Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Concept of Carl Schmitt

What made the controversial philosopher's work so compelling?
The Concept of Carl Schmitt

Reinhard Mehring’s study of the long-lived German political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) is the most exhaustive biography known to me of a deeply fascinating subject. Given his opportunistic embrace of the Nazis in 1933, Schmitt does not fit the image that postwar Germans have worked to create for themselves. Yet Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, Legality and Legitimacy, Dictatorship, Law of the Earth, and Political Theology continue to be read because of their conceptual depth and stylistic brilliance.

These elegantly phrased works cannot be reduced to the circumstances that inspired them—Weimar Germany, the Nazi regime, and the postwar American order—any more than Hobbes’s masterpiece Leviathan can be seen purely as an artifact of the English Civil War. Indeed, aphorisms can be found in Schmitt’s works that are so pregnant with meaning that they invariably fail in translation: “Sovereign is the one who determines the challenge of the exception,” “All modern political teachings are secularized theological concepts,” and “Historical truths are true only once.”

Schmitt has always appealed to the political outliers, from the revolutionary right to the anti-capitalist, anti-liberal left. Geoffrey Barraclough’s observation that the Hegelian right and the Hegelian left clashed at Stalingrad in 1943 might be applied even more appropriately to Schmitt, if we allow for a certain hyperbole. The Frankfurt School Marxist Walter Benjamin devoted one of his most famous essays to an elaboration of Schmitt’s observations about Renaissance politics. Otto Kirchheimer—who was Schmitt’s graduate student at Bonn—and the young Jürgen Habermas were only two of the numerous German socialists who tried to adapt Schmitt’s critical studies of Weimar German politics for leftist agendas. It was hardly accidental that Leo Strauss’s first published work was a commentary on Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, which Schmitt graciously appended to the second edition of his work.

In interwar Germany, Schmitt enjoyed indisputable renown. Leading jurists of the time like Hans Kelsen and Rudolf Smend, who had sharp disagreements with him, readily conceded his mental acuity and gift for language. It may have been almost incidental that Schmitt held a professorship in Bonn and eventually one in Berlin, or that he became the major legal advisor to the Catholic Center Party in the Reichstag during the Weimar era. As a literary and scholarly star he operated on a different level from the professional posts he held.

The details of his life of more than 96 years are truly staggering. Although the author of an intellectual biography of Schmitt, I learnt from Mehring things about Schmitt’s life I encountered nowhere else. Even longtime Schmitt-researchers may be surprised, or shocked, by some of these revelations. Schmitt’s first wife, for example, whom he divorced in 1922, was not, as is often believed, a Serb or Croatian from a prominent family but a thief and embezzler from Vienna who may have been involved in a prostitution ring.

The womanizing Schmitt became involved in an affair with an Australian teaching English, Kathleen Murray, while his divorce was still pending. At one point he promised to marry her, but she returned to Australia, having used Schmitt to complete her German-language dissertation. Later Schmitt plunged into other liaisons, perhaps most passionately with a certain “Magda” while he was still a professor in Bonn.

Teaching in Berlin while his second wife was in a sanitarium, he became so sexually promiscuous that Mehring refers to this period in his life as an “erotic state of the exception.” Just as Schmitt argued that constitutional government required an awareness of “exceptional circumstances” in order to function even in normal times, so too did the survival of Schmitt’s conjugal life depend on his liberty to plunge into serial affairs.

Perhaps curiously, given his sexual passion, Schmitt had chosen for his second wife a gravely ill, tubercular woman. The union brought Schmitt high medical expenses but minimal sexual satisfaction. This remarriage after a divorce also led to his excommunication. Mehring suggests that Schmitt’s straying from his strict Catholic upbringing, a development hastened by his unsatisfied sexual desires, intensified his amoral careerism, culminating in his kowtowing to the Nazis. Although this causal connection is not provable, Schmitt’s Catholic students and colleagues brought it up after 1933 when they attempted to explain their teacher’s unexpected accommodation of the Third Reich. thisarticleappears copy

Mehring confirms that Schmitt’s devotion to the Catholic Church was mostly political. A Rhineland Catholic who grew up under Prussian Protestant rule, Schmitt resented the German imperial government as a foreign presence. He noticeably gravitated toward Latin cultures and seemed pleased with his mother’s French ancestry, particularly since as a young man he managed to borrow money from his uncle in Lorraine. In his publications Schmitt defended the hierarchical structure and Roman law of the Catholic Church and became identified with Germany’s (Catholic) Center Party. But theologically Schmitt was heavily influenced by the Danish existentialist Protestant Kierkegaard, and even when he defended the 19th-century Catholic counterrevolutionaries Joseph de Maistre and Juan Donoso Cortes, he habitually quoted his Protestant mentors Kierkegaard and Hobbes.

Mehring understandably questions whether Schmitt really believed in Catholic Christian doctrines. Here one should note Thomas Molnar’s observation that Schmitt was a Catholic of sorts but certainly not a Christian. The inverse may also apply: Schmitt was intermittently some kind of a Christian but not a believing Catholic. In Concept of the Political—which interpreted the “political” as the most intense of human relations, characterized by friend-enemy relations—there is no underlying Catholic theme. Among the outraged critics of this work, as Mehring points out, were Catholic theologians. One surely discerns no Catholic leanings in Schmitt’s praise for Hobbes as “the completer of the Protestant Reformation.” Hobbes, as Schmitt reminds us, was the thinker who characterized papal influence over European sovereign states as “the kingdom of darkness.” It is far from clear that Schmitt found this judgment to be objectionable.

Even more illuminating are the parts of Mehring’s work dealing with Schmitt’s attitude toward his Jewish connections. Attempts to find anti-Semitism in his writings and personal relations before his fateful decision to join the Nazi Party in May 1933 have turned up, as far as I can judge, nothing of consequence. Indeed, the Nazis had every reason to suspect Schmitt of dissembling in his anti-Semitic statements after 1933, given his longtime intimate association with Jewish mentors, benefactors, colleagues, and students.

Leo Strauss may have approached this academic luminary in the hope of obtaining a Rockefeller grant to do research in England precisely because Schmitt seemed especially friendly toward Jews. He also warned sternly against the Nazis before they came to power and had called on the German government in 1931 and 1932 to ban Hitler’s party.

After 1933, however, Schmitt went out of his way to inject anti-Semitic remarks into his writings, while unceremoniously cutting off relations with his numerous Jewish acquaintances. Although the SS kept surveillance on him, as a suspect party member married to an ethnic Serb—his second wife—he nonetheless continued to flatter the regime. He even organized a conference of jurists in 1934 to discuss ways of removing Jewish influence from the German legal profession. Despite these gestures, Schmitt was upset that his onetime Jewish colleagues and students would not associate with him after the war. In letters and diaries he complained that he was being unfairly targeted for having decided to remain in Germany after 1933.

Schmitt was not the only amoral careerist who ever entered the academic world, but his character flaw was all the more shocking because of his greatness as a thinker and how he treated longtime friends. As a law student in Strasbourg he had been befriended by the son of a Jewish press magnate from Hamburg, Heinrich Eisler. Heinrich’s son Fritz was his closest companion, and Fritz’s soldier’s death near the Marne in September 1914 left Schmitt bereaved. Almost 10 years later he dedicated a book to his fallen comrade, and in the intervening time Fritz’s brother Georg became Schmitt’s bosom friend, particularly when the latter was between wives.

The elder Eisler had sent Schmitt, while he was an impoverished student and poorly paid legal clerk, regular gifts of money and had entertained him repeatedly at his sumptuous home in Hamburg. In his diaries Schmitt contrasted his admiration for the Eisler family, including the mother of Fritz and Georg, with his estimation of his own less generous and less well educated parents. But Schmitt suspended his relation with Georg in 1933, as well as cutting ties with Georg’s sister, who had been his private secretary in Berlin.

There are two problems with Mehring’s biography, other than the baffling absence of my writings on Schmitt in the extensive bibliography. One, the author provides such a mass of details that one sometimes loses sight of the forest for the trees. The chronological framework may not suffice to bear the crushing weight of all the data assembled. The author also shows a tendency to dart back and forth between discussions of Schmitt’s writings and his personal and political life. In some chapters the result can be chaotic.

Two, Mehring never explains, certainly not to my satisfaction, why any of Schmitt’s writings made such a profound impression on his contemporaries. Why would his Jewish editor Ludwig Feuchtwanger, who did not share Schmitt’s political views, consider Concept of the Political a conceptual masterpiece? Mehring approaches Schmitt’s work with painful reservations, as a “problem” in the history of German illiberalism. He dutifully quotes Schmitt’s liberal and Catholic critics, but he never really explains why his subject’s work bedazzled readers from across the political spectrum. As one of the bedazzled multitude, I would have appreciated a treatment of Schmitt’s work that recognized more fully what made it so compelling. Although Schmitt was a morally flawed genius, one would have liked to find more in the biography about his genius and perhaps a bit less about the unmistakable moral defects.

But it may be hard for German academics, driven to engage “the burden of German history,” to provide such perspective in writing about someone like Schmitt. We should therefore take what Mehring offers and attribute the resulting thematic imbalance to the burden of being a German academic historian.

Paul Gottfried is the author of Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here