On July 7th, 1285, a sunny day in the city of Wetzlar, a day’s ride north of Frankfurt acrid smoke rises from a mighty pyre built up just outside its walls. The pyre was for an emperor, or at least a man who claimed to be the emperor Fredrick II. This man had shown up in the Rhineland, gathered followers, set up a court and sent letters to prince and cities across the realm. Envoys had come from Italy to find out whether the Stupor Mundi had indeed returned. King Rudolf of Habsburg had to turn up in person at the head of an army to sort things out. Just before the fires were lit the (fake) emperor called on to his followers to proceed to Frankfurt as planned where he would re-appear in three days’ time.

He did not reappear in Frankfurt but in Utrecht, where the imposter was hanged. The next sighting was in Lübeck in 1286, where he was killed again. In 1295 he was again captured and burned at the stake. The myth of the emperor who lives and does not live persisted over the centuries. Sometime in the 15th or 16the century the myth transfers from Frederick II to Barbarossa who now dwelt in the Khyffhaueser mountain waiting to be called.

Frederick II was relegated to a secondary role amongst the great medieval emperors until in 1927 a hitherto unknown writer, Ernst Kantorowics published his biography of Frederick II. This book became the most intensely discussed and most controversial biographies of a medieval ruler – full stop. Its view of the emperor was suffused with the right-wing ideology of the George Kreis. Hitler allegedly read it twice, it was on Goebbels’ bedside table, but at the same time Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the July plot to assassinate Hitler was a friend of Kantorowics and Admiral Canaris, another key conspirator asked for the book to read before his execution. Its Jewish author disliked the Nazis despite his extreme right-wing views. He fled Germany in 1938 and distanced himself from his most famous work. In the US he got caught in the nets of McCarthyism when he refused to swear an oath to fight communists. A rare case where the biographers biography is almost as fascinating as his subject, well worth exploring.

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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