John Lukacs Left His Mark on History

The Hungarian exile deflated communism and other horrors of the 20th century.

Knowledge of the past is the very opposite of a burden,” wrote John Lukacs in 2000, summing up the idea that defined his work as a historian. He wrote more than 30 books on communism, fascism, populism, World War II and the worsening shape of Western civilization. He died May 6 at 95.

Born in Budapest to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, he came face to face with Nazism and communism before his 22nd birthday. After Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, he was conscripted into a forced-labor battalion. He managed to escape the Nazis, only to see his homeland become a Soviet puppet state after the war. He fled to America in 1946.

His education—from books and life—served him well in the U.S. Within a year, he settled in Philadelphia as a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic institution. He outpaced colleagues at much more prestigious schools but was content to stay at Chestnut Hill for 47 years, chairing the history department for 27. For Lukacs, Chestnut Hill’s draw was simple: It afforded him the opportunity to write—and write and write.

Lukacs taught generations of students and readers to approach every subject first by wrestling with its history. His most noteworthy philosophical book, “Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past,” urges students to grapple with historical facts and people, not abstractions. In this way, Lukacs argues against those who imbue the past with their own pet ideas, cutting to the core of so many isms, Marxism first among them, that claim to understand humanity’s past, present and destiny.

Lukacs found popular success with his books on World War II and Winston Churchill, one of his heroes. He relished defending Western civilization. “I knew, at a very early age,” Lukacs wrote, “that ‘the West’ was better than ‘the East’—especially better than Russia and Communism.” But he also believed he was living through the West’s decline, its culture becoming more vulgar and its people unable to understand, much less appreciate, their cultural inheritance.

Perhaps because he saw so searingly through the conceit of Marxist historical dialectics, Lukacs believed communism posed little direct threat to America. But he knew that Communists exerted a terrible tyranny over the country of his birth. He saw as a young man that very few Eastern Europeans supported communism, which had seized and cemented its power with brute force, and he continued to call attention to its systematic slaughter, starvation and suppression of the rights of millions. Even in the Soviet Union, Lukacs believed, communism had few defenders. He predicted communism’s collapse a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Lukacs’s writings are rarely assigned in the classroom, and he has no organized group fighting to rectify that deficiency. That’s not surprising, as he was a self-described “reactionary” and an equal-opportunity critic.

Yet that doesn’t mean history won’t vindicate Lukacs’s insights. His lifelong efforts to guide readers to understand their past on its own terms ensures that future generations will stumble upon his work. In the writings of John Lukacs, they will not find a burden, but a blessing.

Mr. Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.