Sunday, August 7, 2016

Lerner's biography of Kantorowicz

One can order Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life Hardcover, to be published December 27, 2016
by Robert E. Lerner for $39.95 (prime).  If the price drops at the time of publication you will be charged that price.  You can find it at,

I have been rereading Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages, The Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, published in 1993.   I read this in 1993 and again in 1999.

Cantor’s biographical sketches of Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz take up 39 pages.   I was struck each time I read this chapter by how mildly Cantor handles Kantorowicz a Jewish academic, one of the remarkable historians that Cantor praises, who was caught up in the great-man quest much as Heidegger was.   Cantor, however has his critics.  The main argument of one criticism I read is that Cantor is not well liked by other historians.  Another listed several things Cantor left out of his 39-page biographical sketch Schramm and Kantorowicz as evidence that he was prejudiced against Kantorowicz.

Cantor writes on page 82, “Schramm and Kantorowicz reinforced and encouraged each other.  Both worked in the tradition of German Geistesgeschichte – ‘spiritual’ (cultural and intellectual) history, drawing upon the long tradition of Hegelian idealism in German humanistic circles. But both wanted to put original twists on the old Geistesgeschichte.  The word Geistesgeschichte has no equivalent term in English.  It stands for the dominant tradition in the learned humanities in Germany from the 1890s until 1933. It means placing in one’s foreground past ideas, theory, and literary and visual arts and making these spiritual and intellectual refinements, rather than material and social forces, the central concern of the historian.  Geistesgeschichte is a manifestation of German philosophical idealism and the assumption that ideas and learned traditions that perpetuate ideas have a durable reality and a human value separate from any other aspect of society. . . .”

“The Stefan George circle in which Kantorowicz had moved along with some of his high aristocratic friends was much tighter than Schramm’s networks and went beyond vanguard learning.  George was a flamboyant lyric poet and visionary, who gathered around him a group of rich, well-educated young men (the homosexual tone, whether latent or explicit, was up-front) to cultivate German national traditions and explore high horizons of culture and political revival through great leadership.  The leadership principle was strongly prevalent with George and his disciples. This was one of the intellectual foundations of nazism, although the George circle, several members were Jewish, would not in the end be satisfied with the vulgar corporal from Vienna.  They were thinking of apocalyptic figures like the great Staufen emperors of medieval Germany.  Along with poetry, the George group went in for the writing of romanticized biographies to put models of charismatic leadership before the beaten, confused, and impoverished postwar German people so that the Volk would rise again under some Nietzschean and Wagnerian heroic figure.
    “This is how Kantorowicz came to be in Heidelberg.  He was assigned by George to write the biography of the most apocalyptic of medieval German figures, Emperor Frederick II.  He was doing it to satisfy his master, George, and to stir the German people to national renewal under some new wonder of the world.  This project was sentimental, trendy, even a little idiosyncratic, but not ridiculous or useless in the German ambience of the 1920s.
    “George’s message was an amalgam of Greek classicism and pristine Germanic heroism: ‘A people is dead when its gods are dead.’  Out of the materialism, corruption and disorder of the Weimar era a ‘Secret Germany’ of cultured supermen will emerge and take over power from the unaware lumpen masses, George proclaimed. . .
    “Whatever we may think of this is colored for us by what happened in the 1930s.  Whether the triumph of nazism was a fulfillment of George’s vision or a grotesque perversion and betrayal of it has been debated since the thirties, and there is no resolution to this issue.  To the young Kantorowicz, George was the guru who saw the truth and foretold the future.  If George wanted a biography of Frederick II as part of his visionary program of German renewal, Kantorowicz would do what he was told and produce it and write it in accordance with the leadership principle and the late romantic excitement that George generated.
    “What is important for medieval studies is that Kantorowicz read all the voluminous published sources of Frederick II, mastered all the modern literature on the Staufen dynasty, and used modern scholarly research on the medieval empire and papacy. He applied his incredible linguistic ability and his deep knowledge of the Middle East and the Orient to put some new angles into the old Staufen story.  He then wrote the most exciting biography of a medieval monarch produced in this century.  It has aged very well.  It still has power to stimulate the mind and stir the blood Its learning and insight are phenomenal. . . .”

Kantorowicz strikes me as an interesting fellow, but I’m going to hold off ordering Lerner’s biography.  I found a short biography of Lerner saying he studied under Strayer, and Cantor was much more critical of Strayer than he was Kantorowicz, imo.

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