John Lukacs has over the past forty years become one of the most interesting and popular historical writers in the United States. Born in Hungary in 1924, he came to his adopted country in 1947 and began a teaching career at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic college for young women outside Philadelphia. Over the next sixty years, the prolific Lukacs produced thirty books on topics that ranged from the cultural history of Philadelphia to the history of the Cold War. In the 1990’s, he gained renewed acclaim for a series of short books that focused on key events in World War II. His close examinations of Winston Churchill’s decisions and speeches of May, 1940, and their relationship to the outcome of the war became best sellers. Lukacs’s reputation as an interpreter of recent history and a lucid writer soared. As his books became shorter, his audience grew larger, appreciating the luminous and insightful essays that his later work contained.
Lukacs’s writings are not easily classified. His interests have ranged from Alexis de Tocqueville to George Kennan. He will probably be best remembered for his insights into World War II. He spent the war years in his native Hungary as the Germans and Russians contested for supremacy in central Europe. His ability to unravel the complexity of national and international politics in that turbulent region was most evident in The Last European War (1976), where he explained the interplay of economic, cultural, and political events between 1939 and December, 1941. That book remains a stimulating and informative work and perhaps the best place to begin understanding what has made Lukacs such an influential chronicler of modern times.
One of the most entertaining features of Lukacs’s books are the discursive footnotes that comment on his text and elaborate on his opinions. Fans of Lukacs enjoy that aspect of his work as much as his main narratives. Excerpts from his diaries, comments about his personal experiences, and tart observations on the work of other historians turn up in his annotations. Throughout his narratives, these notes provide intriguing hints about Lukacs’s own life experiences. Naturally, these revelations about his personal history have fed an interest in Lukacs himself.
Lukacs addressed these matters in his first autobiographical volume, Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990). He traced his life and developing thoughts, from Hungary and his reactions to World War II to his emigration to the United States once the fighting had stopped. The book’s narrative examined his career as a teacher and writer and explained how he came to write the books he did. Readers learned something of his personal life, but only within the context of his professional interests. At age sixty-six, Lukacs could look back in 1990 over a rich and productive career as a scholar and teacher.
Now, nearly two decades later at the age of eighty-five, Lukacs has written a second, more personal account of his own life and writing. He intends, he says in the opening pages, to move in this narrative, “from something like a philosophy to something like an autobiography.” In the course of the book, Lukacs reveals more of his personal story than in his previous volumes, and admirers of his work will find here more insights into the man himself. However, Lukacs has never been particularly easy to read, and Last Rites requires readers to plunge into the author’s philosophy of history and of the place of humanity in the universe before his more personal disclosures arrive.
As if to alert readers that heavy thinking will be necessary before more accessible information is provided, Lukacs titles his first chapter “A Bad Fifteen Minutes.” For that period of time, or however long it takes to read the first chapter, Lukacs delves into the thorny questions of objectivity and subjectivity in history, how historians know what they know, and how valid history is as a discipline. He sees humanity as existing at the center of the universe and history as “the recorded and remembered past.” Models, science, and history, for Lukacs, are all creations of the human mind and must be understood as such. These beliefs reflect Lukacs’s long-held views that historical events are subject to contingency and human action. In a short book of this kind, his aphoristic style and references to such thinkers as Werner Heisenberg will challenge his audience to grapple with these large questions.
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