A Short History of the Twentieth Century
by john lucacs
harvard, 240 pages, $24.95

In the very first sentence of his new book, John Lukacs declares, “There is no serious history of the twentieth century that I know of,” but whatever the shortcomings of other historians of the twentieth century, he has not filled the gap he claims exists. ­Lukacs, prolific historian though he is, is a political animal, exclusively so. A Short History of the Twentieth Century omits or skirts over entire fields of research: cultural and intellectual history, economic and social history—everything, in fact, except politics. I would not recommend this book to anyone who knew nothing about the subject, or who was too young to have lived through any of it: It is too partial, too selective, too partisan to be a primer. 

Nor is it the case that Lukacs knows as much as he thinks he does about some of the fields he does include. He is quite wrong, for example, to praise the partition of India in 1947, which was a disaster for all concerned, both at the time and ever since. He apologizes more than once for making his book so Eurocentric, but Europe is the only continent he knows really well and understands. He is a hedgehog, not a fox. He has one subject, Europe, and one big idea.

Despite the fact that he devotes at least three-quarters of this book to Europe, Lukacs follows others in treating the twentieth century as the American century. The French eighteenth, the British nineteenth, and the American twentieth centuries are successive phases of the European or modern age, with the twentieth century a period of transition to “something else.” He does not tell us what.

So far, so good; but what, for ­Lukacs, is distinctive about this final phase of the European Age? Given the pre-eminent role of the United States, at least after 1918, one might have guessed that his view of it would be optimistic. After all, by 1945, “the age of world wars was over. Such wars may never occur again.” On the other hand, liberal democracy—the most “precious and fragile” achievement of the epoch—has “gone” too. 

Lukacs does not make it easy to follow his argument here, but it seems that he makes a crucial distinction between “liberal democracy” and other kinds of democracy that lack its restraint. “Populism and nationalism are the very worst (and, alas, powerful) components of democracy,” he insists. While he is skeptical about the future of liberal democracy, he is convinced that “the democratization of the world” is our destiny. Here he cites ­Tocqueville’s prophecy of a coming democratic age, heralded by the rising American republic, which hints at the danger that equality poses to liberty and a purer form of democracy to bourgeois liberalism.

Democracy, Lukacs argues, “is advancing, whether we are conscious of it or not. I believe that this is God’s design.” It is rare for a historian to credit God with any role in history. Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern historiography, believed that “every epoch is immediate to God,” but he did not attribute a “design” to the Almighty.

Lukacs, however, is closer to Ranke’s contemporary Hegel in discerning a providential purpose in the rise of democratic government, though I doubt whether he would echo Hegel’s enthusiastic description of Napoleon at Jena, “this world-soul . . . on horseback.” If this book has a motto, it might be the “profound and wise” Portuguese proverb he uses as a chapter heading: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Lukacs insists that God’s concern for humanity “does not mean that the course of world history was inevitable.” For him, the actuality of human events is colored by different potentialities.

Unlike his namesake Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist who saw history as the emergence not of democracy but of class consciousness, John Lukacs insists that, for good or evil, we make our history for ourselves rather than being slaves to impersonal forces. He believes in the ability of individuals to influence the course of events. In the twentieth century, this meant above all the Big Three of the Second World War—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—and, of course, Hitler.

A century ago, “Germany had the potential to become the greatest power in the twentieth century.” That it did not was due to the Allied victories over the Germans in both world wars, the second of which was due to one man: Hitler. Consequently, Lukacs devotes his best and most original chapter to Hitler, “the greatest (and most demonic) figure in the entire history of an entire century,” and his satanic creation, National Socialism. 

He describes the latter as “the great political phenomenon of the twentieth century—and beyond.” Its appeal survived Hitler and still persists, especially in Europe: Unlike communism, Lukacs insists, it is emphatically not a “Wasm.” He points out that the abbreviation “Nazi” was originally “Nazi-Sozi,” meaning nationalist (as opposed to internationalist) socialists, but “the designation ‘Nazi’ meant much more than ‘Sozi.’ So ‘Nazi’ remained.” 

Lukacs rightly objects to the assumption that the Nazis were fascists: The former, unlike the latter, always gave priority to the nation over the state. A feature of Nazism, perhaps its defining one, was to insist that the Volk , the nation or people, only finds its fulfillment in an explicitly political expression of unity and purpose—hence the importance of the party and the führer principle, as well as the valorization of war as the great and decisive expression of national unity.

Nor does National Socialism have much to do with conservatism. It suited the communists to categorize Nazis as mere adherents to a variety of fascism or as right-wing, but they were neither. Plenty of other socialists have followed Hitler’s example and adopted nationalism and anti-­Semitism too, including Stalin. It was for this reason that Stalin forbade the use of “National Socialist,” and this taboo persists today. Indeed, as Lukacs observes, Nazi flags and symbols are still banned in many countries, presumably because they are too toxic. 

Alas, he is out of date with his claim that leaders of today’s neo-Nazi parties “never, never mention Hitler” because he is “still too dangerous, too hot to handle.” Some neo-Nazi movements, such as the Greek Golden Dawn, now shout “Heil Hitler!” in parliament and make no secret of their debt to Hitler. 

There is much more of value in this brilliant portrait of a terrible era, but it is most memorable for the author’s big idea: that National Socialism, not communism, was the decisive fact of the last century, and perhaps of this one too. Lukacs thinks so because of his conviction that we are destined to witness the further triumph of democracy, which he sees as inevitably tied to nationalism. 

The democratic spirit seeks nationalism, a unified political expression of collective solidarity, which is why throughout Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, and in the Muslim world now, the popular forces demanding democracy often demand ethnic cleansing or religious persecution as well. It is for this reason, perhaps (Lukacs asserts rather than argues this point), that he views something like National Socialism as our distinctively modern temptation. 

He does argue the case that history is not driven only, or even mainly, by economic forces, but by “what people believe.” What made Hitler so successful was “his discovery that propagating hate may be a useful popular asset.” Even within secular liberal democracies, some leaders find it easiest to unite people against an enemy—Christians or Jews, for instance—though a strong attachment to the rule of law may keep such antagonism within limits. 

Lukacs is, however, careful to distinguish between American nationalism and other more toxic varieties. Though he regards Reagan as “a sentimental nationalist,” he acknowledges that the president “was not devoid of a certain benevolent tolerance. Nor, to a greater extent, were the American people.” For Lukacs, the absence of any trace of vindictiveness or even triumphalism in the aftermath of victory is one of the great blessings of the American hegemony since 1945.

Is Lukacs correct about the enduring appeal of nationalism in the twenty-first century? In many regions of the world, it is not nationalism but religion, and especially radical Islam, that seems to be ascendant. Islam, of course, transcends national borders: The primary loyalty of Muslims is to the ummah , the global community of the faithful. In its jihadist form, however, it has shown distinct similarities to National Socialism and has adopted some of the latter’s attitudes, including anti-Americanism, hostility to liberal democracy, and genocidal anti-Semitism. 

No sooner had the twentieth century ended than radical Islam made its presence felt in a spectacular and hideous way. Lukacs does not attempt to predict the course of the present century, but his interpretation of the last one is highly suggestive.  

Daniel Johnson is editor of Standpoint.

Articles by Daniel Johnson

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