John Lukacs Left His Mark on History
The Hungarian exile deflated communism and other horrors of the 20th century.
‘Knowledge of the past is the very opposite of a burden,” wrote John Lukacs in 2000, summing up the idea that defined his work as a historian. He wrote more than 30 books on communism, fascism, populism, World War II and the worsening shape of Western civilization. He died May 6 at 95.
Born in Budapest to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, he came face to face with Nazism and communism before his 22nd birthday. After Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, he was conscripted into a forced-labor battalion. He managed to escape the Nazis, only to see his homeland become a Soviet puppet state after the war. He fled to America in 1946.
Lukacs taught generations of students and readers to approach every subject first by wrestling with its history. His most noteworthy philosophical book, “Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past,” urges students to grapple with historical facts and people, not abstractions. In this way, Lukacs argues against those who imbue the past with their own pet ideas, cutting to the core of so many isms, Marxism first among them, that claim to understand humanity’s past, present and destiny.
Lukacs found popular success with his books on World War II and Winston Churchill, one of his heroes. He relished defending Western civilization. “I knew, at a very early age,” Lukacs wrote, “that ‘the West’ was better than ‘the East’—especially better than Russia and Communism.” But he also believed he was living through the West’s decline, its culture becoming more vulgar and its people unable to understand, much less appreciate, their cultural inheritance.
At the time of publishing, Marion Smith was executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.