We are pleased to present over the course of this week a series of essays focusing on the life and achievement of historian John Lukacs. Lukacs is an historian of wide-ranging penetration and power, with works ranging from European history—including the Hungary that he fled at the end of World War II—to his adopted Philadelphia and the democratic culture of his new country. Perhaps best known for his work on the Second World War, including books such as The Duel, The Hitler of History, and Five Days in London, May 1940, Lukacs strongly defends the Anglo-American components of European civilization. Further, as a philosopher of history, Lukacs has also, in the magisterial Historical Consciousness, challenged the position that history, as a humane discipline, can be likened to a science.
Lukacs confronted the false contrast between objective “fact” and subjective “opinion” when it comes to history. As he wrote in an essay for the American Scholar, history seeks “understanding,” not a version of accuracy derived from an eighteenth-century view of scientific truth. Rather than freeing the historian to conjure “stories” inservice to some ideological cause, as the postmodernists might have it, for Lukacs this realization of the participant nature of history—that is, that the historian creates history as well as records it—imposes a moral obligation upon the historian to recognize what he called “the condition of our participation” in examining reality. Lukacs’s insights into the nature of historical knowledge, his distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism,” his reflections on democracy and the realities of national character all remain crucial to understanding our world.
These pieces cover a broad range of Lukacs’s work, including his abilities as a teacher (Lukacs spent most of his career at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania) and his relationship with diplomat George Kennan, with whom he had a long correspondence, as well as Lukacs as a “biblical” historical thinker and his considerations of America.
Lukacs has long been a contributor to the Bookman, and we highlight two of his pieces here—What Moonlighting Reveals (1961) and The Tolstoy Locomotive on the Berlin Track (1980)—as well as a link to our review of his recent book of memoirs, Last Rites.
Further, our friends at the American Conservative and ISI have devoted significant attention to Lukacs, and ISI has made available three of Lukacs’s own lectures. And the American Scholar has a relevant 2009 essay by Lukacs, “Putting Man Before Descartes.”
Over the course of the week, we are publishing a series of essays on the life and achievement of historian John Lukacs, as well as a few items by him.