When Emperors Are No More


On History

Why did an intelligent Jewish scholar write an appreciation of a German tyrant?

From the paperback cover of Inventing the Middle Ages.

In 1992, a medievalist named Norman Cantor published Inventing the Middle Ages, a series of light, biographical sketches intended to show readers how a few historians from the twentieth century had brought the Middle Ages alive to the general public, with, as the flap copy put it, vivid images of wars, tournaments, plagues, saints and kings, knights and ladies.” One chapter, “The Nazi Twins,” was devoted partly to Ernst Kantorowicz, a Princeton scholar who’d written a magisterial study of sovereignty in medieval law, philosophy, and art. Cantor alleged that Kantorowicz—who was not only Jewish, but had spoken up against Hitler at great peril to his academic career, and whose mother has perished in a concentration camp—had “impeccable Nazi credentials”: an outrageous slander, in the eyes of his former students and colleagues. When The New York Review of Books ran a largely favorable essay on Inventing the Middle Ages, the magazine received a flood of angry letters. “Where is this Cantor [a] professor? Disney World?” demanded one reader. 

But “this Cantor” was not entirely specious in his claims. In 1927, when he was only thirty, Kantorowicz had written a seven-hundred-page biography of Frederick II, a Holy Roman Emperor from the thirteenth century. In lofty German that imitated the Latin style of Frederick’s time, Kantorowicz painted the Emperor as a redeemer of the German people who united the north with the Roman south and brought the barbaric East under his iron rule. Kantorowicz had a Hindu good luck symbol, the swastika, put on the biography’s cover, and on its dedication page he recalled laying a wreath on Frederick’s grave in Palermo. “That wreath,” he wrote, “may fairly be taken as a symbol that—not alone in learned circles—enthusiasm is astir for the great German Rulers of the past: in a day when emperors are no more.” Among the book’s enthusiastic readers was Hermann Göring, who gave Mussolini a signed copy for his birthday. 


Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, Poland, to an extremely wealthy bourgeois family in the liquor trade. Though he was Jewish, he would have been on easy terms with “Count so-and-so and Margrave In-and-zu this or that,” as Cantor puts it. Rather than following his siblings into the family business, Kantorowicz enlisted in the German army to fight in World War I. The experience sufficiently stoked his sense of patriotism that, after the armistice, he joined a militia that put down the Communist uprising of 1919. Soon after, he moved to Berlin to study philosophy, then to the sleepy university town of Heidelberg to study medieval history.

At Heidelberg, Kantorowicz stood out for his brilliance and his aristocratic manner. He always wore a tailored suit, had his hair cut at an expensive barbershop, and spoke in a sing-songy cadence meant to imitate the tones of Mandarin Chinese. He befriended the visionary poet, Romantic mystic, and ardent nationalist Stefan George, then fifty-five and at the end of his life and career—but in Kantorowicz’s eyes, a living genius. Not only had he had authored numerous classic volumes of poetry, but he had collaborated with the Viennese modernist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and his poetry had been set to music by Schönberg and Webern. With his shock of white hair and piercing, visionary eyes, George even looked like a genius, a messiah who would inaugurate a cultural renewal in the barren wasteland that was modern Europe. To that end, he had gathered around him a circle of young, handsome, largely gay artists and writers whose work he published in his “Pages for Art and Literature,” and who in turn expressed their devotion by calling him “Master.”

The George circle, which quickly embraced Kantorowicz, called themselves “the Secret Germany.” They gathered for intensive discussions of the poetry of Goethe and Hölderlin, as well as the statecraft and military prowess of Caesar and Napoleon. One day, they believed, they would be responsible for the cultural and political renewal of Germany, humiliated by her enemies, taxed to the point of starvation, run by incompetent socialists. The study of history would play a crucial role in this renewal—not simply the committing to memory of what had happened in the past, but the realization in the present of what was dreamt in the past. When the time came for Kantorowicz to write his Habilitationsschrift—the rough equivalent of a dissertation—George charged him with producing something greater than a mere academic document. He wanted his protégé to write the history of a great German whose example might serve, in this miserable time, as a galvanizing reminder to the German people.

Ernst Kantorowicz.

Kantorowicz complied by devoting himself for the next three years to the writing of Frederick II. By illuminating the deeds of the past with poetic words, he thought, the lifeless facts would become vivid images, suspended in the meridian between past, present, and future. He would make the reader feel the air of portent that hung over the young Frederick from the moment of his birth, when he was “hailed as the future Savior, foretold of prophets, the time-fulfilling Caesar … Fate itself seemed to walk the earth incarnate in this boy,” Kantorowicz writes, “not sinister or menacing but smiling, innocently playful, with buoyant dancing step.”

Some scholars have defended the book as a celebration of cosmopolitanism and humanism. Kantorowicz describes how Frederick, as a beautiful, beardless, gold-ringleted youth, made his way from Sicily to Swabia (what would now be southwest Germany, Switzerland, and a bit of Italy) miraculously avoiding Otto IV’s armies to be crowned Emperor. By finally unifying Swabia and Sicily, Frederick introduced a fascination with antiquity to the German world that would serve as its guiding aesthetic light for the next seven hundred years, not least to the George circle. The jurists in Frederick’s state paved the way for Dante by writing poetry in the Provençal style in the Sicilian vernacular; Jewish scholars were honored in Frederick’s empire, as was the Arab world, which Frederick regarded as the seat of the sciences.

And yet, as Cantor observes, the sinister German politics of Kantorowicz’s Germany are never far from the book. It’s filled with the noxious worship of power. It is not Frederick’s cosmopolitanism but his Germanness, inherited from his father, Henry VI, that gives him his vitality, his forcefulness, his greatness. Kantorowicz praises Frederick as the first absolutist; he and the Sicilians, who were “human substance” for the artwork that was Frederick’s state, shared “a unity of blood and speech, of faith and feast, of history and law” without which no nation can exist. The weakening of Sicilian blood by intermarriage was punishable as treason. Muslims and Jews were allowed to keep their customs but made to pay a “tolerance” tax—it was Frederick who came up with the idea of forcing Jews to identify themselves by wearing gold stars. Pluralism and opposition were “poisons,” to use Kantorowicz’s phrasing, that had to be purged form the body of the state. And with Frederick dead at the book’s end, his empire divided by his enemies and his dynasty in ruins, it is the German people of the future to whom the responsibility falls to redeem his vision for a German empire.

Kantorowicz’s real crime, in Cantor’s eyes, was not the direct support of the Nazis but the embrace of the elitist German bourgeois culture that had truck with them. And here is where his argument gets thorny. As an American Jew, Canadian born, and a teacher at a public university, Cantor does not conceal his disgust for the wealthy, elitist European Jewry who considered themselves racially distinct from the shtetl Jews in the East, and who deluded themselves that knowing Nietzsche chapter and verse would save them from the gas. This reader finds himself sympathetic to the argument that, taking the long view on the twentieth century, the distinction between right-wing ultranationalism and Nazism itself is one without difference. Frederick II is a fascinating, incredibly rich book—indeed, probably one of the best works of prose in the German language. But what ultimately makes the book fascinating is the paradox of conservatism at its heart, the unsolvable mystery of why an intelligent Jewish scholar wrote an appreciation of a German tyrant. And the pleasure of reading it is, at bottom, one of intellectual and political regression. In an age of paralyzed, bureaucratized, incompetent government, one feels, against one’s better judgment, just how awesome it must have been to have a ruler before whom one felt justified in kneeling.

In Inventing the Middle Ages, Cantor is so invested in his attack on German bourgeois culture that he cripples his argument by massaging his story. He neglects to mention, for example, that George refused a prestigious cultural post from Joseph Goebbels or that his followers deliberately switched the date of his internment so that no one from the Nazi party could attend, or that two of his followers, the Stauffenberg brothers, attempted to assassinate Hitler. Nor does he mention that Kantorowicz repeatedly spoke out about the noxious anti-Semitic atmosphere at the University of Frankfurt. Least forgivable is his elision of the fact that Kantorowicz’s mother died in a concentration camp. What Cantor grasps, at least intuitively, is the Copernican turn effected by Nazism on all of German culture. Just as medieval theologians once scanned the Old Testament for hints of the coming of Jesus Christ, so too did Nazism employ an army of scholars to stamp every field of knowledge, no matter how far-flung, with the party’s likeness. Nazi physicists refuted Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science.” Nazi botanists made sure that all of the plants along the Autobahn were natively German. Nazi theater directors and literature professors ransacked the canons of German literature and made its greatest names, from Kleist to Schiller to Stifter into prophets of National Socialism.


In America, Kantorowicz worked hard to distance himself from his intellectual and political failures in Germany. Cantor sees Kantorowicz’s “reorientation” as a form of cowardice, but it is easier to understand it as a form of penance. For the next twenty years Kantorowicz did the dry work of a professor of medieval history, publishing papers, holding seminars, attending conferences. At Berkeley, Kantorowicz briefly started his own circle. Surrounded by young men eager for aesthetic and intellectual guidance, he would explicate Dante’s On Monarchy, explaining the complex web of philosophical and legal concepts behind every single word. That era came to an end when, at the height of the Red Scare, he refused to sign a loyalty oath. And so it was that Kantorowicz, who had actually killed Communists, was deemed insufficiently anti-Communist.

Having seen political fanaticism on two continents, he turned away disciples and quietly focused on his work. In the 1950s, the historian Friedrich Engel-Janosi visited him. His wife, Madeleine, who had enthusiastically read Kantorowicz when she was younger, peppered the aging medievalist with questions about Frederick II. Kantorowicz only shrugged. “That’s a book, my dear child, that I myself do not understand,” he said.

Michael Lipkin’s writing has appeared in n+1The Nation, and The American Reader.