Wednesday, May 15, 2019

John Lukacs, R.I.P.

From Chronicles:
When long-time Chronicles contributor John Lukacs died on May 6, the country lost one of its finest adopted sons, who was also one of its finest writers and historians. The scope and extent of his work defies summary—he published over three dozen books between 1953 and 2017 on a wide-ranging list of subjects, including: the philosophy of history, World War II, the Cold War, Tocqueville, George Kennan (a longtime correspondent and personal friend), Agnes Repplier, democracy, nationalism, a half-century of Philadelphia’s cultural landscape, and his own life and experience. 
His life was defined by his deep scholarship. In its obituary, the New York Times quoted a self-reflective statement from one of his final columns for Chronicles, in 2017: “I am a crumbling remnant. A remnant of the very end of the Bourgeois Age and a remnant of the Age of Books.” 
When I first encountered the great historian’s byline in Chronicles some twenty years ago, so lucid and limber was his prose that I assumed he must be a remarkable young scholar just entering the prime of his years. Imagine my surprise when I soon learned he was already in his 70s, retired after 47 years of teaching at Chestnut Hill College. Yet in a sense he was indeed in his prime—soon after I first read him he published the book for which he is probably best known today, Five Days in London, and new works continued to appear almost annually for the next dozen years. 
Lukacs lived to see Five Days in London became the basis for the film “Darkest Hour” in 2017, though the movie was less than fully faithful to Lukacs’s account of Winston Churchill’s mentality and actions as he decided whether to continue the war with Germany. Lukacs’s book had become a bestseller after 9/11, when New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani recommended it and compared the experience of the attacks on the Twin Towers to living through the Blitz. Despite the recommendation, Lukacs did not excuse the mayor’s hyperbole—he responded that the jihadist attack, horrific as it was, was not comparable to the sustained onslaught that London had faced from Hitler. 
Lukacs drew equally sharp distinctions between Churchill and a latter-day American “war president” like George W. Bush, whose adventurism Lukacs condemned. He had long criticized the blending of military symbolism into civilian politics, such as the practiceof civilian leaders saluting to soldiers. The title of his 1984 book, Outgrowing Democracy, was a warning about where he saw America heading. A refugee from the Soviet domination of Hungary—and before that, a conscripted laborer under the Nazis—Lukacs was an enemy of totalitarian ideology. But he saw nationalism itself as a more powerful force than any empire of the mind. This led him to agree with Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet threat as one that could be contained. And it led him to predict the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, at a time when the CIA and the anti-Communist intellectuals of the conservative movement believed the Cold War would continue indefinitely. (Read more.)

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