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Percy Ernst Schramm (14 October 1894, Hamburg – 21 November 1970, Göttingen) was a German historian of medieval political symbolism and ritual. His research focused primarily on the ideology of the medieval state, particularly 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 well-known to military historians as the official staff diarist of the German High Command during World War II and a key witness at the Nuremberg Trials.

Early life and education

Schramm was born to a wealthy and cosmopolitan family in Hamburg. His father, Max Schramm, was mayor from 1925 to 1928. 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 Habilitationschrift on the topic of German imperial ideology in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in particular, how the German 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 and the American professor of German History, Donald Detwiler. Schramm remained there until his retirement in 1963. Speaking fluent English, he received an invitation to teach at Princeton University during the 1933 academic year.

Second World War

During World War II, Schramm volunteered again for service in the Wehrmacht and was selected as the official staff historian, or diarist, for the German High Command Operational Staff (Wehrmachtfuehrungsstab). Schramm, given the rank of major, was tasked with maintaining 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. As a result, Schramm was called as a key witness at the Nuremberg Trials after the war, where he testified on behalf of General Alfred 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. (Jodl was posthumously acquitted in 1953 by a German denazification court.) 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. In 1962, he published (to some controversy) a biography of Adolf Hitler as a military commander (Hitler als militärischer Führer). Schramm had had a good deal of personal contact with the Führer in the course of his duties and 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 attempted to exonerate the army leadership by placing the blame for the war and its loss squarely at the feet of Hitler and his fanaticism.

Schramm also published, in 1963, an introduction to Henry Picker's Hitlers Tischgespräche (Hitler's Table Talk) entitled "The Anatomy of a Dictator". Whatever the merits of his other work, this particular piece inspired some criticism in the German press at the time, where he was accused of being an apologist for National Socialism. In a penetrating 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). Rather, Voegelin argued at length, based on a close reading of Schramm's text and comparing it unfavourably with Alan Bullock's analysis, 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.

Post-war career

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 40's, 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 (1962) (Monuments of the German Kings and Emperors). 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. In 1958, Schramm was inducted into the Order Pour le Mérite, an award recognizing his contributions to the arts and sciences in Germany. In 1964, a Festschrift devoted to Schramm was published.[1]

Select bibliography

  • 1928. Die zeitgenössischen Bildnisse Karls des Grossen. Leipzig.
  • 1928. Die deutschen Kaiser und Könige in Bildern ihrer Zeit, 751-1190. Berlin.
  • 1930. Kaiser, Rom und Renovatio. Leipzig.
  • 1937. Geschichte des englischen Königtums im Lichte der Krönung. Weimar. Translated into English as:
  • 1937. A History of the English Coronation, tr. Leopold G. Wickham Legg. Oxford.
  • 1939. Der König von Frankreich: das Wesen der Monarchie vom 9. zum 16. Jahrhundert. Darmstadt.
  • 1949. Kaufleute zu Haus und über See. Hamburgische Zeugnisse des 17., 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. Hamburg, Hoffmann und Campe.
  • 1954-1978. With others. Herrschaftszeichen und Staatssymbolik: Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte vom dritten bis zum sechzehnten Jahrhundert. Stuttgart.
  • 1962. Hitler als militärischer Führer. Erkenntnisse und Erfahrungen aus dem Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht. Frankfurt am Main / Bonn.
  • 1962-1978. With Florentine Mütherich. Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser: ein Beitrag zur Herrschergeschichte. Munich.
  • 1963/4. Neun Generationen: Dreihundert Jahre deutscher "Kulturgeschichte" im Lichte der Schicksale einer Hamburger Bürgerfamilie (1648–1948). Göttingen.
  • 1968-71. Kaiser, Könige und Päpste: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Geschichte des Mittelalters. 4 vols. in 5. Stuttgart.

Decorations and awards

  • 1958: Pour le Mérite for Arts and Sciences, Chancellor of the Order from 1963 until his death
  • Austrian Decoration of Honour for Science and Art
  • 1964: Lappenberg Medal from the Association of Hamburg History - for his services to the Hamburg-Research
  • 1965: Corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences


  1. Classen, P and Scheibert, P (1964) Festschrift Percy Ernst Schramm, Band I and II, Franz Steiner Verlag.


  • Annelies Ritter, Veröffentlichungen von Professor Dr phil Percy Ernst Schramm, Göttingen. Mimeographed (Göttingen 1960) 96 pages.
  • Carl Amery, Capitulation: The Lesson of German Catholicism translated by Edward Quinn (New York: Herder and Herder 1967). Originally published in German, Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1963.
  • Janos Bak, "Percy Ernst Schramm," in Medieval Scholarship. Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline, ed. Helen Damico & Joseph B. Zavadil (New York & London: Garland Press, 1995), 247-262.
  • Alan Bullock, "Hitler: a Study in Tyranny" Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971
  • Norman F. Cantor, "The Nazi Twins: Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz," in Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: Quill, 1991), pp. 79–117. ISBN 0-688-12302-3
  •, "Percy Percy Ernst Schramm (includes an extensive bibliography of Schramm's work and articles about him).
  • Norbert Kamp, "Percy Ernst Schramm und die Mittelalterforschung," in Geschichtswissenschaft in Göttingen, ed. Hartmut Boockmann & Herman Wellenreuther (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1987), 344-63.
  • Robert Musil, "On Stupidity" in Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, trans and ed Burton Pike and David Luft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Originally given as a lecture in Vienna in 1937.
  • Henry Picker, Hitlers Tischgespräche im Führerhauptquartier 1941-1942 edited and with an introduction by P. Schramm (Stuttgart: Seewald Verlag, 1963). Originally published 1951 edited by G. Ritter. First English translation 1953, edited by H.R. Trevor-Roper, Hitler's Table Talk, 1941-1944 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson)
  • Eric Voegelin, Collected Works vol 31 Hitler and the Germans edited and translated by D. Clemens and B. Purcell (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999) see especially 110-124

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