The Arty Semite

Nikolaus Pevsner: The 'Herr Professor-Doktor' of British Architecture

By Benjamin Ivry

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Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, a German-born Jew, became one of the pillars of British academia as a highly respected architectural historian. After relocating to London in 1933, he was eventually knighted in recognition of his monumental 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, “The Buildings of England” (1951–74). So the announcement in a new biography by Stephen Games, “Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art” (Continuum Books), that Pevsner was not just a proudly nationalist German before he was forced to flee but even had sympathy for certain Nazi viewpoints, comes like something of a thunderbolt.

The son of a Jewish fur trader, the Leipzig-born Pevsner dismissed his Zionist rabbinical forebears as failed scholars. At a party circa 1930, Pevsner declared that the Nazis were “a good thing; [Germans] need a bit of self-confidence.” Games plausibly compares Pevsner’s attitude in pre-war Germany to that of the notorious Verband nationaldeutscher Juden, or League of National German Jews, which sided with the Nazis in advocating antisemitic policies against Jewish emigrés from Eastern Europe.

Pevsner converted to Christianity as a career expedient, and after the 1933 Nazi law banning unconverted Jews in civil service jobs, Pevsner gave an upbeat interview to the “Birmingham Post,” reaffirming his nationalist views and love for Germany, adding: “Hitler is planning public works on a vast scale to cure the unemployment problem, and I believe that he has the courage and will to do what he says.” Pevsner also told the reporter that he approved of the “puritan and moral” aspects of the Nazi movement.

In July 1933 Pevsner went even further, intervening after the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler wrote to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, complaining about a new ban on Jewish orchestral musicians. Furtwängler, while accepting the Nazi obsession with eliminating “degenerate music,” felt that the key question was not Judaism, but whether a given performer was talented or not. Goebbels demurred, claiming that music must “train [Germans] to be strong.” Pevsner chimed in with an article in the German press, praising Goebbels as a “Kunsthistoriker” (art historian) whose view of art was “more ambitious” than Furtwängler’s.

Nevertheless, by September 1933, Pevsner lost his teaching job in Göttingen, and had to continue his academic career in exile. The beloved UK poet John Betjeman, a sentimental and highly personal writer on British architecture, used to dismiss Pevsner as “The Herr Professor-Doktor.” Betjeman may have been suspected of old fashioned British xenophobia, or even antisemitism, but the new revelations about Pevsner’s Teutonic leanings, however misbegotten and abortive, show us that Betjeman was intuitively correct.

Listen to Pevsner lecture about English art on BBC Radio:


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