Brunner's research made a sharp break with the traditional forms of political and social history practiced in German and Austrian academia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, proposing in its place a new model of social history informed by attention to "folkish" cultural values, particularly as related to political violence and ideas of lordship and leadership.
He taught at the University of Vienna and later the University of Hamburg. From 1940 to 1945, he also served as the director of the Institute for Austrian Historical Research (Institut für österreichische Geschichtsforschung) in Vienna, a prestigious school for archival and historical studies.
Historical views and works
Brunner ranks as one of the most important German medievalists of the twentieth century, but his legacy as a historian in post-war Austria and Germany has been controversial. Along with many conservative Austrian academics in the 1920's and 30's, Brunner embraced pan-Germanistic politics and welcomed the Nazi Anschluss. He attempted to join the Nazi Party in 1938, though his application was held up until 1941 -- the Nazis tended to be suspicious of those who rushed to 'jump on the bandwagon' and held out full party membership only to those who demonstrated exceptional, and early, commitment to the National Socialist cause. Nonetheless, Brunner's 1939 book Land und Herrschaft (Land and Lordship) was welcomed as a seminal contribution to a "new" German historiography that valorized the historical role of the "folk" (Volk), the Germanic racial-ethnic community whose citizenry and spirit the Nazis claimed to embody. In the book, Brunner argued that the idea of a "Land" -- a historically and culturally distinct region within the larger medieval imperial polity -- was not simply an invention of feudal law, but an outgrowth of more organic and culturally complex claims to power (Herrschaft) resting in the idea of patriarchal rule over a household and its members (Hausherrschaft), as well as that of a chieftain over his band of warriors (Gefolgschaftsrecht). These traditions, Brunner argued, were fundamental aspects of Germanic folk-consciousness and social life and played a key role in shaping the history of German lands. He criticized then-current approaches to history which viewed medieval institutions and legal practices as primitive antecedents of a supposedly more advanced form of political community, namely the constitutional nation-state. The radical devaluation of the idea of political liberalism and the centrality of the democratic nation state could also be found in the writings of the fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, whose work Brunner followed closely and cited in his books.
Although his intellectual efforts were clearly aligned with the Nazis, Brunner was apparently not personally antisemitic and even used his own resources and political connections during the war to protect the mother of a colleague, Erich Zöllner, who was part Jewish and would have been subject to deportation.
Due to his political affiliations, Brunner was forced out of his university post in 1945 and worked for a number of years as an independent scholar before being appointed to the chair of medieval history at Hamburg in 1954 as successor to Hermann Aubin, a scholar of eastern European history with notably similar political sympathies. In the post-war period, Brunner continued to write on medieval and early modern social history. Land und Herrschaft remained a standard text in Germany for the history of medieval social organization from a cultural perspective. In 1949, Brunner published his second acclaimed work, Adeliges Landleben und Europäischer Geist (Noble Rural Life and the European Spirit), a highly original biography of the Austrian baron Wolf Helmhard von Hohberg (1612-1688) which illuminated the shared cultural and intellectual values of the European nobility in the early modern period. He also produced a collection of essays, Neue Wege der Verfassungs- und Sozialgeschichte (New Paths of Constitutional and Social History)(1956) which presented some of the ideas of Land und Herrschaft in a modified form and attempted to offer an expanded notion of European history as the basis for a new global culture.
Brunner also contributed, with Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck, to a major encyclopedic work, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, or Fundamental Concepts in History which helped shape a new discipline, that of conceptual history. Conceptual history deals with the evolution of paradigmatic ideas and value systems over time, such as "liberty" or "reform." Brunner, along with his colleagues, believed that social history—indeed all historical reflection—must begin with an understanding of historically contingent cultural values and practices in their particular contexts over time.
Legacy and controversy
Brunner, along with historians like Karl Bosl, Walter Schlesinger, Theodor Schieder and Werner Conze—all of whom supported, or were openly sympathetic to, Nazism in one way or another before and during the war (though more as nationalists than outright fascists) -- dominated the theory and teaching of medieval social history in post-war Germany and Austria. A few scholars, like the Czech medievalist František Graus, attempted to raise questions about the ideological implications of their methods and theories, as well as the tenability of some of their historical interpretations, but failed to effectively displace them from their position in the academy. More recently, the Israeli medievalist Gadi Algazi leveled a major critique against Brunner's theories, charging that Brunner read his sources through a fascist lens and that his books were clearly intended to support a Nazi vision of cultural history. Others, like the Göttingen historian Otto Gerhard Oexle, have argued that Brunner's work should be understood in the broader context of historical attitudes in the 1920s and 30's and not simply dismissed as Nazi propaganda.
Otto Brunner died in 1982 as professor-emeritus of medieval history at Hamburg.
- See Van Horn Melton, "Folk History," p. 271
- See Zöllner's appreciative reflection in his obituary for Brunner in the Mitteilungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung, vol. 90 (1982), p. 522.
- Graus, "Verfassungsgeschichte," is the key survey of the so-called school of "New Constitutional History," of which Brunner was considered a key member.
Major Works by Otto Brunner
- Land and Lordship: Structures of Governance in Medieval Austria, trans. Howard Kaminsky and James Van Horn Melton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992). Originally published as: Land und Herrschaft: Grundfragen der territorialen Verfassungsgeschichte Südostdeutschlands im Mittelalter Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Geschichtsforschung und Archivwissenschaft in Wien (Baden-bei-Wien, 1939).
- Adeliges Landleben und europäischer Geist. Leben und Werk Wolf Helmhards von Hohberg 1612-1688 (Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1949)
- Abendländisches Geschichtsdenken (Hamburg: Selbstverl. d. Univ., 1954)
- Neue Wege der Sozialgeschichte. Vorträge u. Aufsätze, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1956).
- Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe : historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, edd. Otto Brunner; Werner Conze; Reinhart Koselleck (Stuttgart : Klett-Cotta, 1972-1997)
- Sozialgeschichte Europas im Mittelalter (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978).
Recent scholarship on Otto Brunner
- Gadi Algazi, Herrengewalt und Gewalt der Herren im späten Mittelalter: Herrschaft, Gegenseitigkeit und Sprachgebrauch. (Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 1996).
- František Graus, “Verfassungsgeschichte des Mittelalters,” Historische Zeitschrift 243 (1986), pp. 529-590.
- Otto Gerhard Oexle, “Sozialgeschichte – Begriffsgeschichte – Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Anmerkungen zum Werk Otto Brunners,” Vierteljahresschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 71 (1983), pp. 305-341.
- James Van Horn Melton, “From Folk History to Structural History: Otto Brunner (1898-1982) and the Radical-Conservative Roots of German Social History,” in Hartmut Lehmann and James Van Horn Melton, eds., Paths of Continuity: Central European Historiography from the 1930s to the 1950s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 263-292.
- Peter N. Miller, "Nazis and Neo-Stoics: Otto Brunner and Gerhard Oestreich Before and after the Second World War," Past and Present 176 (2002), pp. 144-186