Magazine article The American Conservative

The Concept of Carl Schmitt

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Concept of Carl Schmitt

Article excerpt

Carl Schmitt: A Biography, Reinhard Mehring, Polity, 700 pages

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 Barracloughs 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 Jurgen 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. …

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