Toward a New Kind of History
“By the end of the second decade of my life,” John Lukacs informed us in his Confessions of an Original Sinner, “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, Lukacs admits 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 Archipelago.
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 1944”—of 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 faits 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 must be 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 University.
Posted: March 21, 2007