A Dashing Medievalist
by Robert E. Lerner
Princeton University Press, 424 pp., $39.95
In 1922, the Hartwig Kantorowicz firm ran an animated advertisement of “two men having an argument until a bottle of liqueur miraculously appears, golden liquid then flows down their throats: they smile and make up; then a caption appears: ‘Kantorowicz: Famed throughout the world.’” While this has long ceased to be the case, the most accomplished scion of the Jewish family that launched the company, the historian Ernst Kantorowicz, has retained more than a shadow of what was once a towering scholarly reputation. His 1957 classic The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, which can be described as a fantastically erudite commentary on the saying “the king is dead, long live the king,” is still in print and on the reading lists (if not the bedside tables) of aspiring medievalists. Now, thanks to the appearance of Robert E. Lerner’s massive, deeply researched, and fascinating biography, EKa—as Kantorowicz was known to his friends and is identified throughout the book—is more famous than he has been since his death in 1963. Or at least since Norman Cantor’s cartoonish portrait of him as the ideological “twin” of his friend and fellow medievalist Percy Ernst Schramm, who joined the Nazi Party and spent World War II as the official staff historian of the German High Command.
Lerner begins his book with an account of EKa’s early life in the city of Poznan, at the time located in Germany. (It became part of Poland after World War II.) His family was wealthy, and his friends and acquaintances included many aristocrats. At home, the thoroughly assimilated Kantorowiczes celebrated Christmas but not Hanukkah, Easter but not Passover. In World War I, EKa fought in the German army first on the Western Front, later in Turkey. He received several medals (including the Iron Cross) for showing extraordinary bravery and after the war joined the paramilitary Freikorps, fighting mainly against Polish intruders as well as communists. These units were in various ways precursors of the Nazis, and the presence of a Jew in their ranks was highly unusual, to say no more.