Ger­man na­tion­al­ist who saw the light

The Jewish Chronicle - - BOOKS - Stod­dard Martin is a writer, critic and pub­lisher

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

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