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John Lukacs: The Legacy of the Second World War April 5, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

John Lukacs’s The Legacy of the Second World War is, like most books by that brilliant and maverick historian, a bit of a mess. The chapter headings say it all. Chapter One, ‘Seventy Years Later’ and Chapter Two ‘the Place of the Second World War’ can pass muster. However, then everything is thrown off kilter. Chapter Three is about the carving up of the post-war world. Chapter Four is about Hitler’s personality. Chapter Five is about a meeting between two nuclear physicists (yes that meeting). Chapter Six, ‘Rainbow Five’ is about the American choice to finish in Europe before knocking out Japan. Then Chapter Seven discusses the origins of the cold war.

Usually run-around structures are not promising in a book: the ability to create a greater unity reflects on an author’s ability to be cogent, to the point and interesting from page to page. But in the case of JL the messier the structure the more interesting things seem to get.

The chapter, for example, on Hitler would justify the purchase of the book in itself. Again the arguments covered don’t always hold together: these are really three or four mini chapters strung one after another. But each section represents stimulating and sometimes taunting essays by a scholar who has refused to be cowed by contemporary ‘wisdom’ on the war.

So, there are thoughts on Hitler’s extraordinary state craft; Hitler as a Judaephobe rather than an anti-semite (JL as a Hungarian Jew was himself lucky to survive the Second World War); Hitler’s bizarre hesitation at Dunkirk; Hitler’s understanding that Germany was losing the war; Hitler’s indirect negotiations with the Allies…

JL at one point speculates whether Hitler will not become, in our future historical imagination, a second Diocletian: a ruthless defender of civilisation just before the barbarians cross the frozen Rhine. It would be absurd if this happened. But there is something eerily convincing about JL’s sense of where the world will drift in the next century. We are, as he often reminds his readers, at the end of an age. We’ll have to see how Beachcombing’s grandchildren have Hitler introduced to them in their text books… That is if there are still text-books to pass out.

Reading the book the historian that Beachcombing is sometimes reminded of is, of all people, the young David Irving; something that will make JL froth at the mouth should he ever read this. But JL, now in his eighties, has the younger David Irving’s talent as a gifted outsider. Yet there is none of DI’s grand-standing (Hitler’s Diary) or perverse/obscene political positions (re the Holocaust) or unfortunate heroes (let’s leave it at that). There is wisdom and a bubbling but always sensible moral impatience with the world. This might not be an ideal primer on WW2, but The Legacy is certainly the best advanced commentary Beach has read.

Beach is always on the look out for good books on WW2: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com