John Lukacs, the internationally renowned Hungarian-born historian, writer and self-proclaimed “reactionary” died of heart failure at the age of 95 on May 6 at his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Lukacs was known for producing many substantial writings on Hungarian, European and American politics and culture.
János Adalbert Lukács was born in Budapest on Jan. 31, 1924. He studied history at Eötvös Loránd University (at the time: Pázmány Péter University). His father was a Catholic doctor and his mother was Jewish. Although Lukacs’s father was a practicing Catholic, after the Nazi occupation of Hungary, he was considered Jewish and sent to a labor camp, unable to escape until the summer of 1944. He evaded deportation to the death camps and survived the siege of Budapest. After the war, he worked as the Secretary of the Hungarian-American Society.
Emigration to the US and Road to Fame
In 1946, the year he was awarded a doctoral degree in history, he managed to cross the border to Austria and was able to escape to the United States. He arrived by ship in Portland, Maine, where he began his new life. However, he never forgot about his motherland. From 1947 until his retirement in 1994, he taught history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. For years he was a visiting professor at many prestigious institutions including Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University. He began regularly visiting Hungary in the 80s and after the Hungarian political system change in 1989-90, he taught classes at Corvinus University of Budapest (formerly: University of Economics of Budapest) and Eötvös Loránd University. He was married three times (his first two wives died) and had two children. His third marriage to Pamela Hall ended in divorce.
Most Important Works
Lukacs authored more than 30 books, including The Hitler of History (1997), in which Lukacs studied German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s life by examining more than one hundred biographies written about him. His topics were far-ranging including the history of Hungary, 20th-century American history and even the philosophy of history itself. His favorite genre was the plain – but linguistically and professionally superior – essay. His other books include The Great Powers and Eastern Europe (1954), A History of the Cold War (1961), Outgrowing Democracy: A Historical Interpretation of the U.S. in the 20th Century (1984), and The Duel (Hitler vs. Churchill 10 May–31 August 1940) (1991).
Lukacs always described himself as a reactionary in the sense that he favors a return to earlier times. He observed a decline in the worship of technological progress, the elevation of science to religion and the rise of materialism. He disliked mass culture and everything that goes with it. He shared the opinion of Tocqueville on the “tyranny of the majority,” and was especially wary of populism as he considered it the greatest threat to civilization. As he predicted, it gave rise to both National Socialism and Communism.
In his memoir, Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990) he wrote about the difference between a reactionary and a conservative. From his viewpoint, a reactionary is someone who wants to preserve without nationalism. When asked about the definition of the word reactionary in an interview he said: “A reactionary is somebody who thinks the clock has to be put back sometimes.”
Aside from being the President of the American Catholic Historical Association and a member of the Royal Historical Society, Lukacs was also the recipient of numerous awards: the Ingersoll prize and the George Washington prize. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to academic life in Hungary he received the Corvin chain, the Hungarian Order of Merit, one of the highest state orders of Hungary, and the Széchenyi Prize. He also has honorary doctorates from a number of Universities including Pázmány Péter Catholic University.
He often spoke about his love for both the US and Hungary: “Hungary is my homeland and America is my home. I am a son of Hungary. I feel Hungarian. I said that I feel Hungarian. This feeling is something only a mother could pass on. From this viewpoint, Hungary is my mother and America is my wife.” In his memoir he described his life as such: “Because of the goodness of God, I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one.”
Featured photo by Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI