The Afterlife of a Manuscript

“A scholarly whodunit” of Michelangelo, Nazis, and safe-cracking

The Afterlife of a Manuscript

WHEN STEPHAN KLINGEN and his assistants decided in the summer of 2012 to crack the last remaining Nazi safe in the basement of the Central Institute of Art History in Munich, they had no idea their discovery would set off a scholarly whodunit. The contents were unlikely to be dull: the building had served as the administrative headquarters of the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. Another safe in the basement had contained a photograph archive of destroyed artworks collected for propagandistic purposes by the German Military Kunstschutz, a dubious operation to “protect” art from “destruction” by the Allies in Italy during World War II. That discovery by Klingen, director of library technology at the institute, and his team spurred a project to document the history of the institute and Ludwig Heydenreich, who founded it in 1947 and was its first director. The archivists, increasingly aware of Heydenreich’s work for the Kunstschutz between 1943 and 1945, suspected that the locked safe held the final uncataloged documents from this dark period.

Yet what they found threatened to challenge the assumptions of two generations of historians of art and ideas. Lodged between folders and administrative files was a several-hundred-page scholarly manuscript. Examining the first page, Klingen made out the handwritten title, “Die Gestaltungsprinzipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffael” (“The Composition Principles of Michelangelo, particularly in their relation to those of Raphael”), and a few inches below, on a separate piece of paper sloppily affixed to it, the author’s typewritten name, “Erwin Panofsky.” Since the great German-Jewish art historian had worked in Hamburg until 1933, when he fled to the United States where he remained until his death in 1968, the presence of his manuscript in a Nazi safe in Munich was nothing short of stunning.

When a library catalog search didn’t turn up the title, Klingen and a colleague wrote Panofsky’s widow, Gerda Soergel Panofsky. In a detailed response, Gerda Panofsky confirmed that the document matched the description of the Habilitation, or postdoctoral study, that her late husband submitted to the University of Hamburg in the summer of 1920 but mysteriously never published. She was convinced that Panofsky’s former student Heydenreich, who assumed his teacher’s faculty position after his dismissal, hid — if not stole — the manuscript.

Archival discoveries are big news in Germany. When those discoveries are connected to the Nazi past, they can attain a sensational if also formulaic quality: a door is kicked open, a safe unlocked, and cans of expired food are pushed aside to reveal 19th- and 20th-century masterworks looted by the Nazis. Once the goods are dusted off, a familiar leitmotif of accusations and expressions of guilt emerges. Perhaps it is not surprising then that one German art historian referred to Heydenreich’s “perpetrator psychology.” Like many intrigued by the paintings, I tried immediately to get access to the recovered manuscript in Munich. And like those eager for a reckoning for the stolen art, I was dismayed that a moratorium on research was placed until its publication.

Now the manuscript has had its choreographed unveiling in a new edition published by de Gruyter and edited by Panofsky’s widow. In this book, Panofsky’s second major study, he highlights formalist tensions in the style of Michelangelo and Raphael, proving that one could compare paintings and sculptures of an artist from one period — the so-called early Baroque — with that of another — the Renaissance. Like many art historians of his day, Panofsky was embroiled in methodological questions characteristic of a young field: was art, for example, an expression of a time period, or rather a national characteristic, or the outcome of an individual artist’s creative genius? Locked in an intense struggle over the question as to how to describe art scientifically, Heinrich Wölfflin’s school advocated formal analysis while Alois Riegl’s Vienna School focused increasingly on national characteristics. Inspired in large part by his elder colleague Aby Warburg’s new emphasis on the wider milieu of an artwork’s production he called iconology, Panofsky later abandoned Wölfflin’s formal analysis for a symbol-based approach which would make him famous in the United States after the war.

The book’s publication fills in Panofsky’s formalist history but does not answer key questions raised by the opening of the safe: How did the manuscript end up in Munich? What was Heydenreich’s role? Had the Nazi Heydenreich stolen and plagiarized his Jewish mentor’s manuscript?

Not only does the publication leave unresolved the scholarly mystery, but it also reaches beyond German-Jewish postwar reconciliation to raise epistemological issues at the heart of the historical enterprise. Historians love stories of found manuscripts that justify our toil. We know, for example, the story of Walter Benjamin’s flight from the Nazis and his tragic suicide on the French-Spanish border, but not before entrusting a manuscript to his friend Gershom Scholem to carry to safety in Jerusalem. We know also of Franz Kafka’s requests to burn his works, not obliged (thankfully) by Max Brod. This notion of lost legacy so traumatized another émigré from Central Europe, Hermann Broch, that he wrote the novel The Death of Virgil in which the Roman poet agonizes over his decision to burn the Aeneid and the loss that its absence might have on the subsequent age.

Being saved from the clutches of Hitler or nurtured by the Roman Emperor Augustus against a poet’s wishes seems to endow manuscripts with special status, as if their rescue destined them to be subjects of historical inquiry. Yet what about those archives that have not reached us? And have those manuscripts that have survived done so because of some inherent greatness or because of other intangible and even banal reasons? Historians would like to think that they ground their narratives in all available evidence, and that their conclusions, as a result, have epistemological credibility. But we are only as defensible as our evidence, and that evidence determines what stories we tell. Panofsky’s first scholarly work does not so much change our understanding of the art historian as it changes our understanding of our ability to tell stories with any authority at all.


There are three different kinds of accidents in history. The first, and most general, has to do with establishing historical causality — that is, determining what is a legitimate cause and what is accidental in a chain of events. Did the Renaissance occur because of a transformation in human thought or because a lone priest decided nearly 600 years ago to translate an overlooked classical poem by Lucretius? Occasionally the way we think is altered by archival discoveries that swerve humanity — as Stephen Greenblatt would have it — in one direction or another. But most of us historians are resigned to working with available evidence and to the task of differentiating between what the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt once called the background and the foreground.

The task of intellectual historians involves a second kind of contingency. These decoders of ideas are in the double bind of having not only to gain access to texts, but also to decide what contexts are relevant to their analysis of those texts. Historians of ideas traditionally distinguish themselves from philosophers, whose inquiries are not concerned with the world beyond the text. The problem with this so-called “contextualism,” so the argument goes, is that it can become reductive, and that this reductivism can go too far. Once we acknowledge the role played by sources outside the text, there is seemingly no limit to what might be invoked in the name of analysis and no chance at saving any idealized notion of a lone exceptional genius — the person who emerges seemingly from nowhere, with no connection to the humdrum of daily life, and swerves history.

The discovery of Panofsky’s manuscript fell into this category, and it also highlighted the third element of contingency that threatens to undermine objectivity in historical thinking. Any student who has read a basic primer on postmodernism knows there is no such thing as objectivity. Yet we still hold out some hope that what we work with is the result of some inherent qualities of actual substance (if not a cosmological plan), that we are not merely at the mercy of what Tom Bissell has called “unliterary accidents.” That is, maybe there is no causality; maybe all is chance. What makes the Panofsky manuscript so remarkable was not only that it was recovered from a Nazi safe after nearly 80 years in oblivion, but also that all three notions of contingency seemed at work in its concealment and disclosure — forcing us to reconsider the way that circumstances are essential to the creation and reception of ideas.

In different ways, Hitler made the careers of both Panofsky and Heydenreich possible. The connections between Panofsky’s adopted city Hamburg and its cosmopolitan spirit, its newly founded university, its privately funded institute, and the chemistry of its scholarly community provided a number of these initial material conditions. Like Vienna 20 or 30 years earlier, Hamburg’s intellectual life became known for its interdisciplinarity and innovation and for its politics, which were antiestablishment, cosmopolitan, liberal, and Jewish. While much of the intellectual world swung to anti-humanism, mysticism, and nationalism in the 1920s, Germany’s second city remained an “oasis,” as Panofsky’s first wife Dora Panofsky would call it. In a nod of gratitude to his adoptive city, Panofsky dubbed his scholarly circle “the Hamburg School.”

As a young art historian of undisputed talent, Panofsky’s arrival in Hamburg completed a triptych that had historian and cultural theorist Warburg at the center. Together with Ernst Cassirer, who was appointed the first chair in philosophy at the newly established university, the scholars found in Warburg’s eccentric Library for Cultural Studies an institution that seemed to embody the multifarious avenues of the human mind. Panofsky used the university’s relative lack of hierarchy and the resources of the Warburg Library to jumpstart his career as a trailblazer in art historical theory. Drawing on Warburg’s iconoclastic notions of cultural history and memory and Cassirer’s comprehensive philosophical program, Panofsky crafted a new discipline of iconology, a holistic approach to the study of art, which is the circle’s greatest legacy.

Panofsky’s reputation would, in later years, exceed that of Warburg or Cassirer. Following his move to the United States, he came to embody the contextualist position of iconology. Panofsky observed that, “without the appropriate context, the Last Supper would appear as no more than an excited dinner party.” His quip speaks to the wit with which he persuaded a generation of American art historians about the power of this approach. Soon renowned for such masterful English-language narratives as The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943), Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951), and Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), Panofsky cemented his place in the pantheon of art historians.

Panofsky might not have experienced the success of his second career had it not been for the forced exodus of Jewish intellectuals from Germany in 1933. With Panofsky’s help, Warburg’s books were loaded onto two ships, the Jessica and Hermia, and sent to London, where they would eventually spawn a second generation of anglophone Warburg scholars. Panofsky, for his part, became part of a flourishing “Weimar on the Hudson.” As New York University’s Walter Cook famously joked, “Hitler is my best friend; he shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” Perhaps in no field was the bounty of European émigré scholarship more apparent than in art history, which was still relatively unestablished in the United States in the ’30s and eager for the academic credentials that echt Germans provided. Nearly half of the multitude of art historians expelled from Germany — there were 250 — immigrated to the United States. Panofsky was uniquely poised to take advantage of this demand. Unlike some German-Jewish émigrés who spoke regretfully of their departure from Europe as an exile “from Paradise,” Panofsky spoke of his relocation to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, as a move “to Paradise.” He never wrote in German again.


Heydenreich’s career was also inextricably linked to the historical circumstances of the early 20th century. Born of an aristocratic military pedigree, Heydenreich was, because of Germany’s devastating defeat and subsequent disarmament by the Allies, forced after World War I to abandon a military career. He completed a thesis on Leonardo under Panofsky and Cassirer in Hamburg and continued to write extensively on Leonardo throughout his career. Art historians today still cite his essays on the Renaissance master, but the would-be officer’s innovative piece on Leonardo’s military architecture suggests that his sights remained focused elsewhere. Heydenreich is probably best known for his association with his former student, the architectural historian Wolfgang Lotz, and their co-authored work, Architecture in Italy: 1400–1600. Though the volume maintains its formidable position in the Yale Pelican History of Art, the series editor Paul Davies is generous when he describes Heydenreich’s style as “empirical and positivist.” It was not the kind of prose that would make his work a bestseller.

Given Heydenreich’s less than auspicious beginning, he had Hitler to thank for his professional ascent. Ten years Panofsky’s junior, Heydenreich came of age at precisely the moment that German Jews like Panofsky and Cassirer, who were rising in the academy, were removed from their positions. Heydenreich probably would have toiled for years as a Privatdozent, or unpaid lecturer, if it weren’t for the Nazi decree of April 1933 that fired Jews from their university positions and suddenly opened dozens of university chairs. Eight years later, in 1941, the art historian Wilhelm Pinder, whose ethnocentric school had been Panofsky’s archrival in the 1920s, invited Heydenreich to become professor of art history in Berlin. Two years later Heydenreich would be named the director of the Art History Institute in Florence, after its former director was killed in an Allied bombing raid. When the Allies advanced northward, he moved from Rome to Milan, where he oversaw the photographic operations of the Kunstschutz for the duration of the war.

The extent of Hitler’s cultural program of looting and collecting has in recent years become clearer and more haunting. The Art History Institute in Florence had a lead role in that story. As the historians Lynn Nichols and Robert M. Edsel have shown, Hitler’s plans to plunder were inextricably linked to his plans to invade. The Americans appointed a special unit in 1943, known as the “Monuments Men,” to chase down art stolen by the Nazis. Under the pretext of protecting Italian art, the Nazis created their own organization, the Kunstschutz, that aimed to document the damage caused by Allied bombings. But as German scholars have recently argued, the Art History Institute’s work was often closer to propaganda than protection. With considerable skill, Heydenreich fastidiously oversaw the documenting of the bombing damage to the art, a pseudo-scholarly task that often seemed more like a smear campaign. An exhibit currently on display at the Bode-Museum in Berlin, “Das verschwundene Museum” (The Lost Museum), suggests that this view of the moral equivalency of Nazi plunder and the Allies’ destruction of German art lingers. After the war, both as founding director of the Central Art Historical Institute in Munich and editor of the Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte, Heydenreich quietly shifted from working for one regime to the next and devoted the last quarter of his career to the difficult work of rebuilding postwar art history in Germany.


The opening of the safe threatened to tarnish Heydenreich’s reputation, and it raised a number of questions for Germans and art historians alike. The German intelligentsia seemed to consider the possible theft of Panofsky’s work by a former student tantamount to stolen artwork. Just as art collectors have followed the saga of the return of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the German elite viewed the discovery of Panofsky’s manuscript as the source of ideas potentially stolen by Heydenreich. The institute’s staff, mostly born in the second generation after the war, were in a position like the unsuspecting heirs of Klimt’s artworks: the latter learned of the works’ questionable provenance only when the staff tried to sell the art. In 2011, Klimt’s portrait was finally returned to Bloch-Bauer’s niece. Following a remarkable discovery of stolen modernist artworks in November 2013, a new group of Picassos, Chagalls, and Renoirs are likely to be restored to their rightful owners as well. The University of Hamburg has even extended this provenance research to stolen books and committed to restituting collections that were requisitioned by the Gestapo. Though the value of a book is unlikely to come close to that of a Woman in Gold, stolen books widen the web of complicity to include academics, booksellers, and anyone who might have been trying to get a good bargain.

The restitution for ideas is also harder to come by. The discovery of the Habilitation opened a new chapter for art historians, who were eager to resolve a puzzle about Panofsky’s career trajectory. When Panofsky arrived in Hamburg at the start of his career, he had already challenged the two dominant art historical schools of his day: Wölfflin’s “style” art history and Riegl’s approach that emphasized Kunstwollen (or, artistic volition). In his German period, Panofsky produced dense theoretical essays on the question of locating the true source of an artwork’s meaning, a level of theoretical sophistication that some consider lacking in his later sweeping surveys written in English. The art historian Christopher Wood is not alone in speaking of an imaginative German Panofsky and a less compelling American one. Yet the intellectual historian’s questions remained: Why did Panofsky become the thinker that he did? That is, did the transition in Panofsky’s approach occur because he was traumatized by exile? Was the Cold War American context more significant than his Weimar-era roots? Did Panofsky, as a German Jew, write about Rembrandt because, as part of an enlightened Dutch Golden Age, he represented an unfulfilled fantasy of social inclusion? In a recent statement about the manuscript from the Spring 2015 newsletter of the Institute for Advanced Study, Gerda Panofsky suggested that perhaps Panofsky chose not to publish the manuscript in the 1920s because it would have identified him as part of a cosmopolitan camp in art history at a time when Michelangelo was, like Rembrandt, a symbol of national identity. Yet this seems unlikely for someone who didn’t shy away from a fight and was known to refer derisively to Pinder’s ethnocentric school as “Pindergarten.”

Independent of world historical transformations or ethnic politics, scholars can have more private reasons for their professional choices. They mature. Panofsky, struggling financially, may also have had commercial motivations. His classic work, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, originally delivered as a lecture in 1948, was wildly popular and became a mass-market paperback. Commercialism is often invoked to explain the 1930s writings on culture of Panofsky’s friend and fellow émigré Siegfried Kracauer, publications that were considered less compelling than the infamously dense works of his colleagues at the Frankfurt School. Or perhaps Theodor Adorno’s oft-repeated warning to his fellow émigrés is most salient: any attempts to “translate” German ideas into English were destined to fall short.

It turns out that the publication of Panofsky’s Habilitation does not help to answer these questions. We get chapters on Michelangelo and Raphael, the sophisticated if esoteric use of Wölfflin’s theories in comparing these painters’ imagery. However, as a way to find the line between circumstantial artifacts and decisive evidence in Panofsky’s trajectory, the publication comes up short. As reception history, it reminds us of the manifold circumstances that effect our analysis of ideas, including those beyond our reach. We may never know Heydenreich’s motivations for keeping the archive anymore than Panofsky’s motivations for writing his blockbuster works in English. A 1948 letter in which Heydenreich wrote Panofsky inquiring about when he was going to write his major study on Michelangelo is a strange coincidence — one that has promoted Gerda Panofsky to suggest that the former student suffered from a “bad conscience.” Or was it just a coincidence? Perhaps the young student really did aim to “protect” the work of his Doktorvater. Or perhaps he just forgot about it.


As long as intellectual historians are interested in what happens to ideas in the world, they cannot escape the vexing relationship of text and context. Widening the circle, expanding what is considered fair game for the study of ideas means that widows, librarians, and commercialism are now all legitimate objects of inquiry into the intellectual process. The afterlife of Panofsky and his archive suggested that scholars need to treat lives not as clues but as complex intellectual problems themselves. The context in which Panofsky produced his ideas was important, but so was how they were concealed.

In the case of Panofsky’s Habilitation, it is particularly disturbing that Heydenreich had ample opportunity to return it and never did. Panofsky visited Germany twice after the war, including one trip to Munich in the summer of 1967 to meet the parents of his second wife and to receive honorary degrees from the universities of Freiburg and Bonn. After hearing that Panofsky would receive these awards and that he had married a non-Jewish German woman, the museum director in Cologne, Gert von Osten, wrote in a letter marked confidential, “the ice is broken (cherchez la femme) … he won’t decline a German honor now.” Panofsky’s name was put forward for the highest humanities honor given by the German government. To avoid the embarrassing possibility that Panofsky might decline, Heydenreich notified Panofsky in advance of the official offer and coaxed him to accept it. To the relief of the Germans, Panofsky graciously agreed. In the awkward dance of postwar reconciliation, German-Jewish émigrés were needed to validate denazification and enable the reentry of German academic institutions into the international community. Though some German Jews like Einstein would never participate, others, like Panofsky, whether out of forgiveness, fatigue, opportunism, or some combination thereof, were willing to return.

In a twist fit for a Borges story, Panofsky’s award was presented by a former Hamburg colleague, Percy Ernst Schramm, who was the official historian of the German Wehrmacht and the object of postwar gossip and disdain. Even if it bothered Panofsky to have this honor bestowed on him by a onetime Nazi, he didn’t have time to object; he was already in Freiburg when he learned about the arrangement, and the award ceremony was to be held in weeks. Due to Heydenreich’s involvement, even more bizarrely, the ceremony would be held in the former Nazi headquarters in Munich — by then the Central Institute for Art History.

It was no doubt an emotional event. As at other public appearances in Germany that summer, Panofsky spoke only in English, a decision that irked his former German colleagues. (His accent was so thick, the German newspapers reported, he might as well have been speaking German.) Panofsky shrugged off the symbolism at the time, both of his own linguistic choice and the selection of a former Nazi to present the award. “Yeah it was a little weird to be given the blue ribbon by Hitler’s Thucydides,” he was heard to say, in German in a mock Berliner accent.

It’s even weirder now to know that Panofsky’s lost manuscript on Michelangelo lay locked in a Nazi safe a few floors below the auditorium where he spoke. And that his former student and now director of the rehabilitated institute was likely responsible for its concealment and, perhaps, its theft. The twice-concealed archive illuminates a frontier of intellectual history, what Panofsky’s elder colleague Warburg called the “afterlife” of ideas. Warburg remained for Panofsky a “blissful memory,” but he was never forced to revise his ideas in a different place and time. Warburg’s inquiry into the journey of ideas and images provides an apparatus for investigating how ideas became integrated into the world and provides, as well, some guidance for resolving this postwar tale. Solving the mystery of the manuscript’s afterlife might, in fact, change our understanding of the relationship between Germans and Jews in the postwar period.

Nonetheless, this text doesn’t significantly change our understanding of Panofsky. Panofsky would likely have preferred we had not unearthed it. And so might historians, since the found manuscript underscores the accidental nature of what comes down to us and what historians do. Panofsky was already crafting his legacy while he was alive — selecting what we would find or not in the archives that would outlive him. In this respect, the recent publication of Panofsky’s Habilitation tries (but fails) to conceal the arbitrary nature of this process. What is found is not necessarily important and what is important is not necessarily found.


Emily J. Levine teaches European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her latest book is entitled, Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School.

LARB Contributor

Emily J. Levine teaches European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (University of Chicago Press), which came out in paperback in 2015. She is now at work on a new book, Exceptional Institutions: Cities, Capital, and the Rise of the Research University (under contract, University of Chicago Press). She lives in Durham with her husband.


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