The Kantorowicz Conundrum

April 16, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: GermanyRussiaCommunistsWorld War I

The Kantorowicz Conundrum

At bottom, Ernst Kantorowicz was an imperious mandarin who viewed the passions of the vulgar multitude, whether in Germany or the United States, with contempt and disdain.

Kantorowicz adapted the sweeping and mystical language of the George circle to history with copious literary allusions to Dante and Wolfram von Eschenbach, as well as references to classical Latin literature and mythology. He demonstrated a mastery of a wide range of sources and flew in the teeth of the rather desiccated German historical profession’s emphasis on objectivity, pure and simple. His aim was different: to visualize the medieval era, to perform an imaginative Warburgian leap that would bring it to life. In 1930, at the University of Halle, the enfant terrible defended his work in a special session before over one hundred historians. Defending his dramatic approach to the past, and dressed to the nines, he dilated upon, among other things, his “fanatical belief in today’s threatened Nation.”

There can be no doubting that Kantorowicz was writing about the past with an eye on the present. He depicted Frederick as a tragic hero, likening him to Caesar and Napoleon. The biography also celebrated authoritarianism, hailing Frederick as a ruthless and intolerant ruler who founded a secular tyranny in Sicily and engaged in ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The tome concluded with the portentous statement, “The greatest Frederick—he who his Volk neither grasped nor gratified—until today is not redeemed. ‘He lives and lives not’ . . the Sibyl’s saying applies no longer for the Kaiser but for the Kaiser’s Volk.” The Volk, in other words, needed to be unshackled from Weimar and Versailles—the whole rotten democratic edifice that Britain, France and the United States had imposed upon a Germany shorn of its Kaiser and its best traditions. “He was addressing,” Lerner writes, “numerous readers who shared his deeply antirepublican, anti-Enlightenment, and revanchist sentiments.”

This was dreadful stuff, but Kantorowicz’s bold insights and indefatigable researches meant that his larger accomplishment was not obscured by his nationalistic bluster or sheer pleasure in provoking outrage. On the contrary, his talents were recognized by Kurt Riezler, a former adviser to World War I chancellor Bethmann von Hollwegg and a passionate Hellenist, and Karl Reinhardt, an eminent classicist. Both helped Kantorowicz secure a post as a professor at Frankfurt University in 1932, a remarkable feat since Kantorowicz had not written the standard Habilitationsschrift, or second monograph, usually required for promotion to full professor. After only one semester, however, his status as a professor came into jeopardy. George had called upon his followers to remain aloof from daily politics, but for all his nationalistic effusions, Kantorowicz was hardly blind to the fateful course that German events were taking. Lerner notes that when Ernst Robert Curtius sent him his book German Spirit in Danger, Kantorowicz responded that not just the spirit but also the very soul of Germany was imperiled. In a letter to George on December 29, 1931, Kantorowicz noted that he had been “swimming against the current.” Now, it had reversed itself and he would have to navigate a “teeming mass of rabble, corpses, and vomit” if he wanted to swim against the current once more. For the moment, he chose to sit on the riverbank.


ONCE THE Nazis were installed in power by a conservative cabal in January 1933, they moved quickly to take over the German educational system. At Frankfurt University in April, two SS men arrested Riezler. He was forced to resign his curatorship. The university senate met concurrently to discuss the best method for extruding Jewish faculty and asked Kantorowicz to take a permanent leave of absence. On April 7, the regime issued the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which stated that all professors “not of Aryan descent” were to be terminated, but granted an exemption for those who had fought in World War I. Kantorowicz refused to take it, which would have required the grotesque act of signing a Nazi loyalty oath. Instead, he requested and received a leave of absence for the summer only, emphasizing in his letter to the authorities “the dignity of the University Professor, founded solely on inner truth.” In the fall, however, he delivered an anti-Nazi lecture entitled “The Secret Germany” before an overflowing crowd. In it Kantorowicz did not explicitly allude to the Nazis but held up the prospect of a secret Germany becoming the true Germany. He indicated that fidelity to the gods of Hellas rather than biological succession was truly ennobling. He also noted that Nietzsche declared, “In order to be more German, one must de-Germanize oneself.” Lerner nicely contrasts Kantorowicz’s subversive lecture with Martin Heidegger’s address on November 3, 1933 to University of Freiburg students, in which the philosopher maintained, “Not theorems and ‘Ideas’ are the rules of your Being, the führer himself and alone is the present and future German reality and law.” Lerner’s verdict: “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the Third Reich.”

In 1938, after hiding out in the Berlin apartment of his good friend Count Bernstorff during Reichskristallnacht, Kantorowicz decided to emigrate. His passport had been confiscated. After pulling strings in the Gestapo with the aid of a former student—who happened to be the son of Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, the head of the Berlin police—he retrieved it and traveled to England for a month or so before emigrating to the United States. Upon leaving Germany, he quoted Wordsworth in a letter to Curtius: “Men are we and must grieve when even the shadow of that which once was great is passed away.”

In the United States, Kantorowicz’s former ardor for Germany turned into hatred. After an abortive attempt to cross the border into Switzerland, his eighty-year-old mother Gertrud was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she died in February 1943. “As far as Germany is concerned,” he told one student at Berkeley, “they can put a tent over the entire country and turn on the gas.” But Lerner observes that he never felt fully at home in America; rather, he was “acutely aware of his own deracination—his ‘own unreality.’” It only intensified as the Cold War began. He dismissed American anti-Communism as hopelessly parochial: “In this country the hovering problems,” he said, “are treated with the much too simple and diplomatically impossible formula of ‘for or against Russia.’ Nothing good can come of that.” When J. Robert Oppenheimer was vilified as a Communist agent, Kantorowicz sardonically wrote in a letter in 1954, “I’m once again fully at home, whatever home means—Hitler Deutschland, Nazi California, or Stahlhelm-Soviet USA.”

Indeed, in 1949, Kantorowicz had stood up in the faculty senate to denounce a proposed loyalty oath. It was, he said, reminiscent of Nazi attempts to impose ideological conformity upon the populace. To a rapt audience, he declared,

History shows that it never pays to yield to the impact of momentary hysteria, or to jeopardize, for the sake of temporary or temporal advantages, the permanent or external values. . . . The new oath, if really enforced, will endanger certain genuine values the grandeur of which is not in proportion with the alleged advantages. . . . It is a typical expedient of demagogues to bring the most loyal citizens, and only the loyal ones, into a conflict of conscience by branding non conformists as un-Athenian, un-English, un-German.

Kantorowicz was fired in 1950. His academic accomplishments and his courage at Berkeley, however, prompted the Institute for Advanced Study to offer him a post. Theodor Mommsen, who had helped Kantorowicz emigrate in 1938, and the distinguished art historian Erwin Panofsky, who was a member of the institute’s School of Historical Studies, were instrumental in helping him obtain the appointment. Panofsky, in his supporting statement, paid tribute to Kantorowicz’s fecund imagination, observing that he “recommends himself to us by the quality of mind, easier to sense than to define, which enlivens whatever it touches.” In 1957, Kantorowicz published his masterpiece, The King’s Two Bodies. It was, in a way, the obverse of his study of Frederick II. Now, he sought to demystify power in the medieval era. Virgil’s declaration to Dante, “I crown and mitre you over yourself,” perhaps best captures his humanistic approach.

He drew on a dizzying array of sources—art literature, numismatics, theology, ecclesiology, Roman law, canon law and English common law—to elucidate the development of the theory of kingship and the early modern state. Kantorowicz examined different versions of medieval political theology that explained the body politic and the body natural, partly by focusing on Shakespeare’s Richard II. According to Lerner, “Kantorowicz explains that because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, it was only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape.” Several thousand footnotes supplemented the text for those intrepid enough to venture further into the recesses of medieval theology.

After the publication of The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz wrote a series of essays on recondite subjects. He had no desire for posthumous fame, indicating that, as one student put it, he simply had a “desire for peace and to be left alone.” But this rogue male’s turbulent life and striking scholarship ensured that he played more than a walk-on role on the intellectual stage of the past century. After Kantorowicz fled Germany, he found refuge in the United States, but never felt fully at ease in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where he viewed anti-Communist fervor with repugnance. Before, he had sought to fuse the past with modernity. Now, he could only seek sanctuary in the former. “Fair world, where are you?” Schiller asked in his poem “The Gods of Greece.” It was a question that Kantorowicz may have pondered as well. If he had a religion, a cousin of his observed, it was that “he hankered after the Greek gods.”