An Age of Books The John Lukacs Collection at the Nanovic Institute

It is a rare thing for a writer to make such an impression on a reader that, even decades later, they still remember that first encounter. Professor A. James McAdams, William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and former director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies (2002-2018), has a clear memory of the first time he picked up a book by the Hungarian-born historian of modern Europe, John Lukacs. McAdams first read Lukacs in 1972 when he began his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He found the writing to be “totally eccentric, ambitious beyond belief, and the kind of thing that an 18-year-old kid was looking for.” For McAdams, Lukacs was “beyond ‘a maverick’ in the field—he defined entirely his own approach to the study of history.”

Lukacs in his library at home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Szilvay Gergely.

Lukacs, who came to the U.S. in the mid-1940s as a refugee from both Nazism and Soviet communism, was a prolific scholar who authored 35 books, and countless articles, essays, and reviews. A self-described reactionary who was wary of consensus and professional history, Lukacs spent his long career chronicling the history of 20th century Europe, challenging received wisdom, and ruminating on the practice of history itself. He lamented what he saw as the decline of modernity and strove to shake readers out of what he feared had become a public consciousness deadened by technological progress and rampant materialism.

“Lukacs’ writing was totally eccentric, ambitious beyond belief, and the kind of thing that an 18-year-old kid was looking for.”—A. James McAdams
Professor A. James McAdams and research assistant Ana Peczuh ’23 discuss Lukacs’ library.

In May 2019, Lukacs passed away in the library of his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, surrounded by the almost 20,000 books he had amassed in the course of his long life. Some years earlier, through Fr. Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C. professor in the Department of History, Lukacs had offered his library and papers to the University of Notre Dame. Miscamble, with support from his departmental colleagues and Nanovic Faculty Fellows, Professors Brad Gregory and Semion Lyandres, and McAdams, became the driving force behind fulfilling Lukacs’ request. Following his passing, the Lukacs family generously donated this library to the University of Notre Dame. Thanks to the staff at the Hesburgh Libraries, the Nanovic Institute is now home to more than 1,000 of these books. The Nanovic’s Lukacs Collection has now been cataloged, shelved, and is available for use by members and friends of the Notre Dame community.

Some volumes contain personal inscriptions from their authors, some have broken spines and dog-eared pages, and others may not have been read much, if at all. But, all of the books were chosen by John Lukacs for his personal library, a collection he was still building until at least two years before the end of his life at the age of 95. If, as the poet W.H. Auden said “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead,” then the Nanovic Institute hopes that the Lukacs Collection will be a way for members of the Notre Dame community to break bread with a scholar who chronicled the past and agitated assumptions.

The Library of a Lifelong Scholar

Janos Adalbert Lukacs was born in Budapest on January 21, 1924, to Magda Gluck, who was Jewish, and Paul Lukacs, a Catholic and a physician. After the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, Lukacs’ father was sent to a labor camp. The son, a practicing Catholic but designated Jewish by the Nazis, was conscripted into a Hungarian army labor battalion. By the end of that year, Janos Lukacs had deserted and gone into hiding, awaiting the defeat of the German army and liberation by Russian troops.

In 1946, the young scholar was awarded a doctoral degree in history from the University of Budapest. Although Lukacs initially intended to remain in Soviet-occupied Hungary and was hopeful for life under communism, he soon fled, illegally, to the U.S., landing in Portland, Maine in July 1946. Initially, Lukacs was hired as a part-time professor in history at Columbia University and Princeton University, teaching the many returned veterans who were taking advantage of greater access to higher education opened up by the G.I. Bill. In 1947, he was hired to teach European history full-time at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic school for women (until 2003) just north of Philadelphia. He remained at Chestnut Hill for the next 47 years of his career, until his retirement in 1994.

When Lukacs passed away in 2019, his two-floor library in the family home in Phoenixville contained many thousands of books, but also stacks of personal papers and various printed and written ephemera—book manuscripts and article drafts littered with marginalia and edits, letters from his many correspondents, some of whom Lukacs was still writing to into his 90s, and various notes, clippings, and photographs. In January 2020, Lukacs’ books and papers were brought to the University of Notre Dame to be processed and, eventually, opened up for consultation research by members of the public.

Lukacs in his two-floor library, bust of Winston Churchill on display. Image courtesy of Szilvay Gergely.

Beyond the over 17,000 books that formed the Lukacs library, the collection includes approximately 74.5 cubic feet of personal papers. Patrick Milhoan, head of archival processing at the Hesburgh Libraries, is overseeing the project of processing the Lukacs papers, turning them into a manuscript collection, and developing a finding aid that will be accessible to researchers, scholars, and other members of the public. Milhoan says that the papers include “samples from each stage of his writing process, including research files; article, essay, and poetry drafts; proofs; and published pieces in periodicals and clippings.” Highlights within the collection include correspondences from Lukacs’ friend and interlocutor George Kennan, the historian and diplomat, and from the writer and critic Wendell Berry. Reflecting on the Lukacs papers’ value, Milhoan says that the collection “will offer researchers a first-hand account of the writing process and scholarly pursuits of an historian engaged in the study of foreign policy.”

Patrick Milhoan, head of archival processing at the Hesburgh Libraries, has been overseeing the processing of the Lukacs’ personal papers.

The work of bringing just some of Lukacs’ books to the Nanovic Institute began in early March 2020, when the Institute’s Interim Director, and Professor of Social Ethics, Clemens Sedmak, and Assistant Director Grant Osborn first gained access to the library and began to select the titles that would comprise the Nanovic Lukacs Collection. Although this process was halted by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the selections were completed in October 2020 and 1,019 volumes were soon transported across campus.

According to Osborn, the goal was to compile a collection that would, to begin with, be of value to members of the Nanovic community: faculty fellows, graduate fellows, and undergraduate students taking classes and interested in European studies. From the larger library, they selected a combination of books from academic and trade presses, considering titles that will have broad appeal, and making sure to include as many of Lukacs’ own works as possible. Representing Lukacs’ own field of interest was a priority, Osborn says, so that users “will be able to explore Lukacs’ collection and have a clear understanding of where his passions resided.”

A draft, with edits by Lukacs, of his article “Intellectuals, Catholics, and the Intellectual Life,” which appeared in the journal Modern Age (winter 1957-58). Courtesy of Hesburgh Libraries Rare Books and Special Collections: MSN/MN 10033, John Lukacs Collection.

Breaking Bread with John Lukacs

In this way, the collection at the Nanovic Institute provides patrons with an opportunity to break bread with Lukacs, and to experience how he read, wrote, and understood both the past and his current moment. The appeal in reading Lukacs and immersing oneself in his passions and perspective lies in the unconventional nature of a scholarly voice that is, by design, both personal and provocative.

Lukacs, consistently described in his obituaries as an “iconoclast,” stood on the fringes of the historical profession, often avoiding methodological conventions just as he evaded political or ideological categorization.

“John Lukacs is known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions.”—John Wilson, professor emeritus, Hillsdale College

For A. James McAdams, this deviation from scholarly and ideological norms was precisely the reason why he, as a young scholar at Berkeley, found in Lukacs such a stimulating intellectual companion. Inspired by his unusual approach, McAdams wrote to Lukacs in 1976 to express admiration for his work. The older scholar replied promptly and graciously, saying “your letter is one of the rare kind that makes one think that, after all has been said and done, one has not been working entirely in vain.”

Letter from Lukacs to A. James McAdams, September 23, 1976. Courtesy of A. James McAdams.

The main focus of Lukacs’ scholarship is the history of World War II and its impact, a broad scope that also encompassed the history of the Cold War, international politics, populism, and what he saw as the decline of modernity. In books like “The Great Powers and Eastern Europe” (1953), “The Last European War” (1976), and “The Duel” (1991) he chronicled the events of World War II and made an argument that viewed “old fashioned” patriotism as a benign love of country, and a more preferable popular sentiment than nationalism, which he saw as militantly destructive. He wrote many books on Winston Churchill, such as “Five Days in London, May 1940” (1999), which lionized the British wartime-prime minister as the savior of Western civilization who stood firm, even against members of his own cabinet, in his refusal to seek peace with Hitler.

Lukacs’ sweeping histories of the Cold War, written as early as the 1960s also took a position on the nature of the conflict that defied the contemporary consensus that this was a battle between communism and capitalism. According to David Contosta, colleague and professor of history at Chestnut Hill College, Lukacs “insisted then, and for the rest of his life, that the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West was more about aggressive nationalism than any ideology.” In terms of strategy, Lukacs agreed with his friend George Kennan, who advocated for a policy of containment of Soviet expansion. The two argued that Soviet communism would not be defeated through violent denunciations or armed conflict, but by internal rot within the Soviet empire.

Three of Lukacs’ most notable publications: “The Great Powers and Eastern Europe” (1953), “Historical Consciousness, or the Remembered Past” (1968), and “The Duel” (1991).

Lukacs’ chosen areas of research—the histories of great men, global war, and geopolitics—belie his stylistic and methodological unconventionality. An outsider to the profession who generally chose not to belong to any professional associations, Lukacs often eschewed established standards for referencing, structure, and source base. McAdams explains that the practice of history involves extensive digging in the archives, followed by meticulous referencing of one’s evidence in footnotes. While Lukacs’ work is built upon careful research, and his writing includes extensive references, McAdams says that they are “different, meandering, and exploratory.” A not inconsiderable portion of Lukacs scholarship reflects, often explicitly, his skepticism about the historical profession. “Nowadays,” he wrote in 1953, “when thousands of poets are striving for doctorates in literature, we must keep reminding ourselves that there is something absurd and ridiculous about this business.” Specifically, Lukacs continues, while it is neither absurd nor ridiculous to have a doctorate in history, “what is absurd and ridiculous is the idea that a historian cannot be a historian unless he has a Ph.D. in history: exactly as absurd as to say that every poet ought to have a Ph.D. in poetry.”

This outlook on the writing of history, McAdams believes, is rooted in Lukacs’ desire to be personal, something that professional historians, in a quest to maintain objectivity, typically avoid. For Lukacs, understanding the past should be a deeply personal endeavor, one that is focused not so much on how to use the tools of the discipline to reach consensus around the what and how of an event, but on how human beings wrestle with historical consciousness—how we remember the past, and why we yearn to do so. In Lukacs’ “Historical Consciousness or the Remembered Past” (1968), for example, McAdams sees an early version of scholarship on historical memory, currently a burgeoning field within the discipline. This vision of the past, as well as a lack of structure that sometimes resembled stream-of-consciousness, is precisely why McAdams found Lukacs’ work so engaging and stimulating.

The Lukacs Collection at the Nanovic Institute

The Lukacs Collection at Nanovic is comprised mostly of works of history or social science, but there are also many titles within literature, philosophy, theology, and travel. Over several months, beginning in December 2020, Mathilda Nassar ’21 MGA and Ana Peczuh ’23 categorized, cataloged, and shelved the more than 1,000 books. Peczuh created a catalog to be used by those who wish to consult and check books out of the collection and reviewed all titles in WorldCat, the global libraries’ database.

Peczuh worked on the Lukacs Collection through spring 2021. Photography by Barbara Johnston.

Peczuh, who majors in mathematics with a minor in sustainability, says that working on the collection gave her insights into Lukacs’ life and relationships, as well as corners of European history with which she was unfamiliar. From the unique vantage point of someone who has looked at every volume in the collection, Peczuh says that one of her favorite parts of working on the project was the discovery of inscriptions in books gifted to Lukacs by authors and fellow historians. “It’s a beautiful and fun way to see the respect scholars have for each other,” she explains, “and Lukacs was clearly very well respected.” If Peczuh could spend time with any title in the collection, she would like to read “Fragebogen” (The Questionnaire) written by Ernst Von Salomon, an autobiographical novel, first published in 1955, which was based on the denazification questionnaire completed by all Germans after World War II. She was also particularly charmed by Langenscheidt’s “Lilliput Modern Greek-English” dictionary. Although at just three inches tall, it is a little more difficult to read.

The Nanovic Institute welcomes visitors to peruse and enjoy the Lukacs collection in person. Patrons may also consult the collection online in advance of a visit, and can request specific titles by sending a request to nanovic@nd.edu. The institute will be open throughout the summer during normal business hours (9 a.m.-5 p.m.). With an open door and comfortable space to read, Nanovic looks forward to this opening of the Lukacs Collection as the university safely expands in-person activity, pursuing the institute’s mission to provide a place to meet and learn, share, and experience Europe at Notre Dame.

Research assistants Peczuh and Mathilda Nassar ’21 MGA review the Lukacs Collection. Photography by Barbara Johnston.

“A Happy Unhappy Life”

Lukacs at home in 2017. Image courtesy of Szilvay Gergely.

Despite the longevity and productivity of John Lukacs’ career, those who have summarized his life are undecided about the degree to which it was a happy one. On one hand, Lukacs mourned the decline of modernity, the last 500 years of European and Western civilization that he saw as a golden age of bourgeois culture, sensibilities, and the Age of Books. For this, he blamed the worship of technological progress, the elevation of science over religion, and rampant materialism all of which were now drowning out the true will of the people, rendering self-government meaningless.

And yet, Lukacs also noted, in “Confessions of an Original Sinner” (1989), that he was not intractably cynical or pessimistic. “Because of the goodness of God,” he wrote, “I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one.” Lukacs found joy and contentment in “the pleasure of fresh mornings, driving alone on country roads, smoking my matutinal cigar, mentally planning the contents of my coming lecture whose sequence and organizations are falling wonderfully into place, crystalizing in sparks of sunlight.”

“Because of the goodness of God, I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one.”—John Lukacs, “Confessions of an Original Sinner” (1989)

One hopes that Lukacs would also find contentment in a few hours spent among his books, now at home in the Nanovic Institute, perhaps pausing to raise a provocative thought or two with those who read alongside him.

Further Reading:

David Contosta, “Remembering John Lukacs,” Chestnut Hill College News Center, January 20, 2020

John Lukacs, iconoclastic scholar of history, dies at 95,” Washington Post, May 6, 2019.

John Wilson, “John Lukacs’s Valediction,” The American Conservative, October 25, 2013.

Sam Roberts, “John Lukacs, Iconoclastic Historian and Author, Dies at 95,” New York Times, May 8, 2019.


John Lukacs teaching a class at Chestnut Hill College, courtesy of Chestnut Hill College.

Images of Lukacs in his home in 2017, courtesy of Szilvay Gergely and originally published by Mandiner.

Images with the Lukacs Collection in the Nanovic Institute by Barbara Johnston.

Produced by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies

Author: Gráinne McEvoy

Created By
Grainne McEvoy