Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Short History of the Twentieth Century by John Lukacs

Do you want a Joe Friday ("Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts") history of the 20th century? Go elsewhere. Do you want to read an extended essay on the crucial events of the century by a master writer and historian? Then read this book. Do you want someone who will mouth common platitudes? Go elsewhere. Do you want the reflections and insights of a man who's studied and written about the 20th century in as much detail and with as much insight as anyone I can think of. Then read this book; in fact, you'd do well to read the rest of John Lukacs's work, too. 

Enjoying John Lukacs is the equivalent of enjoying a fine wine. Lukacs is a vineyard that keeps producing superb fare, now in his 90th year. Each new work provides a unique blend of insights. I'm a Lukacs connoisseur. But some do not care for what I consider an exquisite vintage. I read one review of this book that referred to him as "cranky", and in a charming sort of way, I can see that. Others find his opinions too harsh, dated, or limited in his perspective. I don't think so, but perfection isn't my primary concern. 

Lukacs sets forth many propositions, some of which he's stated before. For instance, his 20th century runs from 1914 to 1989 (the collapse of Communism). This is foremost a political history, and many historians will agree with the shortened scope of the century about which he writes. He centers his concerns on Europe and America. He acknowledges that he gives short shrift to Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia (Japan the primary exception). But he argues, rightly I think, that in this century, with some exception for Japan and China (near the end) has centered on Europe. The main focus of U.S. policy has centered on Europe. In the short 20th century, Europe was at the center of the action, including the horrible killing fields of the two wars. Lukacs notes that we've now reached the End of the Modern Age (the title of an earlier work, by the way), which also marks the end of the European Age. We don't yet know what follows; just as those who lived in (what we now call) the Middle Ages didn't know what would follow from the changes they saw as thheir age waned. Lukacs also states that "the twentieth century was--an? the?--American century". (2-3).

Lukacs sees Democracy as the great movement, but Democracy (as popular sovereignty) was shaped in no small part by nationalism (different from patriotism, as Lukacs has often written) and populism, which differs from classical liberalism. Given his quote of Burkhardt near the end of the book, one senses that he feels uneasy about the continued success of Democracy subject to the demands of nationalism and populism. 

Lukacs most blatantly transgresses popular dogma by contending  that some individuals still guide history. He contends that World War II was Hitler's war. No Hitler, no war. He believes that the ascension of Churchill over Halifax made the difference that allowed Britain to survive until "the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old." (Churchill). Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin play outsized roles (for good and ill) in the course of events. 

In addition to these perspectives and many others, Lukacs at the beginning and at the end of the book reflects on the project of history, knowing, and the human future. Of history as a discipline, he writes: 

     I have devoted much of my life to asserting, teaching, and writing that "objective" and "scientific" history are inadequate desiderata; but so, too, is "subjective" history. Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate. We do not possess truth completely. Yet pursue truth we must. So many seemingly endless and incomplete truths about the history of the twentieth century are still worth pursuing, and perhaps forever. (1)
. . . .
    Historical knowledge, nay, understanding, depends on descriptions rather than on definition. It consists of words and sentences that are inseparable from "facts"; they are more than the wrapping of facts. "In the beginning was the Word," and so it will be at the end of the world. (1-2)
At the end of this book, he cites Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt, who, along with Johan Huizinga, are the predecessors who have most influenced Lukacs. Among twentieth century thinkers, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, formulators of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics, have influenced Lukacs. Lukacs writes of the uncertainty principle in human knowing: 

    The knower cannot be separated from the known. And with this is a greater and deeper meaning: that we, on our little, warm planet, are (again? anew?) at the very center of the universe. The universe was, and is, not our creation. But we human beings on this earth have invented it, and go on inventing it from time to time.
. . . . 
    Our twentieth-century recognitions, no matter how scattered and still hardly conscious, must, and will, issue not from human arrogance but from human humility. Perhaps just as important as our recognition of our central situation in the universe is our recognition that the limitations of our human knowledge do not restrict but enrich us. (212).

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