The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 19, 2017

The Reactionary Loyalties of John Lukacs
Lee Congdon (MA 45:3, Summer 2003) - 10/14/08

In The Duel, a riveting account of Churchill’s confrontation with Hitler in the spring and summer of 1940, John Lukacs wrote that “Churchill was the opponent of Hitler, the incarnation of the reaction to Hitler, the incarnation of the resistance of an old world, of old freedoms, of old standards against a man incarnating a force that was frighteningly efficient, brutal and new. Few things are as wrong as the tendency to see Hitler as a reactionary. He was the very antithesis of that. The true reactionary was Churchill.”1

In only a few sentences, Lukacs here revealed much about himself, especially to those who esteem his work but find him difficult to pin down politically and philosophically. Although conservatives have claimed him as one of their own, no one has been more scathing in his criticism of such political figures as Hoover, Taft, Eisenhower, and Reagan or more contemptuous in his dismissal of such celebrity polemicists as William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan. Furthermore, he has made it almost brutally clear that he has no regard for the Republican Party and he rejects anti-communism in the strongest terms possible.

Is Lukacs, then, an unusually sophisticated and independent liberal? He has, after all, written often and glowingly of Franklin D. Roosevelt and lent his qualified but enthusiastic support to the so-called “Greens.” Yet he is far from being an egalitarian and has never shared the Left’s commitment to, and belief in, “Progress.” Nor, as a faithful Catholic, has he ever rallied to the “cause” dearest to Leftist hearts—abortion on demand. And he has always identified himself as a man of the Right, even while insisting that the terms “Right” and “Left,” “liberal” and “conservative” have lost whatever meaning and relevance they once possessed.

Lukacs does not, however, view the term “reactionary” in a similar light. He is, he has said repeatedly and with every intention of provoking outrage, a reactionary. To understand why he presents himself as a target of abuse, devotees must look closely not only at his work, but also at his life. “Know your own history,” he has written, “and the history of your times, which are not the same things, but they are inseparable.”2The historian makes his greatest contribution when writing of those events which he himself has witnessed or in which he has played a role, however minor. Because of this belief, Lukacs has devoted his working life to the history of his own times; his retellings of the recent and remembered past are profoundly informed by his personal experiences.

John Lukacs was born János Lukács in Budapest on January 31, 1924. His father was a doctor about whom he has had relatively little to say, even in his splendid Confessions of an Original Sinner. No doubt that is because his parents divorced when he was eight and he lived thereafter with a stepfather and the mother whose memory he cherishes. It was, however, his maternal grandparents who were most responsible for the person he was to become. “They were,” he has written, “the most admirable people I have ever known . . . they were well-to-do, modest, Jewish and thoroughly bourgeois.”3Because of their “reactionary virtues,” he developed a lasting respect “not so much for the aristocratic eras and the Middle Ages as for the relatively recent bourgeois period of European and Hungarian history.”4

At some stage in his mother’s life, Lukacs does not say which, she converted to Catholicism, and raised him in the Church of Rome. This family history is important for a number of reasons, not least because in post-Treaty of Trianon (1920) Hungary assimilated Jews and half-Jews no longer enjoyed the acceptance that had been theirs prior to the outbreak of the Great War.

Early in his career, Lukacs made a conscious decision not to specialize in Eastern European history, but in 1988, in reaction to academic and popular fascination with fin de siècle Vienna, he did publish a superb historical portrait of Budapest during the same era. As he has done so often, he captured in brilliant fashion the distinctive atmosphere of a particular place at a particular time. The chapter he devoted to the “Great Generation” of Hungarian intellectuals (1875–1905) contains, among other fine things, a verbal miniature of Gyula Krúdy, a writer who loved patrician ways of life, whose memories “poured into scenes of a bygone patrician world of domesticity, peopled by spotless wives and honorable old men.”5But the chapter he entitled “Seeds of Troubles” was pivotal. The “troubles” to which he referred were signs of a “break in the extraordinary symbiosis of Hungarian Jews and non-Jewish Hungarians.”6

In the years leading up to 1900, and to a large extent to 1914, there was no better home for Jews than Hungary. By assimilating in large numbers, they aided the grateful Magyars in their struggle to achieve and maintain a majority in their multi-national kingdom. True, Ferenc Deák, the great Hungarian liberal and architect of the 1867 Ausgleich with Austria, had begun to express concern about the growing number of Jewish immigrants from the East. But Lukacs argued that that was not the real problem. Drawing upon his ability to discern larger historical trends in everyday occurrences, he concluded that “sometime between 1900 and 1905 the people of Budapest, both Jewish and non-Jewish, began to recognize, or at least sense, uneasily, that the problem was no longer only the extent of Jewish immigration but also the acceptance of Jewish assimilation.”7

Too many non-Jewish Magyars, Lukacs charged, were turning away from their liberal ways and old-fashioned patriotism (love of country) toward a new and narrow conservatism defined primarily by nationalism (ethnic arrogance and intolerance). This was an ominous transformation, for the young Adolf Hitler had boasted that he was a nationalist, not a patriot. That self-description was a sure sign, Lukacs pointed out, that anti-Semitism was a modern phenomenon and that, like Hitler, its chief purveyors were nationalist and democratic, not reactionary and bourgeois. Members of the bourgeoisie, at least those at society’s upper levels, did not succumb to base prejudices because they were heirs to traditions of honor and decency.

Lukacs was right about those seeds of troubles, but the pre-war liberal government remained steadfastly philo-Semitic and determined to curb the anti-Semites. The Great War changed all that. When Wilson and the Allies made their fateful decision to break up the Habsburg Monarchy in obedience to the principle of self-determination, they made what Lukacs rightly regards as a catastrophic mistake. One of the many unhappy byproducts of that dissolution was the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, a tyrannical regime led by Béla Kun who, like 31 of 44 other “commissars,” was of Jewish origin. Partly as a consequence of Kun’s 133 days in power, the counterrevolutionary government of Regent Miklós Horthy was both anti-communist and anti-Semitic, communists and Jews being, in the traumatized minds of many Hungarians, interchangeable identities.

When Lukacs came into the world, Count István Bethlen, a right-wing liberal of the old school, was prime minister. Bethlen deplored anti-Semitism as a prejudice unworthy of a great nation, but by the time Lukacs reached his teens the Bethlen government had fallen victim to the Depression and new, socially less elevated, men had gained Horthy’s favor. In 1938, a year of triumph for Hitler and his Hungarian sympathizers, Lukacs’s mother enrolled him in a school in England, where he continued the love affair with the English and their language that he had begun at home. “In my life,” he has recalled, “the Anglomania of my mother was decisive.”81938 was the year of the First Vienna Award, by which the Germans and Italians restored to Hungary the southern strips of Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine (Ruthenia). It was also the historical moment when the struggle for Hungary’s soul pitted, as Lukacs believes, one Right (anti-German) against another (pro-German).

Lukacs has well described the partisans of the anti-German Right as old-fashioned patriots, reactionaries in whom honor and decency were deeply engrained. The pro-German Right, on the other hand, attracted populist nationalists and anti-Semites, men and women who embraced National Socialism in general and German National Socialism in particular. And so they did, though that they were Rightists is open to question.

It is true that some on the European Right demonstrated a weakness for nationalism, but so did many on the Left. Moreover, that Right was elitist, not populist; it was far too suspicious of the masses to wish to incite them. It was traditionalist in untroubled times and counterrevolutionary when the revolution was in power; it was never revolutionary or socialist. Bethlen and the right-wing liberals recognized Gyula Gömbös (who was of German origin) and other Hungarian national socialists for what they were—avatars of a new, anti-internationalist Left. This is something of which Lukacs’s late friend, the Austrian monarchist and right-wing liberal Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, was keenly aware.

But Right or Left, the war years belonged to Hungary’s pro-Germans, despite the courageous efforts of Prime Minister Miklós Kállay, a Bethlen protégé. Kállay, Lukacs has written, “was one of the bravest—and, in my opinion, one of the greatest—prime ministers of Hungary. . . . He was a protector and even a champion of old-fashioned decency.”9Kállay did everything within his power to ensure the personal safety of Jews subject to his authority, but on March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, forced Horthy to dismiss his prime minister, and implemented a plan of deportation that by early July, when the belatedly alarmed Regent ordered a suspension of operations, had delivered over 400,000 Jews into the hands of the Auschwitz murderers. All of this spelled trouble for Lukacs who, by Nazi reckoning, was a Jew. “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.”10

By Christmas, Lukacs had managed to desert and, along with his mother, to disappear into a cellar; huddled together, they survived on the hope that the Russians would soon take the city. About their prospective liberators and the communist banner, under which they march-ed, Lukacs entertained no illusions, but they were allies of the English and they were about to drive the hated Germans out of Hungary. What is just as important, he never forgot that many members of the high bourgeoisie, men and women who had every reason to fear communism, were also prepared to welcome the Red Army; like Lukacs, they were more anti-German than anti-Russian or anti-communist. It was at that moment that he began consciously to identify himself with patricians whom those lower on the social scale routinely denounced as reactionaries.

The Russians had, of necessity, allied themselves with the English, but they were not the English. Nor did they behave like the English, who were, for an Anglophile like Lukacs, the bearers of civilization. In 1946, before the Stalinists had consolidated their power and instituted the terror, he thought it prudent to leave Hungary for the United States, connections in Budapest helping to pave the way. His command of English English was already such that he was able to teach pickup courses to classes of returning servicemen at Columbia University, but when Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who was leaving his post at Chestnut Hill College to return to Europe, recommended him as a replacement, he found a permanent home.

Although he held visiting professorships at major institutions, Lukacs remained at Chestnut Hill, a small Catholic women’s college, until he retired in 1994. Rather quickly he discovered that he had a talent for teaching, but admits that he “cared little about an academic career. I wanted to be a writer.”11A master as well as a lover of the English language, he has written over 20 books—almost all of them published by commercial presses—and hundreds of essays and articles in non-academic reviews. Money was a consideration in his choice of outlets, but even more important was his determination to reach an educated rather than a scholarly audience and to explore large rather than monographic subjects. Great historians such as Tocqueville, Burckhardt, and Huizinga were not, in Lukacs’s opinion, those who uncovered new information but who viewed familiar events from different and revelatory angles.

Despite the impressive list of Lukacs’s publications, however, his work revolves around a finite number of themes. There is, first of all, his almost obsessive interest in Hitler, one of the two historical figures—Churchill is the other—who exerted the greatest influence on his life. His attitude toward the Nazi leader—and toward Germans and Germanophiles—is one of loathing. This is not always obvious because he has expressed appreciation for some of Hitler’s qualities—his intelligence, loyalty, courage, and political gifts. But this seeming generosity has as its aim the discrediting of any notion that Hitler was a madman and hence not responsible for his actions. “All the stories of the dictator foaming at the mouth, throwing himself at the carpet and chewing it in a mad rage, are,” Lukacs has written, “false.”12The Führer was a cold, calculating killer.

Hitler plays a major role in almost all of Lukacs’s books, especially his model experiment in historiography, The Hitler of History. In an important chapter entitled “Reactionary and/or Revolutionary?” he came down, of course, on the side of the latter. Hitler, he argued convincingly, was the greatest, which is to say the most influential, revolutionary of the twentieth century. That truth is somewhat obscured by the fact that the artist manqué came to power first, and legally, and then made his revolution. But a revolution it surely was—modern, socialist, and above all nationalist. In Lukacs’s view, the kind of populist nationalism that Hitler incarnated has been and continues to be the most deadly of modern plagues.

Hitler was a revolutionary, but was he also a statesman, as Lukacs maintains? Put differently, is it true, as Joachim Fest, whom Lukacs cites with approval, once wrote, that if Hitler had been assassinated at the end of 1938 “few would hesitate to name him as one of the greatest statesmen of Germany?”13Or is it rather that the Führer was a cunning and reckless adventurer whose opponents were so paralyzed by the thought of another and more terrible European war that they refined the art of appeasement? This is not the only case in which Lukacs gives the devil more than his due.

Statesman or not, Hitler was definitely not, in Lukacs’s judgment, a generic “totalitarian,” someone who forced his way into German history from the outside. “The history of Germany, and of the German people,” he writes, “includes Hitler.”14That is true, though the two understandings are not mutually exclusive. Lukacs himself insists that National Socialism, of varying hues, has been and is a universal ideology. “We are all National Socialists now,” he is wont to say.

More questionable is Lukacs’s insistence that Hitler’s world view, including his hatred of Jews, crystallized not in pre-war Vienna, as Mein Kampf alleges, but in post-war Munich. Why, one may ask, should this question arise? Lukacs’s answer seems to be that Munich joins Hitler’s anti-Semitism to anti-communism. The Bavarian capital meant “his witnessing of the ridiculous and sordid episode of the Munich Soviet Republic, with its Jewish and lumpen intellectuals.”15Another of Lukacs’s ruling themes is the potential for mischief, even evil, of anti-communism.

“It was,” Lukacs has argued, “the respectability of Hitler’s anti-Communism—not the respectability of his anti-Semitism—that brought him to power in Germany.”16That is a large claim, and one worth considering; but it is also one that requires that he minimize the effects of the Depression and the logic of mass politics. That is a small price to pay, he clearly believes, in order to make an important point. He did, after all, devote an entire chapter of his Confessions to his anti-anti-communism and has made opposition to anti-communism an acid test when judging others, particularly those with influence in the affairs of men. For in his view not only did anti-communism bring Hitler to power, it poisoned American public life and misdirected American foreign policy, especially in the era following World War II.

Lukacs never tires of reminding his readers that the arch anti-communist, Joseph McCarthy, was half-German. Moreover, the Senator from Wisconsin (home to many German-Americans) was more than a public nuisance, opportunist, and drunk; he represented something dark and threatening, an American populism. He even led some Americans to believe that Hitler had been Europe’s last and best chance to escape communism, that the United States made a mistake by not supporting his drive to the East. Nor was McCarthy’s a lone voice. Senator Robert A. Taft shared this view. So did John Foster Dulles, a confirmed Germanophile. And of course Dulles influenced Eisenhower (of German origin), concerning whom Lukacs has nothing but ill to report. Having once been excessively sanguine about Soviet intentions, Ike came to adopt anti-communism as a semi-official ideology. As a result, Lukacs argues that he missed real opportunities to negotiate with the Soviets a mutual withdrawal from the heart of Europe.

Because of his suspicion that all anti-communists are open or closet Germanophiles, Lukacs downplays the role of ideology, particularly communist ideology, in modern history. Communism, he points out, never possessed mass appeal; it was almost always imposed by force of arms. Nazism and fascism, though they differed in fundamental ways, were more beguiling. Even in the Soviet Union, after Lenin’s death, Marxism ceased to matter. Stalin was not a communist but, though Georgian by birth, a Russian nationalist, the reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. This is a case that others have made and there is some truth in it, but as Lukacs likes to say in other contexts, not enough.

That Stalin often portrayed himself as a new Ivan, in Eisenstein’s famous film for example, does not settle the matter. Whatever the Man of Steel may have believed, or not believed, in his heart of hearts, his policies were legitimized and guided by the communist project, the only project he knew. His domestic “experiments” went far beyond anything attempted or even contemplated by Ivan and Peter; that becomes clear when one compares the Soviet tyrant with his true peers, Mao Zedong and other communist dictators. According to The Black Book of Communism (1999), communist regimes around the world have been responsible for the deaths of 80,000,000 to 100,000,000 people. Indeed, the uniform conditions of communist rule—terror and mass murder on an unprecedented scale—argue against Lukacs’s oft-repeated assurances that the ideology is so idiotic and passé as to be practically benign.

Lukacs has had relatively little to say about Stalin’s Great Terror, in part because he is more interested in Soviet foreign policy but also because he does not wish to encourage the belief that communism was worse than, or on a par with, Nazism. Reasonable people may and do differ on this politically-charged matter, but as Martin Malia recently pointed out, it is difficult to form a reasoned judgment when we know so much more about Nazism. In part that is because the Third Reich left behind so many films and photographs of its evil doings. But there is more to it than that.

No one denies that communism is a movement of the Left and hence any scrutiny of its record in power is certain to reflect badly on Leftism generally. By retailing the notion that Nazism was a movement of the Right, the Left can always change the subject and imply or declare openly that all who stand to the Right of center are on a “slippery slope” to “Amerika.” Consider those who characterize any effort to limit increases in the funding of “entitlement” programs as “Nazism” or “genocide.” Or those who say of Buchanan’s books and speeches that they preferred the original German. Lukacs would certainly scoff at such demagoguery, but he is on record that Buchanan and others on the “populist Right” pose a serious threat, similar to that represented by Father Charles E. Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s.

It is true, as Lukacs contends, that the fear of internal subversion by communists was often exaggerated, but it was not wholly delusional. He concedes as much when he cites the judgment of his friend George F. Kennan, who observed that “the penetration of the American governmental services by members or agents (conscious or otherwise) of the American Communist Party in the 1930s was not a figment of the imagination. It really existed: and it assumed proportions which, while never overwhelming, were also not trivial.”17That is true, and one might add that although self-proclaimed communists receive little attention, radical egalitarians who adopt other names do move public opinion.

To bolster his case against ideological factors in modern history, Lukacs has regularly appealed to the historical views of Churchill. Like Hitler, Churchill appears in almost all of his books, but he is the central figure in three, including two of the finest: The Duel: 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler and Five Days in London: May 1940. When that most famous of twentieth-century statesmen died in January 1965, Lukacs was teaching in France. On hearing the news, he boarded a plane with his young son and flew to London for the funeral. “I came,” he wrote at the time, “because of my conviction of respect and my sentiment of gratitude.”18It was, he believes, because of Churchill that Hitler did not win the war in 1940.

It is Lukacs’s persuasively argued view that Hitler came closer to winning the war than we are accustomed to think. Churchill knew this when, in May 1940, he replaced Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s prime minister. He knew too that Britain could not, by herself, win the war; she would need help from America and Russia. He knew communism for what it was but he also knew the real choices before him: all of Europe under Nazi rule or half of Europe under Soviet rule. And half of Europe, he reasoned wisely, was better than none. As a result of that realistic and morally sound calculation, Lukacs observed in his masterly Five Days in London, “he saved Britain, and Europe, and Western civilization.”19

Churchill had first to overcome defeatism in his own cabinet, especially in the person of Lord Halifax, a man typical of the kind of conservative whom Lukacs despises. Just as Hungarian and German conservatives “feared Communism and took comfort in Hitler’s evidently uncompromising anti-Communism and anti-Marxism, so did some of these British Conservatives.”20Some, including Chamberlain, were anti-Semites; none shared Churchill’s Francophilia and European-ism, his awareness that Britain shared a civilization with the old continent. Nor did they recognize, as he did, that “the greatest threat to Western civilization was . . . National Socialism.”21That was indisputably true in 1940, but whether, as Lukacs believes, it is always and everywhere true is another matter. Is a pagan barbarism more seductive in the long run than an ideology that counterfeits Christianity?

In any event, Churchill, having stiffened the backbone of the appeasers, had then to confront Hitler alone, at least for the time being. In Russia, Stalin was still toting up the rewards of his alliance with Hitler, a fact that Lukacs tends to play down. In America, Roosevelt, who was coming around to Churchill’s view of the Nazi threat to civilization, faced the bitter opposition of isolationists, most of whom were Republicans who had turned their backs on an “old” Britain and Europe and become obsessed with communism. Meanwhile, Churchill stubbornly refused to capitulate or negotiate the surrender of what was left of civilization.

To this civilization and its decline Lukacs has devoted much insightful and concerned attention. On the final page of Five Days in London, for example, he unburdened himself of these gloomy reflections: “At best, civilization may survive, at least in some small part due to Churchill in 1940. At worst, he helped to give us . . . fifty years. Fifty years before the rise of new kinds of barbarism . . . before the clouds of a new Dark Age may darken the lives of our children and grandchildren. Fifty years! Perhaps that was enough.”22

Lukacs’s love for the civilization that evolved during the some 500 years of the Modern, European, Bourgeois Age is manifest in all of his work. He has consciously chosen to live a bourgeois life in the conviction that bourgeois civilization was dedicated to the cultivation of the interior life, one distinguished by a sense of privacy, a love of disciplined liberty, a recognition that truth is more important than justice, and a bias in favor of permanent possessions and residence. Above all, that civilization was verbal, not pictorial, reverent in its attitude toward words and thus toward thought. In sum: “bourgeois civilization is the only civilization that accords to the notion of civilization as we know it.”23

It is little wonder, then, that Lukacs chose to put down roots in Chester County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, “that relatively most bourgeois of American cities.”24In Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900–1950, he compared his adopted home to the old patrician societies of Europe: “the scene and its components were patrician rather than aristocratic; . . . resting on distinctions of birth, yes, but on distinctions derived from the consanguinity of families with high civic reputations and not from noble ancestors; on breeding even more than on blood.”25Among Lukacs’s portraits of Philadelphia patricians the most memorable was that of Agnes Repplier, a thoughtful essayist who deserves to be better known. Because he possesses a like ability, he wrote with appreciation of “her talented evocation of atmosphere,” her “interest in all kinds of details of social and of everyday life: the petits faits dear to Taine and to some of the best historians of the twentieth century.”26But that was not all. Like Lukacs, she was a Francophile; and “how she loved England!”27

By the time Miss Repplier died in 1950, Philadelphia’s bourgeois era had come to an end, a casualty of a growing American nationalism closely linked to anti-communism. And yet the pace of decline in the City of Brotherly Love was slower than it was in the United States generally. As a newcomer to America’s shores, Lukacs was smitten with “the utter charm of an American city behind the times, the odd survivals of an earlier and better century.”28

Such survivals were rare in America after the mid-1950s, when what Lukacs calls the country’s “bourgeois interlude” was drawing to a close. “It was . . . during the Eisenhower decade,” he has insisted, that “civilized life in America began to come apart; the surface and morals were cracking, even though the wider public evidences of those cracks did not show until the sixties.”29Restlessness, impermanence, and a passion for equality were among the most recognizable signs of degeneration. So too was the decay of cities and the great exodus to the suburbs. Perhaps most telling in Lukacs’s view was the almost unregulated immigration of non-Europeans, his alarm in this regard being the result not of racial prejudice, but of a recognition of the inevitable and disastrous cultural consequences.

It is worth noting that America’s decline began shortly after Lukacs had settled in his new home and profession. This may help to explain the negative picture of the United States that emerges from his writings, beginning with his first book, The Great Powers and Eastern Europe, a diplomatic history of the years 1934–45. Introduced by a sketch of the period 1917–34 and completed by a review of the years 1945–52, the book propounds a thesis that is forcefully advanced: Russian domination of Eastern Europe could have been prevented, or at least mitigated, had the Americans not rejected Churchill’s plans to invade the Balkans in 1943–44 or, alternatively, to press the campaign in Italy with a view to establishing a post-war Anglo-American military presence to Germany’s east.

In later books, such as 1945: Year Zero and A History of the Cold War (1966), Lukacs expressed his indignation at America’s indifference to the post-war fate of Eastern Europe. But it was not only American officials whom he subjected to searching criticism. In a chapter of 1945 entitled “A Sketch of the National Mind: American Public Opinion (and Popular Sentiment) in 1945,” he denounced the youth syndrome in American thinking: “Americans kept telling themselves that they, the Russians, and the Chinese were young peoples; therefore some of their faults were excusable; therefore they were much preferable to the old peoples of Europe.”30Even more to be censured was the American belief in science and progress, the logical, or rather historical, conclusion of which was the production of the atomic bomb, a weapon that symbolizes for Lukacs the immoral arrogance of the scientific mind.

By the time he published his History of the Cold War, Lukacs had yet another reason for disliking Americans: the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. That event demonstrated beyond doubt that the United States had no intention of intervening in Eastern Europe. He did not, to be sure, take American leaders to task for failing to risk nuclear war for the freedom of his homeland; what he did condemn was the empty rhetoric of Dulles’s anti-communism. Having listened on American-sponsored radio to talk of “liberation” and “roll back of communism,” Hungarians had been led to believe that they could expect help if only they summoned the courage to rise up against their Russian masters.

This was the voice not only of a Hungarian, but of a European, the same one that can be heard in Lukacs’s Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century, a book that he might more accurately have entitled Outgrowing Europe: The Rise and Fall of the United States. This is so because for Lukacs the history of American decline is the history of Americans’ revolt against their European parents. In a defiant effort to assert their cultural-spiritual independence, they have stubbornly refused to affirm the truth—experienced by Europeans at the Marne, at Dachau, and at Munich—that man is finite and sinful. They are, that is, unwilling to abandon the nineteenth-century idea of progress, with its attendant idolization of science and technology.

Only during the relatively brief “bourgeois interlude”—1895–1955—did the American social order, especially in the older cities of the east, measure up to Europe’s patrician societies. “During the next quarter century,” Lukacs wrote, “the dissolution of the bourgeois and urban standards became more and more obvious. The inflation of communications, of pictures, of words, of money, of education was involved with the inchoate development of a new kind of society that was bureaucratic and not bourgeois, suburban and not urban.”31

That was a harsh judgment, but by the end of the twentieth century, Lukacs was not much more optimistic about the Europe he continues to love. Landing in Zurich after a visit to Hungary, he recognized that he belonged “to this [Western] Europe, too: to the bourgeois and patrician remnants [my italics] of a world for which I have an aching longing in Pennsylvania as much as in Hungary, an atmosphere where I am at home. Europe . . . Europe . . . I am Hungarian and American. But: I am a European American, and a European Hungarian.”32

Remnants was to have been the title of what eventually became A Thread of Years, Lukacs’s remarkable experiment in historical writing dedicated to “the sad decline of a civilization” but containing “a few remnant memories of beautiful things and of decency and goodness.”33Almost from the beginning of his career, he had wanted to write a new kind of history, the kind “when the writer knows, in the marrow of his bones, not only that France in 1789 became different from France in 1788, but how, say, Paris in 1905 differed from Paris in 1902.”34

As a result, he had taken a serious interest in the novelized histories of writers such as John Dos Passos, Irwin Shaw, Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow, Don De Lillo, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The difficulty with their efforts, he eventually concluded, was that they placed their own words in the mouths of historical figures and thereby encouraged the notion that history is merely another species of fiction. Lukacs did not wish to do what Simon Schama did in Dead Certainties: (Unwarranted Speculations) (1991): blend history and fiction so skillfully that readers could not always tell where one ended and the other began.

In A Thread of Years, therefore, Lukacs offered readers a series of “vignettes,” fictional petits faits that clearly did not but could have occurred in particular places in particular years, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1969. In them he hoped readers would see reflected the larger movements of history. To each year he devoted a chapter made up of a vignette, followed by a dialogue between himself and his critical alter ego. The connecting theme was “the decline of a particular civilization, and the decline of the ideal of the gentleman; two inseparable matters.”35

It is impossible to convey adequately the literary and historical distinction of the vignettes. Enough to say that Lukacs returned to his favorite themes: the virtues of English civilization; the rise of anti-Semitism and Hitler; the poverty of anti-communism; the greatness of Churchill; and the worth of Roosevelt, the “patrician” who allegedly coaxed his people out of the Depression and triumphed over isolationist sentiment. But he treats them in a subtle and convincing manner. This is history old and new; old in its literary quality, new in its joining a novelist’s ability to persuade us of the plausibility of his fiction with a historian’s appreciation for the contingency of events.

Like all historians of stature, Lukacs rejects every form of historical determinism. He made that rejection explicit when he chose as a motto for The Duel some words of Johan Huizinga, the historian whom, perhaps, he admires above all others: “The historian . . . must always maintain towards his subject an indeterminist point of view. He must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors still seem to permit different outcomes. If he speaks of Salamis, then it must be as if the Persians might still win.”36

Because of his rejection of determinism, or “destiny,” Lukacs has always been critical of Oswald Spengler. Nevertheless, he admits to having been affected by his early reading of The Decline of the West (1918–1922). Taken as a metaphor, not a scientific truth, the German’s book has left an indelible mark on him. No one has been as insistent as he that we are living “at the end of an age,” the title of one of his recent books. The age to which he refers is, we know, the Modern, Bourgeois Age, but it is also the Age of Cities, of Privacy, of the Book, of Science, and of Historical Consciousness. “Except for the last two,” he wrote, “all of these primacies are now fading and declining fast.”37

One of Lukacs’s lingering hopes for the age now dawning is the survival of historical consciousness, in his judgment the most important product of the Modern Age. Unfortunately, what little evidence he has offered to sustain that hope is not very convincing. Where and how, one wonders, does historical consciousness manifest itself? Not in the nation’s schools and universities, where the teaching of history is ideological when it is not non-existent. And while there is some popular interest in movie and television “docudramas,” these amount to little more than soap operas in historical dress. What Donald Davidson wrote years ago about Nashville’s replica of the Parthenon does not seem any less true today: “Pursue not wisdom or virtue here,/ But what blind motion, what dim last/Regret of men who slew their past/ Raised up this bribe against their fate.”

Despite his continued optimism with respect to historical consciousness, Lukacs seems to have moved ever closer to Spengler’s view of the West’s future. “It’s [probably] all over . . . for most of the world that I cherish,” he wrote near the end of A Thread of Years. “But God is infinitely good, since it is He and not Voltaire who allows and even prods us to cultivate our garden.”38For him, then, to live during the decline of Western civilization is not to live without hope or purpose. It is to live, as far as possible, in a kind of gated community of the mind and spirit; to hold at a distance the larger world in which one no longer feels at home. It is to help others to remember, or to come to know, an earlier and better time. Most important, it is to be a faithful believer in what is clearly a post-Christian Age, for Christians are now the paradigmatic reactionaries.


  1. The Duel: 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler (New York, 1991), 14–15.
  2. A Thread of Years (New Haven, 1998), 315.
  3. Confessions of an Original Sinner (New York, 1990), 34.
  4. Ibid., 35.
  5. “The Sound of a Cello,” The New Yorker, December 1, 1986, 49.
  6. Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture (New York, 1988), 188.
  7. Ibid., 191.
  8. Confessions of an Original Sinner, 15.
  9. “The Tragedy of Two Hungarian Prime Ministers,” The Hungarian Quarterly, No. 159 (Autumn 2000), 81, 83.
  10. Confessions of an Original Sinner, 46.    
  11. Ibid., 203.
  12. The Duel, 224.
  13. Cited in The Hitler of History (New York, 1997), 21.
  14. Ibid., 197.
  15. Ibid., 59.
  16. “The Poverty of Anti-Communism,” The National Interest, No. 55 (Spring 1999), 79.
  17. Cited in ibid., 77.
  18. Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian (New Haven, 2002), 168.
  19. Five Days in London: May 1940 (New Haven, 1999), 2.
  20. Ibid., 49.
  21. Ibid., 217.
  22. Ibid., 219.
  23. Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (Garden City, N.Y., 1984), 199.
  24. Ibid., 194.
  25. Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900–1950 (New York, 1980), 6–7.
  26. Ibid., 108.
  27. Ibid., 118.
  28. Ibid., 342.
  29. A Thread of Years, 386.
  30. 1945: Year Zero (Garden City, N.Y., 1978), 182–83.
  31. Outgrowing Democracy, 169–70.
  32. The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (New York, 1993), 170.
  33. A Thread of Years, 8.
  34. Confessions of an Original Sinner, 40.
  35. A Thread of Years, 2.
  36. The Duel, v.
  37. At the End of an Age (New Haven, 2002), 15.
  38. A Thread of Years, 477.
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