book cover imageA Short History of the Twentieth Century
by John Lukacs.
Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 230 pp. $25.

This book is a gem—a highly readable and insightful analysis of what the author, John Lukacs, calls the short twentieth century, which he dates from the outbreak of World War I to the end of the Cold War in 1989. Lukacs, at age eighty-nine and the author of some twenty-five books, sums up in a little over two hundred pages what he sees as the defining moments of this most brutal of centuries.

The seventy-five years that Lukacs covers constitute the heart of the era that he has made his own area of special expertise during a long career as an academic and, more importantly, as an independent and original thinker. (A note: I was a student of Lukacs, then a colleague, and most importantly, a friend of fifty years.)

The themes of this short century: two World Wars, the growth of nationalism, the life and characters of two key figures, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, have all called forth some of Lukacs’s most distinguished writing. In books such as The Passing of the Modern Age, The Rise and Decline of Europe, The Last European War, The Duel, and The Hitler of History, among others, Lukacs developed his unique view of these themes. In a sense, A Short History of the Twentieth Century constitutes a summation of Lukacs’s thoughts on what he has called “the last European Age.”

Although following a chronological approach, the book is not a narrative history. Instead, in seventeen brief chapters Lukacs sets out what he sees as the key events and developments that shaped European history. Prime among them is the role of nationalism, which he argues reached its pinnacle in the twentieth century and which he believes remains the most powerful force in the world—more influential than capitalism, socialism, or communism. He downgrades the role of ideology as a transformative concept, repeating in the process one of his favorite aphorisms: “all the isms are now wasims.” He makes a careful, often overlooked, distinction between nationalism and patriotism. In the kind of insight sprinkled throughout the book Lukacs argues that Hitler and Stalin were nationalists; Churchill and de Gaulle patriots.

Interestingly, Lukacs argues that such bourgeois values as parliamentary government and the ideas of liberalism that underlay European culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were destroyed by World War I. In one of the many evocative insights that are found throughout the text, Lukacs notes that the war’s end brought no nostalgia for a restoration of these bourgeois values. Instead, the very principles of the Enlightenment were rejected by the various totalitarian and authoritarian movements that flourished after the war.

Some of the best chapters deal with Lukacs’s analysis of the role that individuals played in shaping the twentieth century. His portraits of Hitler and Churchill, for example, show Lukacs as his best. Hitler’s strongest motivation, he argues, was vengeance and hatred while Churchill’s was a mixture of pride and patriotism—precisely why the latter was the greater man. Lukacs quotes Hitler as early as 1921 as saying: “Hate! We are blessed with hate!” But Lukacs also believes it would be wrong to see Hitler’s coming to power based solely on hate. He regards Hitler as a genuine revolutionary, a greater one then Lenin or Trotsky, not as a right-wing reactionary as many on the left often portray him.

Hitler’s greatest mistake, Lukacs argues, was coming to believe that time was against him, that he would not live long enough to fulfill all his plans. As a result he rushed into war in September 1939 with Germany unprepared for a long and drawn-out conflict. In effect, for the second time in a generation, the Germans launched a war for the domination of Europe that would naturally have come their way had they only bided their time.

Lukacs’s fondness for Churchill, evident in many of his books, especially The Duel and Five Days in London, is also at the heart of his analysis of the key decision makers of the twentieth century. He believes Churchill was the greatest man of his age. As Lukacs notes, Churchill may not have won the Second World War but “he was the one who in 1940 did not lose it.” Churchill, Lukacs is fond of saying, understood Hitler better than Hitler understood himself. All this is connected to one of the major themes of Lukacs’s text: the key role of the individual in history. It is also one of the reasons the book is such a good read.

The best sections of the book revolve around European and American themes. Lukacs’s keen interest in American history shows up often in the text. He has his heroes. He genuinely admires Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt and has a high regard for Franklin Roosevelt as a wartime leader without being blinded to his strategic limitations, especially his tendency to believe that he could manipulate Stalin. He is less impressed by Woodrow Wilson, whom Lukacs blames for launching the concept of national self-determination, which has had dangerous consequences throughout the world. Lukacs, who was once labeled as a conservative but who himself prefers the designation “reactionary,” has little time for Ronald Reagan, whom he considers a man out of his depth as President.

The chapters on the Cold War and its evolution are excellent. This should not be surprising, since Lukacs wrote the first serious analysis of that conflict as early as 1960. A History of the Cold War remains one of the best short evaluations of that conflict a half century after it appeared.

The sections dealing with Asia and Africa do not have same vivid insights found in the European and American chapters. There are some minor mistakes. William Robertson, not Edmund Allenby, was the first Englishman to rise from private to the rank of Field Marshal; London’s population in 1920 was larger than any city in the United States; Henry Stimson was Secretary of War not Defense in 1940; the German surrender in Tunisia was May not April 1943; and surely it was Hollywood as well as New York that set the standard for women’s fashions in the 1920s.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall, Lukacs’s A Short History of the Twentieth Century is a readable guide to this most dangerous of centuries. It should appeal to the general reader as well as the scholar searching for thought-provoking insights about the major events of the twentieth century. It is, in a sense, the capstone of Lukacs’s long career as one of the most original thinkers of his age. 

JohnP. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.