Cloud of Witnesses: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

As 1978 was the Year of the Three Popes, so was 1888 the Year of the Three Emperors: Drei Achten, drei Kaiser. Eugen Rosenstock was born to Jewish parents in the three eights of Wilhelm I, Frederick III, and Wilhelm II. He studied law at Zurich, Heidelberg, and Berlin and shone in Leipzig as the youngest law professor in all Germany. The death of his father impelled him into banking to support his family, and soon he joined the Berlin Stock Exchange.

The family’s eclectic religious perspective did not disdain his baptism as a Protestant when he was 18. As World War I loomed, he married Margrit Huessy, a Swiss student of art history whom he met in Florence; and then, as a lieutenant in the mounted artillery, he fought for 18 months in the cauldron of Verdun. Between gas attacks he taught the troops linguistics and rudimentary philosophy. Why not? C. S. Lewis invoked those who “discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” There has been published from that barbaric time his civilized correspondence with the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, Eugen having become a Catholic. His book of 1920, The Marriage of War and Revolution, warned of social horrors to come.

The polymath won a second doctorate in 1923 from Heidelberg for medieval studies, all the while conducting night schools for factory workers and fighting off the seductions of Marxists who looked upon him as a prize catch. Volumes poured forth on social analysis using philology as a matrix, a system he called “metanomics.” Christ the Word is known by speech, not logic. A lectureship in social science in Darmstadt led to a full professorship in legal history at Breslau, a base for organizing the Lowensberger arbeitslager to reform the appalling conditions in the Silesian coal mines. It would become a center of anti-Nazi resistance. An officer of Daimler-Benz helped him edit the first factory newspaper in Germany, a remote prototype of the encyclical Laborern Exercens, written by a former chemical-factory worker. To expose the anemia of idealism and postitivism modish in the dispirited post-war universities, he published Die Kreatur, a journal edited by a Jew, Martin Buber, a Protestant, von Weizsacker; and a Catholic priest, Wittig, whom he would later defend against excommunication. In 1931, the gigantic European Revolutions and the Character of Nations showed how the Great War had ended the progress of Christian civilization in Europe rooted in five national revolutions.

After the birth of a son, Hans, and exile to the United States from the Nazis in 1933, he adopted his hyphenated name and landed as a lecturer at Harvard, where his Christianity was disdained in arched tones as blatant as the bugles of the National Socialists. Gracefully, he became a professor of social philosophy at Dartmouth, where he taught until 1957 and lived until 1973, and so I knew him as a revered retired presence, more vocal in praying the Rosary than emoting on the crisis of mankind. He lived across the river in Vermont, where he had formed a Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940 at the behest of President Roosevelt, enlisting students from Dartmouth, Radcliffe, and Harvard. Forty books and 500 essays later, with many converts to his credit, the widower was cared for by the widow of the executed resistance leader Count von Moltke, who had been formed in the Lowensberger student camps.

One day Rosenstock-Huessy waited for his old friend Martin Buber in White River Junction, the railroad station closest to our campus. They embraced and wept. And in that moment, a faded New England train stop became Jerusalem and Rome and the Heavenly City where “they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.”

Author

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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