Among the many fascinating figures that emerged from the intellectual culture of Germany’s interwar Weimar Republic, perhaps none is quite as significant or unique as Carl Schmitt. An eminent jurist and law professor during the Weimar era, Schmitt was arguably the greatest political theorist of the 20th century. He is also among the most widely misinterpreted or misunderstood.
The misconceptions regarding Schmitt are essentially traceable to two issues. The first of these is obvious enough: Schmitt’s collaboration with the Nazi regime during the early years of the Third Reich. The other reason why Schmitt’s ideas are so frequently misrepresented, if not reviled, in contemporary liberal intellectual circles may ultimately be the most important. Schmitt’s works in political and legal theory provide what is by far the most penetrating critique of the ideological and moral presumptions of modern liberal democracy and its institutional workings.
Like his friend and contemporary Ernst Junger, Schmitt lived to a very old age. His extraordinarily long life allowed him to witness many changes in the surrounding world that were as rapid as they were radical. He was born in 1888, the same year that Wilhelm II became the emperor of Germany, and died in 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became the final General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Schmitt wrote on legal and political matters for nearly seven decades. His earliest published works appeared in 1910 and his last article was published in 1978. Yet it is his writings from the Weimar period that are by far the most well known and, aside from his works during his brief association with the Nazis, his works during the Weimar era are also his most controversial.
Not only is it grossly inaccurate to regard Schmitt merely as a theoretician of Nazism, but it is also problematical even to characterize him as a German nationalist. For one thing, Schmitt originated from the Rhineland and his religious upbringing was Catholic, which automatically set him at odds both regionally and religiously with Germany’s Protestant and Prussian-born elites. As his biographer Joseph Bendersky noted, Schmitt’s physical appearance was “far more Latin than Germanic” and he had French-speaking relatives. Schmitt once said to the National-Bolshevik leader Ernst Niekisch, “I am Roman by origin, tradition, and right.”
At age nineteen, Schmitt entered the prestigious University of Berlin, which was exceedingly rare for someone with his lower middle-class origins, and on the advice of his uncle chose law as his area of specialization. This choice seems to have initially been the result of ambition rather than specificity of interest. Schmitt received his law degree in 1910 and subsequently worked as a law clerk in the Prussian civil service before passing the German equivalent of the bar examination in 1915. By this time, he had already published three books and four articles, thereby foreshadowing a lifetime as a highly prolific writer.
Even in his earliest writings, Schmitt demonstrated himself as an anti-liberal thinker. Some of this may be attributable to his precarious position as a member of Germany’s Catholic religious minority. As Catholics were distrusted by the Protestant elites, they faced discrimination with regards to professional advancement. Schmitt may therefore have recognized the need for someone in his situation to indicate strong loyalty and deference to the authority of the state. As a Catholic, Schmitt originated from a religious tradition that emphasized hierarchical authority and obedience to institutional norms.
Additionally, the prevailing political culture of Wilhelmine Germany was one where the individualism of classical liberalism and its emphasis on natural law and “natural rights” was in retreat in favor of a more positivist conception of law as the product of the sovereign state. To be sure, German legal philosophers of the period did not necessarily accept the view that anything decreed by the state was “right” by definition. For instance, neo-Kantians argued that just law preceded rather than originated from the state with the state having the moral purpose of upholding just law. Yet German legal theory of the time clearly placed its emphasis on authority rather than liberty.
Schmitt’s most influential writings have as their principal focus the role of the state in society and his view of the state as the essential caretaker of civilization. Like Hobbes before him, Schmitt regarded order and security to be the primary political values and Schmitt has not without good reason been referred to as the Hobbes of the 20th century. His earliest writings indicate an acceptance of the neo-Kantian view regarding the moral purpose of the state. Yet these neo-Kantian influences diminished as Schmitt struggled to come to terms with the events of the Great War and the Weimar Republic that emerged at the war’s conclusion.
Schmitt himself did not actually experience combat during the First World War. He had initially volunteered for a reserve unit but an injury sustained during training rendered him unfit for battle; Schmitt spent much of the war in Munich in a non-combatant capacity. Additionally, Schmitt was granted an extended leave of absence to serve as a lecturer at the University of Strassburg.
As martial law had been imposed in Germany during the course of the war, Schmitt’s articles on legal questions during this time dealt with the implications of this for legal theory and constitutional matters. Schmitt argued that the assumption of extraordinary powers by military commanders was justified when necessary for the preservation of order and the security of the state. However, Schmitt took the carefully nuanced view that such powers are themselves limited and temporary in nature. For instance, ordinary constitutional laws may be temporarily suspended and temporary emergency decrees enacted in the face of crisis, but only until the crisis is resolved. Nor can the administrators of martial law legitimately replace the legislature or the legal system, and by no means can the constitutional order itself be suspended.
Carl Schmitt was thirty years old in November of 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and a republic was established. To understand the impact of these events on Schmitt’s life and the subsequent development of his thought, it is necessary to first understand the German political culture from which Schmitt originated and the profoundly destabilizing effect that the events of 1918 had on German political life.
Contemporary Westerners, particularly those in the English-speaking countries, are accustomed to thinking of politics in terms of elections and electoral cycles, parliamentary debates over controversial issues, judicial rulings, and so forth. Such was the habit of German thinkers in the Wilhelmine era as well, but with the key difference that politics was not specifically identified with the state apparatus itself.
German intellectuals customarily identified “politics” with the activities surrounding the German Reichstag, or parliament, which was subordinated to the wider institutional structures of German statecraft. These were the monarchy, the military, and the famous civil service bureaucracy, with the latter headed up primarily by appointees from the aristocracy. This machinery of state stood over and above the popular interests represented in the Reichstag, and pre-Weimar Germans had no tradition of parliamentary supremacy of the kind on which contemporary systems of liberal democracy are ostensibly based.
The state was regarded as a unifying force that provided stability and authority while upholding the interests of the German nation and keeping in check the fragmentation generated by quarrelling internal interests. This stability was eradicated by Germany’s military defeat, the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles, and the emergence of the republic.
The Weimar Republic was unstable from the beginning. The republican revolution that had culminated in the creation of a parliamentary democracy had been led by the more moderate social democrats, which were vigorously opposed by the more radical communists from the left and the monarchists from the right.
The Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in Russia in 1917, a short-lived communist regime took power in Hungary in 1919, and a series of communist uprisings in Germany naturally made upwardly mobile middle-class persons such as Schmitt fearful for their political and economic futures as well as their physical safety. During this time Schmitt published Political Romanticism where he attacked what he labeled as “subjective occasionalism.” This was a term Schmitt coined to describe the common outlook of German intellectuals who sought to remain apolitical in the pursuit of private interests or self-fulfillment. This perspective regarded politics as merely the prerogative of the state, and not as something the individual need directly engage himself with. Schmitt had come to regard this as an inadequate and outmoded outlook given the unavoidable challenges that Germany’s political situation had provided.
Schmitt published Dictatorship in 1921. This remains a highly controversial work and subsequent critics of Schmitt who dismiss him as an apologist for totalitarianism or who attack him for having created an intellectual framework conducive to the absolute rule of the Fuhrer during the Nazi period have often cited this particular work as evidence. However, Schmitt’s conception of “dictatorship” dealt with something considerably more expansive and abstract than what is implied by the term in present day popular (or often academic) discourse.
For Schmitt, a “dictatorship” is a situation where a particular constitutional order has either been abrogated or has fallen into what Schmitt referred to as a “state of exception.” As examples of the first kind of situation, Schmitt offered both the Leninist model of revolution and the National Assembly that had constructed the constitutional framework of Weimar. In both instances, a previously existing constitutional order had been dismissed as illegitimate, yet a new constitutional order had yet to be established. A sovereign dictatorship of this type functions to
represent the will of these formless and disorganized people, and to create the external conditions which permit the realization of the popular will in the form of a new political or constitutional system. Theoretically, a sovereign dictatorship is merely a transition, lasting only until the new order has been established.
By this definition, a “sovereign dictatorship” could include political forces as diverse as the Continental Congresses of the period of the American Revolution to the anarchist militias and workers councils that emerged in Catalonia during the Spanish civil war to guerrilla armies holding power in a particular region where the previously established government has retreated or collapsed during the course of an armed insurgency. Schmitt also advanced the concept of a “commissarial dictatorship” as opposed to a “sovereign dictatorship.”
Schmitt used as an illustration of this idea Article 48 from the Weimar constitution. This article allowed the German president to rule by decree in states of emergency where threats to the immediate security of the state or public order were involved. As he had initially suggested in his wartime articles concerning the administration of martial law, Schmitt regarded such powers as limited and temporary in nature and as rescinded by the wider constitutional order once the emergency situation has passed. Contrary to the image of Schmitt as a totalitarian apologist, Schmitt warned of the inherent dangers represented by the powers granted to the president under Article 48, noting that such powers could be used to attack and destroy the constitutional order itself.
The following year, in 1922, Schmitt published Political Theology. This work advanced two core arguments. The first of these was a challenge to the legal formalism represented by German jurists of the era such as Hans Kelsen. Kelsen’s outlook was not unlike that of contemporary American critics of “judicial activism” who regard law as normative unto itself and insist legal interpretation should be restricted to pure law as derived from constitutional texts and statutory legislation, irrespective of wider or related political, sociological or moral concerns. Schmitt considered this to be a naïve outlook that failed to consider two crucial and unavoidable matters: the reality and inevitability of political and social change, and exceptional cases. It was the latter of these that Schmitt was especially concerned with. It was the question of the “state of exception” that continued to be a preoccupation of Schmitt.
Exceptional cases involved situations where emergencies threatened the state itself. For Schmitt, the maintenance of basic order preceded constitutional norms and legal formalities. There is no constitution or law if there is chaos. The important question regarding exceptional cases was the matter of who decides when an emergency situation exists. Schmitt regarded this decision-making power as the prerogative of the sovereign. Within the constitutional framework of Weimar, sovereignty was held jointly by the Reich president and the Reichstag, meaning that the president could legitimately declare a state of emergency and temporarily rule by decree if the Reichstag agreed to grant him such powers.
While Schmitt was certainly a thinker of the Right, it is a mistake to group him together with proponents of the “conservative revolution” such as Moeller van den Bruck, Oswald Spengler, Edgar Jung, or Hugo von Hofmannsthal. There is no evidence of him having expressed affinity for the views of these thinkers or joining any of the organizations that emerged to promote their ideas. Schmitt’s conservatism was squarely within the Machiavellian tradition, and he counted Machiavelli, Hobbes, Jean Bodin and conservative counterrevolutionaries such as Joseph De Maistre and Juan Donoso Cortes as his influences.
During the Weimar era, Schmitt expressed no sympathy for the mystical nationalism of the radical Right, much less the vulgar racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi movement. He was closer to the anti-liberal thinkers that James Burnham and others subsequently labeled as “the neo-Machiavellians.” These included Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Georges Sorel along with aristocratic conservatives like Max Weber. These thinkers expressed skepticism regarding the prospects of liberalism and democracy and emphasized the role of elites, the irrational, and the power of myth with regards to the political. Though Schmitt never joined a political party during the Weimar era, within the spectrum of German politics of the time he can reasonably be categorized as something of a moderate. He had admirers on both the far Right and far Left, including sympathizers with the Conservative Revolution as well as prominent intellectuals associated with the Marxist Frankfurt School, such as Walter Benjamin, Franz Neumann, and Otto Kirchheimer.
Schmitt’s own natural affinities were mostly likely closest to the Catholic Center Party, which along with the Social Democrats who had led the revolution of 1918 were the most consistently supportive of the republic and the constitutional order, and which represented the broadest cross-section of economic, class, regional, and institutional interests of any of the major parties during Weimar.
Like Hobbes before him, Schmitt was intensely focused on how order might be maintained in a society prone to chaos. Both economic turmoil and political instability continually plagued the republic. Successive political coalitions failed in their efforts to create a durable government and chancellors came and went. The Reichstag was immobilized by the intractable nature of political parties representing narrow class, ideological, or economic interests and possessing irreconcilable differences with one another. Additionally, many of the political parties that formed during the Weimar era, including those with substantial representation in the Reichstag, possessed little or no genuine commitment to the preservation of the republican order itself. Extremist parties, most notably the German Communist Party (KPD) and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), or the Nazis, as they came to be called, openly advocated its overthrow. Terrorism was practiced by extremists from both the right and left. Crisis after crisis appeared during the Weimar period, and the parliament was each time unable to deal with the latest emergency situation effectively. The preservation of order subsequently fell to the president. Article 48 of the constitution stated in part:
If a state does not fulfill the duties imposed by the Reich constitution or the laws of the Reich, the Reich president may enforce such duties with the aid of the armed forces. In the event that public order and security are seriously disturbed or endangered, the Reich president may take the necessary measures in order to restore public security and order, intervening, if necessary, with the aid of the armed forces. To achieve this goal, he may temporarily suspend entirely or in part, the stipulated basic rights in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153. All measures undertaken in accordance with sections 1 or 2 of this article must be immediately reported to the Reichstag by the Reich president. These measures are to be suspended if the Reichstag so demands.
As an indication of the unstable nature of the Weimar republic, Article 48 was invoked more than two hundred and fifty times by successive presidents during the republic’s fifteen years of existence.