German nationalist who saw the light
Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life By Robert E Lerner Princeton University Press, £29.95 Reviewed by Stoddard Martin
ERNST KANTOROWICZ was the grandson of a merchant who sold home-made brew in the markets of Posen and became a distiller on a large scale, whose children inherited a major world trade in schnapps, liqueurs, cheap wine and fruit juice. Ernst grew up amid wealth and privilege. He went to a top school, which few other Jews attended. He spoke no Yiddish and thought of himself as German first, Jew only by derivation.
He was cultured, handsome, “taut and erect”. In the First World War, he won an Iron Cross on the western front and an Iron Crescent for service in Turkey. In the post-war turmoil, he stood with the Freikorps against Marxists in Munich.
Attractive to men as to women, he gravitated towards the high-minded, homoerotic, nationalist circle around cult-poet Stefan George. At Heidelberg University, where a pre-antisemitic Josef Goebbels simultaneously stud-
ied, he learned to write history concentrated on the idea of the “great man”.
To eschew scholarly apparatus and emphasise the Gestalt was a route to popularity in an era devoted to “genius”. Kantorowicz’s 1927 biography of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II became emblematic in a genre that also included Friedrich Gundolf’s Goethe, Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon, Leon Feuchtwanger’s Jude Süss and Stefan Zweig’s Fouché. Such books sat on the tables of Goering and Himmler, despite being written by Jews. Elitist, masculinist, transgressive fascinations were not exclusive to brownshirts in the Weimar mêlée.
Kantorowicz, like others, would come to regret enthusiasms with which he had made his name. In 1932, he was appointed professor at Frankfurt, but the Nazi rise to power moved him soon to apply for emeritus status.
German legal punctilio granted him a full-salary pension, though he had been in place only a year. For six months, he took a non-paying fellowship at Oxford, where he forged an intimate, helpful friendship with the classicist wit Maurice Bowra.
Kantorowicz attempted life as an independent scholar in Berlin but, in 1938, took flight to America and landed a trial lectureship at Berkeley. After vicissitudes, he gained a tenured position; yet happy days in “the land of lotus-eaters” did not last. Bigots of the McCarthy era, looking for “reds under the bed”, found émigrés suspect.
In 1949, Kantorowicz refused to sign a loyalty oath. His anti-Marxist prehistory in Germany could not save his job, but influential friends helped him to achieve a “fall upwards”, as a Fellow in Advanced Studies at Princeton.
Robert Lerner’s biography is a detailed account of this journey and its context. A labour of love, it was inspired by youthful sightings of the charismatic Kantorowicz of mature years in full dandy-intellectual mode. Kantorowicz had by then long moved on from fascist-fascinating subjects and pacey prose without footnotes.
Religious matters had interested him since early research for Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, and his principal later works were The King’s Two Bodies and Laudes Regiae, based on
legal and liturgical sources.
Lerner’s admirable study suggests that our understanding of the mind of the 20th century might be enriched by looking back at Kantorowicz’s brilliant, if recondite scholarship, alongside this tribute to its author.
The book is a labour of love inspired by youthful sightings of its charismatic subject
Ernst Kantorowicz in Copenhagen, summer 1925