I have been asked to reflect on the piece by the group ‘Historians for Britain’ in History Today. The piece in question is not terribly original, yet it is precisely in its triviality that its danger may reside. While I might ponder this at more length in another context, I would like to recall some reflexions of two of the most important historians of the 20th century by any standard, two fellow medievalists as it happens, namely Marc Bloch and Ernst Kantorowicz. For both Bloch and Kantorowicz remind us of what Bloch called the ‘demon of origins’ in his very last book.
Bloch’s ‘demon’ is an obvious reference to the spirit that used to speak to Socrates in form of a capricious voice, and which the philosopher consulted before taking an important step. And isn’t Bloch’s Apology for History or the Historian’s Craft (Apologie pour l’histoire ou le métier d’historien) named after the Apology of Socrates? Why would Bloch write a treatise on The Historian’s Craft, as the shortened title of the English translation unfortunately suggests, when, indeed, he felt the need to write in history’s defence? As Europe went through one of its darkest hours, Bloch sought to understand what unfolded under his trained eyes – and how magnificently he did it in The Strange Defeat. Yet he also felt that the very tools which enable us to understand the past were under attack – in part because historians themselves had been seduced by a ‘satanic enemy’: nationalist ideology, as he stopped short of defining it.
Yes, Bloch conceded, historians had failed. Pushed by nationalism, they had all too easily conflated and confounded the understanding of the causes and the quest for the origins. If this fallacy was not enough, they had, furthermore, allowed explanation to be replaced with value judgement. Here Bloch recalled, among others, the frail voice of Michel de Montaigne whose ‘Apology of Raymond Sébond’ in book II, chapter XII of the Essays was an attempt – and after all that is the English translation of Essai – to have the whisper of reason heard amid the passions of that primal European disaster, the wars of religion.
The irony of an apology seemed the best way of dismissing the ‘mania of judgement’ that Bloch understood to be at the root of the distortion of history’s role. Above all, it seemed the most powerful weapon in the toolbox at a time of shrill and unleashed nationalism. It is testimony to Bloch’s unfailing trust in the force of reasonable debate – a cause for which he famously fought by siding with the French Résistance and lost his life. As an epitaph, he had requested these two words: Dilexit veritatem, “he loved the truth”.
Unlike Bloch, Kantorowicz had, in his youth, been tempted by and had ultimately succumbed to the ‘demon of origins’. While the story about his biography of the emperor Frederick II being Adolf Hitler’s favourite book is almost certainly apocryphal – would the Führer, horribile dictu, have even been able to understand the multiple facets of this fascinating and complex work? – this was without any doubt a most celebrated book among nationalist circles in Weimar Germany and beyond.
Yet Kantorowicz’s thought was always too subtle to be adequately reflected in the gross, albeit common distinction between the German nationalist phase and the Jewish emigrant phase of his life. For Kantorowicz had consistently been fascinated by one topic to which he returned time and again, in particular in his two major books: Kaiser Friedrich II. and The King’s Two Bodies. The topic in question was continuity or, rather, the unceasing quest for continuity at the heart of politics.
Kantorowicz, whose Emperor Frederick II has much in common with Bloch’s Royal Touch (actually: The Thaumaturgic Kings), knew all too well – and long before the eponymous turn – that his was indeed an object of cultural history. Contrary to the likes of Carl Schmitt, with whom his work has time and again been associated, Kantorowicz was more interested in discontinuities than in continuities. The former he saw as the condition of politics and the very fabric of culture. The latter were merely their product, the entry point of history, but the point behind which historians had to be able to advance in order to understand the past.
For Kantorowicz, only poetry and, indeed, the greatest of all poets, Dante, could reconcile the mind and the soul, politics and culture. It could do so precisely because it was poetry. Dante was, in Kantorowicz’s words, “the great singer with whom the Empire closed” – in the same way as Virgil had once opened it.
Poetry is not politics, though, as Dante and Kantorowicz the exiles knew all too well. Upon his resignation from the University of California at Berkeley, whose Board of Regents had responded to the anxieties of Cold War politics by imposing a loyalty oath to be taken by all university staff, Kantorowicz stated that both history and experience had taught us that every oath, once introduced or enforced, had the tendency to develop its own autonomous life. “All oaths in history that I know of have undergone changes,” Kantorowicz wrote. As a consequence of this, “it will not be in the hands of those imposing the oath to control its effects, nor of those taking it ever to step back again.”
Once unleashed, the ‘demon of origins’ is indeed difficult to stop – unless, that is, we trust maturity of mind, independence of judgment, and direct responsibility to our conscience, as Kantorowicz wrote as a staunch warning against the very forces which Bloch had fought and to which he had fallen victim five years earlier. Dilexerunt veritatem: they loved the truth.
Martial Staub is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. He understands himself as a European by necessity, having grown up in Lorraine, a border upon which much blood was spilled in the name of nationalism, and by conviction, as he sees scholarship as one of the very few occupations of the mind that scholars have been able to free from the snares of identity politics.
Image source: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, (1787).