In the summer of 1943, at the height of the Allied invasion of Sicily, Hermann Goering made frantic efforts to have the remains of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and his family transferred from the cathedral in Palermo to Germany. The symbolic power of Frederick was obvious: at his death in 1250, his empire, the first German Reich, had achieved its greatest extent, stretching across the middle of Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and as far east as Lebanon, only to fragment and shrink in subsequent centuries, finally coming to an ignominious end at the hands of Napoleon in 1806. The Nazis, always keen to seek legitimacy through forcible appropriations of the past, regarded their own Third Reich, and hence themselves, as Frederick’s rightful heirs. It is nonetheless extraordinary that in the midst of a military emergency so much thought and energy would have been expended on salvaging a pile of dust. Perhaps Reichsmarschall Goering thought the Emperor’s body might act as a potent talisman in the flagging fatherland. In any case, it is even more remarkable that Goering’s distracting enthusiasm for the medieval monarch had originally been ignited by a Jew.
That man was Ernst Kantorowicz. In 1927, entirely unknown and at the absurdly young age of thirty-one, he had stunned the academic world when he published the first biography ever written of a man loved and feared in equal measure, to some a tyrant and to others the Messiah. Frederick II towered over his era, leaving an enormous and complex legacy, which makes both the person and his creation difficult to grasp and even harder to explain. Kantorowicz – who a few years before had completed a dissertation in economics and had never formally studied the Middle Ages – did something no professional historian had previously dared or been able to do, and he did it with sensational flair. Over 600 pages long, densely packed with recondite information drawn from scattered sources in ancient and modern languages, and written in flamboyant German prose, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite immediately became an improbable bestseller, with a fourth edition issued in 1936. Frederick II, with its enthralling glorification of absolute power and ruthless ambition, predictably appealed to the new overlords of Germany as well. Indeed, Goering – who made sure to send a copy of the book with an inscription to Mussolini – was far from the only Nazi leader to fall under its spell: Heinrich Himmler was a fan, as was Hitler himself. When he surprised one of his generals reading the book during the war, the officer feared the Führer would object. Hitler reassured him by saying he had read it twice.
Kantorowicz’s first book on the Staufer Emperor alone may have sufficed to secure his place in the scholarly pantheon. But he managed to outdo himself with the even more influential The King’s Two Bodies, which appeared in 1957, shortly before he died in 1963, and has never been out of print. Yet most striking is that these two monumental books exist at opposite ends of the ideological and historiographic spectrums: the first, written in the overwrought, mystagogic style cultivated within the “circle” around the poet Stefan George, celebrates an almighty, autocratic ruler who held sway over a vast realm. Kantorowicz deliberately – and compellingly – cast his book as a political allegory meant to inspire his fellow Germans to seek and submit to such a leader should he appear. The latter book, written in English in American exile in Berkeley and Princeton, is a sober, meticulous, but no less scintillating study of an esoteric historical problem in what Kantorowicz called “political theology”. It is an immensely learned work bolstered by thousands of footnotes (the first book had none) and spiked with rebarbative terms only a pedant could embrace: “catoptromancy”, “geminate”, “caducity” and “equiparation”. When it was published, one reviewer hailed it as “a great book, perhaps the most important work in the history of medieval political thought, surely the most spectacular, of the past several generations”. Its appeal for subsequent readers was enhanced when Michel Foucault approvingly cited The King’s Two Bodies in Discipline and Punish, while Giorgio Agamben called it “one of the great texts of our age on the techniques of power”.
Kantorowicz’s life, then, is a study of two extremes, exemplified by these two books, and reflective of two radically different political and cultural universes. The central question of this extraordinary scholar’s life, which Robert Lerner raises but never satisfactorily answers – perhaps because it is unanswerable – is how to make sense of this apparent disparity. If Lerner does not offer a definitive solution to this puzzle, we do learn enough from his finely grained portrait to be able to imagine where one might lie.
Few academics merit a full biography, and those who do rarely lead lives that would warrant one. The contemplative life, the necessary condition for writing serious works that endure, usually precludes a vita activa, and there are surely few things less captivating than looking over the shoulder of a scholar. But the author of these two remarkable books was anything but a typical scholar, and he lived through far from typical times. In many ways, however, Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz was representative of the assimilated Jewish haute bourgeoisie in Wilhelminian Germany. Born in 1895 into a family of considerable wealth (his father owned a thriving liqueur firm) in Posen in West Prussia (now Poznań in Poland), Kantorowicz instinctively, even proudly, saw himself as an unhyphenated German. Later in life he would say he was of “Jewish descent, not Jewish belief”. His family celebrated Christmas and Easter, and only scattered Yiddish words were ever spoken at home. As a youth he attended the exclusive Royal Auguste-Viktoria Gymnasium, where he learned Greek, Latin and French. Along with the values of the Prussian Bildungsbürgertum, he also imbibed a kind of reflexive patriotism and nationalist pride that was frequently stronger among Jews than among their gentile compatriots.
Thus it was entirely natural that, six days after the First World War broke out, the nineteen-year-old Kantorowicz should volunteer for Posen’s first field artillery regiment. He was soon dispatched to the Western Front, where his exceptional bravery and skill earned him the Iron Cross. Wounded at Verdun, he was later transferred to Constantinople in 1917, where he learned some Turkish, returned to battle and promptly won the Iron Crescent, the Ottoman equivalent to the German distinction. At the conclusion of the war, the collapse of the monarchy did not mean that his allegiances followed suit: in the ensuing chaos Kantorowicz lent his military experience and elan to various counterrevolutionary efforts: first in Posen, where he clashed with Polish separatists who wanted to break away from Germany and merge with the Polish state; then in Berlin, where in January 1919 he joined the notorious Freikorps, the loose paramilitary groups of veterans hostile to republican, let alone communist, ideas, that crushed the Spartacist uprising; and finally in Munich three months later, where he helped put down the short-lived “Soviet Republic of Bavaria”. This time he was not only wounded again, but by his own testimony he also shot and killed a number of insurgents.
Despite experiencing – and somehow surviving – four and a half years of unimaginable violence and upheaval, Kantorowicz made a notably smooth transition back into civilian life. In the autumn of 1919 he enrolled at Heidelberg University to study economics in preparation for taking over the family business. A year later, however, he met the man who would change his plans and life forever. Among initiates, Heidelberg was then known as the capital of the “Secret Germany”, that select group of young (and some older) men united in their commitment to the vision and person of Stefan George, who at the time often spent long sojourns there. It is difficult now to understand the intense devotion, even veneration, George inspired in – and demanded from – his intimates. After beginning as a rarefied poet in the French symbolist mode in the 1890s, he gradually became one of the most powerful figures in German culture, attracting ever larger numbers of brilliant and energetic followers who placed themselves and their talents in the service of furthering the goals of the man they called der Meister. Elitist, anti-democratic, hostile to the Enlightenment values of rationality, equality and personal freedom, George and his circle promulgated a vision of a hierarchically ordered society in a future Germany, no longer “secret” but in every sense real, in which individuals would occupy the place assigned to them by nature and would be ruled by a supreme and omnipotent Führer – a word George and his followers did much to popularize.
One of the most effective ways George found for promoting his programme was by recruiting his disciples to write what he called Geistbücher, “Spirit Books”, in essence stylized and tendentious hagiographies in which his intellectual and political heroes were fashioned into the embodiments and mouthpieces of his ideals. Plato, Caesar, Napoleon were all submitted to this treatment, as were Goethe, Hölderlin and Nietzsche, resulting in books that often received tumultuous acclaim. George had long had a particular fascination with Frederick II, the mightiest and most mysterious emperor of the Middle Ages, and had written a poem in 1902 that extolled him as the “Greatest Frederick” by comparing him with the eighteenth-century Hohenzollern king who was merely Frederick “the Great”. George had previously urged several of his acolytes to bring the Staufer sovereign back to life in a Geistbuch, but to no avail. George, who undeniably had an eye for talent, recognized the promise in the young Kantorowicz and asked him to take on his orphan project. After completing his dissertation in economics in 1921, Kantorowicz sat down to his appointed task.
Frederick II would more than fulfil George’s most fervent hopes. But George had an eye for more than just intellectual abilities. It was an open secret that George loved boys and men – a fact necessarily cloaked in euphemism and innuendo since homosexuality remained outlawed in Germany by the infamous paragraph 175 of the penal code enacted in 1872 – and he cultivated a male Eros that drew heavily on ancient Greece for both inspiration and cover. Kantorowicz was irresistibly dashing, favoured finely cut clothes, was fond of good food and drink – and, as Lerner documents, had numerous male and female lovers before and after his encounter with George. When they met, Kantorowicz was in fact living together with another student, Woldemar Uxkull. Soon after making his acquaintance, George revealed to a friend that he thought Kantorowicz was “what the French call a chevalier, and he was entirely a chevalier of a kind one no longer sees. Lithe, yet of masculine firmness, sophisticated, elegant in dress, gesture and speech”, with something of “a foil fencer about him”. By 1923, George preferred to stay in Kantorowicz’s apartment when he visited Heidelberg, often living with him for two or three months at a time, especially during the composition and proofreading of Frederick II. Strangely – and with no evidence to back up such a categorical claim – Lerner insists that their relationship was strictly platonic and that George harboured no “sexual designs on the awestruck twenty-five-year-old”, which may or may not have been true. But Lerner also states that, with regard to “George’s practice with his disciples . . . he adhered to the principle of high-minded relationships between educator and protégés”. This, as all of George’s recent biographers have amply demonstrated, is patently false. In a sense, of course, it is irrelevant whether George and Kantorowicz were physically intimate: what really mattered was the work. But even after he turned his back on Germany for good, Kantorowicz, whom George had affectionately rechristened as “EKa” and who thereafter insisted all his friends and closest students call him by that nickname as well, never forsook his master.
Although Frederick II stirred fierce controversy within medievalist circles in Germany, owing mainly to its unapologetic mythologizing and overtly nationalist agenda, it was still recognized as a pathbreaking scholarly achievement. Such was its reputation that, astoundingly, it was on the strength of this single book alone that in the autumn of 1932 Kantorowicz was appointed as Professor Ordinarius, the highest rank in the German university system, to teach medieval history at the University of Frankfurt – despite the fact that he held a PhD in an unrelated field and, even more significantly, had not completed the otherwise requisite Habilitation (usually involving a second monograph on a different topic from the dissertation) and, perhaps most surprising of all, despite his being a Jew. In private, EKa made wry jokes about his implausibly rapid rise and almost unbelievable good luck. But he was also conspicuously quick to order new stationery displaying the coveted double prefix “Prof. Dr.” before his name.
The new semester had not even begun in early 1933 before the cataclysm struck. In short order, the Nazis took control of the universities and on April 7 issued the so-called Law for the Restoration of Professional Civil Service – then, as now, professors in Germany were Beamte, or public officials employed by the state – which stipulated that, among other things, “civil servants who are not of Aryan descent are to be placed in retirement”. At a stroke, the prospects for Prof. Dr. Ernst Kantorowicz had gone from enviable to bleak (he did, however, maintain his sense of humour and archly told a friend that he must have been the youngest “emeritus” professor in German history). But the staunch German nationalist and devoted George disciple was ambivalent about whether the new situation, however disastrous it undoubtedly was for him personally, might not be a welcome development overall. That is, like many others, Kantorowicz initially imagined that Nazi Germany might be the realization of George’s dream of the “Secret Germany”. But with resigned stoicism he appeared to accept that, no matter how things turned out, he would not be a part of it. Citing his hero Frederick in a letter to George on his birthday in July 1933, Kantorowicz humbly acknowledged that the “empire transcended the man”. His message to the Meister managed to be simultaneously a note of congratulation and a kind of farewell:
May Germany become what the Master has dreamt of!” And if current events are not merely the grimace of that desired ideal, but really are the true path to its fulfilment, then I wish that everything may turn out for the best – and then it is of no consequence whether the individual – rather: may – march along – or steps to one side instead of cheering. “Imperium transcendat hominem”, Frederick II said, and I would be the last person to contradict him. If the fates block one’s entrance to the Reich – and as a “Jew or Colored Person,” as the new coupling puts it, one is necessarily excluded from the state founded on race alone – then one will have to summon amor fati and make one’s decisions accordingly.
After a six-month interlude at Oxford in 1934, where he met and fell in love with the classicist and fellow bon vivant Maurice Bowra, he was encouraged to travel to the United States. For a variety of reasons, however, Kantorowicz did not leave Germany for another five years. Some have suggested that he hoped that he might after all be able to stay; but the main thing that held him back is that he had nowhere else to go. Finally, he received an offer from the department of history at Berkeley, where he arrived in the winter of 1939.
Kantorowicz was enchanted. The climate was “like paradise”, he wrote to a Swiss friend; “I praise almost every day I am allowed to live here . . . the view of the Bay reminds me of Naples . . . the food is excellent, the wine not too bad”. Over the course of the next decade, despite his idiosyncratic spoken English, he became a popular and sought-after teacher, holding captivating seminars for the intellectually ambitious. One student recalled: “Entering promptly, faultlessly dressed, Kantorowicz brought into the classroom an almost tangible aura of intellectual excitement and anticipation . . . . Nothing was alien to this agile mind, roaming freely over the centuries as it unfolded the drama of man”.
Kantorowicz might have happily lived out the rest of his days in California had politics not again intervened. In 1949, at the height of the anti-communist hysteria fanned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the President of the University of California, Robert Sproul, made what Lerner calls the “tactical decision” to demand that all employees of the university sign an oath declaring: “I am not a member of the Communist Party”. Failure to do so would lead to termination of contracts. Outraged, Kantorowicz publicly denounced the measure, pointedly drawing comparisons to similar pledges people had been compelled to take in the country he had been forced to flee. “I have killed Communists”, he told one colleague, “but I shall never take the oath.” During a special session held by the Academic Senate on June 14, 1949, attended by some 400 faculty members, Kantorowicz stood up and read from a text he had prepared for the occasion:
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 nonconformists as un-Athenian, un-English, un-German. I am not talking about political expediency or academic freedom, nor even about the fact that an oath taken under duress is invalidated the moment it is taken, but wish to emphasize the true and fundamental issue at stake: professional and human dignity.
Thus it was that Kantorowicz achieved yet another rare distinction: that of having been fired by two major academic institutions, from one because of who he was and from the other because of who he refused to be.
The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which had been founded in 1930 by another admirer of Kantorowicz, Abraham Flexner, was delighted to welcome the newly unemployed medievalist. The eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky, likewise a refugee from Nazi Germany, was at first wary about the author of Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite and even asked a colleague if Kantorowicz was “dangerous”. But after learning of the stand he had taken at Berkeley, Panofsky became his champion and later one of his closest friends. Other luminaries at the Institute also soon warmed to the vivacious newcomer, including Robert Oppenheimer, then its Director, as well as George Kennan, who described Kantorowicz in his memoirs as “a man of ineffable Old World charm” and “an essential feature of the Princeton of the 1950s”.
After The King’s Two Bodies appeared, several publishers, hoping to capitalize on its success, pleaded with Kantorowicz to allow another reprinting of his earlier volume. Without explaining why, he steadfastly refused, at one point saying only: “the man who wrote that book died many years ago”. It was probably another death that stiffened his resistance to resuscitating the portentous emperor. Kantorowicz had left most of his family behind in Germany when he made his escape in 1938, including his cousin Gertrud Kantorowicz and his mother, Clara. In 1942, aged sixty-five and eighty respectively, they had managed to reach the Swiss border, where they were caught, transported back to Germany and shuttled among a succession of camps. In February 1943, Kantorowicz’s mother died in Theresienstadt. There is no record of his ever commenting on his mother’s death, but a friend in Princeton reported him as having once said: “As far as Germany is concerned they can put a tent over the entire country and turn on the gas”.
Yet there continued to be two Germanys for Kantorowicz, the one that had murdered his mother and would have killed him as well given the opportunity, and the other one that had fostered his intellectual development. In 1953, Robert Boehringer, Stefan George’s biographer, wrote to Kantorowicz asking him to describe the poet’s influence on him. Kantorowicz, who after the war never spoke publicly about the Meister or referred to him in any of his writings, responded by making an astonishing confession: “There is not a day in which I am not aware that everything that I manage to accomplish is fed by a single source, and that this source continues to bubble even after twenty years”.