10 facts about the early life of Ernst Kantorowicz

LernerIn this first complete biography of Ernst Kantorowicz (1895–1963), Robert E. Lerner takes an in depth look at an influential and controversial German-American intellectual whose colorful and dramatic life intersected with many of the great events and thinkers of his time. Though he exerted influence well outside of his field, Kantorowicz is most famous for two books—a notoriously nationalistic 1927 biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and The King’s Two Bodies (1957), a classic study of medieval politics. Drawing on many new sources, including numerous interviews and unpublished letters, Lerner tells the story of a major intellectual whose life and times were as fascinating as his work.

A few things you may not know about the life of Ernst Kantorowicz:

In the United States Ernst Kantorowicz told people that he “loved his father,” unusual language for him, and he kept a photograph of him on his bedroom dresser.

Kantorowicz was born into a wealthy family—they owned a successful distillery business.

He had two sisters; Sophie, known as Soscha, with whom he was close, and Margarete, known as Grete or Gretel, with whom he was not.

Toward the end of his life, he described himself as being of, “Jewish descent, not Jewish belief.” When he was young, Yiddish was likely not spoken in his home, and he was almost certainly not Bar Mitzvahed.

When Kantorowicz was growing up, his parents thought that teaching him English was essential since they believed he would be working in the family business. Thus, they engaged an English governess for him until he was 12.

In gymnasia (high school) Kantorowicz never received the highest possible grade in any of his courses. Most were either barely passing or failing, and he did not do his homework. Many of his classmates had comparable performances.

Kantorowicz volunteered for his local field artillery regiment on August 8, six days after Germany declared war on France, at the age of 19.

He entered the army as a private in 1914 and was promoted to corporal, then to sergeant in October 1915. In June 1915 he received the Iron Cross, second class. In 1917, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Ottoman equivalent of the Iron Cross.

When the Great War was over, Kantorowicz began studying economics and finance in preparation for his role in the family business. He also took courses in the study of Islam, pursuing an interest he had developed when he was stationed in Turkey during the war.

In February 1919, Kantorowicz transferred from the University of Berlin to the University of Munich. He told a friend it was because he thought he could get more work done in Munich, but his other motive was that he had fallen in love with Josefine von Kahler.

For more detail, pick up a copy of Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life.


Robert E. Lerner is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, where he taught medieval history for more than forty years. The author of many books, he is a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy in Rome, and a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Robert E. Lerner on the captivating life of Ernst Kantorowicz

LernerRobert E. Lerner met Ernst Kantorowicz as a graduate student at Princeton, and was left with an unforgettable impression. The first complete biography of the man to date, Lerner’s Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life details the fascinating life of the influential and controversial German-American intellectual whose dramatic life intersected with many of the great events and thinkers of his time. Recently, Lerner took the time to answer some questions about the biography and what led him to Kantorowicz as a subject.

You have written a number of books on history before, but this is your first biography. What led you in this direction?

RL: My subject, Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963), author of celebrated works in history, was wounded at the battle of Verdun in 1916, fought against red revolutionaries in Munich in 1919, was a prominent member of a bizarre poetic circle in Germany during the Weimar era, spoke publicly in opposition to Nazism in 1933, eluded Gestapo arrest in 1938, lead a fight against a McCarthyite Board of Regents at the University of California in 1949-50, and was a central personality at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Moreover, he was a major intellectual figure of the twentieth century. Is that enough?

But why did you decide to write it now, when previously you have written almost exclusively on medieval topics?

RL: Actually, the project had been taking shape for decades. I met Kantorowicz once when I was a graduate student at Princeton, and he left an unforgettable impression. Later, in 1988, I was asked to speak about him on the occasion of a conference on “German-Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States.” To prepare, I interviewed a number of his surviving friends. And then I realized that there were many others I had not interviewed, and then I learned that there were many surviving letters, and so it went. I became a sort of Kantorowicz memorabilia collector. (I own the great man’s clothes brush—no joke.) “EKa,” as he preferred to be called, had a scintillating wit and was the subject of a large number of arresting anecdotes. But how could I go on collecting without anything to show for it aside from the contents of file folders? So a biography had to be written.

What are some of the things you’d like to have readers take away from your book?

RL: That depends partly on their interests. Those interested in the writing of history might want to see how a brilliant historian drew innovatively on the widest variety of sources—legends, prophecies, manifestos, panegyrics, mosaics, coins, ceremonial chants, and legal treatises. Others interested in the cultures of the Weimar Republic might want to become aware of how a secular Jew espoused the occult ideal of a “Secret Germany.” But anyone at all might want to see how a man who sent a copy of his first book to General von Hindenburg later became so alienated from everything the general stood for that he named a Thanksgiving Turkey “von Hintenburg” (rear-end-burg). Kantorowicz was not only notoriously eccentric (he wore a vest-pocket handkerchief even to cook-outs and on the beach) but had a coruscating wit. I’ve been thinking of compiling a “Kantorowicz joke book.” But for the present I hope I’ve written a gripping intellectual biography.

Robert E. Lerner is the author many books, mainly about the subject of medieval times. He is a fellow member of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy in Rome and a former member of of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Lerner is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, where he taught medieval history for more than forty years.