Robert Norton earns A&L Research Achievement Award for his transformative impact on German intellectual history

Author: Beth Staples

For Robert Norton, new knowledge lies in the archives.

That’s where the University of Notre Dame professor of German scours original materials to unearth details about significant past events and people.

A man wearing a blue blazer, white shirt, eyeglasses and a watch sits in a hallway.
Robert Norton's interest is in the invisible and hard-to-discern currents of thought that inform large cultural phenomena. Photo by Jon Hendricks

“While much archive material has been published, there is still much that has not been published, and that’s where we can find new information that will change our understanding of important things and make something that people didn’t know about before, known,” Norton said.

Norton, a cultural and intellectual historian whose research contributes to a greater understanding of the world, including the origins of Nazism and German fascism, is the recipient of the 2024 College of Arts & Letters Research Achievement Award. The honor recognizes faculty who demonstrate significant scholarly achievement and impact, as well as leadership, extraordinary innovation, and engagement with the University’s research and educational mission.

Norton will accept the award and deliver remarks at the A&L spring faculty meeting at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, in McKenna Hall. At the same meeting, Michael Rea, the Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy, will receive the College of Arts & Letters Graduate Student Mentorship Award.

Norton, who is based in the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures with concurrent appointments in history and philosophy, said the research achievement award signals the College’s commitment to exploration and inquiry in the humanities and social sciences and reflects Notre Dame’s goal to be a research university of the highest order.

Tobias Boes, professor and chair of the department, wrote in his nomination letter that Norton’s “painstaking archival research and immersive study of long-forgotten sources” has unmasked prevailing false wisdom about aspects of Germany’s past.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Norton has, over the course of these past two decades, had a transformative impact on German intellectual history of the early 20th century,” he wrote.

Transformative impact

Norton, who joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1998 after nine years at Vassar College, makes an impact on scholars, influencers, and opinion-makers by exploring the stories behind the stories.

“My interest is in the invisible, or at least the hard-to-discern, currents of thought that inform large cultural phenomena,” he said. “My scholarly career is devoted to understanding the nature of the impact and what lies underneath and what was lost.”

For example, his 2002 book Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle — which he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to write — examines the cultural and intellectual roots of national socialism, the totalitarian political movement led by Adolf Hitler.

In it, Norton argues that George, a once-revered poet who attracted powerful intellectual disciples, occupied a central place in the rise of antidemocratic thought in early 20th-century Germany. The book, which displeased modern conservative German intellectuals, won the American Philosophical Society’s Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History.

“Tracing the growth of George’s ideology and his influence was my way of trying to understand how 1933 happened,” he said. “It gave me a perspective on how elements of what became the national socialist ideology could have been attractive to highly educated, intelligent, cultivated people.”

Changing the consensus

Norton also recovered an important lost strand about the Weimar Republic and German democracy in his 2021 book, The Crucible of German Democracy: Ernst Troeltsch and the First World War.

While there was widespread belief that Germany’s first parliamentary democracy after World War I was an immediate outgrowth of revolution and military defeat, Norton posited that it was actually the result of domestic political debate.

One key takeaway from this research, he said, is that people must work to preserve democracy.

“Looking at the struggles of German politicians, intellectuals, public figures, and academics can potentially teach us important lessons about what it means to do just that,” he said.

For another research project, Norton wrote Herder's Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment to dispel the belief that Herder, an important 18th-century German thinker, was opposed to the Enlightenment values of democracy, equality, and liberality. German conservative nationalist historians in the 20th century had created this distortion, Norton said, to buttress their ideologies.

Norton began advancing this atypical viewpoint about Herder 40 years ago when writing his dissertation; today, the perspective is mainstream.

“I was not the only person responsible for that shift, but I was at the beginning of, and was a voice in, the transformation,” he said. “It’s an example of how a consensus view of an important cultural phenomenon has changed as a result of a concerted effort.”

Linking questions to issues

His current book project, “The School of Wisdom: Hermann von Keyserling and the Philosophy of Life,” centers on a dispossessed Baltic German aristocrat, philosopher, and cultural impresario who founded the School of Wisdom in Darmstadt after World War I.

The school was designed to address various crises that resulted from the war. People had lost faith in religious, political, and academic institutions, and at the School of Wisdom, Keyserling sought alternate ways to help them find meaning.

Norton views Keyserling as a barometer of the extraordinary upheavals that occurred during the 1920s and a prism through which to examine myriad ideas of the era.

“If you're asking the right sorts of questions and you’re linking the local questions to broader issues, you're contributing to a further understanding of where we've been,” he said. “And hopefully that will help us in orienting ourselves in the present.”