Recommended to me several years ago, I have at last got round to reading the late historian John Lukacs’ Last Rites, published in 2009 when he was aged 85 (he died in 2019, aged 95). I hesitate to use the word “maverick” of Lukacs as it is overused and imprecise, but it is safe to say he ploughed his own highly original and creative furrow in the world of academe. A refugee from Hungary, after the war he settled in Philadelphia, teaching history at an obscure college, which gave him the leisure to write over 30 books on subjects such as the Cold War, a cultural history of Budapest, a study of the American diplomat George Kennan and several books focusing on aspects of the relationship between Hitler and Churchill. He notes in one of his many reflective asides, “Hitler hated Churchill more than he hated others among his great adversaries”, perhaps because he intuited the latter’s implacability towards him, reflecting a vision of men and of society which he found both loathsome and incomprehensible.
For Lukacs, as for almost all people in this country who lived through the last war Churchill was a great man – indeed, his personal hero. The “Intermezzo” chapter in his book includes a footnote in which Lukacs quotes his own diary entry for 31 July 2004, in which he refers to his memoir of having attended Churchill’s state funeral on 30 January 1965: “He loved life very much, and he made life possible for many of us because he had a very old and very strong belief in the possibilities of human decency and of human greatness… In the long and slow and sad music of humanity he once sounded an English and noble note which some of us were blessed to receive and to remember.”
Lukacs quietly campaigned for a bust of Churchill to be erected in the Churchill Walk in the City Park of Budapest. It was unveiled on 24 June 2003, in the presence of Mary Soames, the statesman’s youngest daughter. Soon afterwards, the bust was defaced by vandals who daubed swastika graffiti on it. Lukacs adds that it was quickly cleaned up, helped by ordinary citizens of Budapest.
He would have been appalled, but not surprised, by the recent defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, by a mob organised by Far-Left agitators under the banner of Black Lives Matter. For Lukacs, a serious student of history, such mob violence, along with its pervasive and dominant cultural narrative, would have signified a deeper, disquieting collapse of Western confidence in the values that Churchill defended during his long life. Lukacs lived long enough to understand that “We have entered a world where traditions of learning are disappearing” and where there is “much evidence of the ignorance of even a basic knowledge of history among large populations in this age of mass democracy and popular sovereignty.”
An article in the Telegraph by Nick Timothy, “Our fearful leaders are failing to stand up to a radical woke minority”, Monday 13 July, echoes Lukacs’ misgivings. Timothy makes a plea for conservatives (understood in the sense of conserving a traditional trust in reasoned debate among civilised people) to challenge the progressive agenda of this shrill minority. Lukacs, who was a romantic and a pessimist, would have believed it to be too late: “The barbarians are now well within the – largely demolished – gates” he writes in the final chapter of his book.
I recommend Last Rites as an introduction to Lukacs’ mind. He believed “knowledge…is always personal” and that its purpose “is not accuracy…it is understanding.” Among the authors he quotes in his book are Newman and Thomas a Kempis. A Catholic, he believed that “The Church must remain a single lonely lighthouse of human comprehension, of wisdom, a proponent of love.”