Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Other Weimar: The Warburg Circle as Hamburg School

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Other Weimar: The Warburg Circle as Hamburg School

Article excerpt

The moment an artistic institution becomes dependent on municipal or state officials in the provinces it is lost. . . . There are, of course, exceptions in the larger provincial cities.

- Kurt Tucholsky, Berlin and the Provinces (1928)

The port city of Hamburg, which lay on the periphery of Berlin's buzzing metropolis, seemed to many to be an improbable home for the modern discipline of art history. Dubbed by the poet Heinrich Heine as a city of dull and materialist merchants Hamburg was primarily known for its unabashed money-making and not for its marketplace of ideas.1 Yet despite its professed cultural limitations, during the tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic the city of merchants became the unlikely haven for a group of German-Jewish scholars whose work has had a towering impact on the humanities at large: the historian of art and civilization Aby Warburg, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, and the art historian Erwin Panofsky.2 Rather than begrudge these peculiar origins, Warburg, on the contrary, attributed was not always complimentary about this city's mercantile spirit. Though Warburg lauded Hamburg as an open book, he also mocked its philistinism. Moreover, if Cassirer could have advanced beyond the level of Privatdozent in Berlin, he likely would have stayed there. Simultaneously a source of pride and anxiety, this urban identity was dramatized in a 1928 play, "Socrates in Hamburg: Or, Of the Good and the Beautiful," in which the Greek philosopher wanders among the affluent homes of Hamburg's Eppendorf neighborhood and contemplates whether businessmen have souls.9 The anonymously authored play - later disclosed to have been written by the sometime Hamburger Panofsky - seemed to pose a pressing historical question: what are the consequences of one's urban environment on the culture that it produces?

Carl Schorske famously argued for Vienna as the explanatory principle in the life and work of Freud, among other turn-of-the-century Viennese luminaries, a contribution that exemplifies - notwithstanding recent critique - the fruitful potential for placing ideas in their urban context.10 Despite the resurgence of interest in the contributions of these scholars to their respective fields, what is missing is a truly historical account of the Warburg circle. Felix Gilbert aptly summarized the drawbacks of this strictly disciplinary scholarship when he criticized Ernst Gombrich's formidable biography of Warburg for its lack of historical context.11 According to the philosopher Raymond Klibansky, who studied under Cassirer in Hamburg, Gombrich could not completely grasp Warburg's intellectual world. "His way of thinking was foreign to him," Klibansky observed, "[Gombrich] was never in Hamburg."12

Hamburg presents problems for generalizations of Germany as autocratic, aristocratic, and insular. As a free city, a status awarded in the twelfth century, Hamburg enjoyed republican self-rule by a local senate whose members stemmed from patrician families and whose politics, like those of other Hanseatic cities, was characterized by a balance between local and worldly interests. In the German context, however, scholarship on Hamburg has focused on its exceptionalism, which the Hamburg-born Percy Schramm called its Sonderfall within Germany's supposed Sonderweg.13 Inspired by the "regional turn" in German history away from exclusively Prusso-centric narratives, several studies have explored the challenge posed by Hamburg's "liberalism" and its middle class with respect to this standard narrative. Work by such scholars as Jenkins, Kay, and Russell reveals a diverse bourgeoisie actively involved in the cultural affairs of the city and completes a rich portrait of regional diversity in the German Empire that defies a traditional center-periphery paradigm.14

Despite these challenges to sweeping narratives of nationalization, however, cultural and intellectual histories of the Weimar period still focus almost exclusively on Berlin. …

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