The Life of Constantin Brunner

In the period 1850-1900, quite a few important philosophers and their works came to the surface in the countries where the German language was spoken. Some of the most important names of those days are Hermann Cohen (born 1842), Fritz Mauthner (1849), Paul Natorp (1854), Georg Simmel (1858), Edmund Husserl (1859), Max Weber (1864), Ernst Cassirer (1874), Max Scheler  1874), Martin Buber (1878), and Martin Heidegger (1889). Very interesting is the video (in German, though) from Yehudi Menuhin about Constantin Brunner:

Constantin Brunner was born in 1862 as Leo Wertheimer in a village named Altona in the neighborhood of the Northern German city of Hamburg. Brunner belongs to the lesser-known philosophers of that time but he was definitely among the greatest thinkers and philosophers of those days.

It was a peculiar time for Europe, especially for the German states that were united at that time in 1871, into one single Germany, a glorious and stunning achievement. This time frame, in retrospect, has all the characteristics of a sort of German “Golden Age” but it eventually led to self-destruction and the two most terrible tragedies and catastrophes of human history that we’ve seen, WW I and WW II.

In particular, World War II was infamous for the technological and systematic annihilation of several minorities and the disastrous period resulted in a massive-scale inhibition of values and spiritual life. Brunner managed to escape to the Netherlands in 1933 but much of his writings and other works were destroyed or burned. In those days, Constantin Brunner’s works had quite some following as they were published but that all passed away until recently.

Brunner chose the name of Constantin Brunner at the end of the 19th century when he was distancing himself from his earlier works and literary activities as he wanted to devote his time totally to philosophy. As stated above, his original name was Leo Wertheimer, born on 28 August 1862 in the German village of Altona in the Hamburg region.

Constantin Brunner first studied at a Cologne seminary where he was occupied with studying comparative religion. Later on, in Freiburg and Berlin, he studied philosophy and history and some of his teachers were Zeller, Dilthey, Deussen, and Simmel. In 1892, Brunner returned to Hamburg where he published an important literary and philosophical periodical, The Spectator (“Der Zuschauer”) in cooperation with the German poets Otto Ernst, Richard Dehmel, and Detlev von Liliencron.

In 1895, some decisive turns influenced the philosopher’s life. He got married and moved to the city of Berlin where he discontinued his career as a literary journalist as he felt the urge to dedicate all of his time and talent to philosophy and Brunner also withdrew from any public activities as Christian Moral Hypocrisy was taking its toll on Brunner’s thoughts.

Already at a very young age, around 1884, Constantin Brunner got aware of a strong sense of anti-Semitism across Germany. He reacted, as always in those days, publicly and Brunner’s theory about state and society can be found in what Brunner himself refers to as his “Books on the Jews”. This work sheds a clear and bright light on German thinking in those days and the so-called “Jewish Issue”.

It comes as no surprise that also Karl Marx, in 1843 and in the context of the topic, was developing the most critical points and ideas of his famous theory of “State and Society” under the title “About the Jewish Question”.

The reason for these developments, in regards to the so-called “Jewish Question”, lies in the paradigmatic issue of “State and Society” or, to say the least, it WAS in those historically interesting days in which Brunner and, for example, Karl Marx and more historically important individuals were living and developing their ideas.

Brunner was born in a Jewish family though he professed no religion in particular. Brunner’s grandfather was actually a rabbi in the village of Altona and though he did not adhere to any religion, and sometimes questioned the existence of God, Brunner himself was drawn to the spiritual aspects of the Jewish-Christian background and the traditions of the Jewish prophets and he, in fact, recognized Jesus Christ as the greatest.

Brunner felt himself equally in tune with, and indebted to, German culture in general. Just take a look at how passionately and respectfully he was writing about great German Art, German Literacy, and the German language in his works.

Despite all this, Constantin Brunner was urged to move to the Netherlands in 1933 to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany. The “Constantin Brunner Foundation” preserved his work and his legacy in The Hague. It was really a last-minute move to flee to The Hague accompanied by his wife Leoni and Lotte, Brunner’s adopted daughter, but most of Brunner’s works stayed behind to be destroyed by the Nazis. There are some works saved that can be admired at the Berliner Brunner Collection.

Holland was the country of the great mind he admired most, Spinoza, and he stayed in the country until he died of chronic heart disease on August 27, 1937, just one day before he would have turned 75 years of age. In 1943, the Nazis, who had occupied the Netherland since 1940, sent Brunner’s wife Leoni, at the age of 81, together with his beloved stepdaughter Lotte to the concentration camp in Sobibor where they both were murdered that year in the terrible gas chambers.