Wise Men Against the Grain

One’s relations with one’s country, like the relations among intimates, are always complicated; but I conceive myself to have loved my own…. I am now inclined to see my country much the way that I see Russia (in the historical sense): namely, as a politically unsuccessful and tragic country, but one capable of producing out of its midst, from time to time, remarkable literary, artistic, and musical intelligence, politically helpless and always vulnerable to abuse and harassment at the hands of the dominant forces of the moment.
—George Kennan, letter to John Lukacs, July 8, 1984
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Dominique Nabokov
George Kennan at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, 1981

The diplomat and historian George Frost Kennan (1904–2005) and the historian and historical philosopher John Lukacs (born Lukács János Adalbert in 1924) are American contemporaries who shared a tradition of humane thought and scholarship that in the late twentieth century has exercised diminishing influence on the political discourse and policy of the United States. The unlikely friendship between the two, initiated by what amounted to a fan letter, continued for almost fifty-two years, in a learned correspondence of observation and commentary on the international and national affairs of the cold war, but increasingly on the condition of men and women, above all Americans, in what Lukacs, the historian, characterized as the final stage in a modern age that began in the West during the Renaissance.

John Lukacs was born in Hungary and lived there until after World War II, except for the year 1938–1939, when his divorced and Anglophile mother (“very beautiful, intelligent, impulsive and chic”) sent him to school in England, where his term ended just before war was declared. His mother’s origins were responsible for his assignment to a special labor battalion for “converted Jews” when, late in the war, he was called up for military service in Hungary. She had been born to a Jewish family long converted to Catholicism (she survived the war). His physician father and his stepfather (“who did not like me very much”) were Catholics too.1

During the war, Hungary’s right-wing government of Admiral Miklós Horthy imprudently joined Italy and Germany in invading Yugoslavia, aiming to recover territories lost in the World War I settlements; it found itself committed to its sequel, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Horthy government, having second thoughts, entered into secret peace negotiations as early as 1942–1943 with the US and Britain, causing Germany to occupy Hungary and place the quasi-fascist Arrow Cross movement in power. After an attempt at an armistice with the USSR also proved abortive, the Russian army invaded Hungary, whose troops fell back toward Germany as part of the Wehrmacht’s retreat. Lukacs, by then serving in an antiaircraft unit, deserted. He and members of his family survived the nearly three-month Russian siege of Budapest, taking shelter with others in a cellar. His stepfather was hit by shellfire on the last day of …

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  1. 1

    Lukacs, Confessions of an Original Sinner (Ticknor & Fields, 1990). It is not an autobiography, as Lukacs writes in the introduction, but “a history of some of my thoughts and beliefs…. I am convinced that the most important thing in this world, and perhaps especially in our times, is what people think and believe….”