Constantin Brunner

The philosopher Constantin Brunner, born 27th August 1862 in Altona and who died on 27th August 1937 in The Hague, is one of the historically influential German-Jewish intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His expressionist and life reformist work attracted many intellectuals, artists and followers of the Youth Movement. At the same time, Brunner’s unrelenting search for a righteous way of life alienated many of his coevals. He was corresponding with people ranging from Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane, to Walther Rathenau, Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber and Rose Ausländer.

The impact of his thought was violently interrupted by National Socialism. After the Holocaust, the surviving followers of Brunner kept alive the memory of the philosopher and his work, yet did so rather one-sidedly and emphatically. Consequently, 70 years after Brunner’s death his insightful work for the intellectual history of Germany and Europe is rarely noted.

Over the last 15 years Brunner has been rediscovered in the various philosophical, philological, historical, theological, political and judaistic fields. He is identified as a remarkable intellectual figure of the early 20th century and his works are being rediscovered. Such research aims to widen the view on the diversity of the intellectual field before 1933.

Brunner, the grandson of the Chief Rabbi [Oberlandesrabbiner] of Altona and Schleswig-Holstein, grew up in a Jewish-orthodox surrounding. He was an active member of the Jewish community and sporadically gave lectures on the Talmud. He started to show interest in the contemporary debate on Jesus (see his Rede der Juden: Wir wollen ihn zurück! [Speech of the Jews: We want to have him back!; written approximately in 1893] and in 1921 published Our Christ. The revolt of the Mystical Genius [engl. Translation: Assen 1990; original version: Unser Christus oder das Wesen des Genies] which attracted a lot of attention.

Brunner’s views were opposed to Neo-Kantianism; based as they were on Spinoza’s epistemology and ontology. Brunner presented these in his philosophical main work Die Lehre von den Geistigen und vom Volk [Doctrine of the Spirituals and the people], published in 1908, and expanded upon them in Materialismus und Idealismus [Materialism and Idealism], published in 1928.

With a political philosophy premised on the achievements of the French Revolution, Brunner made significant contributions to the concept of the constitutional state. On the basis of these contributions he was able to formulate clear demands for standards from a democratic state. He used the so-called “Jewish Question” to exemplify the deficits in various legal systems (see his Der Judenhass und die Juden, 1914 [Jew hatred and the Jews]; Von den Pflichten der Juden und von den Pflichten des Staates [On the duties of the Jews and the duties of the State], 1930).

Brunner’s analysis of anti-Semitism was one of the most impressive works on this topic at the time. His books were widely recognized, with a remarkable polarization of vehement supporters and critics (e.g. Eva Reichmann, Mauritius Kahn). A comparative study with other major works on this topic (e.g. of Hannah Arendt) has not yet been pursued.

In 1933 Brunner emigrated to the Netherlands, and he died there in 1937. He did not witness the Holocaust himself but many of his followers, his wife and his daughter perished.


Internationaal Constantin Brunner Instituut

Wikipedia Article (German)

Wikipedia Article (English)

Brunner-Web-Site of Barrett Pashak (English)

Leo Baeck Institute / Archive of the Jewish Museum, Berlin