Monday, December 21, 2015

The Last European War - John Lukacs

The Last European War is focused on the Second World War, but only up to the point the United States officially entered the fray, which is the point when Lukacs contends it became a World War, rather than a European one. He means this both in terms of the countries involved and the scope of the fighting, but also in the sense that at that point, it signaled a shift from the era when European events and decisions were of primary importance, to it being all about the U.S. and the USSR.

Lukacs only devotes the first 170 or so pages to the actual war, which is probably just as well, given how many other books I've read about that. The rest he devotes to various topics about the peoples involved. The role religion played in people's lives, the importance or lack thereof of diplomacy, of communication, the political ideologies involved on both sides. This is somewhat different territory to read about, certainly in this depth, but it was also somewhat less engaging. Plus, I get leery when Lukacs starts making blanket generalizations about characteristics of Germans, or British, or the Spanish, or whoever. I tend to question whether statements about the Germans curious mixture of brutality and self-pity are accurate, or just convenient.

I'm sure Lukacs would have some snide rejoinder to that, based on his footnotes. He opts for the approach where sometimes the footnotes have expanded explanations or examples in them. But on more than a few occasions, he uses them to quote something a different historian says which he insists is bunk, or outright false. Well then why is he citing it? He's not really doing so as an example of an alternative explanation which he then demonstrates as false, so much as he seems to be hurling tomatoes at people he doesn't like (A.J. P. Taylor takes more than a few shots). Lukacs clearly has a pretty high opinion of his own intelligence, considering how much he takes everyone else to task for short-selling Hitler's awareness of certain realities, or of putting too much faith in poll results from the era, or whatever.

But for all that he criticizes everyone else for their biases, he seems pretty unaware of how much his strident anti-Communism colors the whole book. On more than one occasion he practically bemoans the fact that most people will regard Hitler and the Nazis as a worse regime than Stalin and the Soviets, when he contends (no doubt accurately) that standard of living was much higher in Germany than the USSR. He argues it happens only because of the Holocaust, which is also no doubt accurate, and while he recognizes that's a pretty big exception to his argument, it's impossible to miss the fact he'd really like to ignore it. Which reflects pretty poorly on him. Also, he devotes a whole section to seemingly trying to point out Hitler didn't really start trying to exterminate Jews until after the war had started, and was content to simply drive them from his country (and Europe at large) during the 1930s. As if this is some feather in the Nazis' cap, a sign of their graciousness or something. He has his reasons - fleeing his native country because of Communism can certainly color one's perspective - but it's a clear defect in the writing of someone who had no trouble pointing out everyone else's flaws.

The tone really becomes a drain over the course of reading it, because after a while I started dreading the next pompous thing he was going to say. I really didn't like getting riled up about it, because I thought I was playing into Lukacs' hands, or my dad's (who had forewarned me when he handed me the book that it would get me worked up). There are also certain assertions he makes that were, I think, contradicted by some of the books I've read on the war that were published after his. About whether Germany had really ramped up its industrial production before 1942, or if Hitler was always planning on short wars. I know the book I read that tried to argue it was the arms' race that prompted the war cited that initially, everyone, including Germany, was planning for a war by the end of the 1940s, and it was how rapidly everyone else kept increasing arms production that kept shifting timetables forward.

So the idea behind the book is sound, and I appreciated Lukacs' apparent level of research, and even his discussion of the limitations in trying to discuss things like the effect of people's beliefs, but his writing style detracts from the experience. either the book needed to be written by someone with a lower opinion of themselves, or he needed a stronger editor.

'Dunkirk did not inspire the French. They were falling into one of their least attractive habits, their national tendency to blame others for their failures.'

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