An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 17, 2017

Lerner: Ernst Kantorowicz, A Life

Lerner, Robert E. Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Ryan Kemp (

The lives of few historians merit a biography and still fewer one as learned and detailed as that produced here by Robert E. Lerner. Nor would many ever wish to experience the gripping drama of Ernst Kantorowicz’s career. Lerner’s biography chronicles the eventful life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest medievalists and does much else besides, offering a window into a world of scholarship, academia, and politics which will both provoke nostalgia and uncomfortable parallels in equal measure. In addition, Lerner neatly summarises and analyses Kantorowicz’s major works – his biography of Frederick II, his Laudes Regiae, and his most famous study, The King’s Two Bodies – alongside gripping, colourful, and critical character portraits of not only Kantorowicz, but the many notable personalities with whom he engaged and often clashed.

The biography proceeds chronologically except for thematic chapters discussing Kantorowicz’s three major works. Born in 1895 in Posen, Kantorowicz grew up in a wealthy German-Jewish household, expected to take over the family’s lucrative liquor business. Thanks to the “splendour of Prussian record keeping” (p. 18), we know he received the lowest possible passing grade in History and failed his written Latin and Greek exams. In 1914, the nineteen-year old signed up for his local artillery regiment six days after the outbreak of war. An early manifestation of the open, at times courageous, insubordination which characterised his later career found a somewhat different expression when he was kicked out of the army for sleeping with the mistress of a German general. The young Kantorowicz emerged from the war a fierce nationalist, who subsequently fought against Poles in his home city, the Spartacists in Berlin, and the ‘Reds’ in Munich. Lerner demonstrates, with a newly discovered letter from Kantorowicz to his parents, that his claims to be a fighter and victor in Berlin were exaggerated, though not for want of trying. Lerner’s approach, as throughout, is nuanced and sympathetic, but critical when necessary. Decades later, Kantorowicz claimed he had wanted to get with his studies and was driven to action when the lights cut out. As Lerner comments, in light of his other activities, “taking up a gun and grenade does not seem to have been a matter of dissatisfaction with the electric supply” (p. 38). In Munich, Kantorowicz did not hide the fact he had killed Communists. 

At Heidelberg, still expecting to return to the family business, Kantorowicz’s main field was economics, though his real interests lay in areas as diverse as geography and Arab philology. He quickly mocked unnecessary academic pretentiousness, referring to a ‘Heidelbergisch’ language of which he initially only understood every third word, but soon recognised that the speakers knew as much, or as little, as he did.  There were few indicators of future success. On his doctoral dissertation regarding Muslim artisan associations, Lerner comments “to say that this... equals a good American undergraduate senior thesis would be giving it too much credit” (p. 65). He did, however, attend a course on ancient history where he became interested in the ceremonial acclamations of rulers, an important prelude to his later research. He also met one of the most influential figures in his life, Stefan George.

A dominant cultural figure, seen as more prophet than poet, ‘St. George’ was worshipped by disciples, including Kantorowicz, whom ‘der Meister’ christened ‘EKa’, Kantorowicz’s favoured nickname thereafter.  These admirers were devoted to their master, speaking about him in the third person even in direct conversation (Would der Meister like some tea?). Readers will share the biographer’s bewilderment at this “insanely weird” (p. 79) devotion, but Lerner rightly highlights that it was far from parody. EKa’s own attraction turned on George’s poetry, politics, and charisma. In the 1920s, George’s poems inspired those who hoped for a ‘New Reich’, a re-awakening of truth and beauty. The firmly anti-democratic Meister thought the world currently consisted of a series of zeros until ‘the one’ emerged. Like many of his fellow citizens, the deeply patriotic EKa also resented the French occupation of the Rhineland and felt Germany had been utterly humiliated.

It was George who encouraged EKa to write a biography of Frederick II, in his view the most important medieval German emperor. He practically became a collaborator, offering to pay half the production costs upfront and editing the proofs in minute detail. Nor was this the first heroic biography George had encouraged. In a series published by Bondi, George’s house publisher, EKa’s first major publication would sit alongside equally heroic accounts of Caesar, Goethe, Napoleon, and Nietzsche.

This biography (discussed below) made EKa famous and he was appointed Professor at Frankfurt. When a Nazi boycott forced him to cease teaching, he had already attracted fierce, even foolhardy, admiration. Four of his students informed the Nazi minister of education that the picketers, “uninterested in serious work,” had preventing them learning “from a born teacher” (p. 155). Only the threat of resignation by Professor Karl Reinhardt saved them from expulsion. As for so many others, the year 1933 was one “full of drama and pain” for EKa (p. 159). Forced out, a six-month fellowship at New College, Oxford proved immensely formative and fortuitous. His command of English greatly improved, essential for securing a post in the US, and he became both an Anglophile and the close friend and lover of the classicist and wit, Maurice Bowra. On his return to Germany, the years 1934-1938, though quiet and productive, saw his capacity to conduct research gradually restricted. Chapter 14, perhaps the most gripping of Lerner’s biography, describes EKa’s attempts to flee Nazi Germany. For all the pressures of the current job market, none compare to the desperation Lerner evokes as EKa hurriedly prepared papers in English in the hope of securing a job in the US. He nearly did not make it. After Kristallnacht, he almost certainly would have been taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp had he not been sheltered by the former diplomat Albrecht Graf von Bernstorff. Albrecht gave no thought to his own safety and was murdered by the SS in 1945 for such acts.

EKa’s first few months in the US were difficult. On Ellis Island, detained as an alien held for special inquiry, he could see the Statue of Liberty through a barred window. The man now regarded as one of the greatest of all medieval historians struggled to find tenure, employed at Berkeley on a series of one-year temporary contracts until he gained a permanent position six years later. The overwhelming importance of organisations such as the ‘Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars’ is made plain in those years. In the most tragic section of the biography, we follow EKa’s desperate attempts to rescue his mother as the situation for Jews in Germany worsened. Along with his cousin, Gertrud, she was part of a group which tried to flee to Switzerland. Only one of their number crossed safely. Of those caught, one swallowed poison, another was sent east and never heard from again, while EKa’s cousin and mother were transported from camp to camp. Gertrud’s dignity so impressed some Gestapo officers that they were eventually sent to the prison city of Theresienstadt where EKa’s mother died of heart failure. He later bitterly remarked “as far as Germany is concerned, they can put a tent over the entire country and turn on the gas” (p. 260). Some reviewers have thought that Lerner fails to answer definitively why EKa switched so decisively from Right to Left or why his scholarship moved from a “highly rhetorical, politically charged biography” to a “methodical, distanced analysis... for a small scholarly audience” (p. 5). For this reader at least, the causes seem readily apparent and one wonders how far any historian worthy of the name could live through such events and find their historical or political perspective unaltered.

Kantorowicz would happily have stayed at Berkeley had not all post-holders, at the height of the Red Scare, been required to make a loyalty oath. Before 400 other faculty members, Kantorowicz denounced the oath as “a typical expedient of demagogues” to be refused out of “professional and human dignity” (pp. 313-14). Forced out once again, EKa moved to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study where he published the work which made him famous, The King’s Two Bodies. He died there in 1963, forbidding any kind of funeral. Try as he might to avoid commemoration, he “led too remarkable a life to fulfil his desire to be left alone” (p. 387).

Three separate chapters examine Kantorowicz’s major works. As Stefan George intended, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite was a tragic tale of a heroic figure, written with dramatic and rhetorical flourish. The book’s immediate popularity owed much to both this style and its celebration of authoritarianism. Kantorowicz’s emperor founded the first absolute western monarchy, with 154 pages of “explanation and applause” for “probably the most intolerant Emperor that the West has ever produced” (EKa’s emphasis, p. 104). Beheading prisoners was “a frightful necessity” and ethnic cleansing “wisdom,” from an emperor skilled in “handling human material” (p. 105). Stefan George felt “hot and cold flashes” (p. 106) when reading one section which called for the German people to avenge national humiliations inflicted by the French.

The work was also controversial because of the materials it drew upon. German scholarship had preferred ‘objective’ documentary sources to recreate ‘how it really happened’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen). EKa, in contrast, revelled in an uncritical use of chronicles, legends, prophecies, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants, to paint a romantic image of an emperor ruled by fate. For all its faults, the work was comprehensive and underpinned by extensive research. The first serious biography of Frederick II had been written by a 31-year-old who had never taken a course in medieval history. The progress from his doctoral dissertation was extraordinary. Even for those who did not share his values, he demonstrated “a different kind of medieval history, one that revealed the ideas and values that motivated the rulers of the Middle Ages, was possible” (p. 122).

Criticism came immediately from one of Germany’s most prestigious medievalists, Albert Brackmann. Not yet thirty-five, and still having never held an academic position, Kantorowicz defended himself at a congress in Halle before 140 professors. Responding to his critics, he claimed the great nineteenth-century German historians as his own, highlighting their literary style, their awareness of threats to Germany, the need to treat all generations as equal, and concluding, provocatively, with the motto of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica itself: “Holy love of the fatherland gives life.” His call to end neutrality met with no support and many left thinking the scholars EKa cited would have turned in their graves on hearing this self-appointed successor. 

In his biography, EKa had become fixated with the acclamation, “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat,” citing its use even when he lacked the necessary evidence. It became the subject of his second major study, the Laudes Regiae. For EKa, they were the medieval equivalent of ancient ruler-worship. Here, he laid out a periodisation repeated in The King’s Two Bodies, arguing the figure of Christ as king supported royal prestige until, in the early thirteenth-century, the acclamations lost their substance when a more intimate and human image of Christ emerged. Though congratulated by his ally, Percy Ernst Schramm, whose earlier work on the subject led the way, this “thicket with brambles” (p. 247) had some of the faults of his later classic, being riddled with undefined technical terms and huge swathes of untranslated Latin and Greek.

Ultimately, his use of liturgical sources proved less influential than the legal focus of The King’s Two Bodies. Lerner attempts to summarise a “fascinating but frustrating book,” written at the height of EKa’s scholarly prowess, which Joseph Strayer aptly claimed some would swear by and others at (pp. 345, 348). Kantorowicz examined the medieval antecedents for the bodies natural and politic: The Crown’s immortal authority and the king’s physical person. EKa was begged by the initial readers to drop irrelevant chapters on Dante and Shakespeare’s Richard II but refused.  Indeed, Kantorowicz left a space on the publicity form which asked for a summary of the author’s thesis completely blank. The chapters on Christ-Centred, Law-Centred, and Polity-Centred Kingship are more favoured and return to Kantorowicz’s previous periodisation. Tenth and eleventh-century kings had two persons in their natural bodies and the spiritual capacities attributed by consecration and unction. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this duality gave way to a “new pattern of kingship centred on the sphere of Law, which was not wanting its own mysticism.” Finally, in the late thirteenth and fourteenth-centuries, the idea of the ‘body politic’ emerged, paralleling the mystical body of the Church. Lerner succeeds in the difficult task of summarising this complex work and highlighting how, in print ever since, its influence has stemmed well beyond EKa’s field, despite its gratuitous display of theological learning, undefined terminology, eccentric vocabulary, and enormous footnotes.

Alongside recounting EKa’s life and scholarship, Lerner’s biography renders two further important services. Firstly, it refutes the depiction of Kantorowicz as an intellectual or cultural Nazi and the “preposterous” and “nasty” comments of Norman Cantor (pp. 185-6). While admitting the Frederick biography is difficult to separate from the rise of the Nazis, Lerner provides a nuanced explanation for the stylised swastika on its front cover and title page. This first appeared in the book series in 1910, a symbol of Hindu mysticism and auspiciousness with no greater political or racial charge than “a dolphin with an anchor” (p. 113). The publisher Bondi, himself Jewish, declared in 1928 the books had no political connections. This was disingenuous and Lerner explains, without excusing, his subject that, “sadly,” the Kantorowicz of that time probably did not care (p. 114). Kantorowicz’s critics repeated several unverifiable anecdotes. The biography was supposedly on Himmler’s nightstand, presented by Göring to Mussolini, and read by Hitler twice. It was certainly reprinted in 1936 and quoted by Nazi historians. Nonetheless, the author was never a Nazi. Passages in the biography emphasise cosmopolitan ideals far out of step with Nazi racial thought. When asked later in life to sign the book, EKa claimed the man who wrote it had died many years before. While drawing attention to EKa’s nationalism, Lerner demolishes Cantor’s slanders. Kantorowicz grieved at how other George disciples supported the regime and gave a lecture at Frankfurt which presented a counter-mythology to that of the Nazis. He informed a packed audience, as he would at Berkeley, that the professorial title was meaningless if one could not courageously offer a profession at a decisive hour. To put his actions in context, professors elsewhere were informing their students that Hitler “himself and alone is the present and future German reality.” None spoke out so publicly against the Nazi ideology. Young men in brown uniforms stood outside the hall, asking attendees why they were listening to a Jew. To deliver such a lecture took immense courage.

Kantorowicz’s critics seized on how long he stayed in Germany after leaving Frankfurt. As Lerner points out, they ignore his family and economic circumstances and have never had to make such a choice (pp. 185-6). Cantor even claimed Kantorowicz was close to Göring and that this helped him retrieve his passport, enabling him to leave. The reality was quite different. EKa knew Helmut Küpper, whose wife was close to the Görings, but he was hostile to such connections. EKa in fact retrieved his passport thanks to other influences. The head of the Berlin police was the father of a former student. Hearing of Kantorowicz’s difficulties, he called a Gestapo officer to ask whether they were holding up the passport. Erhard Milch, Göring’s second-in-command in the Reich Aviation Ministry and EKa’s distant relative, was, in fact, the cause. Göring’s infamous remark that “I decide who is Jewish” was made in reference to him (p. 209). Milch explained: “It’s exactly people like this who make the worst propaganda against Germany when they get out.” The Gestapo officer shot back “It’s exactly people like you who make the worst propaganda against Germany by not letting people out! Kantorowicz will get his passport within 24 hours!” (p. 208). Lerner thus dramatically demonstrates that Kantorowicz was able to leave, not because of any Nazi connections, but because a Gestapo officer, tipped off by the father of a former student, overruled a hateful relative.

Further highlights are the fascinating anecdotes Lerner has marshalled of his subject and his associates. We learn, for instance, that the lectures of Friedrich Gundolf, at that time one of Germany’s most famous scholars, and listened to by both Kantorowicz and Joseph Goebbels, were a model in “how not to do it.” Reading a script in monotone directly after lunch, without eye-contact and skipping lines and pages by accident, Gundolf had to lock the door of the lecture-hall on one occasion to halt the ensuing exodus. Albert Brackmann, once so critical of Kantorowicz mixing politics and scholarship, later wrote history for the SS and insisted Nazi officials attend all scholarly meetings. In contrast, examples of the wit of Kantorowicz and Maurice Bowra provide light relief. The latter described how one Vice-Chancellor split so many infinitives the floor was littered with them. Upon reading engagement notices in the Times, he would announce dramatically “Damned! I slept with them both!” Kantorowicz, in turn, claimed “Cambridge is a week behind the times, and that’s awful, but Oxford is a hundred years behind, and that’s splendid” (p. 175). Famous for his culinary skill, EKa was asked by one dinner guest, inquiring into his preparation of the kidneys, how he eliminated the traces of urine. He replied, “on the contrary my dear, I usually put in some of my own.”

Such details do much to flesh out Lerner’s biography, making it a revealing and enjoyable read. We learn that Kantorowicz was assiduous in his teaching preparation; one lecture course, written out as a script, came to 237 pages. His graduate seminars went on from 8 till 11pm, no doubt helped by the gallon of wine provided. Lerner has not written hagiography, however, and includes episodes which are not only negative but even repulsive. We find “ample documentation” of intrusions into the lives of his admiring students. He did not want them to marry, let alone have children, lest it affect their research. He threatened to disown Michael Cherniavsky when he did so. His wife, Lucy, kept her pregnancy a secret, and EKa’s nasty humour even sunk to asking if she would enjoy being raped in the “slums of Chicago” (p. 369). Whatever disgust this provokes from the reader, Lerner shows how both loved Kantorowicz regardless. For all the cruel humour and arrogance, his students remembered more the generosity and warmth of a mentor who lent them money, gifted wine, and even paid their doctor’s bills.

Lerner’s biography, the product of decades of research, is an exceptional achievement and his forthcoming edition of Kantorowicz’s letters will also be welcomed. Lerner has analysed these, in many cases for the first time, alongside numerous other writings. Many of those interviewed by Lerner are no longer with us and this biography will not only be difficult, but perhaps impossible, to surpass. Lerner jokes that the richness of documentation even allows us to tell what Kantorowicz had for lunch and, occasionally, the sheer weight of detail does weigh down the reader. Those who direct their students towards this book for Historiography papers, as they should, should consider carefully which sections to prioritise. If the biography, and Kantorowicz’s career, has a theme it is that of an interest in, and defence of, the human and professorial dignity which led to his two expulsions.  As one historian later recalled, Kantorowicz expressed ideals which “remain no less important to remember, no less essential for those who claim the right to wear the gown” (p. 387). Authoritative and definitive, Lerner’s biography will play no small part in that remembrance.

Ryan Kemp
Aberystwyth University