book cover imageRemembered
Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical

A Reader by John Lukacs (edited by Mark G. Malvasi
and Jeffrey O. Nelson).
ISI Books (Wilmington, Delaware), 922 pp., $30.00 cloth, 2005.

“By the end of the second decade of my life,” John
Lukacs informed us in his Confessions of an Original
“an impulse was beginning to form in my
mind. At some time, in some place and in some ways I would
attempt a new kind of history.” What is striking about
this particular confession is not only its ambition, but
its reference to “some” time and place. It testifies
to its author’s profound sense of history, his historical
consciousness. It should come as no surprise, then, that
Lukacs chose “Historical Consciousness” as the
title of one of his most important books, two chapters of
which the editors wisely included in this excellent reader.

Those chapters and other writings collected here present
a clear picture of Lukacs’s view of history. History
is not, he maintains, restricted to the recorded past; it
encompasses the remembered past. History is simply, or perhaps
not so simply, “the memory of mankind.” That
being the case, Lukacsadmits no distinction between a “historian” and
other human beings; we are all, by our very nature, historians.
It follows that for him there is no such thing as a non-historical
event or person. He recognizes, of course, that some possess
a greater curiosity about the past and practice a more disciplined
approach to its recapture, but he denies that there is any
fundamental difference between professional and amateur historians.
In fact, he prefers gifted amateurs—Winston Churchill
and George Kennan for example—to Ph.D.s. The former
write better, tackle larger themes, and rarely make the mistake,
encouraged by nineteenth-century German universities, of
thinking that history is a science.

Lukacs has always been particularly drawn to Alexis de Tocqueville,
one of the most brilliant of amateur historians. The chapter
entitled “Some Characteristics of Historians in Democratic
Times” in the French aristocrat’s Democracy
in America
inspired his own ruminations on the writing
of history in a democratic age. After much thought, Lukacs
concluded that historians could no longer confine their attention
to dramatic events and famous individuals. They had also
to consider ordinary people—their lives, sentiments,
inclinations, and national antipathies and affinities. In
a chapter from Historical Consciousness republished
here, Lukacs wrote that “the tendencies of certain
people toward certain national cultures are on occasion powerful
historical factors.”

For Lukacs, in fact, such tendencies are often decisive;
they certainly are in his case. He has formed the most negative
opinion possible of German culture and Germanophiles, among
whom he numbers such diverse figures as Charles A. Beard,
George Bancroft, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Pope Pius XII. In
his criticism of the latter he is unsparing; “it is
not certain,” he writes, “that a more active
policy of the Pope might not have led to the suspension of
the mass killings at least in 1944, involving the largest
number of the victims.”

Historical knowledge, Lukacs has taught, is neither objective
nor subjective; it is personal because, as Werner Heisenberg
demonstrated with respect to science, the observer and the
thing observed can never be completely separated. This truth
presented itself to Lukacs with force when he remembered
the most painful experience of his youth. Jewish on his mother’s
side, he narrowly escaped death in wartime Budapest as the
Germans, with the cooperation of too many Hungarians, delivered
over 400,000 Jews into the hands of the Auschwitz murderers.

Lukacs has shown that some Germanophiles had a weakness
for Hitler, or at least that they preferred him to Stalin.
But that was not true of all of them—in fact, George
Kennan, whom Lukacs greatly admired, was a Germanophile.
And while it may be the case, as Lukacs insists, that it
was Hitler’s anticommunism (rather than his anti-Semitism)
that lifted him to power, it does not follow that every anticommunist
is a Germanophile. Lukacs’s belief in such a necessary
identity accounts for his scathing attacks on American conservatives
(spelled, on p. 345, with a German “K”).

But it is not only Nazis and Nazi sympathizers whom Lukacs
detests; one searches his writings in vain for any favorable
reference even to Imperial Germany. In a review republished
here, he raises accusatory questions concerning those who
believe that the United States should not have entered World
War I. Had it not done so, he fears, Germany might have won. “Would
the world have been better off then? Would we? I cannot tell.” What
we can tell is that the world would have been spared the
Third Reich, the Bolshevik regime, Auschwitz, and the Gulag

The reverse side of Lukacs’s Germanophobia is his
Anglophilia, inherited from his mother and strengthened by
what sometimes borders on religious devotion to Churchill,
whose stubborn refusal to cut a deal prevented Hitler from
winning the war in 1940. Because of that courageous stand,
Lukacs credits England’s wartime leader with having
saved his life. For Anglophiles—and Francophiles—he
has nothing but praise, witness his tribute to Agnes Repplier,
the splendid essayist who was both.

Aware as he surely is of his own antipathies and affinities,
Lukacs is very good at recognizing them in others, in nations
as well as individuals. He knows, for example, that Hungarians
look down upon Slovaks but admire Poles, and that those sentiments
have influenced Hungary’s foreign and domestic policies.
He is adept at showing how an examination of individual and
national antipathies and affinities, along with other factors
such as economics, social life, and political traditions,
deepens our understanding of past events. This point distinguishes
Lukacs from mainstream historians, who deny groups are anything
but aggregates of individual opinions. That is important
because, as he rightly argues, the primary goal of history
is not irrefutable knowledge but greater understanding.

He achieved that goal in his masterly Last European
War: September 1939–December 1941
, which he
divided into two sections: “The Main Events” and “The
Main Movements.” In the first, relatively orthodox
section, he maintained that the period 1939–41 witnessed
the last European war; “after 1941 the destiny of
Europe depended on two extra-European powers, the United
States and the Soviet Union.” In section two, he
attempted to advance beyond more conventional histories
by discussing in turn “the lives of the peoples,” “the
march of the armies,” the movement of politics,” “the
relations of states,” “the sentiments of nations,” and “the
convergences of thought and belief.”

That book represented a step forward in Lukacs’s attempt
to write a new kind of history, but he remained unsatisfied. “Still,” he
wrote in 1990 about The Last European War and other
works, “I have failed in my self-designed task. I have
not been able to create that new genre, that new kind of
history.” He began to think of writing a miniature,
of somehow evoking a specific place at a specific time—“Valencia
in 1917,” “in late
August, in
transforming a fragment of time into a fragment of eternity.
He seems to have forgotten that he had already accomplished
something of the sort in Budapest 1900 (1988), a
chapter of which is included here. Fully cognizant of the
then current fascination with fin de siècle Viennese
culture, he succeeded in helping readers see, feel, and even
smell Austria-Hungary’s second city, which boasted
a finer culture. As he acknowledged, he owed some of his
success to writers of fiction, chief among whom was the Hungarian
master Gyula Krúdy.

Lukacs had always been aware of the value to historians
of novels and other fictions, but what he had achieved in
the Budapest book by a thoughtful mining of Krúdy’s
work inspired him to new creative heights. He already knew
of “novelized histories,” works in which history
is the subject, not simply the background, and in a review
of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime he wrote about
them, only to conclude that the American novelist’s
interest in history was too superficial. Nevertheless, he
expressed his hope that “others may come to create
a more perfect model of a genre that may be the genre of
the near-future, perhaps eventually dominating all forms
of narrative literature.”

Finally, in A Thread of Years (1998), Lukacs offered
a series of “vignettes,” fictional petits
that did not but could have occurred in particular
places in particular years, beginning in 1901 and ending
in 1969. In these almost perfectly achieved pieces he hoped
readers would see reflected the larger movements of history,
the most important of which, in his view, was the decline
of Western—by which he meant Anglo-French—civilization.
In the three years (1901, 1945, 1968) republished here, readers
will encounter a work of rare literary and historical distinction,
the fulfillment of the promise Lukacs made to himself long
ago. He has every right to be proud of that work, and of
the recognition that has belatedly come his way; in the latter
regard he mustbe particularly gratified by the fact that
many of his books are now available in Hungarian translation.
It is likely, however, that none of this long overdue appreciation
means as much to him as the love with which his granddaughter
prepared the bibliography of his writings that concludes
this reader.

Lee Congdon is Professor Emeritus of History at James Madison