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Ernst Kantorowicz and the Sacralization of the Past

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Carl Landauer
Law Offices of Heller, Ehrman, White, & McAuliffe San Francisco, Ca.


At the beginning of this book,” Ernst Kantorowicz wrote in the preface to The King's Two Bodies, “stands a conversation held twelve years ago with my friend Max Radin (then John H. Boalt Professor of Law, at Berkeley) in his tiny office in Boalt Hall, brimful floor to ceiling and door to window of books, papers, folders, notes—and life.”1 The conversation the two men had that day centered on Kantorowicz's amusement at receiving a mailing from The Order of St Benedict, Inc. “To a scholar coming from the European Continent and not trained in the refinements of Anglo-American legal thinking,” Kantorowicz wrote, “nothing could have been more baffling than to find the abbreviation Inc., customary with business and other corporations, attached to the venerable community founded by St. Benedict on the rock of Montecassino in the very year in which Justinian abolished the Platonic academy in Athens.” Kantorowicz thus traced the origins of his magnum opus to an amusing tale about a mailing from an American Benedictine abbey and a stimulating conversation between two scholars on the Berkeley campus. But what Kantorowicz accomplished with this opening—in part by reminding his reader of his European erudition—was to place his study in a realm very different from that occupied by his first immense volume of 1927, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1994

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1. Kantorowicz, Ernst, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, 1957), vii.Google Scholar

2. In discussing the legal notion of a corporation here, Kantorowicz opens with a lighthearted tale of the Benedictine's use of “Inc.” and yet the same question referred to in this first paragraph of The King's Two Bodies entered in a much more serious form into Kantorowicz's thinking during the loyalty oath struggle at Berkeley in 1949 and 1950. Kantorowicz, assuming a major role among those faculty members who refused to sign the loyalty oath, produced a pamphlet entitled: The Fundamental Issue: Documents and Marginal Notes on the University of California Loyalty Oath (1950, privately published). In his defense of the dignity of the faculty, Kantorowicz turned to the medieval conception of the university faculty and students as a corporation. The faculty's rights had been ignored, Kantorowicz thought, partly because of a misguided emphasis placed on “the superficial similarity of modern business corporations with the very much older corporational structure of the University” (p. 18). From this reference, one might assume that the question of the corporation was more important to Kantorowicz than he allowed in his conversation with Max Radin. Significantly, Max Radin was in Kantorowicz's company as a non-signer.Google Scholar

3. Kantorowicz, , Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite (Berlin, 1927), Vorbemerkung. Ironically, the wreath, according to Alain Boureau in his book on Kantorowicz, was brought to the site by Kantorowicz and his friends.Google ScholarBoureau, Alain, Histoires d'un historien: Kantorowicz (Paris, 1990), 41.Google Scholar

4. “Dichter und Helden” was the title of an essay written by the George-Schüler Friedrich Gundolf in 1912. The essay was later published with other essays in a volume entitled Dichter und Helden (Berlin, 1912).Google Scholar

5. Robert Lerner, for example, writes: “In the American phase of his career, Kantorowicz's revulsion about the effects of his [Frederick] biography kept him from embracing any form of nationalism.” Lerner, Robert E., “Ernst Kantorowicz and Theodor E. Mommsen,” in Hartmut, Lehmann and Sheehan, James J., eds., An Interrupted Past: German–Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States after 1933 (Cambridge, 1991). Lerner sees certain continuities, for example, in Kantorowicz's sources, but, for the most part, he describes Kantorowicz's intellectual style to have gone through a transformation.Google Scholar

6. Gundolf, “Dichter und Helden.”Google Scholar

7. Nietzsche has to be recognized as one of the formative forces on the group's thought. Cf. Raschel, Heinz, Das Nietzsche-Bild im George-Kreis (Berlin, New York, 1984).Google Scholar

8. Bertram, Ernst, Nietzsche (Berlin, 1929).Google Scholar

9. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 9. On Kantorowicz's use of “manifestos, panegyrics, prophecies, anecdotes, and rumors,” see Lerner, “Ernst Kantorowicz and Theodor E. Mommsen,” 193.Google Scholar

10. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 11.Google Scholar

11. Ibid., 9.

12. Ibid., 11.

13. Ibid., 632.

14. Interview with Ralph E. Giesey (18 November 1987).Google Scholar

15. In his Ernst Kantorowicz und Stefan George (Wiesbaden, 1982), Eckhart Grünewald has provided a short discussion of “Die Staufer als Thema im George-Kreis.” He quotes particularly a poem by George entitled “Die Graeber in Speier”: “Vor allem aber strahlte von der Staufischen/Ahnmutter aus dem süden her zu gast/Gerufen an dem arm des schönen Enzio/Der Grösste Friedrich wahren volkes sehnen/Zum Karlen– und Ottonenplan im blick/Des Morgendlandes ungeheuren traum/Weisheit der Kabbala und Römerwürde/Feste von Argigent und Selinunt” (p. 60). Cf. Alain Boureau, Histoires d'un historien, 36.Google Scholar

16. By comparison to my argument here, Norman Cantor announces in the very title of his chapter on Kantorowicz and Percy Ernst Schramm—“The Nazi Twins”—his view of the kinship between Kantorowicz's Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite and the Nazis. Cantor, Norman F., Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (New York, 1991) 79160. Among the evidence he gathers against Kantorowicz, Cantor points to the swastika emblazoned on the cover of Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, ignoring the fact that the swastika was not the same as that used by the Nazis and the George-Kreis had been using its own version in its publications well before Hitler's adoption of his swastika. Most significantly, however, Cantor seems not to have paid enough attention to the character of Kantorowicz's Friedrich-Bild.Google Scholar

17. Robert Benson pointed out to me the classicizing aspect of the “beardless” Frederick.Google Scholar

18. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 269.Google Scholar

19. Ibid., 270.

20. Ibid., 283.

21. For a discussion of Kantorowicz in the war and in Turkey, see Grünewald, Ernst Kantorowicz und Stefan George, 18–26.Google Scholar

22. A typescript copy of Kantorowicz's Inaugural Dissertation, “Das Wesen der muslimischen Handwerkerverbände,” can be found in the Kantorowicz papers at the Leo Baeck Institute.Google Scholar

23. Cf. Alain Boureau's description of Kantorowicz's Frederick as “aussi latin que germanique.” Boureau, Histoires d'un historien, 23.Google Scholar

24. Indeed, the key to Kantorowicz's cosmopolitan nationalism may be found in the inaugural address for his chair at the University of Frankfurt entitled “Das geheime Deutschland,” a typescript copy of which can be found in the Kantorowicz papers in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute (AR 7212). In his address, Kantorowicz emphasizes the theme of the European-oriented German. To aid his effort he quotes Goethe (“es müsse der vollkommene Deutsche stets mehr scm als deutsch”) and Nietzsche (“um deutscher zu werden müsse man sich entdeutschen”) (p. 15). All this, I want to stress, is still an expression of Kantorowicz's German nationalism. If his German nationalism was much broader and cosmopolitan in scope than that of the völkisch mythology, it was still very much absorbed with Germany.Google Scholar

25. On the Italianate, civilizing and even Dantesque Frederick, Ralph Giesey writes: “The German world was made more civilised by the infusion of Mediterranean culture through Frederick II, who was born, raised and lived most of his life in Italy. Kantorowicz presented the character of Frederick II not in Wagnerian but in Dantesque terms.” Giesey, Ralph E., “Ernst H. Kantorowicz: Scholarly Triumphs and Academic Travails in Weimar Germany and the United States,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 30, 193 (1985).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26. In this context, it is interesting to note that an advertisement for Gundolf's six-volume edition of Shakespeare in German appears on the last page of Kantorowicz's book on Frederick.Google Scholar

27. Gundolf, Friedrich, Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (Berlin, 1911).Google Scholar

28. Curtius, Ernst Robert, Die literarischen Wegbereiter des neuen Frankreich (Potsdam, 1920).Google Scholar

29. Since most of the books on the George-Kreis are in-house products, one profitably turns instead to the short depictions in Gay's, PeterWeimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York, 1968), 46–51,Google Scholar and in Malkiel's, Yakov “Ernst H. Kantorowicz,” in Arthur, Evans, ed., On Four Modern Humanists: Hofmannsthal, Gundolf, Curtius, Kantorowicz (Princeton, 1970), see especially 167–80.Google Scholar

30. Wilamowitz was already persona non grata with the group due to an elaborate parody he had written of Stefan George—and also to the fact that Wilamowitz as a young man had written a refutation of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. Cf. Goldsmith, Ulrich K., “Wilamowitz and the Georgekreis: New Documents,” in Wilamowitz nach 50 Jahren (Darmstadt, 1985), 583612.Google Scholar

31. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 245.Google Scholar

32. Ibid., 246.

33. Ibid., 317–18.

34. In his article, “Kantorowicz and Frederick II,” David Abulafia describes Kantorowicz's Frederick as a mixture of German and Mediterranean qualities, but I would suggest that Frederick's Sicilian background makes him much more a mixture of East and West in Kantorowicz's account than North and South. And as I have mentioned, the admixture of oriental qualities is extremely important. Abulafia, David, “Kantorowicz and Frederick II,” History 62 (1977): 193. On the theme of East and West, Ralph Giesey cites a privately printed commemorative essay by Kantorowicz's George-Kreis colleague Edgar Salin, in Giesey, “Ernst H. Kantorowicz,” 193; possibly more interesting on the theme of the mixture of East and West, is the fact that, as Giesey points out, Kantorowicz turned in his final years to Byzantine studies. Giesey, “Ernst H. Kantorowicz,” 200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35. Brackmann, Albert, “Kaiser Friedrich II. in ‘mythischer Schau,’” Historische Zeitschrift, 140 (1929): 534–46;CrossRefGoogle Scholar reprinted in Stupor Mundi: Zur Geschichte Friedrichs II. von Hohenstaufen, ed. Wolf, Gunther (Darmstadt, 1966), 522.Google Scholar

36. Brackmann, “Kaiser Friedrich,” Stupor Mundi, 10.Google Scholar

37. Grünewald, Kantorowicz, 11–15.Google Scholar

38. Ibid., 27.

39. See Lamberti, Marjorie, Jewish Activism in Imperial Germany (New Haven, 1978), 7980.Google Scholar

40. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 631.Google Scholar

41. Ibid., 210–11.

42. Ibid., 477.

43. Ibid., 477.

44. Ibid., 216.

45. Ibid., 216.

46. Ibid., 415–16.

47. In contrast to the general George-Kreis preoccupation with Greece, Kantorowicz's imagination—in Germany and in the United States—seemed taken up by imperial Rome. If in his inaugural lecture at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz quotes Adalbert Stifter's line, “Deutschland, dem Götterbilde Hellas gleichend,” that was relatively rare for him; Kantorowicz, “Das Geheime Deutschland,” p. 10. Walter Horn, who taught seminars jointly with Kantorowicz at Berkeley, relates that in his connection with Kantorowicz it was Rome and not Greece which absorbed Kantorowicz's attention (interview with Walter Horn, 7 December 1987, Berkeley, California).Google Scholar

48. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 187.Google Scholar

49. Ibid., 551.

50. Ibid., 561.

51. Oddly, Kantorowicz did not cite the great authority on Saint Francis, Paul Sabatier, in the “Ergänzungsband” to Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite (an entire volume of footnotes that was later appended to Kantorowicz's George-style unfootnoted study). However, Franz von Assisi und die Anfänge der Kunst der Renaissance in Italien (Berlin, 1904);Google Scholar and as the title suggests, Francis, Thode's Saint was one of the sources of the Italian Renaissance. Ernst Kantotowicz, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite: Ergänzungsband (Berlin, 1931).Google Scholar

52. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 613. Ralph Giesey underlines Kantorowicz's understanding Frederick as the “progenitor of the Renaissance.” Giesey, “Ernst H. Kantorowicz,” 193.Google Scholar

53. Kantorowicz, Friedrich, 629.Google Scholar

54. I have argued a similar point about Erich Auerbach's creating an image of Western culture in Mimesis in which he was very much an insider. Landauer, Carl, “Mimesis and Erich Auerbach's Self-Mythologizing,” German Studies Review 11, no. 1 (February. 1988): 8396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

55. Robert Lerner, who describes the Mythenschau controversy as “probably the liveliest Historikerstreit of Weimar,” underlines the generational aspect of the controversy and quotes Felix Gilbert on the liberation represented by Kantorowicz's role in the struggle. See Lerner, “Ernst Kantorowicz and Theodor E. Mommsen,” 188–94.Google Scholar

56. Kantorowicz, ‘“Mythenschau’,” reprinted in Stupor mundi, 23; also see Yakov Malkiel's discussion of Kantorowicz's battle with the academic establishment in “Ernst H. Kantorowicz,” 184–92.Google Scholar

57. Interview with Felix Gilbert, July 1987 Princeton, New Jersey.Google Scholar

58. Robert Lerner writes of Kantorowicz's development in the United States of what Kantorowicz called “Kabinettstück,” as Lerner describes it, “a perfectly crafted gem, dazzling to the connoisseur but too subtle, in its austere beauty, to be appreciated by the uninitiated.” Lerner, “Ernst Kantorowicz and Theodor E. Mommsen,” 196. Related to that scholarly emphasis, Boureau writes that, in the United States, Kantorowicz protested vigorously against a proposal to use endnotes rather than footnotes in the American Medieval Academy's Speculum.Google Scholar

59. Kantorowicz, , “The Carolingian King in the Bible of San Paolo fuori le mura,” Ernst Kantorowicz, Selected Studies (Locust Valley, New York, 1965), 85.Google Scholar

60. Kantorowicz, “The Carolingian King in the Bible,” 94.Google Scholar

61. Kantorowicz, Ernst H., Laudes Regiae: A Study in Liturgical Acclamations and Mediaeval Ruler Worship (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1946). Ralph Giesey explains that a German manuscript had been ready to print in 1938 when Kantorowicz was in England. Giesey, “Ernst H. Kantorowicz,” 195.Google Scholar

62. Kantorowicz, Laudes Regiae, vii.Google Scholar

63. Wallace-Hadrill, John Michael, The Barbarian West (London and New York, 1952);Google ScholarBloch, Marc, Les rois thaumaturges (Strasbourg, 1924);Google ScholarSchramm, Percy, Geschichte des englischen Königtums im Lichte der Krönung (Weimar, 1937).Google Scholar

64. Kantorowicz, Laudes Regiae, 20.Google Scholar

65. Ibid., 77.

66. Ibid., 140–43.

67. The scholarship represented by The King's Two Bodies has a great deal of similarity to the cultural historical project of the Bibliothek Warburg. Like the Warburgians, Kantorowicz was committed to crossing disciplinary borders. “The origin of this study,” Kantorowicz tells us, “will explain how it happened that the author swerved again (as in his study on the Laudes) from the normal tracks of the mediaeval historian and broke through the fences, this time, of mediaeval Law, for which he was not prepared” (ix). If Kantorowicz has somewhat unfelicitously likened his project to a traffic accident, he has essentially followed Aby Warburg in his “Grenzüberschreitung.” And in a book in which the author moves easily from coins to illuminated manuscripts and Lorenzetti paintings, from legal documents to ceremonies, and from Christopher Marlowe to Dante, he also turns often to cite associates of the Bibliothek Warburg either from its Hamburg or its London incarnations: the list includes Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky, Frances Yates, and Hugo Buchthal, Hans Liebeschutz, and Percy Schramm, in addition to numerous references to the Warburg publications. In the personal library which Kantorowicz left behind in Germany—a library amazingly complete in its holdings—there were few Warburgian entries, but he did possess a copy of Aby Warburg's Heidnisch-antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeiten (1920) and one volume of the Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg. But much more importantly, the library shows a vast interest in literature, philosophy, art, and religion over a large chronological span. And Kantorowicz seemed to possess works by all of the leading figures in the German scholarly pantheon: Burckhardt and Ranke, Dilthey and Bachofen, Marx and Simmel, Sombart and Meinecke, Harnack and Norden, Usener and Zimmer, Mommsen and Spengler; a list of the library Kantorowicz left behind in the thirties can be found among the Kantorowicz papers in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute (AR 7212).Google Scholar

68. Schmitt, Carl, Politische Theologie: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität (Munich and Leipzig, 1922).Google Scholar

69. Ibid., 37.

70. Kantorowicz, Ernst H., “Mysteries of State. An Absolutist Concept and Its Late Mediaeval Origins,” Harvard Theological Review, 48 (1955): 67n; the article has been reprinted in Kantorowicz, Selected Studies, 381–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

71. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 3.Google Scholar

72. Ibid., ix. Cassirer, Ernst, The Myth of the State (New Haven, 1944). Part of the story of Kantorowicz's self-purging was his attempt to discourage the postwar reprinting of his Frederick book. See Lerner, “Ernst Kantorowicz and Theodor E. Mommsen,” 195–96 and Grünewald, 165.Google Scholar

73. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, viii.Google Scholar

74. Ibid., 61–78.

75. Ibid., 67.

76. Ibid., 97.

77. Ibid., 99.

78. Ibid., 447.

79. Kantorowicz, “Mysteries of State,” 91.Google Scholar

80. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 446–47.Google Scholar

81. Ibid., 497–505.

82. Ibid., 500.

83. Ibid., 505.

84. Ibid., 506.

85. Ibid., 464.

86. Ibid., 495.

87. In his depiction of Dante as secularizer, Kantorowicz quotes directly from Etienne Gilson's study of Dante, Dante et la philosophie (Paris, 1939), as if he were taking his lead from Gilson; see especially The King's Two Bodies, 470–71.Google Scholar

88. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 465.Google Scholar

89. The most important nineteenth-century demystifiers within the scholarly tradition were the German Higher Critics, who made their impact on scholarship in both Europe and America. Demystifying scholarship became particularly intense around the turn of the century, especially when Western religion was placed into the context of primitive religion, as was the case in the work of William Robertson Smith and James Frazer.Google Scholar

90. In his German library, Kantorowicz possessed a series of Max Weber's writings, including the three volmes of Weber's Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionsgeschichte.Google Scholar

91. Kantorowicz, The Fundamental Issue, 21.Google Scholar

92. Ibid., 13. Boureau notes that Kantorowicz “adapted his metaphysics of state to the university.” Boureau, Histoires d'un historien, 111.

93. On the last page of Ralph Giesey's essay on Kantorowicz for the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, he writes: “The idealised Dignity of all manking is the office every moral human must try to fulfil.” Kantorowicz's student understood a spiritual calling as essential to his teacher's work.Google Scholar