Igor Lukeš: renowned historian and commentator

20-07-2009

Igor Lukeš is professor of international relations and history at Boston University in the US. He left Czechoslovakia in the 1970’s and has become one of the foremost historians of its 20th century history as well as a sought after expert on Central Europe and Russia. One of his recent works was “Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930’s.” He drew heavily on Czech archive sources for the work. I talked to Igor Lukeš on one of his frequent trips back to the Czech Republic and asked him how it had been possible to get away to the USA.

“Well, it was complicated. And it was made more complicated because I had two classmates, two good friends, a man and a woman or a girl and a boy, as I would have described them then. And we needed to coordinate our departure. So it was a pretty complicated thing that occupied us for quite a bit of time. When we finally made it to New York – I think I came in first, she came in second and he came in last – it was truly like a miracle.”

You left Czechoslovakia at the time of normalisation. How much of a surprise was the US to you.

“It may sound conceited and perhaps even arrogant, but it was not a surprise. For some reason I was not one of those who think one finds bits of gold on the sidewalk: nuggets of some precious material. I always presumed it was a country that offers you lots of opportunities, but lots of challenges also. I think we were all looking forward to the challenges as well as the opportunities.”

And how did it come about that you became what you are now: a professor of history and international relations. Was that somehow planned in some way. How did that evolve.

“It was not planned at all. I think I was hoping for an academic career. But to tell the truth I would have been happy to make an academic career in geology or Sanskrit if I could. In fact I came there after being trained as a linguist. I kept applying for various academic openings in that field. I applied for 99 academic positions and did not get even a single interview. I got the message finally and realised I would have to become a post graduate student all over again. And this time I trained in international relations and history.”

Ronald ReaganRonald Reagan And was it very easy to get a post afterwards.

“No, it was not easy at all. As you know, it was at the height of the Cold War in the early to mid-1980’s and the country was idealogically pretty divided. There was a conservative president – Reagan – who enjoyed a lot of support from the general public, so to say, whereas the academics, or certainly a vast majority of academics, despised him and felt humiliated that he was the man that represented them. They thought he was simply dumb you know. To some extent they labelled me as a cold warrior because I came from Eastern Europe and had these stories about evil Communism, which they I am sure believed, but were not all too keen of hearing because it somehow reaffirmed the supporters of Reagan in their erroneous support. There was quite a lot of idealogical division.”

Coming back to Czech history, a lot of your recent time has been occupied by studying Edvard Beneš. How do you evaluate the man because opinions seem quite divided.

“Well, it is obviously a very loaded question and difficult to answer in a minute or two. I would simply say that as Beneš was a politician you have to evaluate his achievements as a politician. And from everything we know he appeared to be a very smart political analyst. Unfortunately, when we look at him as a politician we have to come to terms with the fact that he left behind a legacy of failure and that at the big moments of his life and of his political career – obviously in 1938 and 1939 and 1945 to 1948 – we see a legacy of failure. When we look at him as a politician it is very difficult to give him even a passing degree, a passing grade. As a human being, I find him a tragic person who was destroyed by the maelstroms of East and West.”

Do you think he was naive about Soviet intentions.

“He may have been naive about Soviet intentions, but then so was Roosevelt and perhaps Churchill. I do not think he was naive as to the Stalinist methods. He fully understood that the country existed the way it existed and survived the Nazi onslaught simply because of the NKVD and the terror. He had absolutely no illusions about Stalin’s methods. Now as to Stalin’s intentions, of course he did not know what Stalin’s intentions were. And I might even argue that Stalin himself did not know exactly in 1943 what he was going to do in 1946, if anything at all. He, like others, did not know the future and had to work with various and, hopefully, equally acceptable scenarios. So obviously, Beneš put his eggs in the Stalinist basket in the hope that it would work.”

Looking at the archives, both in the Czech Republic, that have been opened up in the last years, and then in the Soviet Union which have not been really opened up: do you think there will be some revelations about Czech history that hitherto have not been known.

“I am fairly confident that the French, British and German archival sources have been exhausted and that the Czech archival sources have also been exhausted or are about to be exhausted. Obviously, there can be great surprises in the Soviet archives, especially in the so-called presidential or Stalin’s archive. I believe that there also could be some remarkable revelations coming out of the NKVD or KGB or FSB – the Soviet special services archives. I am sure that the special services were very active in Central Europe and specifically in Prague. Whether it can trump what we already know about Chamberlain and Deladier and Hitler and Beneš, I am pretty sceptical. I think we pretty much understand the global picture.”

Looking more broadly at the 20th century Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia, do you think that there are some personalities that require some sort of reassessment.

“I think that we pretty much have a more or less accurate idea of Czechoslovakia between the world wars and Czechoslovakia in the early post-war period. But, of course, many of the heroes may have done some nasty things and many of the villains may have done some remarkable things. One could look at some of the recent heroes – the post-1989 heroes –and discover that here and there they were less than heroic. I come across such evidence all the time.”

20-07-2009