John Lukacs, a historian who wrote a bestselling tribute to Winston Churchill, dies at 95
John Lukacs, a Hungarian-born historian, has died at age 95. Lukacs was an iconoclast who brooded over the future of Western civilization, wrote a bestselling 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.
Lukacs died of heart failure early Monday at his home outside Philadelphia, according to his stepson, Charles Segal.
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.
Lukacs completed more than 30 books, on diverse subjects including his native country and 20th century American history, as well as 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 “civilization 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
“The kind of populist nationalism that Hitler incarnated has been and continues to be the most deadly of modern plagues,” he once wrote.
Hitler and Stalin were Lukacs’ prime villains, Churchill his hero. Lukacs wrote several short works on Churchill’s leadership during World War II, 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.
One Churchill book attained unexpected popularity after the Sept. 11, 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.com’s bestseller 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 told the Philadelphia Inquirer 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.
Born Jan. 31, 1924, in Budapest, Lukacs Janos Albert had a Catholic father and Jewish mother, making him technically a Jew, although he was a practicing Catholic for much of his life. For the Nazis, who occupied Hungary in 1944, being half Jewish was enough to be sent to a labor camp.
By the end of 1944, he was a deserter from the Hungarian army labor 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 to 1994. He was married three times and had two children. His first two wives preceded him in death.
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 organization are falling wonderfully into place, crystallizing 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.”
Italie writes for the Associated Press
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.