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Book Review: The Legacy of the Second World War by John Lukacs

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“Hitler was not simple.”

This is how historian John Lukacs begins one of the chapters in his recently released book, The Legacy of the Second World War.

A master of the literary history genre, Lukacs has now written several books about World War II, including: Five Days in London, May 1940, The Duel: The Eighty Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, and Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning: Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister. His books tend to be rather short and focus on small pieces of bigger historical puzzles.

Lukacs, who resides in picturesque Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, may be retired from most of his professorial work, but his prolific pen has the energy of a man a third his age — he is 86-years old. David McCullough once referred to him as, “the greatest living American historian.” Lukacs came to America from his home in Hungary in 1946.

To Mr. Lukacs, Hitler may not have been simple — but in many ways the war that engulfed the globe from 1939-1945 was. It was pretty much all Hitler’s fault.

At first notice, this thesis itself may draw its own “it was not that simple” response, but Lukacs makes his case with wisdom and wit, tempered by brevity. He writes with the obvious skill of a well-seasoned historian, but also with a flare for prose worthy of the best novelist. Consider this description about you-know-who:

“Somewhere, in the middle heart of Europe, in the black shadows of the Alpine mountains, in a small town along a quick-flowing cold river, amid a gnarled and dark-browed people, with their minds less and less dependent on the tattered shroud of their Catholic religion or on their sense of loyalty to a once old-German but now tattered multinational monarchy, a lonely sullen boy came in this world, his heart bitten with rage and ambition, desperately alone as he grew more and more conscious of his destiny of being a German.”

Of course, the sentence does run on a bit, but clearly he’s more than a “just-the-facts” chronicler of the past.

Having dealt with Hitler at length before in a book entitled The Hitler of History, Lukacs cautions against dismissive approaches to understanding the man and his role in all that happened. To Lukacs, various theories about Hitler being a “madman” or “psychotic” seem to unnecessarily and recklessly absolve Hitler of responsibility for his pivotal role. And the professor seems to fear an eventual rehabilitation of the dictator’s reputation, one that would “rise in the minds of some people, as a kind of Diocletian, a last architect of an imperial order; and he might be revered by at least some of the New Barbarians.”

In The Legacy of the Second World War, Mr. Lukacs asks — and tries to answer (though with a measure of ambiguity) — six questions:

• “Was the Second World War inevitable?”
• “Was the division of Europe inevitable?”
• “Was Hitler inevitable?”
• “Was the making of the atomic bombs inevitable?”
• “Was America’s war against Germany inevitable?”
• “Was the Cold War inevitable?”

One of more intriguing chapters in the book deals with a vital, but sometimes overlooked moment in 1941 — one that had a decisive impact on the conduct and outcome of the war — as well as hegemonic influence over post-war geopolitical dynamics. Two men — Werner Heisenberg (German) and Niels Bohr (Danish) — met in Copenhagen in September of that year. Both had been recipients of Nobel Prizes in Physics. Their meeting has become, over the years, a window into the various efforts of the United States and Germany to develop an atomic bomb — even being dramatized in an award winning play called, simply, Copenhagen.

John Lukacs also writes in this brief work (less than 200 pages), a fascinating chapter dealing with Rainbow Five — a secret plan developed by U.S. military minds more than a year before Pearl Harbor. This plan, in short, called for a Europe First strategy should America find itself fighting a two-front war (the other potential front being the Pacific).

This plan was famously leaked to the world via the Chicago Tribune in early December of 1941, but before the story could get any traction, Sunday the 7th arrived and the rest is history.

The Legacy of the Second World War, by John Lukacs, might be a relatively quick read — but is not a short story.

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About David Stokes

  • Well done! Concise yet informative. I’ll have to check this one out and look at his other works, too.
    Welcome to BC!

  • John Wilson

    These are deep issues and very interesting, but impossible for us to really evaluate the alternatives. So I don’t know what was or was not inevitable.

    However, what I do know is that WW2 is unparalleled in history for the amount of self-glorifying BS Americans have heaped on it.

    My brothers and uncles served in WW2 and in the South Pacific. Nothing they did was glorious. Nothing was less than atrocity.

    There’s a reason that those WW2 guys never talk about their war: they are ashamed.

    “Greatest Generation” be damned!

    Truly, “War is a racket!”, as Smedley Butler accurately put it.

  • JW,
    Anonymous comments have little credence here. Where’s your link? Attach a URL to your comment.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I hardly think Mr. Wilson qualifies as anonymous and, judging by the fact that he’s quite a frequent guest here, I think his comments have plenty of credence based on their content alone. We shouldn’t discourage anyone from commenting on any articles, least of all those who make valid points.

  • FC, for once I agree with Jordan. It’s clear that John Wilson’s comments have offended you, not his missing URL. Not everyone has their own web site like you, FC. Maybe Mr. Wilson has no URL to link to. Moreover, you’re taking way too much upon yourself to declare, “Anonymous comments have little credence here.” Aside from the fact that John Wilson is a name, meaning he’s not anonymous, just who the hell are speaking for, FC? You’re a good writer, but that’s just about the stuffiest comment I’ve yet seen on BC.

  • Anonymous comments have little credence here.

    Why dosen’t fc complain about the fake handles that are present here on a daily bases?

    Some people use several names simultainiuosly.
    That’s OK with you, fc?

  • John Wilson, I look forward to reading your comments here at BC and agree with #2.

    When will all this Hitler praising end?

  • John Wilson

    In the South Pacific both sides committed routine atrocities. The Bataan death March triggered it for Americans. The japanese shinto-samari culture started it in the 30s. I have friends who grew up in China in the 30s and can attest to japanese atrocities.

    My brothers were absolutely shocked by the guilt of the atrocities they committed in the South Pacific and they were morally and psychologically dead by 1945, but they continued to walk around like zombies for another 50 years, drinking heavily, losing wives and children, hurting wives and family, trying to coverup, before they finally went to rest in their graves.

    The pacific war was vicious. It made the European war look like a game. Those were the conditions set by the lowest common denominator.

    Do you wonder why over 200,000 german soldiers were POWs and sent to POW camps in the USA while only a few thousand japanese soldiers were sent to POW camps? The others were simply killed, often when they tried to surrender or just plain stupid fight-to-the-death shinto mentality. Flame-throwers were a favorite weapon because they were indiscriminate and cheap.

    Do you ever wonder, when you see old films of hordes of japanese civilians and their families leaping off cliffs of japanese islands onto the rocks and surf below to die? Do you wonder why? They were propagandized that American soldiers were monsters, and they were right! The conditions of war made them so. And one can see that the same happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now I can see the same thing happening to our soldiers returning with shock and trauma from those unnecessary and distant wars, whose only purpose at this point is to prop up sagging egos!

    Truly, war IS the vanity of kings.

  • Alan: Thanks for the compliment. I’ve always admired your writing and so a compliment from you is held in high regard here.

    Jeannie: I do complain about fake handles every day – ask my wife. And I acknowledge that people use several names simultaneously — something that I thought was against the “Terms of Service”. Either I’m wrong, or it isn’t being enforced.

  • While Chris and I do try to enforce the BC policy against using different online handles, it’s not always obvious and we simply don’t have the time to check each and every commenter’s IP address.

    There are also cases where two or more people can quite legitimately be commenting from the same computer – for example a set of roommates or a married couple.

    It’s also been known for a commenter temporarily to switch to another handle for rhetorical or humorous effect – something I’ve done myself from time to time.

    Rest assured, though, that the more flagrant abuses are usually spotted eventually and dealt with.

  • I can verify both parts of Dr Dreadful’s last statement.

    (1) “It’s been known for a commenter temporarily to switch to another handle for rhetorical or humorous effect – something I’ve done myself from time to time.” He did so in the commentary thread to my article “Want to Cut Spending? Abolish the Marines!” In that case, however, the effect was neither rhetorical nor humorous. It was a feeble attempt at humor that fell flat.

    (2) “Rest assured, though, that the more flagrant abuses are usually spotted eventually and dealt with.” True in the case of my aforementioned article, but no thanks to the diligence of either Dreadful or his partner in crime Christopher Rose. Instead it was BC’s founder and publisher Eric Olsen who stepped in, at my request, and deleted Dr Dreadful’s inane post, among two dozen others that were filled with invective and personal attacks. That’s something Dr Dreadful and Christopher Rose ought to have done themselves, except they were too busy posting insulting remarks of their own to various other BC threads.

    Of course, the larger question involves the ethical propriety of our comments editors appending their own foolish comments to our threads, which are already overburdened with dumb, unnecessary observations. That’s a whole other discussion.

  • Jordan Richardson

    overburdened with dumb, unnecessary observations.

    You can say that again, Alan.

  • Alan, could you email me, please. You’ll find the address on the top of the navigation bar once you click on my URL.

  • Alan, you are mistaken. The article in question was not yours, but this one, the comments were deleted by Christopher, not Eric, and the reason was nothing to do with you.

  • the real bob

    Wait a second…are you saying Christopher Rose and Dr. Dreadful are the same person? I don’t know why someone would use a pseudonym for humorous remarks–don’t they want the credit? What does this have to do with Adolph Hitler? (BTW, I’m pretty sure everyone knows that “the real bob” is actually Miss Bob Etier who is too lazy to look up her URL when she puts up a post.)

  • Dr Dreadful (#14), you obviously don’t know everything that goes on at Blogcritics after all. It’s true that several comments (including a couple of mine) were deleted from Dave’s article, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t you remember trying to bait me with some ludicrous pseudonym like Vladimir Sloblovsky (I don’t remember the actual handle, but that’s close enough). Then when I detected your imposture, you posted under Dr Dreadful words to the effect: “Can’t put one over on you, can I, Alan?” That exchange, among dozens of others, was deleted, presumably by Eric, from my article “Want to Cut Spending? Abolish the Marines!

  • the real bob (#15), sorry if I confused you. No, as far as I know, Christopher Rose and Dr Dreadful are not the same person. The blogosphere can only stand one each of them. I was referring to Dr Dreadful’s use of a pseudonym as explained in my comment #16 above.

    As for your query, “What does this have to do with Adolph Hitler?” I can only remind you that FCEtier (#3), with whom I believe you are acquainted, was the one who took this thread off topic, not I. All ensuing extraneous comments stem directly from him.

    But, hey, isn’t this better than talking about Hitler? For God’s sake, hasn’t he been discussed enough already?

  • “I don’t know why someone would use a pseudonym for humorous remarks–don’t they want the credit?”

    The pseudonym might be part of the gag.

  • Bob,

    Why would you assume that everyone knows who the real bob is?

    Maybe everyone in the clicK…

  • This is better than talking about Hitler. For God’s sake, hasn’t he been discussed enough already? Amen to that!

  • the real bob

    Jeannie, I’m out with the out-crowd–if you want to join my clique there will be two of us then. However, many of the commenters on this article are aware of my existence (I guess they’re all big fans!) As for Hitler–oops my mistake! I thought we were talking about VIC Hitler, failed comedian.

    Alan, how dare you accuse me of being familiar with my husband!!! LOL. Okay, so you said acquainted. Since he’s responsible for all these comments, I’ll just have to kick his butt when he gets home from work.

    Pity the poor writer (of this article)! His first contribution to the Cabal, and we’re all acting like blogcritics!

  • Godric

    Another ludicrous and absurd attempt to absolve the Allies of their own guilt and war crimes! Tired of it. One does not have a “world war” with a single “guilty” player.