Percy Ernst Schramm (14 October 1894 – 21 November 1970) was a German historian.
Much of his work focused on medieval political symbolism and ritual, particularly the ideology of the medieval state, including the ways in which the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages represented their authority through images and rituals, as well as the transmission of ideas about the Roman Empire in medieval political and religious thought. His work is still considered a foundational contribution to the fields of art history and political theory. Schramm is also known for his works on the history of the city-state of Hamburg, including his monumental work Nine Generations that focuses on his own family and more broadly on the leading Hanseatic families of Hamburg over three centuries. Schramm is also well-known to military historians as the official staff diarist of the German High Command during the closing years of World War II and a key witness at the Nuremberg Trials. He spoke on behalf of the Nazis at Princeton in 1933 and joined the Nazi party in 1939 and his case went before a denazification board which allowed him to return to his Chair.
Schramm was born to a wealthy and cosmopolitan family in Hamburg, that belonged to the class of Hanseatic families. His father, Max Schramm, was a lawyer, senator and second mayor (i.e. deputy mayor) from 1925 to 1928. His grandfather Ernst Schramm (1812-1882) had been a major sugar merchant in Hamburg and Brazil. His mother Olga O'Swald, grandniece of William Henry O'Swald, also belonged to a prominent Hanseatic family.
The young Percy served in the German Army during World War I and went on to study history and art history at several of Germany's elite universities, including Hamburg, Munich and Heidelberg. In 1922, he completed his doctoral studies at the University of Heidelberg under the medieval historian Karl Hampe. He remained at Heidelberg for two more years to write his Habilitationsschrift on the topic of German imperial ideology in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in particular, how the Holy Roman emperors of the medieval period appropriated the imagery and history of the ancient Roman Empire for their own rule. Published in 1929 as Kaiser, Rom und Renovatio: Studien und Texte zur Geschichte des römischen Erneuerungsgedankens vom Ende des karolingischen Reiches biz zum Investiturstreit ("Emperor, Rome and Renovatio: Studies and Texts on the History of Roman Ideologies of Renewal from the End of the Carolingian Empire to the Investiture Controversy"), Schramm's thesis was a landmark piece of highly original, interdisciplinary scholarship that transformed the way medieval historians approached the subject of political ideology. He demonstrated that art history, a field of study which at the time fell mostly to dilettantes and gentleman scholars, deserved a place in serious academic inquiry alongside history and philology. Schramm's work also emphasized the centrality of symbols and ritual in articulating and defining political ideologies.
In a rite of passage required of most German medievalists at the time, Schramm worked for two years at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica before being offered a professorship. In 1929, he was awarded a chair in history at the University of Göttingen, one of Germany's most prestigious universities. His students at Göttingen included Berent Schwineköper; the American professor of German History, Donald Detwiler; and the Hungarian medievalist, János Bak. Schramm remained there until his retirement in 1963.
In Spring 1932, Schramm spoke publicly in Thalburg on behalf of the re-election of Paul von Hindenburg, who was running against Adolf Hitler for the Presidency of the Weimar Republic. Speaking fluent English, Schramm received an invitation to teach at Princeton University during the 1933 academic year; he returned to Göttingen in that same year, after Hindenburg had appointed Hitler to be Chancellor of Germany.
During World War II, Schramm volunteered again for service in the Wehrmacht and, given the rank of major, served in various staff positions until he was selected as the official staff historian, or diarist, for the German High Command Operational Staff (Wehrmachtführungsstab), replacing Helmuth Greiner, whose removal was orchestrated by Martin Bormann, the head of the Nazi Party chancellery. Schramm's duties involved keeping detailed records about the day-to-day activities and decisions of the General Staff, which included the top military field commanders in the German Army. This allowed Schramm unprecedented access to the highest echelons of the German military and its inner workings.
In 1944, Schramm's sister-in-law was executed because of her active opposition to the Nazi regime, and accusations against Schramm himself, doubting his reliability, became known to Hitler's headquarters. However, these were ignored by General Alfred Jodl, Schramm's superior, and the historian was able to continue in his role as war diarist.
Because of his knowledge of the High Command, Schramm was called as a key witness at the Nuremberg Trials after the war, where he testified on behalf of Jodl. Schramm maintained that Jodl, while a loyal soldier, was not an ideological Nazi and did not participate in any war crimes. Nonetheless, Jodl was convicted and hanged in 1946.[notes 1]
In the years after the war, Schramm authored a number of books on the history of the German military, as well as in-depth accounts of the desperate last days of the Third Reich as seen from inside the military command. Schramm's work in this field, particularly his multi-volume edition of the official diaries of the High Command, is still highly valued by military historians. Schramm was able, along with three of his former students, then professors themselves,[notes 2] to re-assemble the diary from copies he had saved in defiance of Hitler's scorched earth orders, combined with copies of diaries of earlier years which had been saved by Greiner, his predecessor as war diarist.
In 1962, Schramm published to some controversy a study of Adolf Hitler as a military commander (Hitler als militärischer Führer). Schramm was able to observe Hitler during the course of his duties, and he contrasted the patriotism and professionalism of the generals he served under with Hitler's irrationality and growing paranoia as the war took a turn for the worse.
Schramm also published, in 1963, an introduction to Henry Picker's Hitlers Tischgespräche (Hitler's Table Talk) entitled "The Anatomy of a Dictator", which was later published in English together with the earlier essay on Hitler's as a military leader as Hitler: The Man and the Military Leader
Whatever the merits of his other work, the essay on Hitler's personality provoked some criticism in the German press at the time, where Schramm was accused of being an apologist for National Socialism. In a series of lectures one year later at the University of Munich, during the summer term of 1964, the political philosopher and philosopher of history Eric Voegelin dismissed these charges; the lectures were later translated and published under the title of Hitler and the Germans. Voegelin argued at length, based on a close reading of Schramm's text and comparing it unfavourably with Alan Bullock's analysis, that Schramm gave no insight into 'the problem of Hitler', and that this was in any case an 'alibi' for the real problem. The real problem, Voegelin stated, drawing on classical thinkers from Plato to Schelling, as well as from contemporary German writers such as Carl Amery Capitulation: The Lesson of German Catholicism and Robert Musil On Stupidity) was the way that German Anstand bourgeois morality had rendered many, but not all, of the German population spiritually blind and effectively stupid, a state of affairs that had been allowed to persist until the present day. Schramm himself, Voegelin argued quite carefully, was, in a similar sense, stupid.
Because he had been a member of the Nazi Party and served in a relatively high position in the army during the war, Schramm was removed from his university post. As denazification waned in the late 1940s, however, he was rehabilitated and returned to his professorship in Göttingen. Between 1954 and 1956, he produced what was perhaps his second most significant work, after Kaiser Rom und Renovatio, titled Herrschaftszeichen und Staatssymbolik (Signs of Authority and the Symbolism of the State). Herrschaftszeichen was a major survey of the representative art of medieval rulers or symbols of their power, including their regalia, seals, coinage, armaments, clothing, and other objects. These objects and their history were catalogued in more detail in a book Schramm authored together with the eminent art historian Florentine Mütherich, Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser ("Monuments of the German Kings and Emperors", 1962).
The enduring legacy of Schramm's work in these and numerous other studies and articles, was to demonstrate the importance of symbols, liturgical ceremony, gestures and images as critical sources for political history. Along with his contemporaries, Ernst H. Kantorowicz and Carl Erdmann, Schramm introduced an important element of cultural history to a field which (especially in Germany) tended to focus largely on institutions and their texts.
He died in 1970 in Göttingen.
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