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