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The Future of History

The Future of History

by John Lukacs

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For more than sixty years, John Lukacs has been writing, teaching, and reading about the past. In this inspired volume, he turns his attention to the future. Throughout The Future of History, Lukacs reflects on his discipline, eloquently arguing that the writing and teaching of history are literary rather than scientific, comprising knowledge that is neither


For more than sixty years, John Lukacs has been writing, teaching, and reading about the past. In this inspired volume, he turns his attention to the future. Throughout The Future of History, Lukacs reflects on his discipline, eloquently arguing that the writing and teaching of history are literary rather than scientific, comprising knowledge that is neither wholly objective nor subjective. History at its best, he contends, is personal and participatory.

Despite a recently unprecedented appetite for history among the general public, as evidenced by history television program ratings, sales of popular history books, and increased participation in local historical societies, Lukacs believes that the historical profession is in a state of disarray. He traces a decline in history teaching throughout higher education, matched by a corresponding reduction in the number of history students. He reviews a series of short-lived fads within the profession that have weakened the fundamentals of the field. In looking for a way forward, Lukacs explores the critical relationships between history and literature, including ways in which novelists have contributed to historical understanding. Through this startling and enlightening work, readers will understand Lukacs's assertion that "everything has its history, including history" and that history itself has a future, since everything we know comes from the past.

Editorial Reviews

Historically Speaking - Timothy Snyder

"In the dark world here depicted, we see Lukacs's own bright form, in his irresistibly human prose."—Timothy Snyder, Historically Speaking
Historically Speaking - Stanley G. Payne

"The Future of History deserves a wide audience. Its eloquent advocacy reminds readers of the nature and priorities of the best historical writing, even as it elucidates the undeniable perils of the present decline."—Stanley G. Payne, Historically Speaking
Publishers Weekly
The self-confessed reactionary Lukacs (Five Days in London) renders another lament for the passing of not just a historical generation, but an epoch. His perspective stretches back more than 400 years this time, to the Renaissance, with special emphasis on the 1750s, when a patrician western European bourgeoisie flourished. He mourns the departure of larger-than-life individuals, like Churchill and Napoleon, and historians like Acton and Burkhardt, who wrote about "politics and states and their leading persons." For him, the modern age, with its science and technology, is a pale replica, characterized by bureaucracy, anonymity, and mediocrity that pervade politics, education, even life itself. Lukacs memorializes the passing of the old order, and even questions the meaning of history and historians, the difference between history and fiction and how both relate to truth and justice, and what he calls our "choice" of ideas. It could be argued that the life Lukacs misses has continued, but in channels other than the ones the author prefers; new pens for the emerging story of mankind have been created. This slim requiem is full of reminiscences of a lost world which will likely ring hollow to many American ears. (May)
Washington Times

"Mr. Lukacs is one of the more incisive historians of the twentieth century."--Washington Times
Historically Speaking

"The Future of History deserves a wide audience. Its eloquent advocacy reminds readers of the nature and priorities of the best historical writing, even as it elucidates the undeniable perils of the present decline."—Stanley G. Payne, Historically Speaking

— Stanley G. Payne

First Things

"Lukacs manages to cover a remarkable amount of ground."—Ryan Sayre Patrico, First Things

— Ryan Sayre Patrico

Taking Readings

“I do not tire of reading Lukacs . . . It’s almost as if he’s sitting by the fire speaking informally to a gathering of confidants on a topic about which his mind has been quite fertile for many decades. While the topics have been addressed in the past, the fertility of his mind keeps them fresh and relevant.”—Stephen Greenleaf, Taking Readings

— Stephen Greenleaf

Jacques Barzun

"I consider John Lukacs one of the outstanding historians of the generation and, indeed, of our time."--Jacques Barzun
Conor Cruise O'Brien

"We are in the presence of one of the most powerful, as well as one of the most learned, minds of the century."'--Conor Cruise O'Brien
George F. Kennan

"There is no one who has looked at subject[s] as broadly, sensitively, and deeply...This is what gives all of [Lukacs's] works their long-term value."--George F. Kennan
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

"No historian of the Second World War has John Lukacs's range, acuteness, intuition."--Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Stanley Payne

"A brilliant and penetrating analysis of the present and future of history by one of our wisest historians and philosophers of history, a work that should be read by everyone interested in history in the twenty-first century."--Stanley G. Payne, author of Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II

Paul A. Rahe

“In the course of the last six decades, John Lukacs has published more than thirty learned, witty, controversial tomes and innumerable articles and reviews – nearly all of them contributions to the study of modern European and American history, and many of them laced with striking reflections on the present discontents. In this slim, gracefully written volume, this renowned historian turns from tracing, analyzing, and assessing the significance of developments past to ruminating on the present state of historical scholarship and pondering its prospects. Composed in a conversational style reminding one of what it originally meant to pen an essay, The Future of History will be treasured by readers graced with a speculative cast of mind and apt to take delight in the company of a thoughtful and erudite provocateur.”--Paul A. Rahe, author of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift

Paul Schroeder

"These personal reflections on the nature of history and historical consciousness, the fruit of a long productive career of an historian who never shrank from big subjects and controversial questions, will provoke, stimulate and enlighten readers. Its central thesis, that history is and should remain literature, conveying meaning like great novels more through insight and understanding than by factual narration, is surely worth pondering."--Paul Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

First Things - Ryan Sayre Patrico

"Lukacs manages to cover a remarkable amount of ground."—Ryan Sayre Patrico, First Things
On the Seawall - Ron Slate

“To listen to [Lukacs] attempting to reconcile conflicting ideas and facts is the pleasure and instructiveness of The Future of History. It teaches us how to respect our disciplines.”—Ron Slate, On the Seawall
Taking Readings - Stephen Greenleaf

“I do not tire of reading Lukacs . . . It’s almost as if he’s sitting by the fire speaking informally to a gathering of confidants on a topic about which his mind has been quite fertile for many decades. While the topics have been addressed in the past, the fertility of his mind keeps them fresh and relevant.”—Stephen Greenleaf, Taking Readings
Walter C. Uhler

“The Future of History should be treasured, not only for its depressing observations about the state of history in the US, but also for its persuasive demonstration that, if history is to endure, it must harness the facts and techniques found in literature and provide meaning like the world’s great novels.”—Walter C. Uhler
Library Journal
Of the 36 books Lukacs (The Legacy of the Second World War) has written, this is his sixth on the conduct of his chosen profession. In his late eighties, he is not sanguine about current trends. He opposes current faculty hiring practices (the "perpetuation of mediocrity"); is skeptical of fads like psychohistory and "quanto-history"; multiculturalism, though worthy in the abstract, can lead "not to a deepening but a shallowing of [the historian's] craft." What, he asks, is the future of research with computers? Will young people continue to read, much less read critically? What is the longtime effect of diluting the teaching of high school history? Lukacs has long been a self-proclaimed "reactionary" in a field increasingly driven, in his view, by methodological fads and liberalism. Resolutely old-fashioned, he views history as art, not science, and champions the consideration of ideas over strictly material causes. Some of his fears are real, some seem less so, but Lukacs's views deserve hearing as the reflections of a lifelong professional in the elusive discipline of history. VERDICT Practicing historians and some history buffs will want to read this book.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

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The Future of History

By John Lukacs


Copyright © 2011 John Lukacs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17513-4

Chapter One


The rise of historical consciousness * The history of professional history * History as a "social science" * Historianship during the current crisis * "Historical thinking has entered our very blood"


Everything has its history, including history. (Everything has its history, including memory ... but let that go, at least for the moment.) In most languages "history" has a double meaning. It is the past, but it is also the study of and the description of the past, storytelling of a particular kind. And what is the state and what are the prospects of storytelling—now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century? I shall—I must—say something about that big —very big—question later in this little book. But here I must start with the state and the prospects of historianship: more precisely, with the teaching and writing of history as a certifiable profession of certified professionals.

Professional historianship is more recent than most people think. Existence in history began with Adam and Eve, living in time and knowing that. After them, the telling and the writing of the past came to exist, but certain Greeks were perhaps the first conscious (and excellent) practitioners of "history" (the very word "history" comes from the Greek, where it meant something like "research"). Great Greek and Roman and other writers (including those of the New Testament) were inclined, some of them eagerly, to record and describe real events and real people, rather than legendary ones: but such designations as "historian" or "biographer" did not occur to them or to their readers. Many centuries later there was a whiff of professionalism in some men designated as "chroniclers," their appointed or selected task being the recording of certain events and of certain people. Still they differed not much from their Greek or Roman predecessors. Then—not during the Renaissance but, by and large, after it—came something else that I prefer to call the rise of a historical consciousness, particularly in Western Europe and England, involving changes in the minds and in the vocabulary of many people. Its marks were an increasing interest in history, even involving their self-knowledge. To describe this mutation in detail does not belong within this book, even though its author has devoted a large part of his teaching and writing to it, going so far as to claim that the emergence of a historical consciousness, say, in the seventeenth century, may have been as important as, or even more important than, the then emergence of the scientific method.

Still, let me illustrate this emergence but with a few words, examples in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary marks the first appearance of history "as a formal record" in 1482; of "historian" about half a century later, at a time when the current meaning of "century" did not yet exist. Soon thereafter "primitive" comes to mean, for the first time, that some things and some people are still "behind" us; "progress," for the first time, means an advance in time (and not only in space); "century," "contemporary," "decade," "epoch," "Middle Ages" (for the first time around 1688, marking a definite age between "ancient" and "modern"), "evolution," "development," a little later. At the same time this new historical out-look arose together with a new kind of in-look. A clear example of the latter was the appearance of words involving self: "self-love," "self-esteem," "self-pity," "self-knowledge" first appear in English during the seventeenth century; "ego," "egoism" a little later—when, for example, "anachronism" appears, meaning something badly out of time: that is, historically wrong. (Consider that two centuries before that Titian and others painted biblical scenes and people in sixteenth-century clothes, with sixteenth-century Italian houses and villas in the background.)

In sum: the history of this development of a historical consciousness preceded (and transcends) the history of professional history. Of course, the former led to the latter; but my subject in this book is the latter. Some time around 1700, now about three hundred years ago, a few men began to recognize that a knowledge of history might be not only interesting but also practical—especially when it came to the relations of states. Around 1720 Cardinal Fleury, adviser to the king of France, wrote that "a man of mediocre status needs very little history; those who play some part in public affairs need a great deal more; and a Prince cannot have too much." The Regius Professorship of Modern History, established by King George I in Oxford in 1724, was restricted to training young diplomatists. The adjective "diplomatic" at that time referred to the careful study and examination of documents—in that respect a great French scholar, Jean Mabillon (De re diplomatica, 1681), studying mostly documents of the early church, and pointing out their errors, preceded the first establishment of a "scientific" study of history by a century. But something wider (and deeper) was going on. During the eighteenth century history began to burgeon and flourish as literature, especially in France and England. There was now a great increase in the numbers of people who read for pleasure. Voltaire recognized this. History is a form of literature that has the most readers everywhere, he wrote; consequently, he wrote historical biographies of Charles XII and of Louis XIV, for example. "History is the most popular species of writing," Gibbon put it, and went on to write it. Toward the end of the century Dr. Johnson, in one of his remarks to Boswell, lamented that there was not enough authentic history.

In more than one sense he was right. History as a branch of entertaining literature now existed. But consider that 300 years ago there were no such things as history courses. In the medieval grammar schools and universities, history was not a subject. There was no such thing as a history degree. People may have become more and more interested in history; but there were, as yet, no professional historians. Then, about 230 years ago, this began to change.


In 1776 or 1777 the first professional degree in history (more precisely: for the study of history) was offered in the university of Göttingen in Germany. This had been promoted by August Ludwig von Schlözer, who insisted that history was more than storytelling, and more than the memorization of a past; that it was philosophy, too, connecting results with causes. During the next one hundred years this originally German model and practice and certification spread across the civilized world. On a map of Europe one could mark the advance of the history Ph.D. in the nineteenth century, from Spain to Russia. In the United States the first doctorate in history was established in Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in 1881. We may therefore state this generalization:

During the eighteenth century history was regarded as a form of literature;

During the nineteenth century history was regarded as a science;

And often during the twentieth century, especially in the United States, as a "social science."

So regarded—and so practiced. This, originally German, practice of training and certifying professional historians became near-universal. What were—and still are—its practical applications? Above all, there was—and still is—the idealized standard of objectivity. Or, in Germany, especially the insistence on "the scientific method," the proper application of which will (or ought to) result in the achievement of writing a portion of history "wie es eigentlich gewesen," "as it actually was"—the maxim of the great German historian Leopold von Ranke, whose life and work extended almost over the entire nineteenth century. He had his personal shortcomings, and he had his prejudices: but this was a noble ideal that should not be criticized in retrospect. He was not the first historian who was eager to find and then to extol the supreme worth of documents; but he was among the first to insist on a categorical difference between "primary" and "secondary" sources: the first having been written or spoken by the subject of research, the second an account of acts or words reported or recorded by someone else. Another German institution was that of the seminar, in most of which graduate students work under the guidance of their professor, studying documents and preparing their application. Yet another consequence: the professional dissertation—a more or less original work or monograph, a study of a single subject, no matter how limited, but based mostly on the student's discovery and application of primary sources, in full employment of the scientific method—finally qualifying him to be admitted to the guild of professional historians. This practice, and the "guild" idea, were taken from the medieval standards of the order of German guilds of craftsmen, where admittance to a guild required (a) training of the apprentice by a master craftsman, (b) the former's production of an original piece of work, whence the word "masterpiece."

The results of these standards and practices of nineteenth-century historical science were tremendous. So many of the great works written by nineteenth-century historians remain not only valuable but inspiring even now. There were, too, conditions that had made their achievements possible (though not necessarily easier). One was the gradual opening of archives, whence the accessibility of primary sources to more and more scholars. Another circumstance was that the "guilds" were still small. As late as, say, 1860, it was possible for a wide-reading historian who also knew two or more languages to be aware of almost all publications by other professional historians in his "field" and even beyond that. Moreover, the establishment and the remunerations of his professorship allowed him to pursue his research largely at his leisure. (Of these conditions the last still may exist, while the previous one no longer does.)

A classic representative of these then new conditions was the great English historian Lord Acton. He read and spoke at least six languages. There are evidences that in the 1860s, when the first scholarly historical periodical journals began, including articles, bibliographies, and lists of lately published books and document collections, Acton read an astonishing amount of these, whether their subjects were ancient, medieval, or modern. This at a time when British archival scholarship may still have lagged behind that in Germany and France. (Yet it was Acton who was instrumental in founding the English Historical Review in 1885. Though he never completed his plan for a monumental book (The History of Freedom), Acton wrote very much: his articles, reviews, and essays, and the enormous mass of notes for the eventual sake of that book, remain extant and valuable. Yet he, too, believed in the supreme value of the scientific method.

In his noteworthy introduction to The Cambridge History of Modern Europe (1897) he wrote that, thanks to the progress of historical science, it had become possible to write historical accounts of important events that would be definite and final. It is this assertion of a definitiveness that we no longer have, or should have. (As John Newman said already during his lifetime: Acton "seems to me to expect from History more than History can furnish.") Had Acton understood that The Last Word on a subject means something else than The Case Is Now Closed? That history, by its very nature, is "revisionist"? He had not. He died in 1902, an unhappy man. He belonged to the nineteenth century, a superb exemplar of historical research and writing then.

There were, however, not only philosophers (say, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche) but a few historians who during that very century expressed their convictions about the limitations of the "scientific method." In 1868 the German historian Johann Droysen put it beautifully: "History is humanity's knowledge about itself, its certainty about itself. It is not 'the light and the truth,' but a search thereof, a sermon thereupon, a consecration thereto. It is, like John the Baptist, 'not the light but sent to bear witness to that Light.'" Even earlier Jacob Burckhardt (perhaps the greatest of historians during the past two hundred years) told his students that history does not have a method. He told them one Italian phrase: bisogna saper leggere—You Must Know How to Read. As true today, in our developing pictorial age, as it was true then. Perhaps even more.


During the nineteenth century another predictable development came into being. This was the application of the scientific method to the study of large numbers of people. The emergence of the new science of sociology was but one outcome of that. A related outcome was the broadening interest of some professional historians attempting to go beyond the customary traditional subjects of the histories of states and politics and their leading persons. In a few remarkable instances, around and after 1910, particularly in France and Germany and also in England, this broadening also included deepening, a historical interest and study in the geographic and economic and material conditions of certain periods. In the United States, Henry Adams noted, as early as 1900, the existence of "the new science of dynamic sociology." Yet it was not Henry Adams but an entire slew of American professional historians who now believed in and propagated and taught the then very American and progressive idea that history was a social science. "What is 'social science'?" the fine American essayist and amateur historian Agnes Repplier asked a friend in 1912. She had no answer to her skeptical query. Yet by that time many American historians had accepted the designation of their discipline as a social science.

Around the same time the teaching of history, its systematic inclusion in the requirements of high schools and colleges and universities, had spread across the United States. This was a largely bureaucratic achievement promoted by progressive and democratic historians who declared that the study and the teaching of history were eminently practical; that history should be "consistently subordinated" to the needs of the present. (James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard in 1907.) Robinson in 1912: "Society is today engaged in a tremendous and unprecedented effort to better itself in manifold ways. History-mindedness ... will promote rational progress as nothing else can do. The present has hitherto been the willing victim of the past; the time has now come when it should turn to the past and exploit it in the interest of advance."

This was American progressivism par excellence: democratic as well as progressive, populist as well as intellectual. Its main—and for a while leading—populist proponents came not from the East (Robinson was a professor at Columbia) but from the Midwest: mostly from the University of Wisconsin. Its main prophets were Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, Merle Curti. They were social scientists rather than historians, whether they would admit that or not. They were professional and intellectual spokesmen of a populist progressivism—which, instead of being very "modern," rested on the concept of Economic Man, not unlike nineteenth-century Marxism, though in an American version. Turner wrote that "today the questions that are uppermost, and that will become increasingly important, are not so much political ... questions. The age of machinery, of the factory system, is also the age of socialistic inquiry." (This could have been written by a Soviet historian in the 1930s.) In his encyclopedic American intellectual history Parrington dismissed F. Scott Fitzgerald as insignificant. Beard wrote as late as the 1930s that "the expanded role of government would increase and not reduce 'the freedom of the individual.' " Etc., etc. Most of these historians considered and propagated history as nothing less than a social science—perhaps the principal science but a social science nonetheless.

After 1950 the influences and the reputations of these Wisconsin progressives faded. After all, it was obvious that (unlike others, and unlike the French Annales school) their broadening of historical inquiry did not lead to their deepening it: rather the contrary. Yet the notion that history was a social science lived on. Under that name the teaching of history was reduced in the curricula of high schools. The faddish interests in social history, quantification, multiculturalism, gender history, etc., were but new versions of the social-scientific approach. (Yes, an approach rather than a "method.") I must refer to some of these fads in the next chapter of this book; but here I must attempt to draw attention to something wider, which is the development of the historical profession through the past century, and especially in the past thirty or forty years.


Excerpted from The Future of History by John Lukacs Copyright © 2011 by John Lukacs. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Lukacs is the author of some thirty books of history, including the acclaimed Five Days in London and, most recently, The Legacy of the Second World War.

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