The Legacy of the Second World War

Tonight my Military History Book Club will be discussing John Lukacs’s The Legacy of the Second World War.

I had not previously been acquainted with John Lukacs, so I was surprised by the manner in which this book was written. The narrative is flowing and readable, but rather loosely structured. His argument is quite nuanced and very nearly impossible to discern by someone unaccustomed to Lukacs or his background. Indeed, I found the book easier to read after doing some research into the author.

Lukacs is seemingly aware of his lack of cohesion, and cautions the reader with an introduction to the book’s subsequent structure:

In a way – but only in a way – I will in the following six chapters attempt to answer six 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 each chapter he discusses all manner of things, giving paragraphs of weight to seemingly unimportant details, but he does more or less attempt a response to each of these questions.

What I found important to know about Lukacs was that he sees both Soviet Communism and National Socialism in Germany as the result of extreme populism. He doesn’t view Hitler’s Germany as “fascist”; indeed, he denies the universality of fascism believing the term is only applicable to Mussolini’s Italy. This reminds me of my own comparative studies of “fascist” movements during university. It was difficult to find academic agreement on precisely what fascism was or is, especially regarding details. So perhaps Lukacs is correct.

Even more interesting about Lukacs’s take on the Second World War is his refusal to see the outcomes of the war as inevitable. He takes us past tired narratives and gets into the realpolitik motivations behind why Hitler, and others, did certain things during the war, rather than casting them as narrow-minded idiots. In Lukacs’s opinion, the term “the Second World War” itself glosses over the fact that the conflict was actually composed of many smaller wars driven by dozens of different political factors, and Lukacs’s writing reminds us of these facts.

John Lukacs writes about the history of this war as the history of the individuals involved. History is too often written as if grand sweeping forces move civilization forward, regardless of individuals. Of course, Lukacs was actually there. He was 16 or 17 when the war broke out, was forced to serve in a labour unit in Hungary, and  escaped from post-war Hungary to America.

Lukacs answers all his questions “no.” He demonstrates, in a nuanced way, how actual history often resulted from unforeseen consequences of an intent or a strategy incongruously interpreted or applied. For instance, scientists in the West misunderstood Heisenberg’s German nationalism and feared that he would be working furiously to provide Germany with atomic weapons, and even Heisenberg’s close friend Bohr didn’t understand his allusion to a possible reciprocity of non-nuclear development among Germany and the Allies. Or how Stalin was mistaken for an international revolutionary instead of the populist nationalist that he was.

And so: the legacy of these misunderstandings then is the legacy of the second world war.

For people well-versed in the history of World War II, this book will be interesting and will provoke a reexamination of simple or rote interpretations of the war, although a primer on Lukacs is a prerequisite.

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