“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.