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Erich Kahler

KAHLER, ERICH (1885–1970), historian and philosopher. Born in Prague, raised in Vienna, educated at the universities of Berlin, Munich, Heidelberg, and Vienna, he settled in Munich after obtaining his doctorate in Vienna (1908) with his dissertation Recht und Moral (published 1911). His study, Das Geschlecht Hapsburg (1919), was followed by Der Beruf der Wissenschaft (1920), a polemic directed against Max Weber's Wissenschaft als Beruf. A publisher to whom he submitted the manuscript of his major work, Der deutsche Charakter in der Geschichte Europas, denounced him to the Nazis in 1933, but he had already escaped to Vienna, afterwards to Czechoslovakia, and then to Switzerland, where the book appeared in 1937 and aroused much attention. In 1938 he found a permanent refuge in Princeton. His public lectures and seminars at American universities, primarily at Cornell from 1947 to 1955, resulted in seven scholarly volumes. A book of tributes to him by John Berryman, G.A. Borgese, Hermann Broch, Albert Einstein, Rudolf Kassner, Thomas Mann, Wolfgang Pauli, and others appeared in 1951.

Kahler's approach to history was characterized by Hermann Broch as moral anthropology. This approach was apparent in his study of the Hapsburgs, which considered the royal family as a historical organism with common psychological traits throughout six centuries. In his sociological and historical study Israel unter den Völkern (1936) he found a common Jewish type persisting down the millennia from its tribal origin until the twentieth century. In Der deutsche Charakter in der Geschichte Europas, he presented the Germans as a specific historic organism, its evolution and its impact upon Europe. Its ideas continued to occupy Kahler's thinking and formed the basis for The Germans published in 1974. In it, the material was presented not topically, as in the earlier volume, but rather chronologically, from the confrontation of the German tribes with the Roman Empire until the Nazi assumption of power and the catastrophe of World War II.

Kahler's most important work, Man the Measure (1943), was subtitled A New Approach to History. It studied the human species as an organism whose historical changes were grafted on to an enduring psychic structure. It emphasized the evolution and transformation of human consciousness.

The Tower and the Abyss (1957) may be regarded as a sequel to Man the Measure. As an inquiry into the transformation of the individual, it stresses the evolutionary forces that converged to bring about the disruption, disintegration, and fragmentation of the contemporary individual personality from without and from within. Kahler sees the present as a state of transition from an individual form of existence to a supra-individual form, whose character is still obscure. The work concludes with Kahler's own vision of a possible Utopia, which will permit the reintegration of fragmented Man in free communities.

Kahler's essays were collected in the German volume Die Verantwortung des Geistes (1952) and in the English volumes Out of the Labyrinth (1947), The Disintegration of Form in the Arts (1968), and The Inward Turn of the Narrative (1973).


S. Liptzin, Germany's Stepchildren (1944), 275–81.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.