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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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, 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 email@example.com. 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.