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The Legacy of the Second World War
The Legacy of the Second World War
John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 2010
208 pp., 40.00

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Philip Jenkins

Still Reckoning

A master historian’s summing up of World War II.

When I teach a course on the history of World War II, I usually begin with a series of "Before and After" images, showing the technology available to combatants at the beginning and the end of hostilities. In 1939, for instance, the British still deployed a sturdy biplane called the Gloster Gladiator, which would not have looked wildly out of place over Flanders fields in 1917. By 1944, the Gloster firm was manufacturing a ferocious jet fighter called the Meteor, which was urgently needed to meet the rising generation of new German jets like the Me-262. The Germans, meanwhile, were working on even more stunningly radical craft like the Horten flying wing fighter-bomber, a science-fiction dream that unnervingly resembles contemporary U.S. stealth fighters. When we recall the phenomenal progress made in those years in electronic computing and rocketry, medicine and material science, to say nothing of nuclear weapons, we appreciate the scale of the technological, social, and cultural revolution triggered by the war.

John Lukacs has long argued for the central role of those years in shaping our contemporary reality, and The Legacy of the Second World War represents his most developed version of his argument to date. I emphasize this cumulative quality because Lukacs' works really all constitute components of one grand oeuvre, and Legacy is a series of brilliant meditations on themes that have stirred him for decades.

Specifically, he presents his agenda in the form of six key questions: "Was the Second World War inevitable? Was the division of Europe inevitable? Was Hitler inevitable? Was the making of atomic bombs inevitable? Was America's war against Germany inevitable? Was the Cold War inevitable?" In the hands of a lesser mortal, this thematic approach might have produced a series of self-contained case-studies. Legacy has something of this approach. Lukacs' nuclear discussion focuses strictly on the careers of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, while his account of American entry into war offers a detailed history of Rainbow Five, the critical 1941 policy statement that committed the U.S. to give priority to defeating Germany before dealing with Japan.

But Legacy is much more than a bundle of Essays or Studies, as the book is so thoroughly united by Lukacs' grand themes and, dare I say, obsessions. (Many of the book's brief footnotes contain as much provocative insight as whole shelves of contemporary academic monographs). Prominent among his themes is his emphasis on individuals as the makers of history, and especially on great men: Hitler and Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. By far the most important actor was Adolf Hitler, the key motivator and malevolent driving force behind these events. For Lukacs, this was unquestionably Hitler's War—and if things had developed slightly differently, it would have been Hitler's World.

That is at least a defensible approach, but Lukacs pushes it in surprising and questionable ways. As he has to present Hitler as sui generis, he denies any analogies to other dictators, and he heightens the contrast between World War II and any preceding events, whether the 1914-18 conflict or earlier European struggles. As in his well-known book The Hitler of History (1997), he presents Hitler less as a racist than as a hyper-nationalist, and throughout stresses nationalism rather than ideology. In doing so, of course, he is not for a second diminishing Hitler's utter evil, but rather debating its intellectual roots. He sees World War II as a triangular conflict between Democracy, Communism, and radical Nationalism, requiring the combined forces of the first two to contain and ultimately smash the third.

Problems abound here, not least in definition. It is extraordinarily difficult to separate Race from Nation in Hitler's works, or indeed those of his Nazi contemporaries. Also, Lukacs underplays the central role of the Jews in Hitler's rhetoric in the later stages of the war, after the Führer ordered the Final Solution (presumably in mid-1941). Yes, as Lukacs says, the Jewish theme did diminish in Hitler's public utterances, but surely that is because even the Nazi leaders realized the epochal enormity of what they were doing in the extermination camps, and the desperate need to keep it from world public opinion. However much other authors, particularly Goebbels, might have shaped Hitler's Final Testament, it is impossible to read that document without realizing the pivotal centrality of the Jewish theme to Hitler's thought right up to the closing moments of his life.

Lukacs' arguments for uniqueness are also troubling. On several occasions, he scoffs at any comparisons, any moral equivalence, between Hitler and Stalin or Mao Zedong, yet his arguments scarcely convince. His basic point is that each dictator represented a profoundly different cultural environment: Hitler ruled Europe's most educated and cultured society, while Stalin—well, Stalin was just doing what Russians have always done (and Mao soon vanishes from this account). That is true as far as it goes, but the German élites of the 1940s also regressed easily to the older historical norms of their country, namely the military-aristocratic-bureaucratic arrogance that was not such a distant memory. And in any case, what difference did those various historical backgrounds make to the nature of the rule of Hitler or Stalin, or indeed their ideology? Stalin, like Hitler, was surely driven as much by radical hyper-nationalism as by ideology, and the two concepts forged indissolubly in his mind. Both men were driven above all by the quest for power, and both eliminated millions of presumed enemies in order to reach that goal. Stalin fell short of Hitler only in having poorer access to sophisticated technologies of annihilation.

That also gets to the point of just how distinct World War II was from its predecessors—and by implication, how far that resulted from the distinctive character of National Socialism. Beyond argument, the mass killings of civilians in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe were on a scale inconceivably higher than that in earlier wars, but they represented an escalation from some quite familiar older patterns—from the destruction of anti-revolutionary populations in the French Revolution, the repression and ethnic cleansing in the European risings of 1848, and above all, from the growing use of genocidal tactics in the African wars waged by the various colonial powers after 1880. Think of the German genocide in South West Africa in 1904-5. By the 1930s, the Soviets had placed the extermination of ideological enemies firmly on the political map, while Western intellectuals were infatuated with eugenics, with the thought world of sterilization and purification.

Seen against this context, the extreme barbarity of World War II looks like a logical culmination of the previous century rather than a sudden or surprising leap into some alternative moral universe. The post-1940 escalation of violence resulted as much from the juggernaut dynamic of technology as from any new ideological twist. Similarly, the mass revival of European slavery after 1940 reflected the desperate practical needs of a German war machine stretched far beyond its capacities, rather than any features peculiar to National Socialism.

Yes, counter-factual history is a perilous enterprise (and Lukacs loathes the term), but quite conceivably, even without Hitler or the Nazi regime, something very like World War II would have occurred, presumably under a conservative-nationalist German regime. Possibly, in that instance, German treatment of Eastern European subject populations would not have been too different from what actually occurred.

Lukacs similarly exaggerates the centrality of Franklin Roosevelt in America's decision to enter the war. Undoubtedly, Roosevelt did follow a deliberate and ultimately successful strategy of provoking war, and played a critical role in establishing the priority of Germany as the key adversary. (He also rode roughshod over the U.S. Constitution in the process.) But again, the global dynamic was already pushing mightily toward a two-ocean war, in a way that would have been irresistible for any conceivable U.S. administration. Japanese demands in the Pacific and Eastern Asia simply could not have been met without trampling essential U.S. interests, and once conflict became inevitable, the Germans would have been insane not to take advantage of American weakness. Has not Lukacs himself repeatedly stressed Hitler's opportunism? Once the war was in progress, moreover, it would ultimately be decided by the overwhelming power of U.S. industrial production.

This Asian issue also highlights the book's greatest problem, namely its absolute Euro-American focus. Lukacs has little to say of Asian theaters, and is frankly not comfortable with the Asian story. Many historians would reject his brief discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in deciding the Japanese surrender. But let us imagine how historians will approach these matters in a few decades, when they might see that war's most important legacy as neither the fall of Europe nor the Cold War, but rather the creation of the modern nations (and future superpowers) of India and China. For China, after all, the war was but one episode in a sequence of bloodbaths that would claim perhaps eighty million lives between 1937 and 1970. Why does Lukacs not foreground that cataclysmic historical saga as a central legacy of the war years?

It's hard to imagine any scholar so thoroughly informed that they cannot learn much from Lukacs' book. But the title is misleading: it should be Some Legacies of the Second World War, not The Legacy.

Philip Jenkins is the author of Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Should Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne).

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