by Richard WOLIN / Found on:

“Carl Schmitt’s polemical discussion of political Romanticism conceals the aestheticizing oscillations of his own political thought. In this respect, too, a kinship of spirit with the fascist intelligentsia reveals itself.”
—Jürgen Habermas, “The Horrors of Autonomy: Carl Schmitt in English”

“The pinnacle of great politics is the moment in which the enemy comes into view in concrete clarity as the enemy.”
—Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (1927)

Only months after Hitler’s accession to power, the eminently citable political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, in the ominously titled work, Staat, Bewegung, Volk, delivered one of his better known dicta. On January 30, 1933, observes Schmitt, “one can say that ‘Hegel died.’” In the vast literature on Schmitt’s role in the National Socialist conquest of power, one can find many glosses on this one remark, which indeed speaks volumes. But let us at the outset be sure to catch Schmitt’s meaning, for Schmitt quickly reminds us what he does not intend by this pronouncement: he does not mean to impugn the hallowed tradition of German étatistme, that is, of German “philosophies of state,” among which Schmitt would like to number his own contributions to the annals of political thought. Instead, it is Hegel qua philosopher of the “bureaucratic class” or Beamtenstaat that has been definitely surpassed with Hitler’s triumph. For “bureaucracy” (cf. Max Weber’s characterization of “legal-bureaucratic domination”) is, according to its essence, a bourgeois form of rule. As such, this class of civil servants—which Hegel in the Rechtsphilosophie deems the “universal class”—represents an impermissable drag on the sovereignty of executive authority. For Schmitt, its characteristic mode of functioning, which is based on rules and procedures that are fixed, preestablished, calculable, qualifies it as the very embodiment of bourgeois normalcy—a form of life that Schmitt strove to destroy and transcend in virtually everything he thought and wrote during the 1920s, for the very essence of the bureaucratic conduct of business is reverence for the norm, a standpoint that could not exist in great tension with the doctrines of Carl Schmitt himself, whom we know to be a philosopher of the state of emergency—of the Auhsnamhezustand (literally, the “state of exception”). Thus, in the eyes of Schmitt, Hegel had set an ignominious precedent by according this putative universal class a position of preeminence in his political thought, insofar as the primacy of the bureaucracy tends to diminish or supplant the perogative of sovereign authority.

But behind the critique of Hegel and the provocative claim that Hitler’s rise coincides with Hegel’s metaphorical death (a claim, that while true, should have offered, pace Schmitt, little cause for celebration) lies a further indictment, for in the remarks cited, Hegel is simultaneously perceived as an advocate of the Rechtsstaat, of “constitutionalism” and “rule of law.” Therefore, in the history of German political thought, the doctrines of this very German philosopher prove to be something of a Trojan horse: they represent a primary avenue via which alien bourgeois forms of political life have infiltrated healthy and autochthonous German traditions, one of whose distinguishing features is an rejection of “constitutionalism” and all it implies. The political thought of Hegel thus represents a threat—and now we encounter another one of Schmitt’s key terms from the 1920s—to German homogeneity.

Schmitt’s poignant observations concerning the relationship between Hegel and Hitler expresses the idea that one tradition in German cultural life—the tradition of German idealism—has come to an end and a new set of principles—based in effect on the category of völkish homogeneity (and all it implies for Germany’s political future)—has arisen to take its place. Or, to express the same thought in other terms: a tradition based on the concept of Vernuft or “reason” has given way to a political system whose new raison d’être was the principle of authoritarian decision—whose consummate embodiment was the Führerprinzep, one of the ideological cornerstones of the post-Hegelian state. To be sure, Schmitt’s insight remains a source of fascination owing to its uncanny prescience: in a statement of a few words, he manages to express the quintessence of some 100 years of German historical development. At the same time, this remark also remains worthy insofar as it serves as a prism through which the vagaries of Schmitt’s own intellectual biography come into unique focues: it represents an unambiguous declaration of his satiety of Germany’s prior experiments with constitutional government and of his longing for a total- or Führerstaat in which the ambivalences of the parliamentary system would be abolished once and for all. Above all, however, it suggest how readily Schmitt personally made the transition from intellectual antagonist of Weimar democracy to whole-hearted supporter of National Socialist revolution. Herein lies what one may refer to as the paradox of Carl Schmitt: a man who, in the words of Hannah Arendt, was a “convinced Nazi,” yet “whose very ingenious theories about the end of democracy and legal government still make arresting reading.”

The focal point of our inquiry will be the distinctive intellectual “habitus” (Bourdieu) that facilitated Schmitt’s alacritous transformation from respected Weimar jurist and academician to “crown jurist of the Third Reich.” To understand the intellectual basis of Schmitt’s political views, one must appreciate his elective affinities with that generation of so-called conservative revolutionary thinkers whose worldview was so decisive in turning the tide of public opinion against the fledgling Weimar republic. As the political theorist Kurt Sontheimer has noted: “It is hardly a matter of controversy today that certain ideological predispositions in German thought generally, but particularly in the intellectual climate of the Weimar Republic, induced a large number of German electors under the Weimar Republic to consider the National Socialist movement as less problematic than it turned out to be.” And even though the nationalsocialists and the conservative revolutionaries failed to see eye to eye on many points, their respective plans for a new Germany were sufficiently close that a comparison between them is able to “throw light on the intellectual atmosphere in which, when National Socialism arose, it could seem to be a more or less presentable doctrine.” Hence “National Socialism . . . derived considerable profit from thinkers like Oswald Spengler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Ernst Jünger,” despite their later parting of the ways. One could without much exaggeration label this intellectual movement protofascistic, insofar as its general ideological effect consisted in providing a type of ideological-spiritual preparation for the National Socialist triumph.

Schmitt himself was never an active member of the conservative revolutionary movement, whose best known representatives—Spengler, Jünger, and van den Bruck—have been named by Sontheimer (though one might add Hans Zehrer and Othmar Spann). It would be fair to say that the major differences between Schmitt and his like-minded, influential group of right-wing intellectuals concerned a matter of form rather than substance: unlike Schmitt, most of whose writings appeared in scholarly and professional journals, the conservative revolutionaries were, to a man, nonacademics who made names for themselves as Publizisten—that is, as political writers in that same kaleidoscope and febrile world of Weimar Offentlichkeit that was the object of so much scorn in their work. But Schmitt’s status as a fellow traveler in relation to the movement’s main journals (such as Zehrer’s influential Die Tat, activities, and circles notwithstanding, his profound intellectual affinities with this group of convinced antirepublicans are impossible to deny. In fact, in the secondary literature, it has become more common than not simply to include him as a bona fide member of the group.

The intellectual habitus shared by Schmitt and the conservative revolutionaries is in no small measure of Nietzschean derivation. Both subscribed to the immoderate verdict registered by Nietzsche on the totality of inherited Western values: those values were essentially nihilistic. Liberalism, democracy, utlitarianism, individualism, and Enlightenment rationalism were the characteristic belief structures of the decadent capitalist West; they were manifestations of a superficial Zivilisation, which failed to measure up to the sublimity of German Kultur. In opposition to a bourgeois society viewed as being in an advanced state of decomposition, Schmitt and the conservative revolutionaries counterposed the Nietzschean rites of “active nihilism.” In Nietzsche’s view, whatever is falling should be given a final push. Thus one of the patented conceptual oppositions proper to the conservative revolutionary habitus was that between the “hero” (or “soldier”) and the “bourgeois.” Whereas the hero thrives on risk, danger, and uncertainity, the life of bourgeois is devoted to petty calculations of utility and security. This conceptual opposition would occupy center stage in what was perhaps the most influential conservative revolutionary publication of the entire Weimar period, Ernst Jünger’s 1932 work, Der Arbeiter (the worker), where it assumes the form of a contrast between “the worker-soldier” and “the bourgeois.” If one turns, for example, to what is arguably Schmitt’s major work of the 1920s, The Concept of the Political (1927), where the famous “friend-enemy” distinction is codified as the raison d’être of politics, it is difficult to ignore the profound conservative revolutionary resonances of Schmitt’s argument. Indeed, it would seem that such resonances permeate, Schmitt’s attempt to justify politics primarily in martial terms; that is, in light of the ultimate instance of (or to use Schmitt’s own terminology) Ernstfall of battle (Kampf) or war.

Once the conservative revolutionary dimension of Schmitt’s thought is brought to light, it will become clear that the continuities in his pre- and post-1933 political philosophy and stronger than the discontinuities. Yet Schmitt’s own path of development from arch foe of Weimar democracy to “convinced Nazi” (Arendt) is mediated by a successive series of intellectual transformations that attest to his growing political radicalisation during the 1920s and early 1930s. He follows a route that is both predictable and sui generis: predictable insomuch as it was a route traveled by an entire generation of like-minded German conservative and nationalist intellectuals during the interwar period; sui generis, insofar as there remains an irreducible originality and perspicacity to the various Zeitdiagnosen proffered by Schmitt during the 1920s, in comparison with the at times hackneyed and familar formulations of his conservative revolutionary contemporaries.

The oxymoronic designation “conservative revolutionary” is meant to distinguish the radical turn taken during the interwar period by right-of-center German intellectuals from the stance of their “traditional conservative” counterparts, who longed for a restoration of the imagined glories of earlier German Reichs and generally stressed the desirability of a return to premodern forms of social order (e.g., Tönnies Gemeinschaft) based on aristocratic considerations of rank and privilege. As opposed to the traditional conservatives, the conservative revolutionaries (and this is true of Jünger, van den Bruck, and Schmitt), in their reflections of the German defeat in the Great War, concluded that if Germany were to be successful in the next major European conflagaration, premodern or traditional solutions would not suffice. Instead, what was necessary was “modernization,” yet a form of modernization that was at the same time compatible with the (albeit mythologized) traditional German values of heroism, “will” (as opposed to “reason”), Kultur, and hierarchy. In sum, what was desired was a modern community. As Jeffrey Herf has stressed in his informative book on the subject, when one searches for the ideological origins of National Socialism, it is not so much Germany’s rejection of modernity that is at issue as its selective embrace of modernity. Thus National Socialist’s triumph, far from being characterized by a disdain of modernity simpliciter, was marked simultaneously by an assimilation of technical modernity and a repudiation of Western political modernity: of the values of political liberalism as they emerge from the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century. This describes the essence of the German “third way” or Sonderweg: Germany’s special path to modernity that is neither Western in the sense of England and France nor Eastern in the sense of Russia or pan-slavism.

Schmitt began his in the 1910s as a traditonal conservative, namely, as a Catholic philosopher of state. As such, his early writings revolved around a version of political authoritarianism in which the idea of a strong state was defended at all costs against the threat of liberal encroachments. In his most significant work of the decade, The Value of the State and the Significance of the Individual (1914), the balance between the two central concepts, state and individual, is struck one-sidely in favour of the former term. For Schmitt, the state, in executing its law-promulgating perogatives, cannot countenance any opposition. The uncompromising, antiliberal conclusion he draws from this observation is that “no individual can have full autonomy within the state.” Or, as Schmitt unambiguously expresses a similar thought elsewhere in the same work: “the individual” is merely “a means to the essence, the state is what is important.” Thus, although Schmitt displayed little inclination for the brand of jingoistic nationalism so prevalent among his German academic mandarin brethern during the war years, as Joseph Bendersky has observed, “it was precisely on the point of authoritarianism vs. liberal individualism that the views of many Catholics [such as Schmitt] and those of non-Catholic conservatives coincided.”

But like other German conservatives, it was Schmitt’s antipathy to liberal democratic forms of government, coupled with the political turmoil of the Weimar republic, that facilitated his transformation from a traditional conservative to a conservative revolutionary. To be sure, a full account of the intricacies of Schmitt’s conservative revolutionary “conversion” would necessitate a year by year account of his political thought during the Weimar period, during which Schmitt’s intellectual output was nothing if prolific, (he published virtually a book a year). Instead, for the sake of concision and the sake of fidelity to the leitmotif of the “conservative revolutionary habitus,” I have elected to concentrate on three key aspects of Schmitt’s intellectual transformation during this period: first, his sympathies with the vitalist (lebensphilosophisch) critique of modern rationalism; second, his philosophy of history during these years; and third, his protofascistic of the conservative revolutionary doctrine of the “total state.” All three aspects, moreover, are integrally interrelated.


The vitalist critique of Enlightenment rationalism is of Nietzschean provenance. In opposition to the traditional philosophical image of “man” qua animal rationalis, Nietzsche counterposes his vision of “life [as] will to power.” In the course of this “transvaluation of all values,” the heretofore marginalized forces of life, will, affect, and passion should reclaim the position of primacy they once enjoyed before the triumph of “Socratism.” It is in precisely this spirit that Nietzsche recommends that in the future, we philosophize with our affects instead of with concepts, for in the culture of European nihilism that has triumphed with the Enlightenment, “the essence of life, its will to power, is ignored,” argues Nietzsche; “one overlooks the essential priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions.”

It would be difficult to overestimate the power and influence this Nietzschean critique exerted over an entire generation of antidemocratic German intellectuals during the 1920s. The anticivilizational ethos that pervades Spengler’s Decline of the West—the defence of “blood and tradition” against the much lamented forces of societal rationalisation—would be unthinkable without that dimension of vitalistic Kulturkritik to which Nietzsche’s work gave consummate expression. Nor would it seem that the doctrines of Klages, Geist als Widersacher der Seele (Intellect as the Antagonist of the Soul; 1929-31), would have captured the mood of the times as well as they did had it not been for the irrevocable precedent set by Nietzsche’s work, for the central opposition between “life” and “intellect,” as articulated by Klages and so many other German “anti-intellectual intellectuals” during the interwar period, represents an unmistakably Nietzschean inheritance.

While the conservative revolutionary components of Schmitt’s worldview have been frequently noted, the paramount role played by the “philosophy of life”—above all, by the concept of cultural criticism proper to Lebensphilosophie—on his political thought has escaped the attention of most critics. However, a full understanding of Schmitt’s status as a radical conservative intellectual is inseparable from an appreciation of an hitherto neglected aspect of his work.

In point of fact, determinate influences of “philosophy of life”—a movement that would feed directly into the Existenzphilosophie craze of the 1920s (Heidegger, Jaspers, and others)—are really discernable in Schmitt’s pre-Weimar writings. Thus, in one of his first published works, Law and Judgment (1912), Schmitt is concerned with demonstrating the impossibility of understanding the legal order in exclusively rationalist terms, that is, as a self-sufficient, complete system of legal norms after the fashion of legal positivism. It is on this basis that Schmitt argues in a particular case, a correct decision cannot be reached solely via a process of deducation or generalisation from existing legal precedents or norms. Instead, he contends, there is always a moment of irreducible particularity to each case that defies subsumption under general principles. It is precisely this aspect of legal judgment that Schmitt finds most interesting and significant. He goes on to coin a phrase for this “extralegal” dimension that proves an inescapable aspect of all legal decision making proper: the moment of “concrete indifference,” the dimension of adjudication that transcends the previously established legal norm. In essence, the moment of “concrete indifference” represents for Schmitt a type of vital substrate, an element of “pure life,” that forever stands opposed to the formalism of laws as such. Thus at the heart of bourgeois society—its legal system—one finds an element of existential particularity that defies the coherence of rationalist syllogizing or formal reason.

The foregoing account of concrete indifference is a matter of more than passing or academic interest insofar as it proves a crucial harbinger of Schmitt’s later decisionistic theory of sovereignty, for its its devaluation of existing legal norms as a basis for judicial decision making, the category of concrete indifference points towards the imperative nature of judicial decision itself as a self-sufficient and irreducible basis of adjudication. The vitalist dimension of Schmitt’s early philosophy of law betrays itself in his thoroughgoing denigration of legal normativism—for norms are a product of arid intellectualism (Intelligenz) and, as such, hostile to life (lebensfeindlick)—and the concomitant belief that the decision alone is capable of bridging the gap between the abstractness of law and the fullness of life.

The inchoate vitalist sympathies of Schmitt’s early work become full blown in his writings of the 1920s. Here, the key text is Political Theology (1922), in which Schmitt formulates his decisionist theory of politics, or, as he remarks in the work’s often cited first sentance: “Sovereign is he who decides the state of exception [Ausnahmezustand].”

It would be tempting to claim from this initial, terse yet lapidry definition of sovereignty, one may deduce the totality of Schmitt’s mature political thought, for it contains what we know to the be the two keywords of his political philosophy during these years: decision and the exception. Both in Schmitt’s lexicon are far from value-neutral or merely descriptive concepts. Instead, they are both accorded unambiguously positive value in the economy of his thought. Thus one of the hallmarks of Schmitt’s political philosophy during the Weimar years will be a privileging of Ausnahmezustand, or state of exception, vis-à-vis political normalcy.

It is my claim that Schmitt’s celebration of the state of exception over conditions of political normalcy—which he essentially equates with legal positivism and “parliamentarianism”—has its basis in the vitalist critique of Enlightenment rationalism. In his initial justification of the Ausnahmezustand in Political Theology, Schmitt leaves no doubt concerning the historical pedigree of such concepts. Thus following the well-known definition of sovereignty cited earlier, he immediantly underscores its status as a “borderline concept”—a Grenzbegriff, a concept “pertaining to the outermost sphere.” It is precisely this fascination with extreme or “boundry situations” (Grenzsituationen—K. Jaspers—those unique moments of existential peril that become a proving ground of individual “authenticity”—that characterizes Lebensphilosophie’s sweeping critique of bourgeois “everydayness.” Hence in the Grenzsituationen, Dasein glimpses transcendence and is thereby transformed from possible to real Existenz.” In parallel fashion, Schmitt, by according primacy to the “state of exception” as opposed to political normalcy, tries to invest the emergency situation with a higher, existential significance and meaning.

According to the inner logic of this conceptual scheme, the “state of exception” becomes the basis for a politics of authenticity. In contrast to conditions of political normalcy, which represent the unexalted reign of the “average, the “medicore,” and the “everyday,” the state of exception proves capable of reincorporating a dimension of heroism and greatness that is sorely lacking in routinized, bourgeois conduct of political life.

Consequently, the superiority of the state as the ultimate, decisionistic arbiter over the emergency situation is a matter that, in Schmitt’s eyes, need not be argued for, for according to Schmitt, “every rationalist interpretation falsifies the immediacy of life.” Instead, in his view, the state represents a fundamental, irrefragable, existential verity, as does the category of “life” in Nietzsche’s philosophy, or, as Schmitt remarks with a characteristic pith in Political Theology, “The existence of the state is undoubted proof of its superiority over the validity of the legal norm.” Thus “the decision [on the state of exception] becomes instantly independent of argumentative substantiation and receives autonomous value.”

But as Franz Neumann observes in Behemoth, given the lack of coherence of National Socialist ideology, the rationales provided for totalitarian practice were often couched specifically in vitalist or existential terms. In Neumann’s words,

[Given the incoherence of National Socialist ideology], what is left as justification for the [Grossdeutsche] Reich? Not racism, not the idea of the Holy Roman Empire, and certainly not some democratic nonsense like popular sovereignty or self-determination. Only the Reich itself remains. It is its own justification. The philosophical roots of the argument are to be found in the existential philosophy of Heidegger. Transferred to the realm of politics, exisentialism argues that power and might are true: power is a sufficient theoretical basis for more power.

[Excerpts from The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (2004).]