Obituary: John Lukacs, iconoclastic historian who wrote a best-selling tribute to Churchill

Historian John Lukacs has died at the age of 95. Picture: AP
Historian John Lukacs has died at the age of 95. Picture: AP
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John Lukacs, historian. Born: 31 January, 1924 in Budapest, Hungary. Died: 6 May, 2019 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, aged 95

John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian and iconoclast who brooded over the future of Western civilisation, wrote a best-selling tribute to Winston Churchill, and produced a substantial and often despairing body of writings on the politics and culture of Europe and the United States, has died at the age of 95’.

A proud and old-fashioned man with a cosmopolitan accent, and erudite but personal prose style, Lukacs was a maverick among historians. In a profession where liberals were a clear majority, he was sharply critical of the left and of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But he was also unhappy with the modern conservative movement, opposing the Iraq war, mocking hydrogen bomb developer Edward Teller as the “Zsa Zsa Gabor of physics” and disliking the “puerile” tradition, apparently started by Ronald Reagan, of presidents returning military salutes from the armed forces.

“John Lukacs is well known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions,” John Willson wrote in The American Conservative in 2013. “This has earned him, among friends and critics alike, a somewhat curmudgeonly reputation.”

Lukacs completed more than 30 books, on everything from his native country to 20th century American history to the meaning of history itself. His books include Five Days in London, the memoir Confessions of an Original Sinner, and Historical Consciousness, in which he contended that the best way to study any subject, whether science or politics, was through its history.

He considered himself a “reactionary,” a mourner for the “civilisation and culture of the past 500 years, European and Western.”

He saw decline in the worship of technological progress, the elevation of science to religion, and the rise of materialism. Drawing openly upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s warnings about a “tyranny of the majority”, Lukacs was especially wary of populism and was quoted by other historians as Donald Trump rose to the presidency. Lukacs feared that the public was too easily manipulated into committing terrible crimes.

“The kind of populist nationalism that Hitler incarnated has been and continues to be the most deadly of modern plagues,” he once wrote.

He belonged to few academic or political organizations and was unafraid to challenge his peers, whether Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, Hannah Arendt or British historian David Irving. In The Hitler of History, published in 1997, Lukacs alleged that Irving was sympathetic to the Nazis, leading to threats of legal action from Irving and the removal of passages from the book in England. In recent years, Irving has been widely condemned because of his ties to Holocaust deniers.

Hitler and Stalin were Lukacs’ prime villains, Churchill his hero. Lukacs wrote several short works on Churchill’s leadership duringthe Second World War, focusing on his defiant “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech as the Nazis were threatening England in May 1940. 
Lukacs wrote that the speech was at first not well received and that instead of having a unified country behind him, Churchill had to fight members of his own cabinet who wanted to make peace with the Nazis.

“If at that time a British government had signalled as much as a cautious inclination to explore a negotiation with Hitler, amounting to a willingness to ascertain his possible terms, that would have been the first step on to a Slippery Slope from which there could be no retreat,” Lukacs wrote in Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian, published in 2002. “But Churchill did not let go; and he had his way.”

One Churchill book attained unexpected popularity after the 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks. Rudolph Giuliani, then New York City’s mayor, held up a copy of Lukacs’ Five Days in London, declared he had been reading it and likened New Yorkers to the citizens of London.

Quietly published in 2000, the book jumped into the top 100 on Amazon’s best-seller list. But Lukacs was not entirely grateful. He noted that Five Days in London had little to say about how Londoners endured the Nazi assault, and he rejected comparisons between London in 1940 and New York City in 2001.

“The situation was totally different,” he said at the time. “As a matter of fact, it was much worse in England.”

More recently, Five Days in London was widely cited as a source for Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman in an Oscar-winning performance as Churchill.

The historian was born Lukacs Janos Albert in Budapest. Lukacs had a Catholic father and Jewish mother, making him technically a Jew, although he was a practising Catholic for much of his life. For the Nazis, who occupied Hungary in 1944, being half a Jew was enough to be sent to a labour camp.

By the end of 1944, he was a deserter from the Hungarian army labour battalion, hiding in a cellar, awaiting liberation by Russian troops.

Within months of living under Soviet control, he fled the country on a “dirty, broken-down train” to Austria. In 1946, he arrived by ship in Portland, Maine, his youthful affinity for communism shattered.

Lukacs was a visiting professor at Princeton University, Columbia University and other prominent schools, but spent much of his career on the faculty of the lesser-known Chestnut Hill College, a Catholic school (all girls until 2003) in Philadelphia where he taught from 1946-1994. He was married three times (his first two wives died) and had two children.

A pessimist by definition, he often expressed personal contentment. He wrote warmly about his enjoyment of romance, friendship, books, teaching and the rural life, the “pleasure of fresh mornings, driving alone on country roads, smoking my matutinal cigar, mentally planning the contents of my coming lecture whose sequence and organisation are falling wonderfully into place, crystallising in sparks of sunlight.”

“Because of the goodness of God,” he concluded in his memoir, “I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one.”