate that hope. However, other historians have argued that the reason was just a pretext. For Lukacs, Operation Barbarossa was as much anti-British as it was anti-Soviet. He argues that Hitler's statement in August 1939 to the League of Nations High Commissioner for Danzig, the Swiss diplomat Carl Jacob Burckhardt ("Everything I undertake is directed against Russia"), which Hillgruber cited as evidence of Hitler's anti-Soviet intentions, was part of an effort to intimidate Britain and France into abandoning Poland. Lukacs takes issue with Hillgruber's claim that the war against Britain was of "secondary" importance to Hitler compared to the war against the Soviet Union. Lukacs has also been one of the leading critics of Viktor Suvorov, who has argued that Barbarossa was a "preventative war" forced upon Germany by Stalin, who according to Suvorov was planning to attack Germany later in the summer of 1941.

Later work

In his 2005 book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, Lukacs writes about the current state of American democracy. He warns that the populism he perceives as ascendant in the United States renders it vulnerable to demagoguery. He claims that a transformation from liberal democracy to populism can be seen in the replacement of knowledge and history with propaganda and infotainment. In the same book, Lukacs criticizes legalized abortion, pornography, cloning and sexual permissiveness as marking what he sees as the increasing decadence, depravity, corruption and amorality of modern American society.

More recently, he has written June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (2006), a study of the two leaders with a focus on the events leading up to Operation Barbarossa. In 2007, Lukacs published George Kennan: A Study of Character, a biography of his good friend George F. Kennan, based on privileged access to Kennan's private papers. His book Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat (2008) is a continuation of a series of books Lukacs has written on what he regards as the greatness of Churchill. Last Rites (2009) continues the "auto-history" he published in Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990). His latest work, The Future of History, was released on 26 April 2011.

In A Short History of the Twentieth Century (2013), Lukacs attempts to challenge the idea (common to both professional historians and international relations experts) that the Cold War presented a bipolar system or a major strategic rivalry or conflict, instead arguing that the 20th century was one of American dominance. Citing the biographical example of Hitler as well as left- and right-wing populism in the United States, Lukacs also argues in the book that populism was the most destructive force of the 20th century and attempts to disentangle the concept of populism from its frequent (though, Lukacs argues, inaccurate) conflation with the inherent stances of left-wing politics.

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