The film The Darkest Hour made quite a splash when it came out, depicting Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister of England, facing World War II and the 1940 War Cabinet Crisis. Grossing over a hundred million dollars and earning Gary Oldman an Academy Award nomination for his depiction of Churchill, it was one of the most lauded films of 2017. Less known is that it was based on the book Five Days in London, May 1940, by Hungarian born scholar, writer, and iconoclast John Lukacs.
John Lukacs (born Lukács János Albert) passed away a few weeks ago, but left a long list of books behind, importantly Budapest, 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture . Perhaps it wasn’t his seminal work, or best known, but around this town it is indispensable if you want to read about turn-of-the-century Budapest, including so much information about cafe society and the Golden Age of Hungarian literature. Foremost focusing on writers, Lukacs introduced Gyula Krúdy, Frigyes Karinthy, and Antal Szerb to readers of English before their works in translation made them fashionable. Moreover, he brought to life a cafe society that rivaled both Vienna and Paris for its fecund intellectual life and social intrigue.
Lukacs himself was born in Budapest in 1924 to Jewish parents who had converted to Roman Catholicism. Despite having spent years abroad, he remained in Hungary at the commencement of World War II and was subsequently made to work in a forced labor battalion. Escaping certain death, Lukacs fled and hid in a cellar until the end of the war, which took the lives of both his parents.
Finding nothing to love in the newly established Communist government in Hungary, Lukacs took a post in New York City at Columbia University, later moving to Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania, where he would teach for most of his career. Though Lukacs was a conservative, he was also one of the right’s staunchest critics, rebutting all forms of WWII revisionism or Third Reich aggrandizement. His book The History of Hitler is considered the defining interpretive biography of Adolf Hitler. Lukacs’s views on populism were also dim, and he considered it the source of both Communism and Fascism.
Lukacs took on a great many subjects in his writing, but was in Winston Churchill that he found his true inspiration. Churchill was a strong leader with a moral backbone and willingness to stand against his own party, and Lukacs gives much credit for turning the tides in WWII in his books Five Days in London and 2008's Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat. Both titles were huge hits among academics and the general public alike.
So, we while we say goodbye to one of the sharpest critical Hungarian minds to make a name abroad in recent years, we welcome the chance to revisit his work, even if it is just sitting down and watching The Darkest Hour or flipping through Budapest, 1900, comforted by the thought that Lukacs has joined the great names from history he wrote so incisively about.
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