Skip to main content


History in a Democratic Age

A Conversation with John Lukacs

HUMANITIES, January/February 2003 | Volume 24, Number 1

Historian John Lukacs talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about history and its heroes. Lukacs has written a dozen books, among them Historical Consciounsess, The Passing of the Modern Age, and Five Days in London, May 1940. His most recent is Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian.

Bruce Cole: You’ve written about a variety of subjects: the intellectual history of the past five hundred years, the history of the Cold War, the city of Budapest, the rise and fall of Europe, the history of the United States. What draws you to a given topic?

John Lukacs: There’s a simple answer to this: whatever interests me. Professionally, sometimes, this is a handicap. Other historians may say, “What is he doing on my turf?” Yet I can only say: whatever interests me. If something really interests me, then I’m writing not for money, not for reputation--but because I can’t help it.

Cole: While you’re researching one topic, does that spark off ideas on another that leads to a book, maybe not immediately, but somewhere down the road a bit?

Lukacs: It often does spark an interest. During research, you often find what you’re looking for, but very often you find other things too that, for the reason of economy, you don’t want to include in the same book.

Cole: Yes. Right.

Lukacs: It may just lie fallow. It might result in an article. Who knows, it might even lead to another book.

Cole: You’ve observed that you cannot separate history from the historian. How did you become a historian?

Lukacs: This goes back to a very different world, and to a very different time. As you know, I was born in Hungary. I was interested in history, but it was not until I entered the university that I decided that I was going to get a degree in history, a degree not quite the equivalent to an American Ph.D., but by and large similar. That’s how I became a historian.

Cole: As a child you were interested in history?

Lukacs: The other day I was just thinking about this. I started to read novels and literature, I would say, in my early teens. When I look back, I was always interested in the kind of literature that has much history in it-- not the historical novel as such, but novels that described a time, a place, and people, how they were, what they were thinking, how they and their places were at a particular time.

Cole: I understand. Besides your writing, you’ve had a long career as a college professor. Is there a relationship between your teaching and your research and writing?

Lukacs: Absolutely. I always wanted to write. Frankly, when I got my first teaching position, I said, “All right. This will enable me to write.” I think that I was a responsible and a reliable teacher, but my teaching ambitions were secondary. I was not interested in moving from college to college to college up the academic ladder.

Then, halfway through my teaching career which has almost covered half a century, I discovered that my teaching had very much helped my writing and even that I have been especially fortunate to teach in a good little undergraduate college. If I had been appointed to a large university and taught graduate students, I don’t think I would be as good a writer. I had to talk to undergraduates about complicated things simply but not superficially. It taught me a great deal about economy of expression.

Cole: Well, that’s certainly characteristic of your books: you make complicated events and situations crystal clear. So you find that when you’re in the classroom, you need to get to the essence of what you’re talking about and present it in a way that is fathomable to an undergraduate?

Lukacs: Yes. I have to use my words carefully, and this is what writing is all about. I have shocked many of my historian colleagues by saying that history consists of words, that the words are not just the packaging of the facts. In our minds the facts do not exist apart from the words with which we express them.

Cole: We really don’t know what we know or how we know it until we start to either speak it or write it.

Lukacs: Yes. This goes against the rules in the natural sciences: your expression clarifies your mind.

Cole: It’s that whole creative process that is scholarship, I think. One of the things that I’m very interested in is history in general and American history in particular. Many people in the history profession are working in what I would call silos. They are hyperspecialized and they are really writing for each other.

In many cases that deep specialization is not a bad thing, but it also seems to me that the historian has a wide audience that is very receptive to history. I’m thinking of David McCullough and Ken Burns and The History Channel and C-SPAN. What is the relationship between the historian and the wider public? Certainly it’s been different in the past when there really wasn’t this age of hyper-specialization in history.

Lukacs: You touched on two subjects that are very close to me. There is today among the public--especially among the American public, but this is almost a worldwide phenomenon--a broad interest in history. Of course, this appetite can be filled with all kinds of things.

This appetite is one of the few healthy things in the cultural mess we live in today. Many professional historians are not aware of this. There is another thing. You said there is much specialization of history and you regretted this. Yet specialization in history is not necessarily a bad thing.

Cole: No. I agree.

Lukacs: The bad thing is that often the specialist is not really very much interested in what he’s doing. He has picked a specialty because he thinks that this will further him in his profession. The true specialist is an eccentric: he is someone who is really and deeply interested in something about which he wants to know more and more.

Cole: Almost obsessed?

Lukacs: Yes. The more he knows, he finds that the less he knows. Yet there are specialists now today. Again, at the risk perhaps of lack of charity, I suspect that the people who do it are interested in their historianship rather than in history.

Cole: In other words, in the professional side of their career rather than in the substance of the work.

Lukacs: Yes. In their standing among their peers. There are all kinds of minuscule privileges that come in academic life. Nobody is immune to it. But if the entire emphasis on your ambition and your mental interest is directed there, that is a deep loss.

Cole: How does your work reflect you?

Lukacs: As I said, whatever I’ve written or I’m writing about is something that interests me very much. Another thing is that I am constantly aware of the inevitable relationship of history and literature. History is scientific in a way, but it is an art in another way, in a different way. History is written, thought, taught, spoken in words of everyday language.

Cole: Let’s talk for a minute about history as art. This relation between history and literature, I hope you will agree, is found superbly in Churchill?

Lukacs: Oh, yes. Churchill, as you know, was not a professional historian. There’s a great English historian, Veronica Wedgwood, who expressed it right. She said, “History is an art—like all the other sciences.”

Cole: One of the things you’ve written about is the concept of the great man. We see this certainly in your wonderful Churchill books. Is this nowadays a less traveled path for historians?

Lukacs: So it is, but that will pass. The present tendency of making history into something like retrospective sociology will continue, but will be refined. We’ll definitely become better. I can see that we live in a democratic age and we have to deal with the lives and the history of large numbers of people. This is so obvious that it is hardly worth repeating. Someone who foresaw this, as he foresaw many things, was the great Tocqueville. Tocqueville has a chapter in the second volume of Democracy in America, which asks, “What will be the characteristics of historians in democratic times?” I think that small chapter ought to be pasted above the desk of every historian.

Cole: He says, “The writing of history in the age of democracy will be more difficult than and different from the writing of history in ages ruled by aristocratic minorities.”

Lukacs: Exactly. I think of this again and again.

Cole: The NEH is launching a new initiative called “We the People,” and one of its aspects is that we are going to establish a lecture series on heroes and heroism, with the idea that we don’t believe that history is only created by vast impersonal forces, but that individuals do make a difference and do themselves decisively shape history.

Lukacs: Worth discussing. Yes.

Cole: With that in mind, let’s turn to that remarkable figure, Winston Churchill. How long have you been interested in Churchill?

Lukacs: This goes back to when I lived in Hungary in 1940. I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I have very greatly admired him since that time. Then I read his history of the Second World War. It took about another thirty years for this to crystallize into what you might call a professional historian’s interest.

Cole: Churchill, as far as historians go, has certainly has had his ups and downs. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Lukacs: Balfour, who was a great speaker but had difficulty in writing, said about Churchill’s The World Crisis,--his multivolume history of the First World War--that Churchill had written an autobiography and called it The World Crisis, which is both funny and a bit mean.

Along similar lines, I had a telling and sad experience some years ago. A colleague--a medievalist--had worked on Richard II, a tragic and complex figure in English history. I said, “You really ought to read what Churchill wrote about Richard II in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” He absolutely refused to do that, saying that Churchill was not a historian. This is an extreme example of a professional mentality that I regret.

There are passages in some works of Churchill which are stunning, not only because of his language but because of his ability to summarize things in an almost Olympian way.

Cole: Absolutely. I’ve been reading The Great Republic, the book that excerpts sections on the United States. It has appended to it a number of journalistic pieces that Churchill did about the United States, which are really very insightful.

Lukacs: Yes.

Cole: --and often very, very amusing. His ability to synthesize and to get to the absolute nub of things with his magisterial language is absolutely thrilling.

Lukacs: Yes.

Cole: What about Churchill’s reputation today?

Lukacs: Churchill’s reputation today is very high. I think there are two elements in this. I’m not only speaking of his reputation among historians. Compared to the rather mediocre leadership we had in the Western world since him, he stands out and certainly is a heroic figure in the Second World War. That is rather obvious.

But I think there’s another element, too, in the stance he took, adversary as he was not only of Hitler but also of Russian Communism. I think after the fall of the Soviet empire it became apparent that, by and large, most people had exaggerated the power and the influence of Soviet Russia. The power and the ability of the Germans in World War Two was much greater. The Russians were never close to winning the Cold War.

Cole: This makes Churchill’s role, especially in those dark days that you talk about, even stronger.

Lukacs: Yes. He did not win the Second World War, but he was the one who didn’t lose it. He was a single man in Hitler’s path. Hitler knew that. He hated Churchill.

Cole: And the feeling was reciprocated, right?

Lukacs: Not exactly. Churchill was a magnanimous person. Yes, he hated Hitler. But, contrary to what many Germans think, he did not hate the German people. When the news came to him at dinner that Hitler had killed himself, in Berlin, his first reaction was, “Well, I must say that he was perfectly right to die like that.”

Cole: Fascinating.

Lukacs: He was worried that toward the end of the war Hitler would fly to England and say, “Do with me”--these are his words, Churchill’s--”Do with me what you want to do, but spare my unfortunate people.” I think this would have put the Allies in a considerable dilemma.

Cole: What do you think Churchill would have done?

Lukacs: Hitler was not like Napoleon. Churchill would not have had a free hand. He would have had to consider Stalin and Roosevelt. Perhaps he would have liked to put him in some St. Helena in the Tower of London. I don’t know. But he couldn’t do this alone.

Cole: You were just a boy in Hungary at the time this great war was being played out.

Lukacs: I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and a precocious and very insufferable young man, yes. (Laughter.)

Cole: Budapest was really blown apart at the end.

Lukacs: I was right there during the siege. That’s another story. That was a great education for me, having lived through the Second World War, in the middle of it.

Cole: Your decision then to come to the States, that must have given you a different worldview.

Lukacs: This was after the Russians had come. Hungary still did not have a communist government, but I knew that Hungary was in the Russian sphere, so it was only a matter of time until the Communists ruled entirely. I was already too much identified with the British and American side. Our great advantage, due to my mother, was that I spoke English rather well.

Cole: Yes.

Lukacs: And I worked for the Americans, which counted against me, of course. I didn’t do anything very confidential, but still . . . I had a chance of going to any of the English-speaking countries. My natural destination should have been Britain because I had been in school in England for a while before the war, but eventually my venue was the United States, because of my connection with Americans in Budapest.

Cole: You speak of Churchill as a visionary.

Lukacs: He had visionary powers that were extraordinary. Bismarck said that a great statesman can see correctly, at best, five years ahead. Churchill beat that.

Cole: Do you think his vision matured as he aged or do you think this was always the case?

Lukacs: I think this was always the case. He says some very startling prophetic things in his earliest books. Yet I think it matured. He knew a great deal about the world. The British are now understandably contrary to the union of Europe and so forth, but Churchill had a tremendous knowledge of the history of Europe.

Cole: Do you have a favorite book by Churchill? If you were to be shipwrecked on a desert island and could only take one, what would that be?

Lukacs: I would probably take My Early Life, because it’s so delightfully written. It can be reread and reread and reread again.

Cole: How old was he when he wrote his first book?

Lukacs: He wrote his book at the age of twenty-three.

Cole: I think of him as one of the great Victorians, although he’s a little younger than that. He had an active professional life in government with many, many responsibilities and duties; still he wrote and wrote and wrote, in the way those great Victorians did. How did he find the time to do all of this?

Lukacs: In the 1920s, he lived very well, but he didn’t have much money. He had not married for money at all. Sometime in the 1920s he discovered he could make money writing. But it was not money that made him write. He couldn’t help it. He had to write.

Cole: I think you feel like that too; is that correct?

Lukacs: I certainly don’t want to compare myself to him, but perhaps in different ways, yes.

Cole: That’s just something that you need to do?

Lukacs: Writing, in a way, clarifies the mind.

Cole: There has been an opening of the Churchill Archives. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Lukacs: There is one minus in it, but a greater plus than the minuses. It is in a very ugly building in Cambridge, a monstrously modern building.

Cole: He probably would have hated it.

Lukacs: He probably would have hated it, yes. But the archives are in very good shape. The archives include, of course, a lot of people who were involved in his life and they leave their papers there. The archives grow all the time.

An English historian, David Reynolds, is doing an important job. He is reconstituting how Churchill wrote some of his histories; the original drafts of his histories are there.

As you know, Churchill had a fair number of helpers who did research for him. Professional historians may be jealous of that, but they ought not to be. For instance, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Rubens had thirty or forty helpers.

Cole: That is correct, and they produced the greatest works of art.

Lukacs: Yes.

Cole: Was Churchill a careful collector and preserver of his own papers? Did he have his eye towards history?

Lukacs: I think so. For example, many of his research materials are preserved. I do not like to be overwhelmed with paper. When I finish a work, except, of course, the main draft, I throw all the index cards away.

Cole: I do that too.

Lukacs: I don’t think it’s a very good idea, but you have to economize.

Cole: What do you think Churchill thought his place in history was going to be? Do we know that?

Lukacs: I cannot tell you, but I tell you he was quite modest about his historianship. He writes these books that are second to none, and he says, “This is not really history. It’s a contribution to history.” I don’t think this was an artificial modesty. He meant that.

Cole: What about his role as a world figure?

Lukacs: I think he knew what he was doing. He knew not only what he ought to do, he knew what it was that he achieved, and what he could have achieved and could not achieve.

Cole: Did he have his eye on how his action would result in his place in the world?

Lukacs: I don’t think that he was a man very much suffused with vanity. At the very end of the war, V-Day, when the people in London cheered him to high heaven, he said, “No, it was not due to me. It’s due to you.”

Cole: You’ve been writing for a decade now that the Modern Age is over.

Lukacs: Well, nothing is really over, but yes.

Cole: What makes you think it’s coming to an end?

Lukacs: The Modern Age was the age when Europe extended its power over other continents. It meant many things: white rule, the power of the state, the idea of schooling, the centrality of the family. It was also the Age of the Book and the Age of Money. That is changing. One hundred and seventy- five years ago, Tocqueville saw that something truly new was beginning. Aristocratic minorities had ruled; we were in the Aristocratic Age, and now the Age of Democracy is beginning. This was a very slow passage, a co-existence of aristocracies and democracies. As time went on, the power and the prestige and even the social position of the aristocracies declined, and the power and prestige and the influence and the social democratic structure rose. Now democracy is nearly universal. As Tocqueville also said, this is not a simple theory. People thought the Age of Democracy would be much simpler than when courtiers ruled, but it is not so. What happens is less rule by the people than rule in the name of the people. The people who are doing the ruling have to be nominated and elected, which of course is very democratic. But the very structure of government and election and the actual representation of the people is very complicated.

Cole: What will be the ideas that define the next era?

Lukacs: I’m not a prophet, I’m only a historian. (Laughter.) The wonderful thing about history is--well, wonderful but also maddening--is that it is unpredictable.

Cole: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I appreciate it, Professor Lukacs.

Lukacs: I've enjoyed it.