History, as a discipline, seems to improve the further away from events one moves. Close up, it’s “current events” rather than “history.” At some point, the possibility of objective analysis emerges and thoughtful critiques may be written.
John Lukacs, Emeritus Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College, understands this and at the outset of his new study, A Short History of the Twentieth Century, allows for the improbability of what he has attempted:
Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate.
He then proceeds to give an overview of the twentieth century as someone—though he never claims this—living a century or more further on might. He steps back as much as possible and looks at the period under examination—he asserts that the 20th Century ran from 1914 to 1989—as a whole, the way we might now look at, say, the 14th Century or the 12th and so on. The virtue of our distance from these times is our perspective—the luxury of seeing how disparate elements interacted even as the players on the ground could not see them, how decisions taken in one year affected outcomes thirty, forty, even eighty years down the road. We can then bring an analysis and understanding of trends, group dynamics, political movements, demographics, all that go into what we term as culture or civilization, to the problem of understanding what happened and why.
Obviously, for those of us living through history, such perspective is rare if not impossible.
Yet Lukacs has done an admirable job. He shows how the outbreak and subsequent end of World War I set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989, the two events he chooses as the book ends of the century. He steps back and looks at the social and political changes as the result of economic factors largely invisible to those living through those times, and how the ideologies that seemed so very important at every turn were more or less byproducts of larger, less definable components.
It is inevitable that the reader will argue with Lukacs. His reductions—and expansions—often run counter to what may be cherished beliefs in the right or wrong of this or that. But that, it seems, is exactly what he intends. This is not a history chock full of the kind of detail used in defending positions—Left, Right, East, West, etc—and is often stingy of detail. Rather, this is a broad outline with telling opinions and the kind of assertions one might otherwise not question in a history of some century long past. It is intended, I think, to spur discussion.
We need discussion. In many ways, we are trapped in the machineries constructed to deal with the problems of this century, and the machinery keeps grinding even though the problems have changed. Pulling back—or even out of—the in situ reactivity seems necessary if we are to stop running in the current Red Queen’s Race.
To be sure, Lukacs makes a few observations to set back teeth on edge. For instance, he dismisses the post World War II women’s consciousness and equality movements as byproducts of purely economic conditions and the mass movement of the middle class to the suburbs. He has almost nothing good to say about any president of the period but Franklin Roosevelt.
He is, certainly, highly critical of the major policy responses throughout the century, but explains them as the consequence of ignorance, which is probably true enough. The people at the time simply did not know what they needed to know to do otherwise.
As I say, there is ample here with which to argue.
But it is a good place to start such debates, and it is debate—discussion, interchange, conversation—that seems the ultimate goal of this very well-written assay. As long as it is debate, this could be a worthy place to begin.
He provides one very useful definition, which is not unique to Lukacs by any means, yet remains one of those difficult-to-parse distinctions for most people and leads to profound misunderstandings. He makes clear the difference between nations and states. They are not the same thing, though they are usually coincidentally overlapped. States, he shows, are artificial constructs with borders, governmental apparatus, policies. Nations, however, are simple Peoples. Hence Hitler was able to command the German nation even though he was an Austrian citizen. Austria, like Germany, was merely a state. The German People constituted the nation.
Lukacs—valuably—shows the consequences of confusing the two, something which began with Wilson and has tragically rumbled through even to this day. States rarely imposed a national identity, they always rely on one already extant—though often largely unrealized. And when things go wrong between states, quite often it is because one or the other have negotiated national issues with the wrong part.
Which leads to an intriguing speculation—the fact that nativist sympathies really do have a difficult time taking root in this country. Americans do not, by this definition, comprise a Nation. A country, a state, a polity, certainly. But not really a Nation.
And yet we often act as if we were.
Questions. Discussion. Dialogue. This is the utility and virtue of this slim volume.