Hollander and Lukacs: Danubian Dissenters - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Hollander and Lukacs: Danubian Dissenters


This essay appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


All who are indebted to the work of John Lukacs and Paul Hollander, and there are a great many of us, were deeply affected by word of their deaths this past spring. In different and often contradictory ways, the two eminent thinkers provided their readers with historical-political understandings that might otherwise have eluded them. That achievement was primarily a result of their early and formative experiences as Magyars of Jewish origin. In America, their adopted homeland, admirers and critics alike characterized them as conservatives, but John preferred to be known as a reactionary. As a result of that significant distinction, and of differing experiences in their native Hungary, the two scholars never became close.

John Lukacs was born Lukács János in Budapest on January 31, 1924—to “bourgeois parentage,” as he liked to emphasize. His mother, Magda Gluck, whose memory he cherished, was Jewish, but at some stage in her life she converted to Catholicism and raised her son in the Church of Rome. No doubt her conversion was due primarily to the fact that husband Pál
Lukács, a physician, was Catholic, but she may also have been reacting to the anti-Semitic atmosphere in post–World War I Hungary. That was something new. In the years before the war, there was no better home for Jews than Hungary. By assimilating in large numbers, they aided the grateful Magyars in their struggle to achieve and maintain a majority in their multinational kingdom.

One of the unhappy byproducts of the Great War and the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy was the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, a tyrannical regime led by Béla Kun, who, like 31 of 44 other “commissars,” was of Jewish origin. Largely as a consequence of Kun’s 133 days in power, the counterrevolutionary government of Admiral Miklós Horthy was both anticommunist and anti-Semitic, communists and Jews being, in the traumatized minds of many Hungarians, interchangeable identities; that was something that John never forgot.

In the diary Pál Lukács kept during the first year of his son’s life, he wrote that “in our country darkest reaction rages.” Although John characterized him as “a man of great learning,” he seemed to have disliked his father, and not merely because the latter left the family in 1932—“a tragedy for me,” John wrote late in life. Their views with regard to most matters were worlds apart. John described his father as antimonarchical and anticlerical in outlook, a left-liberal with socialist leanings.

That was not by way of praise. In his classic Historical Consciousness, John wrote dismissively that “in none of the remaining thirty-two years of his life [Pál Lukács died in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution] would my father see more freedom in Hungary than what prevailed during the conservative regimes of [Prime Minister István] Bethlen and [Regent] Horthy in 1924.” That is true. While Horthy had a selective weakness for anti-Semitism, the aristocratic Bethlen, a right-wing liberal of the old school, deplored it as a prejudice unworthy of a great nation.

Unfortunately, by the time John reached his teens, the Bethlen government had fallen victim to the Depression, and socially less elevated and less principled men had gained Horthy’s favor. In the late ’30s, able to read the signs of the times, John’s mother enrolled him for two summers at a private school in England, where he continued the love affair with that country and the English language that he had begun at home. “In my life,” he recalled, “the Anglomania of my mother was decisive.” When in that same year Hitler forced the Anschluss upon Austria, Hungary found itself bordered on Nazi Germany, and out of necessity (and sometimes conviction) Horthy’s prime ministers began to align the country’s policies with those of the Reich, including its anti-Jewish laws.

The war years belonged to Hungary’s pro-Germans, with the important exception of Miklós Kállay, a Bethlen protégé whom Horthy named prime minister in March 1942. Kállay, John later wrote, “was one of the bravest—and, in my opinion, one of the greatest—prime ministers of Hungary. . . . He was a protector and even a champion of old-fashioned decency.” The beleaguered prime minister did everything within his power to ensure the personal safety of Jews subject to his authority, but on March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, forced Horthy to dismiss Kállay, and implemented a plan of deportation that by early July, when the belatedly alarmed Regent ordered a suspension of operations, had delivered more than 400,000 Jews into the hands of the ­Auschwitz murderers.

All of this spelled trouble for John, who, by Nazi reckoning, was a Jew. “In early June 1944,” he remembered, “I was a prisoner: not in jail but in a barrack guarded by soldiers on the outskirts of Budapest: a member of a forced labor battalion of undesirables—subversives, resistants, half-Jews, suspicious people.” By Christmas, he had managed to desert and, along with his mother, to disappear into a cellar. Huddled together, they survived on the hope that the Russians would soon take the city. On February 13, 1945, after 102 days of fierce fighting, the Red Army ended its siege with the capture of Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube. The Soviet occupation of Hungary then began, and brought with it looting and raping.

For a number of reasons, however, Stalin did not order the Hungarian communists, many of whom returned from Moscow to Hungary with the Red Army, to seize power immediately, and in the summer of 1946, before they did so, John left Hungary illegally. He landed in New York, penniless, three months later, but because of his command of English, Columbia University hired him to teach classes to returning servicemen. The following year Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic women’s school in Philadelphia, appointed him to its faculty.

Although he held visiting professorships at major institutions, John remained at Chestnut Hill until his retirement in 1994. He quickly discovered that he had a talent for teaching, but admitted that he “cared little about an academic career. I wanted to be a writer.” And that he became, publishing more than thirty books and countless articles and essays. He aimed them at educated rather than academic readers and displayed from the beginning a rare ability to view well-known historical subjects from fresh and revelatory angles. That, he always insisted, was the primary aim of the greatest historians, not the discovery of new facts; re-thinking was more important than re-search. There could therefore be no such thing as a “definitive” history, because it was always possible to deepen understanding of the past.

Despite his vast oeuvre, John’s work revolved around a finite number of themes, almost all of them suggested by his memory of the life-threatening German occupation of Hungary. There is, to begin with, his almost obsessive interest in Hitler—and in Churchill, whom he credited with indirectly saving his life by preventing the Nazi Führer from winning the war during the spring and summer of 1940. In The Duel: 10 May–31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler and Five Days in London: May 1940, he provided riveting accounts of that historic confrontation. When Churchill died in 1965, John flew to London for the funeral. “I came,” he wrote at the time, “because of my conviction of respect and my sentiment of gratitude.”

Gratitude to Churchill not only for saving his life but also for saving Western civilization from Hitler—who according to John was not the reactionary that many historians made him out to be; Churchill was “the true reactionary.” In his model experiment in historiography, The Hitler of History, John argued convincingly that the Nazi leader was the greatest, which is to say the most influential, revolutionary of the twentieth century. It seemed to follow that Nazi Germany, not communist Russia, posed the more serious threat to civilized life, and that is exactly what John maintained. In his judgment, anticommunists were wrong to encourage exaggerated fears of the kind that lifted Hitler to prominence. “It was,” he wrote, “the respectability of Hitler’s anti-Communism—not the respectability of his anti-Semitism—that brought him to power in Germany.”

This was the principal reason for John’s seemingly inexplicable anti-anticommunism and hostile attitude toward anticommunists, whom he suspected of harboring pro-German sympathies with respect to World War II. (Some in fact did.) But there was another reason for his anti-anticommunism. As I have pointed out, John never lived under communist rule; he left Hungary before the communists consolidated their power in 1948. Thus while his life was placed in danger under National Socialism, it never was under communism.

His opposition to communist ideology, though real enough, remained largely a matter of disdain; in his view, it was too nonsensical to be taken seriously. Russia posed a threat to the West; communism did not. This was in keeping with his conviction that history was always more formative than ideology in the lives of individuals and nations. Stalin, he argued, was not a communist but, though Georgian by birth, a Russian nationalist, the reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. That is an arguable proposition, but it is one shared by other historians.

John’s loathing of Hitler and Nazism is of course shared by all reputable historians, but his attendant distaste for Germany and Germanophiles is not. He did, however, make at least one exception with respect to the latter—his friend George Kennan. After reading the first volume of Kennan’s memoirs, he jotted down some notes that he seems to have included in one of his letters to the famous diplomat/writer. “There are qualities of [Kennan’s] mind, and perhaps also character, that are Ger. Rather than Br. But since these are all among the good German qualities, this is all to the good.” In his admiring George Kennan: A Study of Character, he conceded, with reluctance, that Kennan “could—in some ways and on some occasions—be seen as an isolationist.” With reluctance because John reprobated those who opposed interventions in Europe, especially during World Wars I and II.

With all that, John and Kennan were of one mind concerning many matters. Both were old-fashioned conservationists—as opposed to ideological environmentalists. Both looked back with favor on an earlier and more civilized way of life; they were self-identified reactionaries. Both believed that unrestricted immigration represented a serious threat to the cultural identity of the United States. Perhaps most important, both were highly critical of America, Kennan because he was a realist opposed to morality in foreign policy and a moralist repulsed by the increasing decadence of America’s public life.

Although he was grateful to America for opening its doors to him, John regarded himself as a European, though one who belonged to the great bourgeois age that he knew had come, or was coming, to an end. He patterned his life after that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie by cultivating the interior life, one distinguished by a sense of privacy, a love of disciplined liberty, a recognition that truth is more important than justice, and a bias in favor of permanent possessions and residence. By the mid-twentieth century, these were reactionary attitudes, and in obedience to them he put down roots in Chester County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, “that relatively most bourgeois of American cities.”

There John had constructed a breathtaking library that eventually contained, by his estimate, some eighteen thousand volumes. That was not surprising in view of the fact that he described the bourgeois age as the “Age of Books”—verbal rather than pictorial, reverent in its attitude toward words and hence thought. It was, he wrote in 2017, an age that was passing—another sign that the world he loved, and to which he belonged, would soon be no more.

In Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century, a book that he should have entitled Outgrowing Europe: The Rise and Fall of the United States, John wrote in detail of his adopted country’s decline. In a defiant effort to distance themselves from their European heritage, Americans, he charged, refused to affirm the truth—experienced by Europeans at the Marne and at Dachau—that man is finite and sinful (see his Confessions of an Original Sinner). Moreover, they were unwilling to abandon the idea of progress and its attendant idolization of science and technology, rather like John’s father, who also “believed in Progress and in Science.”

What Americans lacked above all, and what Europeans of the bourgeois age possessed, was a historical consciousness, the subject of John’s finest work. Historical consciousness—historical thinking—was John’s ruling theme; he said so in book after book, essay after essay. His awareness of the overriding importance of historical thinking was undoubtedly heightened by consciousness of his own past, but it grew ever greater with a lifetime of reading in several languages and deep reflection. By the time he came to write Historical Consciousness, he had arrived at the conclusion that historical knowledge “is personal knowledge—including personal self-knowledge.”

What he meant was that historical knowledge is neither objective nor subjective; it is personal because, as Werner Heisenberg had demonstrated with respect to science, the observer and thing observed could never be completely separated. That was not an argument for arbitrariness or determinism but a recognition that all inquiries are conducted from a finite perspective, the only one available to finite beings. The more aware a historian was of that fact, and the better he came to know himself, the more able he was to transcend any prejudices or personal inclinations. John testified to his own struggle with “the danger of becoming one’s own disciple.”

In a new edition of Historical Consciousness published in 1985, seventeen years after the appearance of the first edition, John wrote of the evolution of his thinking with particular reference to his “endless pursuit in search of new forms of history writing.” He had always been fascinated by the relationship between history and literature and had regularly assigned historical novels to his students. Nevertheless, in novels such as War and Peace and Gone With the Wind, history merely formed a background. John discerned an advance in the evolving new genre that he styled “novelized history,” work in which history was in the foreground. He had in mind such books as John Dos Passos’s Nineteen Nineteen, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914.

As much as he admired representatives of the new genre, John disliked the fact that they mixed fact with fiction, when, for example, they placed their own words in the mouths of historical figures. But when he read Doctor Zhivago, he was immediately struck by what Boris Pasternak had achieved. The novel, he wrote, “makes no pretense to being history. Yet Pasternak’s reconstruction of what happened in Russia (and in certain Russian minds, and to certain Russian people) between 1917 and 1924 is more historical than Tolstoy’s rendition of history between 1805 and 1812.” In Confessions of an Original Sinner, he described his hope to write a history “when the writer knows, in the marrow of his bones, not only that France in 1789 became different from France in 1788, but how, say, Paris in 1905 differed from Paris in 1902.”

In 1998 John published A Thread of Years, a series of fictions that did not but could have occurred in particular places in particular years, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1969. In them John returned to his favorite themes: the virtues of English civilization; the rise of anti-Semitism and Hitler; the poverty of anticommunism; the greatness of Churchill; and the importance of FDR, who triumphed over isolationist sentiment. It was history new but also old; old in its literary quality, new in its joining a novelist’s ability to persuade us of the plausibility of his fiction with a historian’s appreciation for the contingency of events. It was an innovative work of distinction, a partial reaching of the goal John had long set for himself.

* * *

Paul Hollander was born Hollander Pál in Budapest on October 3, 1932. His family, of bourgeois Jewish origin, assimilated in the years prior to 1914 in response to the Liberal government’s philo-Semitism. As we have seen, however, life for Jewish Hungarians steadily worsened in the years leading up to, and during, World War II. “In 1944, when I was twelve,” Paul wrote in a rare autobiographical note, “my family and I came close to being killed” by a mob incited by the Arrow Cross, the unhinged Hungarian fascist party. After a brief time in a Yellow Star House, a mini-ghetto identified by a yellow Star of David over the entrance, the Hollanders went into hiding—and managed to survive the war.

Despite this peril, Paul did not share John’s lifelong dislike of the Germans, in large part because he held the ideology of National Socialism, not the German nation, responsible. For him, in opposition to John, ideas constituted the determining factor in modern history. That is why he blamed communist ideology, not Russians, for Hungary’s postwar dictatorship. When the Red Army liberated Budapest he, like almost all Jews, felt a surge of gratitude, but it was short-lived. After consolidating power, the Hungarian communists and their leader, Mátyás Rákosi, held Hungary in a vise-like grip. Self-described as “Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple,” Rákosi was credited, according to Paul, “with being omniscient, omnipresent, powerful, just, kind, and caring.”

The dictator displayed little kindness toward Paul and members of his family, who received notice in 1951 that, as “politically unreliable elements,” they were being deported to a village 120 miles east of Budapest. Two years later the army drafted Paul and assigned him to a “construction battalion” where his days were filled with heavy labor, military drills, and propaganda seminars. Before long, the army transferred him to the infantry, where he went through the necessary motions until being discharged in the spring of 1955. Thoroughly alienated from the regime by the time revolution broke out on October 23, 1956, Paul abandoned hope when Soviet forces crushed the uprising on November 4; he crossed the border into Austria and, within a month, had enrolled at the London School of Economics.

While in England, Paul came under the influence of Isaiah Berlin, the distinguished historian of ideas. Partly as a result, he focused his studies on ideas and beliefs. In a 1995 piece for Modern Age, he explained why: “It soon emerges that as soon as we abandon the emphasis on ideas as influences over our lives we are led to some deterministic scheme . . . which severely limits our freedom of action.” Paul’s final destination was the U.S., where he earned an MA from the University of Illinois and a PhD from Princeton. After five years at Harvard, he joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, where he taught until his retirement in 2000.

Because of his interest in ideas and beliefs, it was only natural that Paul should be led to the study of intellectuals, a significant number of whom were, to his dismay, unsparingly critical of their own Western societies and uncritically sympathetic to communist regimes. That seeming oddity—for one who had had personal experience of life under communist rule—became the subject of his 1981 book, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. The fundamental reason for the Western intellectuals’ estrangement from their own societies, he concluded in that classic study, was the process of secularization—what Max Weber called the disenchantment of the world—that they themselves had done so much to advance. To their shock and despair, the process left them with what Paul described as the spiritual problem of modernity, a life seemingly without meaning or purpose—the opening of “the chasm of nihilism.”

In response to their existential discontent, intellectuals set out in search of a new religion, and many found it in socialism, especially the Marxist variety. “Marxian socialism,” Paul wrote, “has been virtually the only comprehensive and intellectually respectable belief system available in contemporary Western societies outside conventional religion.” It was therefore not surprising that political-spiritual pilgrims looked to regimes that advertised their commitment to what were in fact secular-religious beliefs and to a sweeping transformation of social institutions—indeed of human nature itself.

Whether they traveled to the Soviet Union, China, or Cuba, or admired those respective “experiments” from afar, Western intellectuals invariably claimed to find what they were looking for—namely, meaning, purpose, equality, and community. To be sure, their enthusiasm was all the greater because of what Paul described as the “techniques of hospitality.” They were wined and dined and led to believe that their work was widely known and admired. Tourist guides led them to Potemkin villages. “The visitors,” Paul wrote of the communist attitude, “should see things the way they are supposed to be, or going to be, not the way they are.”

In another study, Paul wrote of the “heroic” leaders—viewed as redeemers—who were inseparable from communist socio-political systems. Stalin, for example, was held to be all-knowing and all-powerful—yet democratic, modest, gentle, and reserved. Admirers credited Mao Zedong with having made the lives of the Chinese “meaningful.” He was also, as almost all the revolutionary leaders were said to be, a “deep thinker”; people around the world, including American university students whom Paul came across, read Mao’s “Little Red Book” of quotations for guidance.

Neither Stalin nor Mao possessed personal charisma, but Fidel Castro, Cuba’s verbose jefe, did. He too was a deep thinker with, it appeared, details about every aspect of Cuban life at his fingertips. And yet even he paled when compared with his comrade Che Guevara, who was viewed as a Christ figure. On being shown a photograph of the executed Che, his biographer Jorge Casteñada wrote: this is “the gaze of the dead Guevara, looking at his tormentors and pardoning them because they know not what they are doing.”

The Che cult remained alive and was passed along to the late Venezuelan Comandante Hugo Chavez, who was portrayed on public murals together with Christ and Simón Bolívar. Among Chavez’s foreign admirer-friends was István Mészáros, a Marxist philosopher who also left Hungary—legally—in 1956. “Apparently,” Paul wrote of his former countryman, “his experiences in Soviet-dominated Hungary failed to immunize him against the promises of another Marxist utopia.”

As a result of later studies, and somewhat to his surprise, Paul discovered that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany—Mussolini and Hitler—possessed similar, if weaker and more short-lived, secular-religious appeals. Intellectuals who practically worshiped the Duce or the Führer were primarily, but not exclusively, Italians and Germans. Ezra Pound moved to Italy in 1924 and was a fervent, and during the war a traitorous, admirer of Mussolini. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells admired Mussolini as well as Stalin, and so did Lincoln Steffens and Wyndham Lewis. Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic, thought he discerned in Fascist Italy “a deeply felt common purpose.”

Hitler, too, had his devotees. Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize–winning Norwegian writer, regarded his hero as “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Diana and Unity Mitford became members of Hitler’s inner circle. Thomas Wolfe attended the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 and later wrote that “from noon till night [the German people] waited for just two brief and golden moments of the day: the moment when the Leader went out to the stadium, and the moment when he returned.” It is clear that it was the Axis dictators rather than their systems that possessed the greater appeal. When they died after failing to win the war, Fascism and Nazism died with them.

Stalin and the Soviet Union won the war, and as a result the appeal of communism increased. And yet, as Paul demonstrated in The End of Commitment, some intellectuals began to escape from their communist straitjackets. Most of them of course lived in the relatively free West. Among the first, and certainly the most famous, declarations of disillusionment were those in The God That Failed, a symposium of confessional essays by ex-communists and fellow travelers—the Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler being the most prominent among them. Like the collection’s title, now a familiar metaphor, editor Richard Crossman’s section headings were designed to place primary emphasis on communism’s religious character. No wonder then that Isaac Deutscher, the admiring biographer of Leon Trotsky, angrily denounced the contributors as “heretics” and “renegades.”

After Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the Hungarian Revolution, more Western intellectuals abandoned Stalinism, though not necessarily communism as an idea because, as Paul pointed out, the discontents and religious yearnings that had originally favored it persisted.

Paul knew from experience that it was much more difficult for those living under communism to apostatize, yet some did, and he took particular notice of Hungarians. The playwright Gyula Háy, a close friend of Koestler’s, converted to communism early in his life and made a name for himself second only to that of Bertolt Brecht during the Weimar Republic. Of Jewish origin, he left Germany when Hitler came to power and made his way to the Soviet Union, where he lived for a decade.

By the time the Moscow Trials opened in 1936, Háy knew what he had let himself in for: “Any one of us could disappear at any time, never to be seen again.” One of the lucky ones, he survived and returned to Hungary near the end of World War II. His communist faith had, however, weakened, and in the months leading up to the revolution he was one of the most outspoken members of the literary opposition. After the revolution he was arrested and served more than three years in prison before being allowed to emigrate.

Miklós Gimes, Paul informed his readers, was “the only individual discussed in [The End of Commitment] who paid with his life for his disillusionment with communism.” A journalist and fanatical communist, he worked closely with József Révai, Hungary’s cultural enforcer. Of Jewish origin, he was forced during the war into a labor battalion of the kind in which John Lukacs had been placed. That experience and the death of his father in a concentration camp predisposed Gimes to join the communists after the war. But in 1954, he entered the reform circle around Imre Nagy, who later emerged as the leader of the revolution. Although Gimes was not an active participant in the uprising, János Kádár, the Soviet-installed leader, regarded him as a threat and ordered his arrest and execution, along with Nagy and three others, in 1958.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes of Eastern Europe gave Paul hope for the area of the world into which he had been born, but in Decline and Discontent, published in 1992, he admitted that “despite the moral and material superiority of Western over communist systems there are phenomena in the West that bring to mind words like decay and decadence.” He instanced the decline of educational and intellectual standards, the increase of “taboo topics” in teaching and academic research, the cult of victimization and “diversity,” and a fanatical egalitarianism.

Paul’s increasing unhappiness with Western societies brought him closer to George Kennan, whom he had once regarded, mistakenly, as soft on the Soviet Union. In an essay included in Decline and Discontent, he described Kennan as a critic of Western decadence, “impressive and thought-provoking in more ways than is generally realized.” Although a favorite of American and Western European liberals, he was, Paul correctly observed, “a genuine conservative in his principal values and attachments.” This belated show of respect for Kennan was one thing, at least, that he could share with John. ♦

Lee Congdon is the author of a trilogy on Hungarian intellectuals and coeditor, with Béla Király, of two books on the Hungarian Revolution.


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