In 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 Drawing on many new sources, including numerous interviews and unpublished letters, Lerner tells the story of a major intellectual whose life and times were as fascinating as his work.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.