The Schmooze

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

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.

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

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