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Monsters in the library: Karl August Eckhardt and Felix Liebermann

By Andrew Rabin

On a shelf by my desk rests a pale, cloth-bound octavo volume entitled Leges Anglo-Saxonum, 601-925, published in 1958 by the German philologist Karl August Eckhardt. Inside, the volume’s dedication reads, “Dem andenken Felix Liebermanns” (“In memory of Felix Liebermann”). On its face, this seems perfectly innocuous: what could be more natural than one scholar paying tribute to another, especially someone generally considered among Germany’s greatest medievalists? Yet the dedication conceals a disturbing history, for Liebermann had been a member of one of Berlin’s foremost Jewish families, one nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, and Eckhardt was a dedicated Nazi, a Sturbannführer in the SS, and a close friend to Heinrich Himmler, the leading architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Why did Eckhardt dedicate his book to Liebermann, and how should this shape our understanding of his work? To answer these questions, it’s necessary to learn a bit about the individuals themselves, starting with Felix Liebermann.

Felix Liebermann, by By Max Liebermann (verstorben 1935).Suedwester93 at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Felix Liebermann by Max Liebermann. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Liebermann was born in 1851 to a family of wealthy German-Jewish textile merchants. Against his father’s wishes, he pursued a degree in philology at the University of Göttingen and subsequently joined the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a project editing the major records of early Germanic culture. In 1883, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Munich invited him to produce a new edition of Anglo-Saxon law. The result, published in three volumes between 1903 and 1916, was the Gesetze der Angelsachsen, a monumental accomplishment numbered among the greatest achievements in the history of scholarly editing. Its reception was summed up by the historian Frederic William Maitland, who described Liebermann as “a Sherlock Holmes of today” and the Gesetze as “the best work that has hitherto been done on historical materials of a similar kind.”

Jewish themes surface only occasionally in Liebermann’s writings, yet their appearance suggests that he saw his religious and professional identities as complementary. For instance, in a lecture to the Jewish Historical Society of England, he suggested that Jews should take pride in the fact that “the gem so honored by [England’s] greatest king, the founder of the English constitution, as Alfred was called in the twelfth century, was the Mosaic law.” More pointedly, he did not hesitate to harshly and publicly criticize those who concealed anti-Jewish sentiments behind a facade of disinterested scholarship, such as the historian J. M. Rigg, who suggested a factual basis for the medieval “blood libel” legend. Though Liebermann took pride in his Jewishness, it nonetheless had significant consequences for his career. In Germany, he never received a full university appointment, while in England he was mocked as “Stubbs’s Jew” (a reference to his friendship with Bishop William Stubbs) and denied a Cambridge professorship, ostensibly because of an otherwise-unattested stutter. Though Liebermann himself died in 1925, well before Hitler came to power, others in his family felt the full brunt of Nazi anti-Semitism. In 1938, the Liebermann family, including Felix’s widow Cäcilie, saw their home and possessions confiscated. Five years later, Cäcilie would die just weeks before she was to be deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Shortly afterwards, Martha Liebermann, widow of Felix’s brother, the modernist painter Max Liebermann, committed suicide to avoid the same fate.

The history of Liebermann and his family furnishes part of the backdrop against which to read the dedication in the Leges Anglo-Saxonum; the rest must be filled in from the life of Eckhardt himself. Eckhardt was born in 1901 into a family of lawyers and judges. He completed a doctorate in law at Marburg in 1922 and then went on to study Germanic history at Göttingen. His editions of medieval lawbooks earned him a reputation for both brilliance and productivity that led to faculty positions at Keil, Bonn, and Berlin. At the same time, however, he was also growing more engaged with right-wing politics. He joined the SA in 1931, the Nazi Party in 1932, and the SS in 1933. By 1934, he had become a member of Himmler’s personal staff. In this capacity, Eckhardt oversaw the expulsion of Jewish academics from German universities, developed policies penalizing students who spoke out against the regime, and ghost-wrote speeches on Himmler’s behalf, most notably his 1936 address calling for the extermination of homosexuals. Eckhardt also composed a number of pseudo-scholarly pamphlets on topics of interest to Himmler, including ancient Germanic mysticism and the question of whether Jesus was actually Jewish (Eckhardt concluded that he wasn’t). When war came, he was drafted into the army and posted to Paris, where he spent his time carrying out research in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Though briefly imprisoned in 1944-5, he was deemed too insignificant for prosecution. Eckhardt returned to scholarly life and, over the next twenty-five years, published a series of influential editions — most notably of the Lex Salica and the Schwabenspiegel — that confirmed the promise of his early career. He died in 1979.

Eckhardt has often been spoken of as two people, the scholar and the Nazi, but it can be difficult to separate the two. He frequently twisted his scholarship to support his political views, as when he argued (in an essay titled “Unnatural Sex Deserves Death”) that ancient Germanic law offered legal precedent for the execution of homosexuals. Likewise, even in his serious scholarship, he often sought to emphasize the purity of Germanic law and its freedom from the taint of Jewish influence (a notable contrast to the pride Liebermann took in the Mosaic influence on Alfred’s laws).

In this light, it is difficult to escape the impression that Eckhardt was using Liebermann’s memory to innoculate himself against his own history. Association with Liebermann allowed him to claim a scholarly pedigree while dismissing the implication that his political record reflected anything more than dedicated (if misguided) patriotism. Yet how should Eckhardt’s history — along with his attempts to erase that history — affect our perception of his scholarship? We cannot simply avoid Eckhardt: like it or not, his serious historical work is too important to dismiss out of hand. But Eckhardt’s history still raises uncomfortable questions: how might our research — and indeed, the shape of early medieval legal history as a discipline — have been influenced, albeit unconsciously, by Eckhardt’s noxious ideology? And is our use of his work, however necessary it may be, complicit in his attempt to erase his involvement in one of the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities?

If Borges was right and every library is a labyrinth, then inside every library lurks a monster. In my library, the monster is Karl August Eckhardt.

Andrew Rabin is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. He has published extensively on early medieval law and literature. His next book, The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, will be published this fall by Manchester University Press. He is a forthcoming contributor to Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature.

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