Marc-William Palen. Review of John Lukacs's "the Legacy of the Second World War" (Yale, 2010)
“Myths which are believed in tend to become true.” So wrote George Orwell in 1944. Prolific historian John Lukacs, in The Legacy of the Second World War, offers Orwell a corrective. Lukacs attempts to pursue “truth”—a dangerous word in any historian’s lexicon—among the myriad pervasive “untruths” created in the wake of the war. This work, then, is an exploration, an attempt to salvage the remains of historical fact from a global conflict that has since taken on mythic proportions. It is a study about the war, Lukacs warns us in the book’s first line, rather than of it. It is “not an overview or a sketch of global history. It is to assess the historical place, and meaning” of World War Two. In doing so, Lukacs’s book rises above, or at least dovetails around, explicitly dealing with the mass of secondary literature surrounding the conflict, although Lukacs implicitly intonates his intimacy with the subject throughout.
Keep in mind also that Lukacs’s story is predominantly a story of the Western front. Those expecting the timeline to begin with Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria or Italy’s 1935 occupation of Ethiopia are forewarned that it starts instead in 1939 when the mythologized and misnamed “Good War” truly became a “world war” with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. As a caveat to economic historians as well, Lukacs considers the origins of Hitler’s rise to power during the economic depression of the early thirties as “superficial” to his study; the importance here “is not Hitler’s arrival to power but his exercise of it.” Hitler, along with his unique utilization of extreme nationalism and socialism, began the conflict; the Second World War, Lukacs unequivocally states, “was Hitler’s war.”
It is perhaps not all that surprising, then, that Lukacs emphasizes the need to reevaluate Hitler and his historical legacy. Hitler ought to be viewed, Lukacs argues, as the “most extraordinary” person of the twentieth century. More importantly, Lukacs reminds people that Hitler was a calculating statesman more than a madman; hate-filled, not narrow-minded. To imagine him otherwise “absolves him of responsibility for what he did and ordered and said…from thinking about him, by sweeping Hitler under the rug.” Most worrisome, therefore, is how he might be viewed far in the future. At one point, Lukacs even predicts that, “if Western civilization melts away,” Hitler’s reputation may “rise in the minds of some people, as a kind of Diocletian, a last architect of an imperial order; and he might be revered by at least some of the New Barbarians.” Already, Lukacs notes, even amid strict European laws forbidding Nazi symbols and political parties, neo-Nazi elements have once again arisen; and, on a near weekly basis, fresh flowers are secretly placed upon Hitler’s parents’ gravestone in an Austrian cemetery.
Beyond Hitler’s legacy, Lukacs also points to other specific consequences that make the Second World War so singular in its historical significance. One was the noticeable disappearance of rules distinguishing noncombatants from combatants. Civilian deaths outnumbered those of soldiers in the conflict. The Russian rape and plunder of Germany and Central Europe; the bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki; the internment of Japanese Americans; the Soviet mass deportation of Tartars and Chechens; and of course the German eradication—and eventual extermination—of the Jews of Europe provide some of the most glaring examples of the conflict’s setting of modern precedent. The spread of nationalist fervor, both intentional and unintended, throughout the globe was a further consequence of the war. The end of the European empires—-decolonization-- followed soon thereafter.
Lukacs ends his book with a reassessment of the Second World War’s relationship to the Cold War. Was the Cold War inevitable? Did the cold war mentality play a part in, or result from, the partition of Europe, Germany, and Berlin? Can we find the “symptoms” of the Cold War in World War Two? Lukacs offers complex and ambiguous answers for each. Historians of the Cold War will find much here to debate about his chapter on the code-named Rainbow Five, where he praises the pre-Pearl Harbor prescience of American strategists when they crafted the secret, oft-criticized, two-ocean, two-front war plan, as well as his discussion of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s dynamic relationship with the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and their increasingly strained relationship following their disagreement over the atom bomb and the war. But, as for America’s role in the Cold War’s development, Lukacs does state unhesitatingly, in hindsight at least, that Franklin Roosevelt’s “concern with Russia came not too early but too late.”
Seeking truths surrounding the Second World War’s legacy is a daunting task. Yet Lukacs does so with a style and brevity that will make his book broadly accessible to a wide audience. Furthermore, Lukacs’s tantalizing “what ifs,” controversial arguments, and prophetic digressions will doubtless provoke healthy discussion in the undergraduate classroom, as well as a lively response from a variety of historians.
comments powered by Disqus
François Delpla - 8/2/2010
I think "the preliminary stages of the Holocaust" were in Germany, then in Poland !
Elliott Aron Green - 5/30/2010
Hitler's mass murderous aims against the Jews were not limited to the Jews living in Europe. They included Jews elsewhere in the world, as indicated by his interview in late 1941 with Haj Amin el-Husseini, the British-appointed mufti of Jerusalem and chief leader of the Palestinian Arabs from the 1920s through the 1940s.
In fact, the preliminary stages of the Holocaust were put in effect in German-occupied Libya and Tunisia. Labor camps were set up for Jews. Indeed, hundreds of Jews were sent from North Africa to death camps in Europe.
Hence, "Jews of Europe" is a misconception on Lukacs' part.