A Lukacs Symposium

There are relationships, Michael Oakeshott once wrote, “in which no result is sought and which are engaged in for their own sake and enjoyed for what they are and not for what they provide. This is so of friendship.” John Lukacs could not have known, when he first wrote to George Kennan in 1952, that he was initiating a correspondence, and a friendship, that would last for more than a half-century. Though both men prized formality, their letters became increasingly cordial as the years passed. In a letter to Lukacs of April 10, 1984, Kennan, for the first time, began with the salutation “Dear John” and referred to the younger man as “my dear friend.” As Lukacs has acknowledged, he and Kennan were formed by very different backgrounds, but each recognized in the other, formal profession aside, a fellow writer.

A college teacher prior to retirement, Lukacs always made it clear that he cared little about an academic career; “I wanted to be a writer.” From the day in 1946 that he arrived in the United States from Hungary, he wrote in English, a language that his mother taught him to love and that he has mastered. He is wont to say that he is primarily a writer of books—and he has written some thirty of them—but his bibliography also lists hundreds of articles, essays, and reviews. Well into his eighties he remains remarkably prolific. Most students of Kennan’s life have focused upon his years in the foreign service, but Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, once told him, wisely, that he had chosen the wrong career: “You are a writer,” she insisted.

Much of Kennan’s writing was historical in character, though he was first and always an “amateur.” To Lukacs, this is not a criticism. Many of the finest historians, he thinks, were amateurs who possessed a profound historical sense and wrote well; he often cites Kennan and Churchill in that regard. He himself is something of an amateur historian. To be sure, he received formal training in history and enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the classroom, but he has always insisted that the greatest historians are not those who mine new information but those who view the past from new and revelatory angles. His own reputation rests upon his unique angle of vision, not his archival research.

“One of the principal themes of our [Kennan’s and his] correspondence,” Lukacs has written, was “the relationship of history . . . to literature.” In a letter of August 30, 1979, Kennan wrote to Lukacs in response to the latter’s account of attending Churchill’s funeral. “Not only [is it] impregnated with that profound sense of history that is uniquely your own but [it reflects] so sensitive and graceful a descriptive power that I wonder you have never applied it to fiction.” Lukacs has admitted that he lacks the ability to construct plots, but he reports that by the end of the second decade of his life, “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.” He hoped to bring history and literature into some kind of symbiosis.

Not surprisingly, then, Lukacs has taken a serious interest in the novelized histories of writers such as John Dos Passos, Irwin Shaw, Gore Vidal, E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The difficulty with their efforts, he eventually concluded, was that they placed their own words in the mouths of historical figures and thus mixed history and fiction in an obfuscating manner. His own efforts to create a new genre culminated with the publication of A Thread of Years (1998), in which he offered a series of “vignettes,” fictional petits faits that did not but could have occurred in particular places in particular years, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1969. This was one of Lukacs’s finest achievements, though Kennan was no doubt right to criticize the manuscript for being difficult to follow and likely to be over the heads of most readers.

But Kennan harbored a more serious reservation. He recognized that both he and Lukacs reflected deeply upon the relationship between history and literature, but also that their emphases were different. Lukacs was interested in literature as a form of history. The best novels—among others he cited Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—constituted rich sources for historians. Kennan was interested in history as a form of literature. “Of those of us who try to write history as literature,” he once confessed, “there are few, I am sure, who do not sometimes peek longingly through the curtain into that more mysterious and more exciting and more dangerous world in which [creative writers] are privileged to operate.” Unlike historians, who could speak with authority only of external personalities as revealed by words and actions, creative writers could cast light on “the anarchy, the tenderness, and the brutality of the individual soul.”

The diaries that Kennan kept for much of his life are windows into his own soul, and so to a lesser extent are his two volumes of memoirs. We know that he regarded the latter as literature because of what he wrote in the 1950s: “It is an interesting reflection on the relationship of history to literature . . . that whereas biography is history, autobiography is literature.” In a letter to Kennan of April 13, 1969, Lukacs wrote: “To me, your Memoirs are your finest book.” He was right.

Kennan’s memoirs revolved around his career as a foreign service officer and, as a consequence of his experiences, he chose diplomatic history as the subject of his scholarly endeavors. He shared this interest with Lukacs, who has always insisted upon the Primat der Aussenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy. In his classic Historical Consciousness (1968), he wrote that “the foreign relations of states are still more instructive than are their domestic politics. There is no general history without them.” It is not clear that Kennan would have agreed. True, he objected bitterly to those, particularly in government, who attempted to influence American foreign policy for reasons of domestic politics, but he never said that those politics were less worthy of study.

With respect to the conduct of American foreign policy, the two men agreed more than they disagreed. Both deplored America’s policy toward the Soviet Union, especially in the post-Stalinist period. As a Hungarian by birth, Lukacs was incensed by the post-World-War-II division of Europe that left Hungary behind the Iron Curtain. So was Kennan, but like his friend he knew that nuclear war over the Soviet occupation would be the ultimate calamity. Each, however, believed it would have been worth an effort to sound the Russians out concerning a mutual withdrawal of military forces from the heart of Europe, with an attendant neutralization of that pivotal region. Neither believed that the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, ever entertained the idea of a military attack on Western Europe—and we know now they were right.

On one policy toward the Soviets, however, they remained at odds, as they made clear in the letters concerning the immediate post-World-War-II era they exchanged at the invitation of American Heritage magazine. Like Lukacs, Kennan knew that the Western Allies could not have won the war without the Red Army. He did not deny that it was in the national interest of the United States to extend material aid to the Soviet Union—but only until the Germans had been driven from Soviet territory. Never, he argued, should America have identified itself politically or ideologically with the Russian war effort. Lukacs disagreed, on the grounds that America’s (and the West’s) failure to align itself completely with wartime Russia might have tempted Stalin to seek a separate peace with Hitler. Kennan’s rejoinder was that such an eventuality was always highly unlikely and that an unlimited identification with Russia’s goals compromised the U.S. politically and morally and misled Americans with respect to the fundamental differences between U.S. and Soviet interests and outlooks on the world.

This was not their only difference of opinion. While, like Kennan, Lukacs opposed interventions in the non-European world, the purpose of which was to spread democracy and “human rights,” he was an interventionist (he prefers “internationalist”) with respect to Europe. This was especially true of the period leading to and during World War II. Internationalists and interventionists such as President Roosevelt win his unstinting praise, while he expresses nothing but contempt for “isolationists,” especially those who believed that the U.S. should not have entered World War II. Or for that matter, World War I. In a review of Richard M. Gamble’s The War for Righteousness, Lukacs wrote that “had we not entered the war in 1917, it is more than probable that Imperial Germany would have won.”

Perhaps so, but as Kennan observed more than once, a German victory “would not have been quite such a catastrophe.” Rather the contrary, one might suggest. Had Germany won the war there would have been no Nazi regime, no Soviet regime (the Germans would not have allowed the Bolsheviks to remain in power), no Auschwitz, and no Gulag Archipelago. Germany would, for a time, have dominated Europe, but it would have been the Kaiser’s, not Hitler’s, Germany. Kennan did not believe that the U.S., or any other country, should have entered World War I, and he regularly expressed sympathy for isolationism,insofar as that was still feasible. Lukacs prefers to ignore this, though he once conceded that Kennan was a man “who—in some ways and on some occasions—could be seen as an isolationist.”

Close friends that they were, Lukacs and Kennan chose not, in the correspondence Lukacs has published at least, to dwell upon their foreign policy differences. There was too much else about which they were of one mind. Both, for example, were old-fashioned conservationists—as opposed to ideological environmentalists. Both revered an earlier and more civilized way of life; they were, in fact, self-identified reactionaries. Both believed that unrestricted immigration posed a serious threat to the cultural identity of the United States. Both were Christians, though Lukacs, a Roman Catholic, was more orthodox in his belief. In sum, both were outsiders, no matter how much recognition they have on occasion received.

Not the least significant of their shared recognitions was the fundamental importance of memory. “History,” Lukacs has often insisted, “is the memory of mankind.” (Mnemosyne, after all, was the mother of Clio.) History, that is, is not restricted to the recorded past; it encompasses the remembered past. This is a profound understanding, linked as it is to “the propitious complementarity of individual memory and professional history, of personal participation and detached intellection.” Late in Kennan’s life, Lukacs pointed out in George Kennan: A Study of Character, his friend began to turn his attention to “religion and memory.” He discerned in Kennan’s last book, An American Family: The Kennans—The First Three Generations (2000) a “worthy effort to extend [his] memory.”

Kennan’s two volumes of memoirs were also, of course, exercises in remembering. So in fact were the two histories he wrote of the diplomacy leading to the Great War. Most of the events he described occurred before he was born, but memory of his own diplomatic experience helped him to understand the responsibilities and dilemmas of others. Lukacs did not approve of these works. To understand why, one must know something about his memory of a place and time—Hungary in the early 1940s. (It is no accident that he is a master at capturing the atmosphere of specific places at specific times.) On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary and implemented a plan of deportation that by early July had delivered over 400,000 Jews into the hands of the Auschwitz murderers.

This spelled trouble for Lukacs, who is Jewish on his mother’s side. “In early June 1944,” he remembers, “I was a prisoner: not in jail but in a barrack guarded by soldiers on the outskirts of Budapest: a member of a forced labor battalion of undesirables—subversives, resistants, half-Jews, suspicious people.” By Christmas, he had managed to desert and, along with his mother, to take refuge in a cellar. They survived, barely, until the Russians drove the Germans out of the city. This memory has never left him, and neither has his loathing of Germans and worship (not too strong a word) of Churchill, whom he credits with having prevented Hitler from winning the war in 1940.

Lukacs’s Germanophobia was not shared by Kennan. “There are qualities of [Kennan’s] mind, and perhaps also character, that are Ger[man]. Rather than Br[itish]. But since these are all among the good German qualities, this is all to the good.” But there was more to it than that; Kennan was a Germanophile. In his histories of the diplomatic road to World War I, he had nothing but praise for Bismarck. Moreover, in his Epilogue to The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War (1984), he wrote “that of the four great powers most immediately affected by the Franco-Russian Alliance—France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary—the only two that had what might be called clear expansionist motives were the two parties of the Alliance—France and Russia.” Of that, Lukacs would write only: “This . . . is arguable.”

In his letters to Kennan, Lukacs raised only the most mild and respectful objections, probably because he knew that their friendship was more important than any disagreement they might have. Their correspondence witnesses to the warmth of that friendship, and so does one of my own memories. One evening in May 1982, my wife and I were invited to dinner at the Princeton home of J. H. Elliott, the distinguished historian of early modern Spain who was then a permanent member of the Institute for Advanced Study. The Kennans were also guests and in the course of the evening I mentioned to Mr. Kennan that we had a friend in common—John Lukacs. I shall never forget the warm respect with which he then spoke of his friend. It was clear that their friendship was one engaged in for its own sake and enjoyed for what it was.  

Lee Congdon is the author of George Kennan: A Writing Life (ISI Books, 2008).