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.