The Future of History

June 9, 2011

I've never met John Lukacs, but he sounds like the kind of man it would be fun to argue the toss with over a pint or two in the pub. Author of more than 30 books written over six decades, the pugnacious 87-year-old has never attempted to conceal his sometimes idiosyncratic views.

Half Jewish, he suffered persecution in wartime Hungary before fleeing the Communist regime after the war, spending the rest of his life in the US. Conservative and anti-Communist he might be, but in the early 1950s, Lukacs was a strong critic of McCarthyite anti-Communism, and condemned the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Among his achievements is one of the first and most penetrating critiques of the work of the historical writer David Irving, and a readable and thoroughly enjoyable social and cultural history of Budapest before the First World War.

In The Future of History, Lukacs offers his thoughts on the current state of the writing of history, accompanied by some gloomy prognostications about the future of the discipline. Most of his own work has been on political and diplomatic history, and especially on Churchill and Hitler, and he dismisses other kinds of history as superficial and based on fragmentary and inadequate sources - "'Social' (and 'gender', 'economic', 'religious', 'intellectual', 'sexual') histories are now manifold and rampant," he laments. A list of titles and book reviews on gender history and the history of sexuality in The American Historical Review proves, he says, "how low much of professional historianship, searching for subjects, has now sunk".

For Lukacs, history is about nations and states and the relations between them, and he complains bitterly about the decline of diplomatic history in recent years. Other kinds of history in his view are mere fads.

It's difficult to know what to say in the face of such breathtaking ignorance; to correct it would require several pints of beer at the very least. One of the glories of modern historical scholarship has been its diversity and its unquenchable curiosity about every aspect of the human experience. Lukacs' standpoint is really that of someone who learned his craft in the 1950s and hasn't moved on since then. He consistently refers to the historian as "he", talks about "men's interest in and respect for the past", and only very occasionally remembers that women exist, too.

This book is a blast from the past in another sense. Lukacs writes despairingly about the declining print runs of historical monographs and "small historical journals, with limited circulations", and doesn't seem to have heard of e-books, JSTOR or Kindle, which are transforming academic publication. For Lukacs, the internet is a mixed blessing: it makes some sources more easily available, but they are often unreliable, and it encourages students to plagiarise other people's work. He simply doesn't see its possibilities or the many ways in which it is transforming our culture. His book isn't much use, therefore, in helping us think about the future of history.

But it isn't very well informed on the present or the past, either. Lukacs thinks that US historians are unique in the attention they give to countries other than their own (UK historians are almost as cosmopolitan); and he gets the difference between primary and secondary sources wrong. Primary sources are not those "written or spoken by the subject of research" any more than secondary sources are "an account of acts or words reported or recorded by someone else". Even schoolchildren these days know that "primary" means produced at the time, "secondary" means produced later. Like so many empiricists, Lukacs misunderstands Leopold von Ranke's dictum that historians should study the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen", which does not mean "as it actually was" but "how it essentially was" - in other words, what was its inner essence of meaning in the context of its own epoch.

There are many other errors and misunderstandings in this book. Social history doesn't just involve generalising about "peoples", nor is it inevitably economically determinist (Lukacs seems completely unaware of the recent cultural and the not-so-recent linguistic turn in historical studies). The claim that "inflation (is a)... fundamentally democratic development" would raise more than a few eyebrows in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. I may be forgiven, perhaps, for pointing out that the Regius professorship of modern history was established in 1724 not just at the University of Oxford but also at the University of Cambridge, despite Lukacs' claim to the contrary. And Lukacs' habit of referring to and repeatedly quoting from his own work becomes intensely tiresome in the end.

Nevertheless, reading this book is more fun than trying to struggle through one of the many didactic history primers that have flooded the market in recent years. Books that stimulate disagreement at least stimulate something.

The Future of History

By John Lukacs. Yale University Press. 200pp. £18.99 ISBN 9780300165960. Published 31 May 2011.

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