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Biography

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Ernst Curtius (1814-1896) was an eminent philologist and archeologist. From 1844-50 he served as tutor ("Zivilgouverneur") to Prince Friedrich von Hohenzollern, afterwards Emperor Friedrich III. He was also professor of classical philology, archeology, and eloquence at the Universities of Gottingen and Berlin. In 1874 Curtius concluded an agreement with the Greek authorities by which the excavations in Olympia were entrusted exclusively to the Germans. What he found there ultimately led to the re-institution of the Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894.

His grandson Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956) was a foremost literary scholar of the 20th century. The son of high-ranking civil servant, he grew up in Alsace, a French province annexed by the Reich between 1871 and 1918, and was thus bilingual in German and French -- and also fluent in English, Italian, and Spanish. Under the aegis of Strasbourg Professor Gustav Grober, he devoted his doctoral dissertation to editing an Old French epic, but his "Habilitationsschrift" in Bonn was on the contemporary French critique Ferdinand Brunetiere: thus emerged the two paths, i.e. the study of "medieval literature" and the critical appraisal of recent works, that he was to follow throughout his life. Curtius rejected Brunetiere's "scientific" method, instead favoring intuition, attention to nuances, and "elected affinities" as the most meaningful avenues toward literary knowledge. After being mobilized and wounded in Poland during World War I, he obtained a tenured position at the University of Bonn in 1916. Eevn though he considered the politicization of spiritual and intellectual life as a betrayal of the truly independent thinker, his scholarship in the 1920s often seemed to support a political, pan-European agenda: "Der Europagedanke, he would say, musste geistig gebaut werden. Dazu wollten meine Bücher helfen." Curtius took part in international symposiums in Pontigny (Burgundy) and Colpach (Luxemburg); was in touch with the Austrian prince von Rohan (who had launched an "Europäische Revue" in 1925, and would join join the Nazi Party in 1938); and corresponded with Parisian intellectuals of all stripes, despite the divisions generated by two wars (1870-71, 1914-18). The exchange slowed down considerably after 1933 however, and not only because of the passing of his beloved Catherine Pozzi (1882-1934), a poetess and former lover of Paul Valery who wrote scientific articles and translated the poetry of Stefan George. Curtius dedicated to her his essay, "James Joyce's Ulysses" (1929) and also corresponded with Pozzi's son, Claude Bourdet, a young engineer who would become a major figure of the Resistance and create the weekly "L'Observateur" (after 1964 "Le Nouvel Observateur.") In 1931, Catherine Pozzi wrote to Curtius: "In Frankreich scheint das Geistige noch in keiner Gefahr zu stehn, wie bei Ihnen." Indeed, with Hitler leading the new Reich, life became almost impossible for German intellectuals. A fervent patriot and a Stoic, Curtius decided to stay in Germany and to focus on medieval and Renaissance literature, where less political interference would be encountered. Despite his commitment to "European unity" he would reject any "collaboration" between Germany and France after 1940 -- to the disappointment of his admirer Jacques Benoist-Mechin (1901-1983), a brilliant journalist, military historian, and Proust scholar who occupied a number of high positions in the Vichy regime. In 1950, back from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, Curtius wrote to Anne Heurgon-Desjardins: "Les querelles franco-allemandes m'ennuient. Je considere ces deux peuples comme des collegiens mal eleves qui se chamaillent. J'ai fait metier de rapprocheur pendant vingt ans. J'ai maintenant droit à la retraite."