Thirty years ago Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was hardly visible on the American intellectual horizon, and the rare mention of his name in scholarly publications was usually dismissive.  After all, Schmitt was a Nazi, a Catholic extremist, and an inveterate enemy of the liberal order.  Today, Schmitt’s major works are available in English translation, and a torrent of commentary across the political spectrum has attempted to defend or refute Schmitt’s provocative theses.  But even among those who seek to malign his political thought, there is a growing consensus that Schmitt’s attacks on the foundations of liberal modernity are too incisive to dismiss.  From the left-liberal perspective, Schmitt is a devil who must, at all costs, be confronted and contained.  On the right he is often considered too tainted to embrace openly, yet too brilliant to ignore.  Unlike his fellow Nazi Martin Heidegger, who has been largely rehabilitated by his academic admirers, Schmitt remains a toxic intellectual substance.

Reinhard Mehring’s biography (published in German in 2009) is nothing if not thorough, and is the first to make use of Schmitt’s heretofore untranscribed Weimar diaries.  While Schmitt’s childhood is given cursory attention, his adult years are meticulously chronicled, with particular attention devoted to his intellectual and political development.  What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant man from a modest social and economic background in Westphalia, the Catholic son of a commercial clerk, driven by enormous intellectual ambitions.  Having taken his doctorate in law at the University of Strasbourg in 1910, Schmitt rapidly established his expertise in constitutional law, occupying prestigious academic positions during the Weimar years at universities in Bonn, Cologne, and Berlin, where he formed relationships with men close to the inner circles of power—men like Johannes Popitz, who served as a state minister under Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher in 1931-32.  Schmitt reached the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed “crown jurist” to the National Socialist regime in 1933.  As Mehring demonstrates, Schmitt’s elevation to the highest position in his field was bought at great price, isolating him from many friends and colleagues and marking him as a collaborator.  After 1945 he was never again able to obtain a permanent academic or legal position in Germany.

Schmitt’s glittering rise to prominence during the Weimar era was the result of several factors: his skills as a teacher and jurist; his instinct for forming professional friendships; and, above all, his reputation as a political thinker of the first rank.  One of the virtues of Mehring’s biography is that it does an effective job of tracing and contextualizing the genesis of Schmitt’s most important political concepts.  As early as 1914, he had begun to make his mark with the publication of The Value of the State.  By 1916, in an article called “Dictatorship and the State of Siege,” he was moving toward a formulation of what he would eventually term the “state of exception” (a condition of political crisis), which locates it existentially as the “primordial condition” of the state before the emergence of the separation of powers characteristic of classical liberalism.  In Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922), the notion of the “exception” is clarified: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”  This terse formula contains in nuce the whole of Schmitt’s mature view of the illusion that is the liberal state.  Taking aim at the regnant neo-Kantian rationalism of Hans Kelsen, for whom the state was essentially the summation of its legal norms, Schmitt asserts that “the exception confounds the unity and order of the rationalist scheme.”  In the neo-Kantian schema, the state does not give birth to the legal order, but emerges only when the legal order has been codified.  The “state” is simply an impersonal application of legal norms.  For Kelsen “sovereignty” was not a matter of personal decision (what he termed “subjectivism”), but the result of an “originary” or “presumed” norm.  For Schmitt, this positivistic concept was an attempt to remove any trace of metaphysical authority from the legal order.  Drawing on the doctrines of Thomas Hobbes and counterrevolutionary thinkers such as Donoso Cortés, Schmitt claimed that sovereignty originates in the personal authority (decision) of the sovereign, in an act of will that lies outside the legal order and remains, in a certain sense, irrational.

Schmitt’s “decisionism” may appear to be a thinly disguised justification for arbitrary, dictatorial rule.  Certainly, his liberal enemies have found it so.  However, Mehring’s biography provides evidence that, contrary to the view of critics like John McCormick, for whom Schmitt’s attack on the deficiencies in the Weimar Constitution was little more than “a ruse to scrap the whole legal order,” Schmitt’s deepest concern was to find a way to preserve the constitution.  As early as 1920, as civil strife fomented by the radical left in Munich threatened to bring Germany to the brink of chaos, Schmitt argued (in his book Dictatorship) for an interpretation of Article 48 (on emergency powers) that would restrict its scope to executive measures.  Mehring insists that “There can be no doubt that Schmitt wanted to warn [in Dictatorship] against the development of sovereign dictatorship, and that he saw the Marxist movements as heirs to the dictatorship of the Jacobins.”  While it is true that Schmitt’s interpretation of Article 48 granted the Reichspräsident authoritarian powers, he clearly did not intend that the “exception” should become the rule, and was primarily concerned with the paralysis generated by parliamentary conflict.  In The Guardian of the Constitution (1931), he warned against the forces of a liberal pluralism in which “obedience to the party takes the place of allegiance to the state and its constitution.”  While two years earlier he had expressed some admiration for Mussolini, he now, on the eve of Hitler’s ascension, “explicitly takes up a position against the fascist solution” and argues for the preservation of the Constitution “by constitutional means.”

In view of Schmitt’s long battle to find a constitutional remedy for the Weimar crisis, it is troubling that, unlike many on the Catholic right, he chose to align himself with the Nazis.  As late as January 1933, when Hindenburg “handed the office of chancellor to a declared enemy of the constitution,” Schmitt noted in his diary that “the old man has gone mad.”  Yet by April of the same year he had capitulated.  Why?  Mehring concedes that certainty about Schmitt’s motivation is not to be had.  He offers, no doubt ironically, a “topography of reasons”—a list of 42 possible motives for Schmitt’s assent to the fait accompli that Hitler represented.  Many scholars have suggested that his choice was primarily the result of professional opportunism.  Others assert that Schmitt was naive enough to believe that he might, in the words of George Schwab (Schmitt’s earliest English translator), “help to forge the Third Reich into a meaningful state . . . ”  Mehring’s voluminous evidence points in sometimes conflicting directions.  Certainly, it confirms that Schmitt’s career ambitions played a part, but it also confirms Schwab’s view that Schmitt hoped his influence over the regime might mitigate its totalitarian tendencies.  Mehring also places a great deal of emphasis on Schmitt’s antisemitism.  While he does not suggest that hostility toward the Jews was the cornerstone of Schmitt’s decision, he does remind us at every opportunity that antisemitic views were deeply ingrained in Schmitt’s personality.  However, the terminology is problematic.  In the popular mind, to be “antisemitic” is to harbor prejudices that, at the extreme, are synonymous with crudely biological assumptions of the racial inferiority of the Jews.  Schmitt held no such views.  On the other hand, he was deeply ambivalent about the role played by the Jews in European history, and often saw them as the intellectual agents of the deracinated liberalism he abhorred.  While he formed many generous friendships with Jews, he regarded them at times as an insuperable obstacle to German national unity.  Mehring briefly acknowledges the perfectly valid distinction between Schmitt’s intellectual antisemitism and its neo-Darwinian counterpart, but fails to expound upon its significance.  Moreover, he refers frequently to antisemitic remarks in Schmitt’s letters and diaries, but too often fails to provide the quotations necessary to allow a fair assessment of these alleged remarks.  Speaking of Schmitt’s early involvement with the NSDAP, he notes that antisemitic references in the diaries became “increasingly sharp,” but offers no proof, not even a footnote, to substantiate the claim.

Whatever Schmitt’s motivation for aligning himself with the Nazis, Mehring suggests that by the summer of 1934 Schmitt could not have been under any misapprehension about the nature of the vicious miscreants who ruled Germany.  Yet in the aftermath of the Night of the Long Knives, Schmitt, in an article published in the Deutsche Juristen-Zeitung, rationalized what was essentially an act of mass murder carried out by the SS under Hitler’s orders: The assassinations were an action necessary, he argued, for the preservation of the “unity of state power” against internal enemies.  While Mehring opines that Schmitt’s “absolution” of Hitler on this occasion was morally indefensible, he also suggests that Schmitt, knowing that he “was in allegiance with a gang of murderers,” penned the article as “a pre-emptive defense”—that is, an act of self-preservation.  Yet already in 1934 his enemies within the SS were plotting against him.  Most damaging to Schmitt were his former associations with the Catholic right, his extensive associations (before 1933) with Jewish academic colleagues, and his efforts to preserve the constitutionality of the regime.  By the end of 1936 he had been suspended from all public duties as a jurist, but remained officially a party member until 1945.  He was detained twice in 1946-47 and interrogated by Robert Kempner at Nuremburg, but charged with no war crimes.  Mehring dwells at length on Schmitt’s “mythologizing” of his own role in National Socialism, and finds particularly disturbing the fact that Schmitt never seems to have come fully to terms with his own complicity but remained convinced that he was among the victims amid “a general situation characterized by chaos and powerlessness.”

While unsparing in his examination of Schmitt’s involvement with National Socialism, Mehring does not make the mistake of suggesting, as a number of Schmitt’s enemies have, that his work is compromised by an underlying fascist or antisemitic agenda.  This argument is perhaps best illustrated by Raphael Gross’s Carl Schmitt and the Jews (2006), which asserts that all of Schmitt’s key political concepts are covertly antisemitic and potentially totalitarian in their implications.  Attempting to counter the Schmittian influence on both the right and the left in the postmodern era, Gross argues that any attack upon the Enlightenment foundations of liberal democracy is fundamentally, if not explicitly, antisemitic.  However, such reactions to the continuing vitality of Schmitt’s thought should be understood as a last ditch, hysterical defense of a now outmoded universalism, itself a desacralized monotheism.  One way of assessing Schmitt’s thought is to regard it as a sustained defense of an agonistic politics, rooted in the concrete reality of homogeneous nationalities.  In The Concept of the Political (1927), which Mehring calls Schmitt’s “foundational” work, Schmitt locates the origins of the liberal “total” state in an historical process which had, via a series of “neutralizations,” eroded any authentic understanding of the properly “political.”  In its most existential rendering, the political is that for which one is prepared to “die and to kill.”  It is a concept defined by the friend/enemy distinction, but is not a rationale for naked aggression.  On the contrary, it is a question of the defensive formation of national identity: My enemy is he who threatens my existence.  Wars fought in the name of the political thus understood are not moral crusades in the name of an illusory “humanity,” but limited military engagements to ensure the security of a sovereign state.  To be sure, Schmitt’s political thought is rooted in a deeply pessimistic anthropology.  Mehring’s biography has much to say about his troubled relationship with the Catholic Church, and in certain respects his Catholicism was decidedly unorthodox.  Schmitt remained unwavering in his perception of the fallen human condition, and never ceased to insist that only a politics founded upon the friend/enemy distinction could prevent a catastrophic plunge into the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes.

Although Mehring’s study is sometimes obsessed with the minutiae of Schmitt’s life, his careful attention to the post-1945 years is a welcome contribution to our understanding of this complex and enigmatic figure.  Most of those years were spent in Plettenberg, where he judiciously surrounded himself with old students who remained loyal and younger scholars, like Ernst Forsthoff and George Schwab, who avidly promoted his ideas and assisted in the preparation and publication of new works.  Among the texts of this period, two especially testify to Schmitt’s capacity to adapt intellectually to new political realities.  The Nomos of the Earth (1950) is regarded by many as the definitive geopolitical analysis of the Cold War era, and is especially astute in its assessment of America’s interventionist foreign policy since the late 19th century.  A lesser-known but perhaps more prescient work is The Theory of the Partisan (1963).  There Schmitt theorizes the history of partisan warfare, tracing the modern metamorphosis of the partisan into global terrorist (though he doesn’t use that term) and the emergence of partisan warfare as a global civil war.  The turning point in this transformation was Lenin’s declaration of the enemy as an “absolute enemy,” a shift that shattered the proper boundaries of the political and prepared the way for terrorist organizations like ISIS, for whom the enemy is no longer even human, but merely vermin worthy only of complete annihilation.  In negotiating the complex realm of global politics today, there are few guides as astute as Carl Schmitt, and Mehring’s biography is likely to remain for some time an indispensable tool in the study of this great political thinker.


[Carl Schmitt: A Biography, by Reinhard Mehring, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity Press) 700 pp., $45.00]