by David Contosta, Ph.D., Professor of History
Dr. John Lukacs, Chestnut Hill College’s legendary teacher and scholar, died peacefully on May 6, 2019, in the library of his Phoenixville home, surrounded by some 20,000 books that he had collected over the decades. He was 95. Long notices of his passing appeared in newspapers around the globe. For years, he had represented the excellence of Chestnut Hill College to the outside world.
Hungarian born, Lukacs came to the College in 1947 as a refugee from both Nazism and Soviet Communism. To honor this native son, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States attended his funeral mass.
Lukacs taught European history for 47 years at the College until his retirement in 1994. He was also the author of 35 books, many of them translated into other languages, including Japanese. He wrote extensively about World War II. Among his books on this theme were “The Last European War”; “The Duel,” about the 80-day struggle between Hitler and Stalin; “Five Days in London,” concerning Churchill’s unswerving vow to resist Nazi tyranny; and “Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian.” He had a lifelong admiration for Churchill, whom he credited with saving western civilization.
Lukacs’s “History of the Cold War” was one of the earliest studies on this subject, a book that he drafted over a dozen weekends at home with the help of several boxes of large cigars. Defying conventional beliefs of the time, he insisted then and for the rest of his life that the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West was more about aggressive nationalism than any ideology. Significantly, in numerous other writings, he sharply contrasted nationalism, which is often militantly destructive, with what he called “old-fashioned” patriotism, which he considered a far more benign love of country.
Lukacs’s keen interest in the Cold War, and in international politics more generally, led to an extensive correspondence and close friendship with George Kennan, the celebrated American diplomat who formulated the “Doctrine of Containment,” which became the central feature of American resistance to Soviet Communism. Despite his flight from communism at the end of World War II, Lukacs agreed with Kennan that violent denunciations or armed conflict against communism would not cause the Soviets to retreat from Eastern Europe; rather that internal rot would lead to the break-up of the Soviet empire. He celebrated his friend’s life in “George Kennan: A Study in Character.”
Early on, Lukacs considered himself a conservative, yet he could disparage Republican presidents and vote to put Democrats in the White House. As time went by, he liked to call himself a reactionary, mourning the decline of the “modern” bourgeois world with its solid family comforts, good manners, civil discourse, and love of books, a lamentation that he took up in his “Passing of the Modern Age” as well as in other writings. In truth, he defied ideological categories, despite an account of his beliefs in an “auto-history” that he entitled, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Confessions of an Original Sinner.”
To mark the College’s 50th anniversary in 1974, Lukacs composed “A Sketch of the History of Chestnut Hill College, 1924–1974.” This slim volume showcases his great capacity for poetic prose, as when he paints a word picture of the College’s first evening back in 1924: “The forest outskirts of the placid, often somnolent city of Philadelphia: This was where fifteen homesick girls suddenly found themselves separated from the rest of the world on a beautiful September evening… At night an added row of windows shone about the darkening silhouette of the rows and clumps of trees.”
Students remember how “Dr. Lukacs” frequently made outlandish remarks in class to shock them into questioning some received verity, or to help him get a point across. Seated in the faculty lounge, he would throw out provocative remarks to spark heated debates among his colleagues. There and elsewhere, he insisted that the past is all we can know since the present is but a fleeting slice of time while the future had not yet arrived.
A good pianist, John more than once treated the College community to renditions of songs by his “favorite” Cole Porter. As I write these lines in my office, which was once John’s office in St. Joseph Hall, many memories of this brilliant, provocative, and unfailing iconoclast seem to drift in and out of the room. I owe him much. He taught me to question scholarly consensus, and he gave me the courage to put my thoughts to paper and to float them out into the world.
Chestnut Hill College will never know the likes of John Lukacs again. Long may he be remembered, as those rows of windows shine out onto the lawns and flicker through the trees of our beautiful campus.