John Lukacs: Retired Historian Flays Populism In US, World

Historians in the News

John Lukacs (pronounced "Lu-Kosh"), the renowned professor of history formerly at Chestnut Hill College, spends his still prolific years of retirement in a capacious house on a scenic plot alongside Pickering Creek. Comfortable in his home and endeared to - albeit frequently critical of - this country, he lives now far removed from the life he knew in early adulthood.

Born in Budapest in 1924, he experienced what he recalls as a "very good education." His mother, a passionate anglophile, sent him to England for two school terms shortly before the onset of World War II.

After the war began, Mr. Lukacs briefly found himself in a Hungarian labor battalion. That servitude ended with Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe, something the young man viewed as "no real plus." Not quite 23, he knew he had to leave.

He fled communist-ruled Hungary to the United States armed with two distinct advantages: He spoke masterful English and possessed qualification to teach at a time when the G.I. Bill was funding the influx of 2 million young people into American higher education.

"There was a great dearth, a great need for teachers," Dr. Lukacs said.

Within three months of his arrival in the U.S., he was teaching at Columbia University and after about a year took a job at Chestnut Hill College where he taught for more than 46 years.

"I liked Philadelphia much more than I liked New York," he said.

As a youth, Dr. Lukacs' professional inclination wasn't fundamentally professorial. He had a love of literature and wanted to spend a good deal of his time writing and reading history, if not necessarily teaching it.

"I did not definitely want to be an academic," he said.

But in Dr. Lukacs' view, historical discussion can easily become too rigidly academic. Proper historical research, he said, is not only about "filling gaps" in knowledge of earlier occurrences but about illuminating the student's understanding of the human nature of past peoples and institutions through clear and lively prose.

"History is not a science," he said. "It doesn't have a language of its own. The historian's instrument is language."

Most of the recognition that has come his way over his long career concerns his extensive studies of Winston Churchill in such books as The Duel and Five Days in London. While many American conservative historians of the 20th Century have made their mark as specialists on Communism and its classical liberal opposition, Dr. Lukacs - who, while a cultural traditionalist, eschews the conservative label - has described Hitler as "the supreme populist in centuries of history" and attributes his danger to precisely that facet of his character. To illustrate the malignant nature of Hitler's nationalist appeal, he noted that upon Nazi Germany's defeat, between 10,000 and 20,000 Germans committed suicide. There was nothing like this when communism collapsed in the Soviet Union or elsewhere, he added.

Populism, embraced explicitly by no shortage of avowed members of both the right and left in America, is, in the professor's view, a cancerous scourge of freedom. He senses lesser manifestations of it in America in the 1950s during Joseph McCarthy's investigations and now under the auspices of George W. Bush's allegedly adventurist GOP. So thoroughly have the American people come to expect populist and nationalistic appeals from their leaders, he said, "If McCain defeats Obama, it will be because [the Republicans] have been more populist." ...

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