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The Temptations of Carl Schmitt
A long look at the man of the moment in a totalizing age of strife
“Today will be very instructive for those still clinging to the idea of returning to norms and sacred institutions,” tweeted one popular young right-wing commentator shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft ruling on abortion was leaked to the left-wing press in May of 2022. “It’s going to be friend/enemy all the way down, strap in.”
I found the tweet striking, though not because of its pessimistic political prediction, which sadly turned out to be all too accurate. Rather, its abbreviated reference to the concept of the “friend-enemy distinction” seemed to perfectly illustrate a trend of which I’d begun to take note. As those active in the energetic digital corridors of the more disaffected portions of American politics – especially, though not exclusively, on the right – may already know, the ideas of one particular thinker have over the last several years become increasingly commonplace vernacular. In a growing proliferation of articles, videos, podcasts, and social media threads, Carl Schmitt – political theorist and Crown Jurist of the Third Reich – has today returned to center stage.
Schmitt’s once hugely influential theories of politics and law have, at least on the surface, largely been rendered verboten and obscured in Western intellectual polite society for decades. What, I wondered, accounts for his sudden intellectual resurrection today? And what does this mean? I became determined to take a much deeper look at the Nazi philosopher, beginning what became a slightly obsessive year-long dive into the full span of his works, life, and legacy.
To many people this will probably sound incredibly arcane, like pure academic pedantry. I assure you it is not. As I soon discovered, the evolution of Schmitt’s ideas – and the course of his life – seems to speak directly to the forces at work beneath our present political, cultural, and spiritual upheavals, almost a century after his own time. From the liberal state’s flailing degradation of its popular legitimacy, to the emergence of governance by permanent emergency, to the radical polarization of politics, to the birth of post-modernism and the dominance of identity: Schmitt foreshadowed all of these things. Indeed, to read Schmitt in 2023 can easily present the alluring feeling of having opened a hidden dialogue willing to honestly diagnosis the undercurrents so obviously raging beneath the chaos, absurdity, and official obfuscations of a Weimar America.
Even more significantly – but far less well known or understood – Schmitt was among the first to truly wrestle with how we should collectively respond to the arrival of what he labeled the “Age of Technicity,” in which, in a disenchanted world, technology now threatened to dominate Man. But his proposed solution would in the end only help birth the modern techno-nihilist total state and provoke a cataclysm of violence.
To read Schmitt seriously is to flirt with the abyss. It is both to see hard truths revealed and to listen to the false whispers of a snake. Nonetheless, or therefore, I believe Schmitt is truly a symbolic man of our moment – just perhaps not in the way either his newfound admirers or long-time detractors, right and left alike, have necessarily thought through.
So, one way or another, I think you should probably know more about Carl Schmitt than you likely do. If you’re willing to listen to what I at least believe I’ve learned, then pour yourself a long, stiff drink and strap in.
Living in Disorder
Little about the evolution of Schmitt’s political thought can be fully comprehended without appreciating the near constant political chaos that was the background to his early life in Germany.
Born to a staunchly Catholic family in the small town of Plettenberg in 1888, Schmitt quickly proved a brilliant academic pupil, winning himself a competitive university slot despite being, as he put it, merely an “obscure young man from a modest background.” By June 1910, not yet 22 years old, he was awarded his doctorate in law, summa cum laude, after completing a 155 page dissertation (“On guilt and types of guilt”).
Conscripted into service in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, Schmitt was likely saved from the same grim fate of many of his friends and classmates, several of whom were killed in action within months of their arrival at the front, by his doctoral advisor, who arranged for him to receive a staff position in the military administration of semi-autonomous Bavaria. Working a desk job in Munich throughout the war, he would never fight on the battlefield. But he soon witnessed combat anyway – between his fellow Germans.
Under martial law, Bavaria proved a hotbed of political turmoil, with powerful local socialist and communist factions generating a constantly looming threat of civil disorder. Given his legal training, it was young Schmitt to whom the general staff, in 1915, gave the assignment of preemptively coming up with a legal justification for why the military executive should be granted an extension of exceptional powers even after the war was over (“Me of all people! What else may providence have in store for me,” he wondered in his diary at the time). By 1916 he had duly done as asked, delivering a lecture on the precedents for “dictatorship and the state of siege.” In 1917 he was released from service and appointed as a civilian member of the military government, heading a unit surveilling socialists and other troublemakers.
The end of the war brought much worse trouble, however. Bavaria’s last king, Ludwig III, abdicated and fled just ahead of a revolutionary coup on November 7, 1918. This left a vacuum of power into which burst three major factions vying for control: the socialists, the Bolshevik communists, and the nationalist old regime of the military. A regional socialist parliamentary republic declared (at the same time as the Weimar Republic in Berlin) by the leftist politician Kurt Eisner only lasted about three months before he was assassinated – an event that led to a gunfight inside the parliament building and the proclamation of a general strike. In Berlin, the communists had taken up arms to battle the Reichswehr (Reich Defense) forces in the streets throughout the winter. In Munich, inspired by communist revolution in nearby Hungary, they soon declared their own Bavarian Soviet Republic in April of 1919. Any semblance of authoritative governance in Munich collapsed. The Reich forcefully intervened, implementing a counter-revolutionary campaign with the help of the paramilitary Freikorps (Free Corps). In mid-April the Bolsheviks took hostage and subsequently executed ten members of the Freikorps, who then retaliated with the summary execution of hundreds of communists after Munich was retaken by the Reichswehr at the start of May. Schmitt, cloistered in the Munich garrison headquarters, found himself at the heart of this fighting and exposed to personal peril.
Even after the revolutionaries were put down and the new Weimar constitution came into effect on August 14, the situation failed to substantially improve. With the left swept away, Bavaria would eventually become a counter-revolutionary nationalist enclave. But for the moment street violence was primed to quickly begin again after the infamous Kapp Putsch of March 1920, when a military government seized power in Berlin for four days, provoking a reciprocal revolt in the Ruhr by 50,000 armed Red Army communists. That revolt too was crushed, but instability would continue to bleed over into Bavaria and lead to a rolling succession of emergency declarations justifying martial rule all the way through 1925.
These were formative years for Schmitt. He spent much of 1917 to 1919 working feverishly on Political Romanticism, a book-length polemic on the radically individualistic metaphysics of the Romantic Movement, which he saw as the same spirit at the heart of not only bourgeois liberalism but modern Roman Catholic political conservatism as well. In particular, he took aim at the “endless conversation” produced by the aestheticized politics of romanticism, which he believed had been institutionalized by liberal democracy – a theme he would return to at length in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), in which he argued that the liberal commitment to “discussion and openness” had rendered the actual making of necessary political decisions impossible. For Schmitt, watching the costly day-to-day muddling-through of the Reichstag in the face of crisis after crisis, this was not an abstract issue.
More broadly, the war period marked a sharp turn by Schmitt away from the more romantic and idealized Christian democratic politics of his youth and toward a political realism heavily influenced by the counter-revolutionary thinkers of earlier centuries, including Machiavelli, Cortes, and, above all, Hobbes. From this point forward he would develop an obsession with the ever-present potential for physical violence that lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilization and is kept contained only by the state’s total monopoly on force. He felt this truth was dangerously ignored by a liberal politics that assumed an inherently good, rather than evil, nature of man. He would, again and again, return to Hobbes’ idea that the absolutely foundational contract behind any state’s legitimacy is its ability to provide citizens with security in exchange for their obedience, later writing that:
No form of order, no reasonable legitimacy or legality can exist without protection and obedience. The protego ergo obligo is the cogito ergo sum of the state. A political theory which does not systematically become aware of this sentence remains an inadequate fragment. Hobbes designated this… as the true purpose of his Leviathan, to instill in man once again ‘the mutual relation between Protection and Obedience’; human nature as well as divine right demands its inviolable observation.
Schmitt would in his work never, except in the most passing of references, discuss his own traumatic experiences. But he allowed Hobbes to speak for him:
Hobbes himself had experienced this truth in the terrible times of civil war, because then all legitimate and normative illusions with which men like to deceive themselves regarding political realities in periods of untroubled security vanish. If within the state there are organized parties capable of according their members more protection than the state, then the latter becomes at best an annex of such parties, and the individual citizen knows whom he has to obey.
His health shaken by the fighting in Munich, Schmitt was officially discharged on medical grounds from his administrative position at the end of June 1919. Longing for order in disordered times, he would go on to pen his own theories on how people and state should fulfill their obligations to each other.
In our own time, meanwhile, we might consider again the potential reasons for why Schmitt has returned to the forefront of debate at this particular moment in time. For ours is a moment yet unfolding in the wake that traumatic, revolutionary, never truly reckoned with year of 2020, when the United States witnessed some of the most widespread and destructive political riots in its history. Riots that, citizens across the country observed with shock, the forces of order were not merely unable to suppress, but actively forbidden from suppressing – by a state that in large part openly proclaimed its allegiance to the insurrectionary faction bent on intimidation and destruction. Though certainly not as deadly as the events witnessed by Schmitt, this revelatory moment, in which the state betrayed its most fundamental obligation to its citizens, was perhaps sufficient for many to begin calling into question all those “legitimate and normative illusions with which men like to deceive themselves regarding political realities.”
For Schmitt, who would in his years after leaving the army take up a series of academic positions in Munich, Griefswald, Bonn, and Berlin, the focus of intellectual life became finding a way to strengthen the state and ensure its security. Even as he began delivering lectures in Munich, the first general elections of the Reich saw the Weimar coalition immediately lose their majority, illuminating the shaky foundations of the Republic. The challenge facing Germany, as Schmitt increasingly saw it, stemmed directly from the weakness engendered by the hesitancy of liberal proceduralism and parliamentary government.
By the end of the summer of 1920, Schmitt had, not coincidentally, finished one of his first major works, Dictatorship, which would be published in early 1921. In it, he explores the history of dictatorship, from its original Roman usage to the wartime “state of siege” used in Germany during the war. In doing so, he lays out an important distinction between two forms of dictatorship: a “commissary dictatorship,” in which a dictator is chosen and granted special powers in order to defend the existing constitutional structure of the state; and a “sovereign dictatorship,” in which a dictator uses his powers to wholly replace the constitution.
Either way, to Schmitt a dictatorship can be democratically legitimate if it fulfills the state’s obligation to protect, even if it acts beyond the law in making necessary decisions, given that, as he would later explain elsewhere: “The endeavor of a normal state consists above all in assuring total peace within the state and its territory. To create tranquility, security, and order and thereby establish the normal situation is the prerequisite for legal norms to be valid. Every norm presupposes a normal situation, and no norm can be valid in an entirely abnormal situation.” In theory, the dictator reestablishes the normal situation, and therefore legal norms.
What Schmitt was most interested in at this time, however, was the broader concept of sovereignty. Who is truly sovereign? Who is the one who actually has the power to decide to act? The answer he settled on, first in Dictatorship and then more directly in Political Theology, published in 1922, would become one of his most famous lines: “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”
Because, in Schmitt’s view, it isn’t humanly possible to write law that can completely predict and account for in advance every possible situation, a legal framework must necessarily provide for the means to handle exceptional circumstances – that is, situations beyond what is written in law. In such circumstances a “state of exception” exists, whether formally declared or not, in which the law as written can no longer apply. Much as Schmitt experienced while in Munich, states of exception and dictatorships often go hand-in-hand: the dictator emerges to resolve the state of exception by personifying the law when the law cannot mechanistically provide pre-made decisions. This is the case whether the dictator is put forward by the constitutional state or by the raw will of the people. But the dictator isn’t necessarily sovereign; the one with ultimate sovereignty is not he who handles exceptions, but he who decides what counts as an exception.
With these concepts Schmitt had nearly finished building the foundations that would inform his lifelong political theory of the state – and the political future of Germany.
He was, however, still only a relatively obscure young academic with an intellectual theory for justifying a strong state but no political influence of his own. This would begin to change as Schmitt moved to take up increasingly prestigious positions over the following years, first in Bonn and then in Berlin. He would there increasingly begin to travel among the intellectuals of Germany’s Conservative Revolution, a loosely affiliated movement of reactionary and conservative nationalists, such as the historian Oswald Spengler and the war hero and arch-conservative writer Ernst Jünger. It was Jünger in particular who, in addition to becoming a close personal friend, would first help propel Schmitt into circles of real political influence.
By the start of 1930, Schmitt began to be asked by state ministers to write legal opinions on the justifiable scope of emergency decrees. The economic situation in Germany was collapsing and the Republic was growing desperate for any means to remain standing. By mid-1932 the Weimar Reich had reached a point of acute crisis, with blood again regularly being spilled in the streets as the communists, National Socialists, and Reichswehr battled each other ceaselessly. In June, Reich President Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen as chancellor and then, in July, made him Reich Commissar of Prussia as well, with a military state of exception declared in Berlin and Brandenburg. The Social Democrats challenged the legality of this unprecedented appointment, and suddenly Schmitt found himself given the task of defending it in court as the “Crown Jurist” for the Reich.
Schmitt argued that the Reich had a duty to act against parties that represented enemies of the state in order to prevent “the outbreak of civil war,” and emphasized that Article 48 of the Weimar constitution provided extremely broad powers for the Reich President to, if necessary, dissolve parliament and rule by presidential decree alone (i.e. through commissary dictatorship). Simultaneously, he would make the argument – formalized in his pamphlet Legality and Legitimacy (1932) – that preserving an “equal chance for gaining political power” in fact required that those opposition parties judged to be enemies of the constitution be legally excluded from political participation (on this, the Federal Republic of Germany to this day maintains that Schmitt was right).
With this Schmitt succeeded in a provisional legal defense of dictatorship, though the case would continue into the autumn of 1932 and end ambiguously. Papen began considering a plan, based on Schmitt’s arguments, for the declaration of a state of emergency and general national rule by presidential decree. At the same time, Schmitt was tasked with beginning to himself draft a new constitution for Germany. Neither of those plans would unfold as intended, however. The much more radical National Socialist (Nazi) party gained ground in summer elections and the “stupid Papen” hesitated too long, according to Schmitt. The emergency plan was put on hold, and their new constitution never got off the ground.
When Papen was then deposed as chancellor by Kurt von Schleicher in December 1932, Schmitt found himself back outside of power, disgruntled, and giving up hope for the Reich’s survival. He began to speak of the need to somehow build not just a strong state, but a “total state,” capable of protecting itself against all enemies, internal and external. When, two months later, Schleicher’s position as chancellor was handed over to Adolf Hitler – through presidential decree – Schmitt would find his chance to follow this path to its end.
But, back in our present era, it may be worth considering: did a state of exception arrive in America in 2020? More than one politician and public intellectual did call for the exceptional deployment of military force to restore order amid a summer of uncontained violence, but none of these calls were heeded. Despite years of loud claims that he deeply desired any possible opportunity to declare a dictatorship, then President Donald Trump either decided against announcing any state of exception in response to the riots, or found himself unable to actually make that sovereign decision. A clear state of exception nonetheless did soon arrive however, if in response to a threat of an entirely different kind: the COVID-19 pandemic. In the name of protecting public safety, citizens’ normal civil liberties, up to and including bodily autonomy and freedom of association, were suspended for an indefinite duration. Normal democratic procedures were superseded. Opposition to these emergency powers was monitored and policed by the national security state. But who decided on this exception? The president? The technocratic national or international “public health” bureaucracy? A handful of specialized “experts” and their billionaire backers from around the world? For most people the answer remains rather hazy.
A second, more straightforward justification for maintaining a state of exception soon followed. In the wake of the riot at the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, new executive units were deployed with wide latitude to define and police “domestic extremists,” state-directed censorship of communications became the prevailing norm, investigative committees with extraordinary powers were established, and the right of sitting opposition political figures to participate in electoral contests even began to be challenged. A bit over a year and a half later, the President of the United States had, while drenched in blood-red lighting and symbolically flanked by uniformed military personnel, hammered his fists on a podium and delivered a speech claiming that the state was “under assault” by his political opposition, whom he declared represented “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” His government, he averred, was engaged in “in a battle for the soul of this nation” with this faction, who didn’t “recognize the will of the people” and who posed “a ‘clear and present danger’ to our democracy.” It would, he intoned, be to “do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.” One political party had, in the eyes of the ruling regime, apparently been confirmed as no mere parliamentary debating partner, but as a mortal threat to the continued existence of the state.
For Schmitt, such a sharp, existential distinction by the regime between its friends and its enemies would be not only predictable but inevitable – and in fact essential to its interests.
Friends and Enemies
Schmitt published his most well-known and influential work, The Concept of the Political, in 1927 (revising it for republication in 1932). From its opening line – “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political” – Schmitt seeks to define what “the political,” and therefore the business of the political state, actually is. His answer is straightforward: the political is no less and no more than distinguishing between one’s friends and one’s enemies.
For Schmitt, the essence of politics is not parliamentary debate, or building consensus, or setting tax policy, or even determining who gets to be in charge of running things. Instead, “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism.” It is “the ever present possibility of combat” that comes into existence whenever one “collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.” Such a divide between groups may begin over religious, moral, cultural, economic, or even completely trivial differences, and continue to always be dressed up in those terms. But all such non-political differences are pushed aside at the precise moment that they become strong enough to “group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy,” and are thereby subsumed into the political.
This moment necessarily arrives if either side finds that it must “judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.” Then the enemy represents “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in an especially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.”
Friend and enemy must therefore be “understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols,” for they “receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.” If this extremity is not a real possibility, then a distinction between friend and enemy does not yet exist, and so neither does the political.
For Schmitt, the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political because “the state as an organized political entity decides for itself the friend-enemy distinction.” If some other entity is the one that decides this distinction, the state is no longer the decisive political entity – for if it is no longer the one that decides then it is no longer sovereign.
And, given that the obligation of the state is to protect its group from all threats, external and internal, and because this group, by Schmitt’s very definition of the political, must be a homogenously unified collective, then: “As long as the state is a political entity this requirement for internal peace compels it in critical situations to decide upon the domestic enemy.” Which is why, “Every state provides, therefore, some kind of formula for the declaration of an internal enemy.”
And no amount of moralistic hesitancy or liberal obfuscations about a politically neutral state can long delay the need to make this decision, Schmitt says, because “everywhere in political history, in foreign as well as domestic politics, the incapacity or the unwillingness to make this distinction is a symptom of the political end.” For if “a people no longer possess the energy or the will to maintain itself in the sphere of politics, the latter will not thereby vanish from the world. Only a weak people will disappear.”
For the state, and the statesman, “The sole remaining question then is always whether such a friend-and-enemy grouping is really at hand, regardless of which human motives [have brought it about].” And, “Political thought and political instinct prove themselves theoretically and practically in the ability to distinguish friend and enemy.” Thus the highest political reality is those “moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy.”
If portions of the American right have today turned to Schmitt as a guide, it may be because they now have plenty of reason to believe the purported procedural neutrality of the liberal technocratic state is nothing but the thinnest of veils covering an existential antagonism; that in truth the crucial political distinction has now already been made for them: they have been identified, in concrete clarity, as the enemies of the state.
It happens that Schmitt in fact voiced particular unease about how he expected liberalism would tend to define its enemies. By insisting on having transcended the political through its commitment to pluralism and enlightened universal values, and therefore incapable of ever acknowledging the possibility of sinking to the level of identifying a human enemy, liberalism would, he predicted, “confiscate the word humanity,” thus “denying the enemy the quality of being human.” In such a case, for the liberal, any resulting war “is then considered to constitute the absolute last war of humanity.” And, ultimately, “Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make him a monster that must not only be defeated but also utterly annihilated.”
But in the end, of course, Schmitt’s own ethnocultural conception of the friend-enemy distinction would itself be more than sufficient to help push Germany into denying humanity to its “enemies” and so ultimately seeking their total annihilation.
In his public writings before 1933, the enemy that Schmitt portrayed as facing Germany and the Germans was always communism and the Bolsheviks. Schmitt would forever maintain that his mission had merely been to protect the constitutional state and to “save Europe from the Russian danger,” which was the greatest external threat to Germany. But, as in the minds of many Germans of the time, Schmitt’s view of the communist threat, and the seemingly complicit weakness of liberalism, began to blur together over the course of the 1920s with what he perceived to be an even greater, if more shadowy, enemy: the transnational Jew.
Schmitt had always feared and hated Jews. And admired them for their success. And despised himself for admiring them. He agonized in his diary over his “Jewish Complex,” feeling an inadequate “pleb” compared to his Jewish academic colleagues, but simultaneously superior to them, and cheated out of proper recognition and status while working in their shadow. He felt constantly persecuted. “The Jews attack me in all the journals, and no one notices what is going on,” he raged in 1925. He worked to sabotage the advancement of Jewish professors at the universities where he held positions, writing to savage the candidacy of one “disgusting, craven, dilettante Jew” before he could be appointed alongside him at the University of Bonn, for instance. He left Bonn for Berlin in 1928 in part because he wanted to escape all of “the Jews” that lurked there, allegedly holding him down, and find a “clean life” somewhere free from them.
His Jewish Complex seems to have been at least in part related to his near constant money troubles. Much of his work was prestigious but unpaid, and he was a hopeless spendthrift. He was constantly in debt, to the point that he more than once recorded thoughts of escape through suicide. He came to fear and loathe financiers, whom he considered analogous with Jews. He perpetually labored under the weight of a “fear of the Jews, fear of my debts,” as he recorded in his diary on April 29, 1929.
By the end of 1932 he had become radically anti-Semitic, beginning to sever all contact with his former Jewish students and friends, such as the young Leo Strauss, whose work on Hobbes he had once said he found a pure “joy” to read. His work would soon begin to frame the Germans’ enemy as something well beyond the communists and the Russians: the German nation was now engaged in an existential “battle against the Jewish spirit.” It was a view that he would retain for the rest of his life. As he noted in his personal diaries well after WWII was over and Nuremburg was behind him, his fundamental conclusion was that “Jews always remain Jews. While a Communist can improve and change… The true enemy is the assimilated Jew.”
Ultimately Schmitt seems to have understood the consequences of the politics advanced by his friend-enemy distinction quite well: “The idea of ethnic identity,” he predicted in 1933, “will pervade and dominate all our public law.” He joined the Nazi Party the same year.
Secularizing the Theological
Despite its fame, The Concept of the Political is arguably not the work most important to understanding the true spirit of Carl Schmitt. That distinction may instead fall to a lecture he delivered in Spain in 1929 titled “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” which consolidated the key ideas he had been drawing on for at least a decade.
The lecture, which Schmitt later had appended to the end of the 1932 edition of The Concept of the Political, is short but to the point. He argues that over the previous half-millennium the West has gone through a series of phases, each roughly a century long, in which the “central domain” animating human society, and which “constituted [Europeans’] concept of truth” (italics in the original), shifted to take on a specific overarching character. The sixteenth century was fundamentally structured around the theological, with God and the scriptures still core to the spirit of the age. The seventeenth century – the century of Hobbes, “not only metaphysically but also scientifically the greatest age of Europe” – then shifted to center a metaphysical outlook, a “heroic occidental rationalism,” as its core organizing principle. Then the eighteenth century – “a vulgarization on a grand scale” – jettisoned metaphysics for Enlightenment deist-rationalism and humanitarian moralism. And in the nineteenth century economic thinking came to dominate, propelling the clash between bourgeois liberalism and Marxism to the forefront. Finally, Schmitt believed, the twentieth century had begun to make technology the central domain.
Of these transitions, Schmitt considered “the strongest and most consequential of all… to be [the] one in the seventeenth century from the traditional Christian theology to ‘natural’ science,” given that, “Until now this shift has determined the direction of all further development.” After that point, “In the metaphysics of eighteenth century deism, God himself was removed from the world and reduced to a neutral instance… he became a concept and ceased to be an essence.” And with God’s sovereignty removed, subsequently, “First the monarch and then the state became a neutral power, initiating a chapter in the history of political theology [of the liberal neutral state]… in which the process of neutralization finds its classical formula because it also has grasped what is most decisive: political power.”
What ties all of these centuries together for Schmitt is thus that their consistent “elemental impulse” was “the striving for a neutral domain.” In every case, Westerners sought to distance themselves from past conflict and struggle, and “moved in the direction of neutralization and minimalization [of the political].” Hence why ours is an “age of neutralizations and depoliticizations” – and why now in reality, as he famously claimed in Political Theology (1922), “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”
Schmitt believed this secularization had reached its peak with the dawn of the twentieth century, when there “arose a religion of technological progress which promised all other problems would be solved by technological progress,” and the people of the industrialized West “turned the belief in miracles and the afterlife… into a religion of technical miracles, human achievements, and the domination of nature.” Thus, a “magical religiosity became an equally magical technicity. The twentieth century began as the age not only of technology but of a religious belief in technology.” Moreover, this “contemporary belief” in the technological was based “on the proposition that the absolute and ultimate neutral ground has been found in technology,” providing a chance to finally achieve perpetual peace in the “age of technicity.”
This trend of secularization and neutralization is one that Schmitt – a man transparently nostalgic for Hobbes’ age of kings – viewed with disgust and concern, and which he seems to have spent his entire adult life wrestling with. In Political Theology he had explored how politics had been depersonalized, sovereignty having been steadily removed, first from the divine and then from the monarch, making genuine political decisions more and more difficult. Worse, he wrote with horror, “The kind of economic-technical thinking that prevails today is no longer capable of perceiving a political idea” at all, threatening to transform the state into merely a sort of “huge industrial plant” as previously envisioned by his countryman Max Weber. “Today nothing is more modern than the onslaught against the political,” Schmitt lamented. “There must no longer be political problems, only organizational-technical and economic-sociological ones.” With the loss of the political, modern life was losing touch with the realm of the human, and therefore all of its meaning.
Thus for Schmitt, like for so many today, the deepest problem of life was fundamentally the question of how to deal with what Weber had described as modernity’s “demagification of the world (entzauberung der welt).” Schmitt would, over the course of his intellectual career, seek – in all the worst places – for a way to re-enchant that world.
This was a quest that likely would have been quite a bit simpler and more productive if, for Schmitt, God hadn’t been dead.
Schmitt would, until his dying day, vociferously defend himself as having always remained a lifelong Catholic. I find this doubtful. Though raised in the Church and by all accounts a devout believer in his early years, something in Schmitt’s interior life seems to have begun to shift around 1914, when his diary entries started to hint at a crisis of faith. He had just been engaged to be married very young, it already wasn’t going well, and he was already broke. As the Great War began and he lost a close friend, he found himself in a dark place. “Where should I seek refuge,” he asks himself, answering: “In the Catholic Church. But I can’t.” Instead he cries “for advice and help from the quiet unknown gods,” and describes himself as a “gnostic,” who could at most believe in a “malicious creator of this world.” Simultaneously he wrote – as if determined to delight every future left-wing would-be-psychoanalyst – that he felt the “awakening of a misogynist complex” within himself .
How long these particular sentiments lasted is unclear, but not long after this wartime crisis a new obstacle would increasingly begin to wedge itself between Schmitt and his relationship with the Church: a compulsive, out-of-control sexuality.
Schmitt’s married life was characterized by a continuous series of passionate affairs, conducted in the form of almost daily trysts in parks, trains, “secluded paths,” and other semi-public places that he noted afforded him a particular thrill. To this was added a countless stream of prostitutes, to whom seems to have gone much of his money. Plus all of the family maids. He describes his “deranged sexuality” as having transformed him into a kind of maniac, unable to keep himself from following women around in public places “as if hypnotized.” He diligently kept an exact diary of each of his “ejaculations.” (November 3, 1926: “Ejaculation. But it wasn’t a release. No release without conquest.”) This behavior would, to his shame, continue even while his second wife was critically ill with tuberculosis. To the reader, his decision to write a doctoral thesis on the topic of guilt seems to take on new significance.
It was his troubled relationships with women that estranged him from the Church and from Christianity. In 1912, young Schmitt met a Spanish dancer in a vaudeville theater who spun him a tale of being the runaway daughter of an aristocratic Croatian lord. Seduced, he defied the advice of all friends and family and married her in 1915. When she eventually turned out to be neither an aristocrat nor Croatian, but an illegitimate, kleptomaniac scamstress from Munich, Schmitt filed for divorce. A civil court in Bonn granted the divorce in 1924, but his attempt to convince the Church to annul the marriage failed – an event that left Schmitt filled with “great shame and anger.” He appealed, but that process had not yet concluded before he’d already fallen for and married the secretary who’d filed his divorce papers. For this act Schmitt was officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1926. “I am completely done with Christianity,” he recorded in his diary.
From this point forward Schmitt would abandon a lingering academic interest in experimenting with integrating the religious community of the Church as a balancing force between people and ruler (a position he had struck in 1923 in Roman Catholicism and Political Form). He would instead go in search of new gods. And he would find them – in technology, in the state, and in the Fuhrer.
At the heart of Schmitt’s lecture on “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations” was a warning to his fellow Germans: while it might be “understandable” that to most people technology appeared to be neutral due to its universal usability, and therefore “to be a domain of peace, understanding, and reconciliation,” this was an illusion. “Technology,” he said, “is always only an instrument and a weapon; precisely because it serves all, it is not neutral.”
Like in every previous era, the central domain of technology would be put to use by the political, whether the political was recognized to exist or not. And, Schmitt wrote, “Above all the state also derives its reality and power from the respective domain, because the decisive disputes of friend-enemy groupings are also determined by it.” The modern state would inevitably become a technological state. Because “today technical inventions are the means of the domination of the masses on a large scale,” the strongest states would be those most willing and able to do so. Those who refused to do so would die out.
“Technology is no longer neutral ground in the sense of the process of neutralization,” Schmitt declared, as “every strong politics will make use of it… How ultimately it should be understood will be revealed only when it is known which type of politics is strong enough to master the new technology and which type of genuine friend-enemy groupings can develop on this new ground.”
He believed Germany must not fail to adopt a politics strong enough to master this domain, because its external enemy surely would not hesitate to do so: “The Russians have [already] taken the European nineteenth century at its word, understood its core ideas and drawn the ultimate conclusions from its cultural premises. We always live in the eye of the more radical brother, who compels us to draw the practical conclusion and pursue it to the end.”
Ultimately Schmitt’s proposed solution to disenchantment is the opposite of what one might have expected: not to reject or moderate technology, but to embrace it; to put technology fully in service of reawakened human political struggle. Only by such a re-politicization, he believed, could the world be re-enchanted and life revivified. In the end he wholly renounced Weber’s sense that the “irresistible power of technology” must imply “domination of the spiritless over spirit” or the transformation of the state into an “ingenious but soulless mechanism,” describing this belief as path only to despair and defeat. In contrast, Schmitt claims, “The spirit of technicity… is still spirit; perhaps an evil and demonic spirit, but not one which can be dismissed as mechanistic.” And this spirt, he concluded, was the way forward. “For life struggles not with death, spirit not with spiritlessness; spirit struggles with spirit, life with life, and out of the power of an integral understanding of this arises the order of human beings.” The vital essence of life in any age is the struggle of man against man, group against group, state against state.
Schmitt was now ready to allow the “evil and demonic spirit” of technicity in, and then to “draw the practical conclusion and pursue it to the end.” To prevail in the struggle of the twentieth century, Germany would need to embrace the strength already seized by its “more radical brother” – Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union.
Some have previously defended Schmitt as being only a reluctant collaborator with Nazism, a brilliant Catholic conservative intellectual who let fear and an opportunistic desire for political position overrule his better judgement and principles. And after the war Schmitt himself acted the role of an esoteric dissident who had practiced an “inner resistance,” thereby successfully avoiding punishment at Nuremburg. But this image does not seem very credible. Schmitt was certainly caught off guard by Hitler’s sudden rise to power in 1933 – he had placed all his bets on Papen and Hindenburg, and he expressed some early anxiety about what the National Socialist revolution would mean for him personally. But that anxiety soon turned to explicit hope and admiration. And why shouldn’t it have? Hitler provided Schmitt with the chance to see nearly every one of his ideas taken to their ultimate conclusion in Germany.
So when Schmitt’s old boss Papen invited him to join the Nazi Party and work to help legally justify the planned Reich Governors Law, which allowed the Party to effectively take over all functions of state governments, he didn’t hesitate for long. He brushed off repeated warnings from his old friend Ernst Jünger – a man far too right-wing to ever be fooled by revolutionary National Socialists – not to get involved, and let himself be seduced. In fact it barely took one meeting with Hermann Göring (by whom Schmitt found himself “inebriated,” deciding Göring was “maybe the right type for these times”) before he was well on his way into the belly of Leviathan.
By the end of 1933 he had listened to a “wonderful speech by Hitler about the total state” and found himself “much consoled.” He had publicly justified Hitler’s national state of emergency law by claiming a “jump beyond the limits of legality” into “the sphere of supra-legality” (Überlegalität), and made a case for the “recognition of the national revolution.” He had supported mass media nationalization, censorship, and the “burning of trash literature.” And he had published a legal framework for the forced expatriation of Jewish intellectuals like Albert Einstein, concluding that: “They never belonged to the German people. And also not to the German spirit… Germany has spat them out for all time.” Not finished, he had soon also called for an “existential” commitment to the new “political age” of a “battle-filled world.” And he had forcefully defended the Nazi Party’s totalitarian program of ideological “coordination” (Gleichschaltung), praising the “transition to the one-party state” as a key step toward the technocratic “state of the twentieth century.”
But he reached his apogee after the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when Hitler had his political rivals slaughtered outright. Schmitt wrote a simpering public defense of the extrajudicial killings, titled “The Fuhrer Protects the Law,” arguing that Hitler had acted in a state of emergency to protect the “people’s right to live” by removing those “enemies of the state” identified as threatening the “unity of state power.” He concluded that, “The Fuhrer protects the law against the worst forms of abuse when, in the moment of danger, he immediately creates law by force of his character as Fuhrer as the supreme legal authority.” Twelve years earlier, in Political Theology, Schmitt had compared true sovereignty to a secular “miracle,” a highest force that emerges out of nothing to decide the law in an instant. Now this path had reached its end – Schmitt’s miracle was literally Hitler.
Before the end of the war and the start of the long internal exile that he would retreat into after refusing to renounce Nazism, Schmitt would collect his thoughts into one last major work on the total state. The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, published in early 1938, is a critique of Schmitt’s greatest intellectual inspiration, and a lament. A study of “political symbol,” Schmitt’s work is a vehicle for seeking the “restoration of political unity” and the rational or mythic foundations for “totality.” He criticizes Hobbes’ portrayal of his Leviathan as variously a giant man, mythic beast, and artificial being or great automaton, combining itself into a “mythic totality of God, man, animal, and machine.” For Schmitt, including the machine was a mistake – it was a crack in the armor that allowed in political neutralization and therefore a toxic pluralism. But Schmitt does not really break with Hobbes; the book is in essence a lament that his hero had failed to bring forth the total state. And he had failed, Schmitt argued, because the corruption of a “Jewish interpretation had a retroactive effect on the Leviathan of Hobbes.” Thanks to this, a “Jewish-Christian divide in the originary political unity” had been created. The only one who might be able to fix this defect, it is implied but not uttered, is the mythic personality of Hitler.
The book was essentially an especially densely written attempt to suck up to the higher ups. But it didn’t work. By the time the book was published, Schmitt – having perhaps underestimated how quickly a state with total extrajudicial power could dispense with legal minds – had already experienced the enduring tendency of revolutions to eat their own. Ambushed by an accusation of neo-Hegelianism by a faction of the SS in 1936, Schmitt found himself in great political peril and was likely saved from death only by the personal protection of Göring. But he would from then on be forever sidelined from power and position, a fate that would endure for the rest of his life.
Still, for our purposes, Schmitt’s late return to Hobbes is perhaps quite fitting. Hobbes’ description of the original human existence, the state of nature, is one in which all exist in a condition of extreme vulnerability. To escape this condition and prevent the “war of all against all,” we consent (out of fear) to a social contract in which autonomous individuals are subsumed and contained by the state. Critically, any potential transcendent higher good is cast out from playing a role in human affairs, enabling a smooth submission to Leviathan. But, in doing so, and in founding his social-contract theory upon consent, Hobbes’ is in fact one of the foundational works of liberalism. In a sense, Schmitt therefore never escaped the intellectual horizon he sought to criticize, emerging instead as merely a logical product from the dark side of the same Enlightenment ideas that he thought he despised.
Schmitt himself also gave up on any hope of the transcendent, on any vision of the higher good or truth. Then, despairing at the lack of meaning in a world without the sacred, he constructed the idol of a new god in its place: the state. Differing from Hobbes, however, the truest purpose of Schmitt’s state is not to neutralize the political and end the war of all against all by subsuming the individual into the mechanistic organism. Instead, it is to enable and formalize what he presumed to be the deepest human need: the thirst for meaning found in the fundamental pre-order of political struggle between groups – of the friend-enemy distinction. This is a distinction that, as Schmitt points out, is totally content neutral: it doesn’t matter why or for what one struggles with the enemy, only that one struggles. Only in consciousness of and participation in this existential state of struggle is there meaning to be found in the world.
Schmitt thus turns out to be something of a romantic after all, while a nihilist at the same time. Perhaps no one nailed this as early, or as clearly, as the young Platonic philosopher Helmut Kuhn, who mailed Schmitt a blistering review of The Concept of the Political in 1933 describing him as an “inverted Rousseau” who, as a “Romantic of the state of nature,” had transformed Rousseau’s “pastoral idyll” into a “predator idyll” and called it a day. (“Stupid article by a Jew… cheeky and impertinent,” Schmitt responded.)
The ideas of this nihilistic “inverted Rousseau” would, however, go on to end up in some interesting places. Places that seem particularly relevant today.
After the war, when Schmitt’s ideas were still widely considered too tainted to touch, let alone translate out of German, there was one group that happily salvaged them for repurposing: the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, and their descendants. Otto Kirchheimer, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, Herbet Marcuse and their ilk were almost universally fascinated by Schmitt. Jacques Derrida later hailed him as the one “terrified and insomniac watcher” of the pre-war period unique in his ability to foresee the post-modern age. It’s not hard to glimpse why.
Schmitt’s rejection of eternal, objective truth, and replacement of it with the political (e.g.: “All concepts of the spiritual sphere, including the concept of spirit, are pluralistic in themselves and can only be understood in terms of concrete political existence”) can be seen as a direct path to post-modern identity politics as we know it today, in which there is no truth but power. The now common idea that rights are not rights unless they are fought for and won, as our rights, is Schmitt distilled. He had put the struggle for power at the heart of life, and of all meaning, in a manner that was already strikingly post-modern in its implications (e.g.: “If the [central domain] has shifted in the last four centuries, so have all concepts and words. It is thus necessary to bear in mind the ambiguity of every concept and word.”)
It therefore shouldn’t surprise us that so many of Schmitt’s ideas have filtered deep into the political left today. His influence on the American New Left through Marcuse – a student of Heidegger’s who heard Schmitt lecture in Germany – is especially clear, including in Marcuse’s call for democratic states to practice “repressive tolerance” (“intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left”) by setting pluralism aside in order to rescue the “oppressed” and prevent a “subversive majority” from ever taking power. This is simply a re-purposing of Schmitt’s “fair chance” proposal during the Weimar period. Meanwhile, the “idea of ethnic identity,” as Schmitt put it, has again come to “pervade and dominate” all our institutions and public law in the form of leftist identity politics, the totalizing “coordination” of the political’s corruption of every facet of everyday life seeming to proceed relentlessly.
Schmitt’s greatest influence today may no longer be in the West at all, however, but in the world’s new great laboratory of totalitarianism: China. For more than a decade now, the Chinese intellectual elite have been in the grips of “Schmitt fever,” with hundreds of new articles on Schmitt’s thought published in Chinese academic journals every year. Intellectual advocates of Chinese “statism” and “neo-authoritarianism” have adopted Schmitt and risen to the highest echelons of Chinese Communist Party leadership. Again, the attraction is not hard to understand: the obsession with internal stability; internal unity of the state under a single party; dialectical struggle against internal and external enemies; the supreme rule of a personalistic sovereign dictator; rule “by law” rather than “of law” – all are profoundly fitting ideas for the Chinese total state. Which is why when Beijing needed a justification to crack down on 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong and impose a draconian new national security law, Chinese legal theorists cited Schmitt directly.
At this point, it might not be a stretch to say that Schmitt has steadily become a patron saint of left-authoritarianism worldwide. Across the world, the permanent emergency, centralization of power, technocratic “depoliticization,” and systematic distinction and isolation of state enemies all continue to gather pace as the preferred tactics of the post-modern, techno-statist regime.
It should be no wonder, then, why despairing conservatives in the West might see echoes of Schmitt’s ideas in action everywhere, and then to logically look to him for understanding. And they absolutely should read him, just as they should read the cutting analyses of Marx. But, just as when reading Marx, they’d best do so while maintaining a very healthy wariness about his prescriptions.
Most fundamentally, they should perhaps consider whether the hard truth is that – to quote a favorite line of the Critical Race Theorists (themselves also distant heirs of Schmitt) – “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” For Schmitt was certainly right about at least one thing: we do live in the age of technicity, in which a “religion of technological progress” has taken hold. Indeed today the secularization, demagification, and technological mechanization of the world has advanced beyond anything imaginable in 1929. And states around the world have, as Schmitt foresaw, leapt to leverage the growing dominance of the technological domain to establish for themselves ever greater forms of power and control. This technological power is then portrayed as neutral, when it decidedly is not. Year by year, more of us recognize the cold reality of this new world, and despair. What is the answer to life in such a world? I believe this is, consciously or subconsciously, the deeper draw to Schmitt’s ideas today.
But the story of Schmitt is one of a man whose effort to find security and meaningful life in a secular age of soulless technology and dislocating change led to an attempted solution that not only failed him personally but helped pave the way for the rise of a vast totalitarian machine-state and the complete ruin of his nation and its people. And in a sense it is clear that this outcome was inevitable – he had raised a false idol in place of the only genuine source of meaning he could ever have found: some transcendent vision of the true, the good, and the eternal. In the end, for today’s genuine conservatives – and reactionaries, even more so – Schmitt’s solution cannot serve; it is a product of the very thing they most hope to find a way to stand against.
It’s possible they would be better off listening, as Schmitt might have, to Ernst Jünger. He despised totalitarianism (and in particular “the Munich version – the shallowest of them all”) as the worst manifestation of liberal modernity, a force capable only of turning men into soulless automatons. Like his estranged friend, Jünger would also ask himself during the war what one could “advise a man, especially a simple man, to do in order to extricate himself from the conformity that is constantly being produced by technology?” In contrast to Schmitt, the answer Jünger, an atheist, eventually settled on was: “Only prayer.” For, “In situations that can cause the cleverest of us to fail and the bravest of us to look for avenues of escape, we occasionally see someone who quietly recognizes the right thing to do and does good. You can be sure that is a man who prays.” Ultimately only a recovery of a sense of the transcendent, he decided, could serve as an antidote to nihilistic modernity’s temptations. Without it, “our freedom of will and powers of resistance diminish; the appeal of demonic powers becomes more compelling, and its imperatives more terrible.”
Schmitt would, after the war, himself flirt with attempting a return to Catholicism. His sexual passions had cooled with age, his second marriage stabilized during the hardship of war, and a return to the Church seemed possible, if only he was willing to fully renounce Nazism. But he could not bring himself to do it. While he again began to draft half-hearted manuscripts on a potential mediating and moderating role for religion in the governance of the state, these were rather transparent attempts to ingratiate himself within the circles of the new Christian Democratic Union, whose political role in West Germany’s government was rapidly coalescing. When several such bids to reestablish his influence were rejected, he permanently gave up this brief flirtation with returning to such a path. By the time of his death isolated in quiet Plettenberg in 1985, his personal forays into theology had instead become steadily more and more esoteric, hermetic, and narcissistic. Again and again Schmitt refers to himself in his diaries as a “Christian Epimetheus” (the innocent brother of Prometheus who tragically let in the beautiful Pandora and her box full of evils). By late in life the Christ of his scrawlings had become a “Promethean” rebel against God, Father and Son “by definition enemies” and locked in an eternal “Christological-political conflict” projected into the Heavens. The romantic nihilist had never found a way beyond political struggle.
Jünger, meanwhile, himself converting to Catholicism before his death, would look back with sorrow on all that he’d witnessed firsthand during a lifetime lived through era of strife and upheaval, including the fate he’d seen befall too many unwary “young conservatives who first support the demos because they sense its new elemental power, and then fall into the traces and are dragged to their deaths.”
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 Top sources referenced in this essay include (but are not limited to):
Reinhard Mehring, Carl Schmitt: A Biography. Translated by Daniel Steuer (Polity Press: 2022).
Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, along with all the other of his books mentioned, mostly in the editions translated by George Schwab.
Ernst Jünger, A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945.