John Lukacs on what makes history

"This short history of the twentieth century is not a philosophical treatise. But at this point I am compelled to add two brief digressions. The first is a summary of my view of history, which goes contrary to the still very widely accepted categorical beliefs of why and how history happened and happens, of course including that of the Second World War. The current, often deemed 'scientific' belief is that history, perhaps especially in the democratic age, is the result of great material and economic factors, of which the lives, acts, and thoughts of people are largely the consequences. That is less than a half-truth. In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany not just because of the economic crisis of 1930–1933, but because of the political mood of many Germans at that time. It was not the state of the British economy that made the British government reluctant to resist Hitler in the Thirties. It was not inferiority of materials or armaments that led to the collapse of France in 1940. There was no economic reason for the Japanese to plan and then make war on the United States. Of course, it is true that the tremendous material power of the United States (and the enormous size of the armies of the Soviet Union) made the war winnable against Germany and Japan. But there, too, what mattered was the resolution and the near-unanimity of the American people, and the unwillingness of the Russian people to oppose Stalin. What people thought (and think), what they believe, what they choose to think, what they prefer to believe—that is the main essence of their lives, of which their material conditions and economics desires are most often the outcomes, and not the other way around."

—John Lukacs, A Short History of the Twentieth Century (Belknap, 2013), 126-127. Lukacs, who will be 95 in January, was born in Hungary to a Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father. Since the 1940s, he has lived in the United States and taught and written as a historian. Much of what he writes in this brief but enthralling book he lived through himself—sometimes up close. There is nothing quite like reading a truly independent mind, as evidenced in the quote above. As it happens, to make an odd comparison between two authors, I am currently reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, whose founding premise is the idea of "psycho-history," what Asimov calls "the quintessence of sociology." By its precise mathematical formulas, it can predict (in the novel) what will happen hundreds and thousands of years in the future, treating masses of human beings the way scientists treat elements and atoms. Lukacs, for his part, stands against the materialists and the determinists alike. It's a breath of fresh air.


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