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Carl Schmitt

Carl Schmitt (July 11, 1888 - April 7, 1985) was a German jurist, political theorist, and professor of law.

Schmitt was born the son of a small businessman in Plettenberg, Westphalia on July 11, 1888; he studied political science and law in Berlin, Munich and Strasbourg and took his graduation and state exams in the then-German Strasbourg in 1915. In 1916 he married his first wife, Pawla Dorotic a Serbian woman. They were divorced in 1924. In 1925 he married his second wife, Duska Todorovic, also Serbian - they had one daughter, called Anima. Schmitt became professor at the University of Berlin in 1933, the same year that he entered the Nazi party (NSDAP). Schmitt remained a party member until the end of the war, and never recanted his party membership. He has been called the "Crown Jurist of the Third Reich." His ideas have attracted and continue to attract the attention of several philosophers and political theorists, including Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Chantal Mouffe.


On Dictatorship (1921)

In 1921, Schmitt became a professor at the University of Greifswald, where he published his essay "Die Diktatur" ("On Dictatorship"), in which he discussed the foundations of the newly-established Weimar Republic, emphasising the office of the Reichspräsident. For Schmitt, a strong dictatorship could embody the will of the people more effectively than any legislative body, as it can be decisive, whereas parliaments inevitably involve discussion and compromise:

"If the constitution of a state is democratic, then every exceptional negation of democratic principles, every exercise of state power independent of the approval of the majority, can be called dictatorship."

For Schmitt, every government capable of decisive action must include a dictatorial element within its constitution. Although the German concept of Ausnahmezustand is best translated as state of emergency, it literally means state of exception, which Schmitt contends frees the executive from any legal restraints to its power that would normally apply. The use of the term "exceptional" has to be underlined here: Schmitt defines sovereignty as the power to decide the instauration (establishment) of state of exception, as Giorgio Agamben has noted. According to Agamben, Schmitt's conceptualization of the "state of exception" as belonging to the core-concept of sovereignty was a response to Walter Benjamin's concept of a "pure" or "revolutionary" violence, which didn't enter into any relationship whatsoever with right. Through the state of exception, Carl Schmitt included all types of violence under right, linking right & life (zoe) together, and thus transforming the juridical system into a "death machine", creating an Homo sacer.

Schmitt opposed what he called "chief constable dictature", or the declaration of a state of emergency in order to save the legal order (a temporary suspension of law, defined itself by moral or legal right): the state of emergency is limited (even if a posteriori, by law), to "sovereign dictature", in which law was suspended, as in the classical state of exception, not to "save the Constitution", but rather to create another Constitution. This is how he theorized Hitler's continual suspension of the legal constitutional order during the Third Reich (The Weimar Republic's Constitution was never abrogated, underlined Giorgio Agamben rather, it was "suspended" for four years first at February 28, 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree and the suspension was renewed every four years similar to a - continual - state of emergency).

Political Theology (1922)

This was followed by another essay in 1922, titled "Politische Theologie" ("Political Theology"); in it, Schmitt, who at the time was working as a professor at the University of Bonn, gave further substance to his authoritarian theories, effectively denying free will based on a catholic world view. The book begins with Schmitt's famous, or notorious, definition: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." By "exception," Schmitt means the appropriate moment for stepping outside the rule of law in the public interest. (See discussion of "On Dictatorship," above.) Schmitt opposes this definition to those offered by contemporary theorists of sovereignty, particularly Hans Kelsen, whose work is criticized at several points in the essay.

The book's title derives from Schmitt's assertion (in chapter 3) that "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts" -- in other words, that political theory addresses the state (and sovereignty) in much the same manner as theology does God.

Another year later, Schmitt supported the emergence of totalitarian power structures in his paper "Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus" (roughly: "The Intellectual-Historical Situation of Today's Parliamentarianism", translated as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy by Ellen Kennedy). Schmitt criticized the institutional practices of liberal politics, arguing that they are justified by a faith in rational discussion and openness that is at odds with actual parliamentary party politics, in which outcomes are hammered out in smoke-filled rooms by party leaders. Schmitt also posits an essential division between the liberal doctrine of separation of powers and what he holds to be the nature of democracy itself, the identity of the rulers and the ruled. Although many critics of Schmitt today take exception to his fundamentally authoritarian outlook, the notion that there is an incompatibility between liberalism and democracy is one reason why his work is of continued interest to students of political philosophy.

The Concept of the Political

Schmitt changed universities in 1926, when he became professor for law at the Hochschule für Politik in Berlin, and again in 1932, when he accepted a position in Cologne. It was in Cologne, too, that he wrote his most famous paper, "Der Begriff des Politischen" ("The Concept of the Political"), in which he developed a theory of a specific domain of interest, called "the political". This concept gives the state its own area of predominance, just as churches are predominant in religion or society is predominant in economics. Schmitt, in perhaps his best-known formulation, bases his conceptual realm of state sovereignty and autonomy upon the distinction between friend and enemy. This distinction is to be determined "existentially," which is to say that the enemy is whoever is "in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible." (Schmitt, 1996, p. 27) Such an enemy need not even be based on nationality: so long as the conflict is potentially intense enough to become a violent one between political entities, the actual substance of enmity may be anything. Although there have been divergent interpretations offered of this work, there is broad agreement that "The Concept of the Political" is an attempt to achieve state unity by defining the content of politics as opposition to the "other" (that is to say, an enemy, a stranger. This applies to any person or entity that represents a serious threat or conflict to one's own interests.) In addition, the prominence of the state stands as a neutral force over potentially fractious civil society, whose various antagonisms must not be allowed to reach the level of the political, lest civil war result.

The case "Preussen contra Reich"

Apart from his academic functions, in 1932 Schmitt was counsel for the Reich government in the case "Preussen contra Reich" wherein the SPD-led government of the state of Prussia disputed its dismissal by the right-wing von Papen government. Papen was motivated to make this move because Prussia, by far the largest state in Germany, served as a powerful base upon which the political left could draw, and also provided them with institutional power, particularly in the form of the Prussian Police. One of the counsel for the Prussian government was Hermann Heller. In German history, this struggle leading to the de facto destruction of federalism in the Weimar republic is known as the 'Preußenschlag'.

"The Nomos of the Earth" (1950)


Through Giorgio Agamben, Chantal Mouffe and other writers, Carl Schmitt has become a common reference in recent writings of the intellectual left as well as the right. This debate concerns not only the interpretation of Schmitt’s own positions, but also matters relevant to contemporary politics: the idea that laws of the state cannot strictly limit actions of its sovereign; the problem of a "state of exception", etc.

Schmitt’s influence has also recently been seen as consequential for those interested in contemporary political theology, which is much influenced by Schmitt's argument that political concepts are secularized theological concepts. The German-Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes, for example, engaged Schmitt widely in his study of Saint Paul, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford Univ. Press, 2004). Taubes' understanding of political theology is, however, very different from Schmitt's, and emphasizes the political aspect of theological claims, rather than the religious derivation of political claims.

Nazi years

Carl Schmitt, who became a professor at the University of Berlin in 1933 (a position he held until the end of World War II) joined the NSDAP on May 1, 1933; he quickly was appointed "Preußischer Staatsrat" by Hermann Göring and became the president of the "Vereinigung nationalsozialistischer Juristen" ("Union of National-Socialist Jurists") in November. He thought his theories as an ideological foundation of the Nazi dictatorship, and a justification of the "Führer" state with regard to legal philosophy, in particular through the concept of auctoritas.

Half a year later, in June 1934, Schmitt became editor in chief for the professional newspaper "Deutsche Juristen-Zeitung" ("German Jurists' Newspaper"); in July 1934, he justified the political murders of the Night of the Long Knives as the "highest form of administrative justice" ("höchste Form administrativer Justiz").

Schmitt presented himself as a radical anti-semite and also was the chairman of a law teachers' convention in Berlin in October 1936, where he demanded that German law be cleansed of the "Jewish spirit" ("jüdischem Geist"), going so far as to demand that all publications by Jewish scientists should henceforth be marked with a small symbol. Nevertheless, two months later, in December, the SS publication Das schwarze Korps accused Schmitt of being an opportunist, a Hegelian state thinker and basically a Catholic, and called his anti-semitism a mere pretense, citing earlier statements in which he criticised the Nazi's racial theories . After this, Schmitt lost most of his prominent offices, and retreated from his position as a leading Nazi jurist, although he retained his post as a professor in Berlin thanks to Göring.

Post World War II life

In 1945, Schmitt was captured by the American forces; after spending more than a year in an internment camp, he returned to his home town of Plettenberg following his release in 1946, and later to the house of his housekeeper Anni Stand in Plettenberg-Pasel. Despite being isolated from the mainstream scholarly and political community, he continued his studies especially of international law from the 1950s on, and he received a never-ending stream of visitors, both colleagues and younger intellectuals, until well into his old age. Among these visitors, important are Ernst Jünger, Jacob Taubes, and Alexandre Kojève.

In 1962, Schmitt gave lectures in Francoist Spain, two of them giving rise to the publication, the following year, of Theory of the Partisan (Telos Press, 2007), in which he qualified the Spanish civil war as a "war of national liberation" against "international Communism." Schmitt regarded the partisan as a specific and significant phenomenon that, in the latter half of the twentieth century, indicated the emergence of a new theory of warfare.

Schmitt died on April 7, 1985 and is buried in Plettenberg.


Despite recent excuses for Schmitt’s conduct during the Nazi era - no such apologies were issued by Schmitt himself during his lifetime - Schmitt, along with the early Heidegger, lent his considerable authority to the Nazi regime, and played a leading role in constructing the legal basis that justified its seizure of power.

It seems unlikely that a political mind as insightful as Schmitt’s could have been mistaken about the true nature of the NSDAP and its leadership. Schmitt clearly favored a strong, even dictatorial executive. Some have wondered whether he was looking forward to the Führer regime of Hitler or backward to the authoritarian regime of Otto von Bismarck. However, Schmitt showed only contempt in Die Diktatur (1921) for the "chief constable dictature", to which he opposed "sovereign dictature".

It may be called one of the many ironies of Schmitt’s story that, at the very moment of Nazi triumph, he decisively declared his support for a regime that ultimately had little use for someone like him. Yet the fact remains that Schmitt tried to use his status within the NS Party to make himself the foremost authority in his field in Nazi Germany.

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