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Defending Kantorowicz

In response to:

The Cantorbury Tales from the May 14, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

In his review [NYR, May 14] of Norman Cantor’s book, Inventing the Middle Ages, entitled “The Cantorbury Tales,” Robert Bartlett has readily discerned elements of obsession, prejudice and error in those parts of the book dealing with scholars he is well acquainted with, but he fails to heed his own warning when he ventures into less familiar territory. A case in point is the paragraph he devotes to that “Cantorbury tale” purporting to describe the character and career of Ernst H. Kantorowicz (1895–1963), the German refugee scholar who spent the last decades of his life in this country. Although Bartlett finds some irony in Cantor’s “memorable,” even “remarkable” portrait of Kantorowicz—which occupies half of a long chapter entitled “The Nazi Twins” (Percy Ernst Schramm being the intellectual jugate)—he accepts without question things Cantor sets down as self-evident truths. So, at one point Bartlett quotes this sentence (from among many like it available to him) from Cantor: “Kantorowicz’s Nazi credentials were impeccable on every count except his race.” Everyone acquainted with Kantorowicz knows this is preposterous, and Cantor adduces no evidence whatever to substantiate it.

In the “Sources” at the end of Cantor’s book, the authors of this letter find themselves listed among those with whom Cantor had “conversations.” We did indeed know Kantorowicz well during the last fifteen years of his life (among other things, serving in turn as his assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study during the years 1952–1956), but we were certainly not the purveyors of any vile Nazi-loving notions about him. Another authority Cantor claims to have consulted is Dr. Eckhart Grünewald’s Ernst Kantorowicz und Stefan George (Wiesbaden, 1982), but when Grünewald read Cantor’s chapter on the “Nazi Twins” a few months ago, he summed it up as “dumb, indecent and ridiculous” and mused whether Cantor was “a professor at Disney World.” For nothing in the prodigious research. Grünewald had done in his biography of Kantorowicz suggested anything but the opposite of (quoting Grünewald again) “Cantor’s incredible lampoon.” Fortunately for all of us, Grünewald is working on another book, this one entitled Ernst Kantorowicz und die Deutschen, based on new evidence—very hard evidence—that as early as November, 1933, Kantorowicz spoke out publicly against the Nazi regime, and he did so in terms unmatched by any other German professor.

By choosing the portrait of Kantorowicz as an example of Cantor’s talents, Bartlett has perpetuated a particularly malicious canard. He cannot be censured for not having read Grünewald’s biography, or for not contacting persons Cantor claims to have conversed with. As so easily happens, Bartlett seems to have been beguiled by the enormity of the lie: nothing so gross could be without some truth in it. Perhaps Cantor himself was similarly deceived, but we don’t know where he got the idea in the first place.

Robert L. Benson
Department of History
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California

Ralph E. Giesey
Department of History
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa

Margaret B. Sevcenko
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Robert Bartlett replies:

Ernst Kantorowicz was a German Jew who emigrated in 1938. His mother died in a concentration camp. It cannot be the case that Cantor believes Kantorowicz was a Nazi in the literal sense. He must be trying to say something else. I take this “something else” to be twofold:

(1) That Kantorowicz’s relationship with the Nazi regime was ambiguous:

That his book Frederick II was admired by Nazi leaders is undisputed, indeed explicitly admitted by Kantorowicz himself. Cantor also claims that Kantorowicz was “protected” by the Nazi leadership between his resignation from his position at Frankfurt and his departure from Germany (1935–1938). As far as I can inform myself, this claim is false. Moreover, lectures and letters of Kantorowicz’s that are critical of the Nazi regime survive.

A general point Cantor seeks to make in his discussion of Kantorowicz is that the German professors of the 1930s had neither the principles nor the backbone to oppose Nazism. Many of them were unable to accommodate with the regime only because they were excluded by its racial policies.

(2) That there was an affinity between Kantorowicz’s political beliefs prior to 1933 and Nazism:

In this period Kantorowicz was a right-wing nationalist who revered strong leadership. In Cantor’s words, “Frederick II [published in 1927] constituted a tocsin for militant nationalism and faith in the great leader.” Clearly there is a difference between nonracist elitist ultranationalism and the Nazism of those who ruled Germany 1933–1945. Yet the irony of the situation of nationalist German Jews of the pre-Nazi period has struck not only Cantor. Eckhart Grünewald, whose “prodigious research” is cited by Professors Benson, Giesey, and Sevcenko, writes of Kantorowicz’s involvement in the violent suppression of German Communists in 1919, that it is to be explained by “political motives which can only be called counter-revolutionary. And here opened up a tragic situation, which it is likely Kantorowicz felt his whole life: he is fighting alongside the men who will later obtain the power to drive him into exile and annihilate his relatives.”

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