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Carl Schmitt

Long Sunday has been running a series of posts on Carl Schmitt. I am not at all a fan or a student of Schmitt, and I am not intimately familiar with his work. From what I have read of his work, however, I believe there is far more to learn about politics and political philosophy in the 20th century from, for example, Karl Polanyi, Richard J. Bernstein, Joseph Schumpeter, Fernand Braudel, Randolph Bourne, Benedict Anderson, Leszek Kolakowski, Barrington Moore, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, and Robert Musil. Conveniently for me, these thinkers are all free of the Nazi baggage with which Schmitt is saddled. While I don’t plan to participate in the discussion, I do want to examine some of the axiomatic statements that have been made, especially around Schmitt’s Nazi involvement.

Whatever their differences, there is one undoubted similarity between Schmitt and the Left (I capitalize it to distinguish its doctrinaire manifestation from the all-encompassing anti-Bush, pro-competence anti-imperialism that passes for leftism in the United States these days, on which I hope we all agree): their anti-liberalism. As I said, I think Stanley Fish’s recent op-ed is one of the more concise statements of this position. Craig picks up this thread when he says:

Perhaps, then, the fascination with Schmitt qua Nazi has more to do with the aspirations of left politics than with any real danger – at least insofar as that danger is fascist. Thus, the point in such ‘critiques’ isn’t fascism, but rather those who do not have the common sense to be decent, complacent liberals.

I.e., people who are attacking Schmitt for being a Nazi are really attacking him because he threatens their complacent liberal world-view. This is also something of an old saw, recently enshrined more convincingly in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was in essence a vicious attack on those who would try to work within a rotten system to change it. It reminds me of those lyrics that Lester Bangs quotes in his review of Chicago at Carnegie Hall (probably his defining moment):

For the “preaching” vocal improvisition in the Fourth Movement of “It Better End Soon”–“We’ve gotta do it right / Within this system / Gonna take over / But within this system”–the They Got the Guns But We Got the Numbers Award.

But this is a conception of liberalism not as an ideology but as a class phenomenon, that of sheltered middle-class complicity. Interesting how the term “liberal” slides from being an ideology to that of a generalized accomplice, much as it has to the extreme right factions in this country: not liking Bush makes you a liberal. At any rate, I don’t think this criticism really flies, since there are plenty of non-Nazi anti-liberal thinkers who are being mostly ignored as well. (Herbert von Karajan was far more of a Nazi than Wilhelm Furtwangler, but I do not believe that Furtwangler is less famous than Karajan these days because he was a vastly better and more challenging conductor.) But I digress; this is more a matter of positioning.

Craig notes two black marks on Schmitt’s record:

1933 and 1945. These two years have overdetermined the subsequent reception of Carl Schmitt’s thought and influence. In 1933, as we all know, Schmitt joined the Nazi party; the same month as Martin Heidegger. In 1945, Schmitt was released from internment at Nuremberg, at which point he entered exile, never again to teach in West Germany or to hold an academic position.

Craig implies that this list covers all the big-ticket items, but it does not. To make a case for Schmitt, it would first be necessary to lay out a few other ignominious dates. October, 1936, when he declared to a convention of law professors that German law must be cleansed of the “Jewish spirit.” June, 1934, when he called Hitler’s “Long Knives” purges “the highest form of administrative justice.” September, 1936, when with much contemporary resonance, he defends the Inquisition (though not its methods of torture) as a model of justice, since it requires confessions before convictions. October, 1936 again, when he quoted Hitler: “In that I defend myself against the Jews, I struggle to do the work of the Lord.” And many of the months and years after the war in which he wrote in his journals such statements as “Jews remain Jews while Communists can improve themselves and change. The real enemy is the assimilated Jew.” Edmund Fawcett writes:

Unlike the involvement of Heidegger, who largely fell silent after early pro-Nazi encomiums, Schmitt’s engagement with Hitlerism was nevertheless lasting and open. He re-edited his publications, playing down references to Jewish or left-wing thinkers and adding anti-Semitic asides. In October 1936, he spoke at a conference on “German law in the fight against the Jewish intellect”, ending with Hitler’s words, “By fending off the Jew, I struggle for the work of the Lord”. After 1940, Schmitt lectured in Occupied Europe on Nazi legal and cultural policy.

[In his post-war journals] He derided returning exiles who “treasured their virtue like booty” and mocked the German historians who were trying to tell the truth about what had happened. Thomas Mann came in for special scorn, a hated symbol to Schmitt of high-bourgeois probity, whom he called “a reputable fraud”.

That’s not to mention 1938, in which Schmitt wrote that Jews sit around waiting for Christians to die in battle and “then eat the flesh of those killed and live off it” (The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes).

So by all means, attempt to distinguish Schmitt’s philosophy from his Nazi activities, but let’s not downplay the latter when attempting to explicate them.

Craig asks a couple of rhetorical follow-ups, which I think deserve answers. The questions are in italics.

Why, then, is Heidegger spared the assault that Schmitt has suffered? Insomuch as there can be a distinction, I too find Schmitt to have been a more vigorous Nazi and anti-semite than Heidegger (or even Celine), but I see little point in measuring sins. My answer would be that Heidegger has not been spared such an assault. In his well-written introduction to Heidegger, George Steiner looks unflinchingly at the problem of Heidegger’s Nazism and excuses nothing. Contrast it with Craig’s remarks.

What about others who were either sympathizers or full members of the party? What about them indeed? As always in life, justice was not done. People like Karajan got off far too lightly, while people like Klages and Baeumler were justly marginalized. De Man and Heidegger have suffered their share of trouble as well, as well they should. We should be more than troubled by these things.

Why is it acceptable for artists, such as Eliot and Pound, to have had fascist sympathies? Is it? The problem of fascist, anti-semitic or otherwise repellent sympathies plagues the histories of all disciplines. Pound forever will stand with Wyndham Lewis and Lord Haw-haw as one of the more nauseating British fascists. Kipling was a colonialist. Dostoevsky and Celine were anti-semites. So was Thomas Edison. Their beliefs are inscribed in their records and we read them with that knowledge.

What was so dangerous about Schmitt that he was interned at Nuremberg in preparation for trial and then prohibited an academic job after the war? I confess to not understanding this question, as this fate befell many (but not all) of those who had similar Nazi memberships and sympathies. Neither Germany seemed to want much to do with them. Some (let me bash on Karajan some more, for example) were unfairly rehabilitated.

Why does such a pariah, such a horrendous figure appeal so greatly to certain segments of the left? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

I do ultimately find the Left’s tolerance for Schmitt somewhat ironic. In a Leftist arts community where there has been a litmus test of whether one’s poetry helps to establish socialism in the world today, it’s hard to imagine a litmus test that Schmitt could ever pass. Personally, I find the work of disentangling his political philosophy from his Nazi viewpoints to be unrewarding and possibly futile. Personally, I simply find Heidegger to be a far more original thinker, and I spend my time worrying about his Nazi associations rather than Schmitt’s. There is much room for disagreement on these points, but we must at least be honest about the degree and mode of Schmitt’s Nazi involvement and respect critiques based on them inasmuch as they are factual, regardless of motive. And to those who would say that my distaste towards Schmitt owing to his Nazi views has anything in the least to do with his challenging of my complacent liberalism, I cry bullshit.


  1. Ere.
    Oo you callin’a blinkin’ Brit, eh? Yer feller Parnd, he was a Yank fair n square, wunnee?
    Corse we got our sharea simpafizers, blummin Mitfords and that Plum Woadarse, but they wuz small fry. Even made game of Narzies e did, Woadarse. Lookit that Rodrick Spode. Black footer bags . . .

  2. I’ve not read any of the folks you offer as better to read than Schmitt, except MacIntyre and a bit of Bernstein, so I can’t respond to the “more to learn from” claim. That said, to say X offers “less to learn from” than Y does not mean that X doesn’t offer anything nor does it mean that Y offers the same thing that X offers.

    I have a hard time telling what the specific complaint is – is it that Schmitt’s a nazi, or that folk on the left are reading a nazi, or that the symposium/Craig wasn’t sufficiently vitriolicly anti-nazi/Schmitt’s being a nazi? If the first or the second, your own expression of interest in or at least preference for Heidegger cuts the legs out from under some of the force here, as you’re stating a preference for one over the other nazi.

    I for one would certainly like it better if some antifascist had gotten to Schmitt – and Heidegger, and the rest of them – with a machinegun, and I’d like it even better still if he’d been himself an antifascist. But beyond retroactively hating nazis, which I’m all for, I don’t see what the stakes are. It’d be a different matter if it was established not only that he was a nazi but that his thought was and could only ever be nazi thought. One could say something similar of the work of some of the Vienna Circle who happened to be socialists. That they were on the left is great, but the relationship of their work with their politics is unclear.

  3. Nate: my list of other thinkers is by way of excusing my lack of in-depth knowledge of Schmitt. You are of course right in saying that one does not substitute for another; after an investigation into Schmitt, I have not found as much to him as many other philosophers, and so I prioritize accordingly, due to the short span of a human life. I found his much-vaunted “friend-enemy” politics to be unenlightening, and further readings did not turn up much more of interest to me. But your mileage may vary, and it wasn’t my intention to “rank” Schmitt, only to give my personal position by way of full disclosure.

    I don’t believe that being a Nazi automatically disqualifies one’s entire corpus, though it does require it to be treated with suspicion. My objection is based on two premises:

    (1) Craig claimed to explicate Schmitt’s Nazi background while only giving part of the story, and in doing so, he belied the extent of Schmitt’s Nazi affiliations and anti-semitism. I consider this misleading and in need of correction.

    (2) Craig suggests that critiques of Schmitt based on his Nazi affiliations are not in fact critiques based on his Nazi affiliation but on his anti-liberalism. I find this suggestion unjustified and somewhat insulting.

    I confined my critique to these two points because I believed I could dispatch them in a single entry. Issues of the overlap or non-overlap of philosophy and politics for any of these thinkers are very complex and like I said, I don’t particularly have the inclination to explore them with regard to Schmitt. But for those that do, there is no point in conducting such an inquiry without the full set of facts.

  4. nate, schmitt’s thought is *by definition* nazi thought. Nazi thought is nothing other than the thought of Nazis. Not every Nazi was a cartoonist at Der Stûrmer. What you are trying to say is that some Nazi thought appeals to or interests you. This is hardly unexpected as Nazi thought appealed to lots and lots of people, not all of whom were bloodsucking monsters or idiots. It is nonsensical, and worse, to insist the thought of a prominent Nazi cannot be ‘Nazi thought’ just because you like it or agree with it.

    If you are going to challenge the definition of Nazi thought as the thought of Nazis, it would seem the burden is on you to come up with a convincing definition, a convincing reason why your definition is the ‘real nazi thought’ and the obvious definition is a fraud, and a convincing argument which excludes Schmitt from this niche of Nazi thought you refer to without troubling yourself to describe.

    It seems to me that anyone who asserts that Schmitt was an especially peculiar Nazi thinker shows an utter ignorance of Nazi textual product, its influences, styles, innovations, etc.. I could be wrong but I’ve yet to see a persuasive description of this ever-hinted at ‘Nazi thought’ that adequately describes the thoughts of the majority of other Nazis but doesn’t cover or is somehow incompatible with Schmitt.

  5. oh and bravo on the post mr. waggish. This is indeed very lame, to insist the only reason a thnking person can have the least objection to fascist politics is that it disturbs his liberal complacency. From people calling themselves socialists this is very irksome, but as we can surely all agree, not the first time! This time around, it’s farce.

  6. And thanks for coming over here to comment, Colonel and Nate. I was disappointed to see only a bit of sniggering at yours truly over at the Long Sunday, but I appreciate the sincere responses.

    I’ll just post the Long Sunday comments here for handy reference:


    I thought it was some particularly subtle irony at work.

    I mean, dismissing a reading of Schmitt, in the form of a polemic, and so as to proffer a more appropriate list of friends and enemies (a la the alternative canon of Polanyi et al) has got to be ironic, yes? So profoundly, well, Waggish, that I shudder.

    Posted by: s0metim3s | Jun 12, 2006 2:03:12 PM

    Subtle enough that I missed it! But then, I’m not reputed to be particularly astute. Or, at least, no one has ever said to me, “You know, you’re really astute.” Even if ironic, one can’t help but wonder if our critic feels moderately interpellated – “I have read Schmitt… he’s a Nazi… but that’s not what I hate him… even if I haven’t read him and all I see are swatiskas…” Doth protest too much, etc.

    Posted by: Craig | Jun 12, 2006 2:15:43 PM

  7. The swaggering theoretical machismo is hilarious considering it is underwritten by this utter cowardice and utterly bourgeois politeness regarding the texts in question. I am tough enough to tangle with Schmitt! But then it’s this completely bowdlerised child’s Schmitt, cleansed and cropped and fumigated, drugged and neutered, de-nazified and de-fascisized, reduced to a hunk of bland, mostly erroneous platitude, safe for family viewing, that is addressed.

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