“There is significance in the end of things,” a young man, hinting at a wisdom beyond his years, once told me.  For that reason alone, A Short History of the Twentieth Century, the latest book by John Lukacs, would be significant.  For this is not just his most recent book but, as he announced in these pages in August 2013, almost certainly his last.  Yet beyond the significance of summing up a career that has been remarkably prolific and productive (two words that are often used as synonyms but which have very different meanings), A Short History of the Twentieth Century stands on its own as an important work—Lukacs’s most original in recent years, and one that sows certain seeds that a future generation of historians could cultivate and harvest to great profit, should they choose to do so.  (Whether they will is by no means certain.)

On January 31, America’s greatest living historian will celebrate his 90th birthday.  At one point in A Short History, Lukacs refers to “those coincidences that statisticians hate but some historians love.”  For those who have followed his work, it is hard not to see certain significance in the milestones of his life.  Born halfway between the start of World War I and the accession of Hitler, Lukacs came to the United States in 1946, just as the United States became the undisputed world power.  His emigration from a Europe ravaged by war and a Hungary overshadowed by Russia (rather than by communism) marked another halfway point, between his birth and the publication of his greatest work, Historical Consciousness, in 1968, his 45th year.  Four and a half decades later, the themes of Historical Consciousness continue to resonate in this final work, in ways that are both obvious and not.

Obvious, in the final chapter of the book, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge,” but also in the title of the first chapter, “‘God Writes Straight With Crooked Lines’” (“a profound and wise Portuguese proverb”), and in its first two paragraphs, worth quoting in full because they tell us so much not only about the purpose of this book but about the purpose of Lukacs’s lifelong intellectual endeavors:

There is no serious history of the twentieth century that I know of; but my purpose in this book is not quite filling that gap.  I lived through much of the twentieth century, and I was a participant in and a historian of a few of its portions.  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 pursing, and perhaps forever.

Now, enough of this philosophic premise.  Historical knowledge, nay, understanding, depends on description 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.

In 1968, it took almost 400 pages for Lukacs to set forth this “philosophic premise” in a way that would make it understandable for those who were willing seriously to consider it (which, as Lukacs has often lamented, did not include as many historians as it ought to have).  Now here it is in 190 words, ready to be accepted or rejected, but certainly readily grasped by all of Lukacs’s readers.  In part, alas, that is because, at this end of an age of books, fewer people will read A Short History of the Twentieth Century than read Historical Consciousness (even though the former is considerably more accessible than the latter).  Those who do read it, however, will be better equipped to understand, for Johan Huizinga’s assertion, with which Lukacs began Historical Consciousness, has become increasingly true over the past four and a half decades: “Historical thinking has entered our very blood.”  And that is the result, in no small part, of Historical Consciousness and Lukacs’s subsequent work—even if woefully few people know to whom the credit belongs.

The themes of Historical Consciousness resonate in other ways that are less obvious, or perhaps not obvious at all, in the subject matter of A Short History of the Twentieth Century.  For this is, to use a term that is today most often applied pejoratively rather than descriptively, a Euro­centric book.  Lukacs himself repeatedly remarks upon this—for instance, at the beginning of Chapter 12:

Some of my readers may question—justifiably—why until now this “short history of the twentieth century” has dealt principally with the history of Europe (and of the United States and the Soviet Union), with not much attention to the histories of other continents and peoples.

To which he offers, by way of explanation:

After the twentieth century, not only the old predominance but also the preeminence of Europe may no longer exist.  But the two world wars and then the Cold War, 1914-1989, were still mainly fought and decided in Europe.  So it may be argued that even in view of the enormous political and geographic consequences of these world wars on other continents, Europe still remained the center of world history—due to the Cold War with its protagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union, until 1989.

That is, it seems to me, a reasonable but partial explanation.  A more complete answer is found in the two sentences that begin the chapter “South of the Border and Across the Pacific”: “History is the record and the memory of mankind.  This kind of knowledge is by necessity selective and limited.”

History is not simply the chronicling of “one damn thing after another,” nor the process by which such chronicling takes place, but a form of thought: “the remembered past” (the subtitle of Historical Consciousness).  And here we must tread lightly, especially because space prevents a full examination of what I am about to say: Historical consciousness is an attribute primarily of European man.  Or, to be more precise, historical consciousness, in its most developed form, is an attribute of Christian man.  It may be found, still, in post-Christian men—that is, in those who have fallen away from the Faith that defined Europe but have not turned decisively against it; but it is found only in protean form in pre-Christian civilizations, and in attenuated form, at best, among the increasingly anti-Christian intellectual and political classes in Europe and her colonies.

Because of the “personal and participatory” nature of historical knowledge (let alone historical understanding), any history of the great civilizations outside of Europe and the United States written by someone who is not himself an heir to, and participant in, those civilizations must necessarily be fragmentary at best.  Europe—speaking broadly here to include not just her American child but the Mediterranean basin and the western edges of Asia—has not simply been the “center of world history” in the sense of the place where important things have happened, but in the sense of the place where historical consciousness developed, and where the past has been remembered.

The migration of European peoples westward and southward (and to a much lesser extent eastward) brought with it European ideas and modes of thought—and the Christian Faith.  “Yet,” as Lukacs notes,

the great historical movement of the past five hundred years is now reversing. . . . Now many of their descendants have been returning from those places, while some people from Africa and Asia are pressing toward Europe.

And later: “Everything suggests that this movement of peoples will continue in the twenty-first century.”

These populations are moving into a Europe and a United States that are increasingly disconnected from the sources of their own historical consciousness, including the Christian Faith.  And while some, especially Southern and Latin American immigrants to the United States, arrive from historically Christian countries, for all too many their Christianity dissolves in the new American Melting Pot of individualism and consumerism within a generation or two of their arrival.  While Christianity remains seemingly strong in South America, and continues to grow in Africa (despite the parallel resurgence of Islam), the extent to which its cultural predominance (something different from its spiritual power) continues to depend upon the patrimony of Europe is by no means clear.  To mention just the most obvious example: Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not, as the media triumphantly proclaimed, the first South American or Argentinian pope; he is, rather, a decidedly Italian or European pope—perhaps the last, in almost every way that matters.

As always, Lukacs refuses to play the prophet, to speculate about the history of the century now unfolding.  But we can see in this book, as in all of his work since Historical Consciousness, the outline of certain tendencies that are likely to continue: the declining importance of states, and the rising importance of nations, concomitant with the increasing migration of peoples; a continuing advance of “Democracy,” in manifold forms, especially populism and nationalism—“the very worst (and, alas, powerful components of democracy.”  The “Modern (or, more precisely, European) Age” is giving way to something new, toward which the 20th century, whatever else it may have been, was clearly a transition.  In past works, Lukacs has referred to that something as a new barbarism, arising from inside rather than outside the walls; here, he again hints at that possibility, citing Tocque­ville—“If the light by which we are guided is ever extinguished, it will dwindle by degrees and expire of itself”—and Jacob Burckhardt:

The sudden change from democracy will no longer result in the rule of an individual, but in the rule of a military corporation.  And by it, methods will perhaps be used for which even the most terrible despot would not have the heart.

Yet in his final pages, Lukacs sums up the signs for hope: a “waning enthusiasm” for technology; an increasing acknowledgment of the “shortcomings of scientific determinism”; the recognition that “we, on our little, warm planet, are (again? anew?) at the very center of the universe.”  He is, and will always remain, a Christian: “The universe was, and is, not our creation.”  We have our role to play—“we human beings on this earth have invented it, and go on inventing it from time to time”—but we can play it well only if we acknowledge “the limitations of our human knowledge,” which “do not restrict but enrich us.”

There is indeed significance in the end of things.  Yet if A Short History of the Twentieth Century must mark the end of John Lukacs’s personal contribution to our historical consciousness, its readers can still be thankful, for it is a book worthy of his legacy—and of the man himself.


[A Short History of the Twentieth Century, by John Lukacs (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) 230 pp., $24.95]