Max Weber
Max Weber; drawing by David Levine

In the early 1920s at regular intervals the Sunday illustrated supplements used to print photographs of an energetic-looking elderly gentleman with aggressively pointed mustaches, wearing a Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers, and stout boots and standing in front of a pile of logs. He was generally accompanied by a group of well-fleshed men of his own age, some in frock coats, others in shirt sleeves, with one of the latter rather sheepishly holding either an ax or a crosscut saw. The caption usually read “The Woodcutter of Doorn.” I was puzzled by the recurrence, with slight variations, of this awkward group portrait and also by the exclamations of anger and the derisive snorts of “Kaiser Bill!” that it elicited when I showed it to my elders, but, long before I had come to understand that the gentleman with the mustaches was the late emperor of Germany, the newspapers had lost interest in him, and his picture stopped appearing.

Fortunately, in the years that followed there was no dearth of books in English to satisfy one’s curiosity about William II, and this has continued to be the case, with three English biographies in the last twenty years, of which Michael Balfour’s The Kaiser and His Times (1964) is the most substantial, and with a brilliant study of the emperor’s entourage by the American Isabel V. Hull and biographies by Lamar Cecil, Thomas A. Kohut, and Robert G.L. Waite in progress. William’s own countrymen, however, have not been so well served. As John Röhl points out in his new collection of essays on the emperor and his court, not only is there no full-scale scholarly German biography of the emperor (a circumstance that can be explained only partly by the reluctance of German historians in the 1920s to weaken their case in the war-guilt controversy by revelations of the Kaiser’s disastrous interventions in foreign policy or by the fact that the Nazi period was not a propitious one for biographies of the Hohenzollerns), but there has been a tendency among German historians since 1945 to depreciate the importance of individuals and to tell the story of the Wilhelmine age with scant reference to the man who gave it its name.

Mr. Röhl is particularly aggrieved by the thesis advanced by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, in his highly regarded book The German Empire: 1871–1918, that, after the fall of Bismarck, a political vacuum existed in Germany which went unfilled, creating “a polycracy of rival centers of power,” and that it was this that determined the character of the regime and its policies rather than William II, whom Wehler, following Hans Delbrück, calls a “shadow emperor.” Considering the stamp that William placed upon every aspect of domestic and foreign policy and the importance of his personal decisions in the fields of naval policy, imperial expansion, war planning, and alliance policy, Röhl considers this position untenable, and he cites the opinion of the influential journalist Maximilian Harden, who wrote in 1902.

All the important decisions of the past twelve years have been made by [the emperor]. Changes in trade policy, the build-up of the fleet, the belief in the German Reich attaining Weltmacht on an enormous scale,…relations…with England, the military campaign in China, all that and a lot more besides are his work.

Röhl would probably find equally inexcusable the fact that Max Weber and his Contemporaries, an interesting collection of essays that resulted from a conference held by the German Historical Institute in London in September 1984, has no chapter on William II, who has, indeed, only one entry in its index.

Mr. Röhl’s complaint does not derive from any desire to rehabilitate the emperor or to reveal hitherto unremarked virtues in his character or behavior. In his opening chapter, indeed, he not only subscribes to the generally accepted view of William as a ruler who possessed neither the education, the capacity for growth, nor any realistic sense of the world in which he lived to support his inflated view of his own talent and authority, but he also adduces details about his ambivalent sexual preferences and his physical disabilities (notably a birth defect in his inner right ear that made it dangerously susceptible to tumors and discharges) as explanations for his excitability, his violent swings of mood, and his often ludicrous self-dramatization. He also points out that any claims that the emperor-in-exile might have had on our sympathy are weakened by new evidence showing that during his years in Holland William not only harbored the most bloodthirsty thoughts of revenge against those who, he felt, had betrayed him but became viciously anti-Semitic and increasingly sympathetic to National Socialism.

But none of this, he argues, is an excuse for failing to give careful attention not only to the effect of William’s personality upon policy, but also to the unique character of his system of government. For the Wilhelmine regime was no mere continuation of the Bonapartist style of the Bismarck chancellorship; it was rather a bizarre attempt, in a period of industrialism, urbanism, and democracy, to establish a divine-right monarchy with a court culture and a system of preferment based upon connections with the crown that was similar to that of the age of absolutism, and it was so successful that—to give only one example—“a Hannoverian with virtually no property or educational qualification could win a prince’s title and a powerful position in government, not least of all because as an adjutant he had performed useful services for the future Emperor in several amorous adventures.” The reference is to Count Philipp zu Eulenburg, the Kaiser’s best friend, who played a crucial role in establishing the young monarch’s legitimacy in the first difficult years after Bismarck’s fall. Eulenburg was the chief architect of the system of personal rule that was instituted, on the basis of Weltpolitik and the concentration of conservative forces on the home front, in 1897, and remained the most influential person in William’s immediate circle until revelations of homosexuality in court society brought him down in 1908.


Mr. Röhl, who has edited Eulenburg’s voluminous political correspondence, provides an informative account here of the rise and fall of the man who has been called the crisis manager of the Wilhelmine period, but the most interesting and original parts of this volume deal with what the author calls “the monstrous late-blooming of court culture” during William’s reign: on the one hand, a royal establishment that required the services of 2,320 functionaries ranging from supreme chamberlains, marshals, stewards, and masters of the hunt, adjutants general and aides-de-camp, and councilors of various grades, to coachmen, gardeners, cooks, and servants, at a cost to the state that exceeded the total expenses of the chancellor and his office, the foreign ministry, including the diplomatic and consular services, the colonial office, and the entire judicial system; and, on the other hand, an attendant society that was divided into sixty-two gradations of rank and governed by the strictest protocol, which went so far as to prescribe the color of the underwear worn by gentlemen appearing at court balls.

The external purpose of this elaborate show was, like the emperor’s speeches and appearances at parades, dedications, and the formal swearing in of military recruits, to add charisma to the institution of monarchy. Its internal function was to integrate and give hierarchical order to the leadership elite, in which it succeeded, but at the cost of jealousies and intrigue in the government, the upper bureaucracy, and the diplomatic service, which Röhl describes in rich detail. A system in which the chancellor would secretly block a ministerial appointment because the candidate’s wife had precedence over his own wife in the regulation of court ranking, which happened during Bülow’s chancellorship when the hereditary prince Ernst zu Hohenlohe-Langenberg was proposed for the office of state secretary of the colonial office, was obviously not a healthy one. But this is the way the Königsmechanismus, Röhl’s term for William’s personal rule, worked in the middle years of his reign.

In addition to his virtually unrestricted power of command in military affairs, granted by the constitution and exercised through his private military and naval cabinets, William, by virtue of the structure of court society and his “absolute control over all appointments, decorations and even plans of marriage, possessed the power to corrupt the whole imperial and state bureaucracy and to make it dependent upon himself.” At least this was true until the scandals of 1908 shook the emperor’s position, and the deterioration of Germany’s external position led the military to begin to arrogate to itself the decision-making authority.

Before that happened, William regarded himself, as he once wrote in a letter to his mother, as “the one true emperor in the world,” whose ministers existed only to carry out his commands. Particularly in foreign affairs, he claimed the right to speak for the nation and did so loudly, boastfully, and with the most baleful results for Germany’s international position. Yet the remarkable thing is that this made him popular with his subjects rather than the reverse. In a study of the imperial idea in Germany, Elizabeth Fehrenbach once wrote that Germans of all classes were excited and inspired by their flamboyant ruler; that “the Kaiser made possible the escape from the labyrinths of mass society; he concentrated the people’s gaze on the great man, the gifted individual, the embodiment of the historical mission”; and that an impressive number of leading figures in the Church, the universities, and the world of affairs eulogized him for “revivifying the old image of the Kaiser inside us and for enriching it with new qualities” (the theologian Adolf Harnack in 1907) and for giving Germany “a leader for whom we can march through flames” (the historian Friedrich Meinecke in 1913). William’s telegram to President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal in 1896, which was probably the most important single action in inaugurating the fatal deterioration of Anglo-German relations, was hailed with transports of enthusiasm in Germany, a fact that may have persuaded the influential evangelical publicist Friedrich Naumann to argue in 1900, in his book Kaisertum und Demokratie, that the emperor and his policy of imperialism might be the instruments for a reconciliation of the working class with bourgeois society.


A conspicuous exception to this chorus of praise was Max Weber. In his brilliant study of the sociologist’s politics, of which the first version appeared almost thirty years ago but which is available now in expanded form in English, Wolfgang J. Mommsen tells us that, even as a young scholar in 1889, Weber was worried by the lack of consistency in the new emperor’s attitudes and behavior and wrote to his friend Baumgarten, “It is like sitting in a railroad car traveling at a great velocity without being certain that the next switch has been put into position.” This concern increased in urgency and bitterness as the years passed. In 1892 Weber described the emperor as seeing politics with the eyes of “an eccentrically inventive lieutenant” whose sense of duty was unexceptionable but was accompanied by “recurring confusion and [an] uncomfortable relationship to power,” causing “such disorganization at the top that an effect upon the administration as a whole cannot be avoided.”

By 1906 he was urging his friend Friedrich Naumann not to tie his party’s fortunes to the emperor:

The degree of contempt that our nation increasingly encounters abroad (Italy, America, everywhere!)—and with justice—is the decisive issue. Our submission to this regime of this man is gradually becoming a power issue of “world” importance for us…. We are becoming “isolated” because this man rules us in this way and because we tolerate it and make excuses for it.

Once Germany was in the war, he despaired of the future as long as the nation was ruled by “dilettierende Fatzkes like William II and his kind.”

Weber confined these and other, similar views to his private conversation and correspondence—it was not until June 1917, in an article in the Frankfurter Zeitung and again at a youth movement conference at Burg Lauenstein, that he spoke out openly against the system of personal government—but his thoughts were widely known. Moreover, such was Weber’s personal prestige (Mommsen writes that “both as a social scientist and as a politically engaged citizen and political thinker, Max Weber towered above the common opinions of his time,” and we learn from Max Weber and his Contemporaries that the philosopher Karl Jaspers considered him “the greatest German of our time”) that it is perhaps not surprising that some people began to think of him as a Kaiser manqué or even an anti-Kaiser. Frau Theodor Heuss once referred to him as “a Kaiser whose scepter has been stolen,” and in her biography of her husband Marianne Weber tells of wartime letters urging that he be called to solve the dreadful problems pressing upon the nation. Those close to him tended to see him in heroic terms, as a modern incarnation of Dürer’s knight between death and the devil, as an embodiment of Nietzsche’s theory about great men who, motivated by a strong sense of responsibility, set new goals for mankind.

But what if some quirk of fortune had elevated him to national power? Would his policy have been significantly different from that of the real Kaiser whom he criticized so trenchantly? Much would depend, of course, upon the time of the appointment, but if we consider the decade of the Nineties, when Weber made his first political pronouncements, it is difficult to think of them as anything but variations on a common theme. This is certainly true of the inaugural lecture that he delivered in May 1895, after having been called to the chair of political economy at the University of Freiburg, which Mommsen calls “the most significant documentation that we have of Max Weber’s political philosophy until the war years.”

The lecture was inspired in the first instance by Weber’s concern about the situation in West Prussia, where local landowners were finding it increasingly profitable to employ Polish day laborers instead of German agricultural workers and where, in consequence, a process of remorseless Polonization was taking place. This situation, which Weber had studied at close hand, led in his address to reflections upon the relationship between economic development and national policy and to the firm conclusion that economic policy could not be judged by the criteria of productivity or the well being of those affected by it but only by political standards, and in this case national ones. What might appear to be merely a technical question involving methods of production was really an example of the eternal battle of nationalities for living space, and, this being so, “the Germanness of the east is something that we believe must be protected and for whose protection the economic policy of the state must enter the lists. The circumstance that our state is a national state makes us feel that we have a right to make this demand.”

It was clear, Weber continued, that the East Elbian landowners, those Prussian Junkers upon whom the dynasty had depended for the protection and the governance of the state, now represented a declining class so obsessed with their economic problems that they no longer recognized the national interest and hence were no longer qualified to rule. The question was into whose hands their power should fall. The middle class was not at the moment ready to meet the tasks that faced the nation because the long reign of Bismarck had sapped their vital energies:

The powerful sun which…made the German name shine in the farthest corner of the earth was, it almost seems, too great for us and burned out the Bürgertum’s slowly developing powers of judgment.

The broad mass of the lower middle class was still sunk in political philistinism, and the proletariat showed “no spark of that Catilinarian energy of the deed and no breath of that powerful national emotion” that had been true of the French revolutionaries of 1793. Despite the achievement of German unity in 1871, the German people had sunk into an unpolitical and unhistorical lassitude, burdened by “the heaviest curse that history can give a race…, the hard fate of being political epigoni.”

Where was Germany to find its salvation? Weber pointed to Britain and France, which seemed to derive unity and energy from “the resonance of their position as world powers, which constantly confronts the state with tasks of political power [machtpolitische Aufgaben] and submits the individual to a chronic political schooling, of which he is aware in our case only when the borders are threatened.” Was not their example to be followed? Did not Germany need a grosse Politik that would waken it to the significance of questions of political power?

We must understand that the unification of Germany was a youthful prank performed by the nation in its old age and that, because of its expensiveness, it would have been better left undone if it was meant to be the end and not the beginning of a German policy of world power.

The time had come then, Weber concluded, for Germans to accomplish “an immense task of political education,” and to wean themselves from “the soft eudaemonism that flourished, admittedly in ever so spiritualized forms, behind the illusion of independent ‘socio-political’ ideals,” as well as from “the ineffable philistine flabbiness of the spirit that thinks it can replace political ideas with ‘ethical’ ones and, again, identify these harmlessly with optimistic hopes of happiness.” Germans were called upon to become conscious of their responsibility to history:

It is not given to our generation to see whether the fight we fight will bear fruit or whether posterity will acknowledge us as their ancestors. We shall not succeed in banning the curse under which we stand, that of being lateborn in a politically great time, unless we understand how to become something else, the forerunners of a greater one….It is not the epochs of a glorious history whose weight ages a great nation. It remains young, when it has the capacity and courage to be true to itself and the great instincts that are given to it and when its leading strata are capable of lifting themselves up to the hard clear air in which the sober work of German politics prospers, which is, however, also inspired by the earnest grandeur of national feeling.

Mommsen tells us that Weber was intent on freeing German policy from the control of conservative bureaucrats by inoculating the liberal bourgeoisie with a positive relationship to power so that they would “once and for all…forsake their negative attitude toward the state.” But his lecture, as Weber himself acknowledged, was characterized by a bluntness that bordered on brutality, expressed not only in the contemptuous ring of such sentences as, “As for the dream of peace and human happiness, over the gate of the unknown future of human history stand the words lasciate ogni speranza,” but also in Weber’s apparent willingness, at a time when his country was a vibrant center of the arts and sciences and humanistic studies, to dismiss all of this as a self-indulgent distraction from its real business. This was a note rarely struck by members of the German professoriate, not even in the days when Heinrich von Treitschke was at the height of his powers, and that was perhaps the true importance of the address.

The call for imperialism was in itself hardly new. Leaving aside the colonial agitation of the 1880s, William II himself, ever since he had told the Brandenburg provincial estates in 1892, “Brandenburger, we are still destined for great things and I lead you towards glorious days!” had been speaking incessantly and bombastically, in private and in public, about the great tasks that had to be accomplished beyond the frontiers of old Europe and of a German future “less in Europe than in the entire world.” What Weber had done was to elevate this mission from a mere policy of winning prestige to a responsibility before history and an inescapable destiny (later on, more and more, he was to call it a tragic destiny).

Why it should be so incumbent upon Germany at all he did not make very clear, then or later, for, although he sometimes argued that without a large-scale foreign trade Germany could not match the economic development of other industrial powers, he was generally reluctant to accept any utilitarian or even domestic-political motive for Weltpolitik, perhaps because he wished to distinguish his brand of imperialism from that of Bülow and William II. Instead, his rhetoric suggested ideal motives that were inherent in the history and nature of the national state, invoking the age-old liberal fascination with the idea of Das Reich and its identification with expanding power, which in 1848 had led the liberal historian F.C. Dahlmann to proclaim at the Paulskirche, “The road of power is the only one that will satisfy and appease our yearning for freedom…. Germany as such must finally step forward into the ranks of the great political powers of the world!” And there was perhaps also an echo of Leopold von Ranke’s suggestion, in a famous essay of 1833, that Great Powers are supposed to act like Great Powers and that they have special responsibilities.

But, however that may be, the striking thing about the inaugural lecture, apart from the constant iteration of words like “history” and “great,” and especially “power,” was the implied argument that the course prescribed must be followed if Germany was not to become a victim in the unrelenting Darwinian struggle for existence. In this latter respect, as Roger Chickering has pointed out in an article on Dietrich Schäfer in Max Weber and his Contemporaries, there was little to distinguish Weber from other cruder nationalists whose tub thumping filled the Nineties with such clamor.

In the years that followed, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown that prevented him from teaching. But he continued to do research and intermittently to write; and he did not change his view that the pursuit of Weltpolitik was a necessity and a responsibility for Germany. It was, in fact, the passion of his commitment to this idea that made him—as Jürgen Kocka writes in an article on Otto Hintze in Max Weber and his Contemporaries—“hypercritical of the political errors and inconsistencies of German power politics.” This did not prevent him from intimating that, flawed or not, there was an inherent nobility about participation in world politics that raised the nations sharing in it to a higher cultural level than those that did not, an identification of power and culture that was strange coming from so faithful a Nietzschean as Weber, since Nietzsche had expressly warned against it in Thoughts Out of Season. This was most evident in his attitude toward small states, and there is an extraordinary illustration of this in the handsomely produced and expertly edited historical-critical edition of Weber’s wartime essays and speeches. This was an open letter to the magazine Die Frau in February 1916, written as an answer to an article by a Swiss contributor who had taken a strong Christian-pacifist position in an exchange with Weber’s friend Gertrud Bäumer about conflicting duties in wartime. After a depreciatory reference to the Danish, Swiss, Dutch, and Norwegian peoples, Weber wrote:

Because we are a power state and because we therefore, in contrast to those “little” peoples, can in this issue of history swing our weight into the scales—precisely on that account the accursed duty and obligation to history, which means to posterity, lies on our shoulders and not on theirs—to swing ourselves in the way of the inundation of the whole world by those powers [Russia, France, and Britain]. If we reject this duty, then the German Reich would be an expensive, vain luxury of a kind inimical to culture, which we should not be able to support and which we should as quickly as possible have to eliminate in favor of a “Swissification” of our statehood, a dissolution into little, politically powerless cantons, perhaps with courts friendly to the arts—waiting to see how long neighbors would permit us this contemplative cultivation of the cultural values of small peoples (Kleinvolk-Kulturwerte), which would [given their tolerance] remain the meaning of our existence for all time.

With a singular lack of constraint, Weber added: “In the anti-militaristic ‘neutrality’ of the Swiss and their rejection of the power state there also lies occasionally a good bit of really pharisaical lack of understanding of the tragedy of the historical obligations of a people that is now organized as a power state.”

The coming of the war did not surprise Weber, for he was convinced that William II’s foreign policy had sought showy and insubstantial triumphs rather than the advancement of true national interest, and that the war was, as Mommsen has put it, a “bloody reckoning for a quarter of a century of a boasting and arrogant…policy that had offended all the powers equally.” Weber regarded it as a defensive struggle, particularly against the threat of czarist expansion, that should be ended as quickly as possible by negotiation so that Germany could resume the task of building a world position on a sounder foundation.

At the same time, as a reserve officer in charge of administration in a military hospital, he was inspired by the heroism of the soldiers and the unity of the home front. He wrote to a friend in 1914, “Whatever the outcome may be, this war is great and wonderful beyond all expectation,” and again, to his mother in 1915, “We have proved we are a great cultural nation. People who live in a civilized milieu and are nevertheless able to rise to the horrors of war…and to return as honorably as most of our people do—that is real humanity.”

On occasion he succumbed to the baser passions that wars produce, as in his appeal for subscription to the seventh German war loan in September 1917, which is printed in Max Weber zur Politik im Weltkrieg. In large part, this was a slashing attack upon the obduracy of the Allies in refusing to negotiate for peace. In the course of it Weber accused them of being led by “crude blackguards and adventurers,” whose public references to Germany were couched in language that no people of honor could use, whose discussions of war were tricked out with “the vocabulary of a circus boxer,” and whose armies were increasingly composed of barbarians on the western front, “African and Asiatic savages and all the thieves and rabble of the world” on the eastern, undisciplined hordes whose outrages reminded one of the age of the Mongols.

His deeper resentment, however, was reserved for those charged with the direction of the war effort, and Marianne Weber cites his gloomy words of March 1916: “It seems to me that we are ruled by a horde of madmen.” With a clarity of vision that only a few of his contemporaries shared,* he realized how fatally the vain insistence upon territorial annexations, designed in large part to fend off demands for domestic reform, jeopardized any hope of a reasonable peace. He despaired of the government’s refusal to disclaim any intention of annexing Belgium, the High Command’s obtuse mishandling of the Polish question, and, worst of all, the insane gamble on unrestricted submarine warfare. The papers on these subjects that are included in Max Weber zur Politik im Weltkrieg are models of common sense and sound strategical judgment. It was characteristic of him, however, that in the end he accepted the government’s policy with something akin to fatalism. When the fatal decision to launch the U-boats to destroy Allied shipping was made in 1917, he wrote:

Nevertheless, it’s va banque, if you will. There are several very important pieces on the board for us and a number that are quite unknown to me against us. An assessment is very difficult…. The hatred of the world for us is better than its cold contempt up till now, which will not come again…. One suffers from the fact that one can’t be part of the struggle…. I am less distressed now than I was during all the twenty-five years during which I watched the hysterical vanity of this monarch destroy everything that was sacred and dear to me. Now it has become a matter of “destiny,” whereas before it was the result of human stupidity. And with “destiny,” one manages. Later too it will be worth being a German and nothing else, even if things go badly.

Things, of course, went very badly indeed, and pretty soon the empire was in collapse and William II was on the way to his Dutch exile. Weber felt that the abdication had come too late to save the dynasty and prevent the events of November 1918, which he described as “a bloody carnival that does not deserve the honorable name of a revolution,” but he did not criticize the emperor publicly, and he actually defended Ludendorff and Hindenburg for their precipitate call for an armistice. When he could, he devoted his energies and ideas to laying the foundations of a new regime, performing important services in the foundation of the Democratic party and participating in the constitutional deliberations that took place in the ministry of the interior in December 1918.

If he had been a better politician, he might have played a more significant role in these critical months, but his open criticism of Germany’s first postwar government, the Council of Peoples’ Representatives, seems to have persuaded the socialist leader Friedrich Ebert to change his mind about making him minister of the interior, and his naive belief later on that he would be called to the National Assembly without having to campaign for a membership cost him an opportunity to participate in that body’s constitutional debates. In any event, as Mommsen writes, “his ultimate political ideals, his continued stress upon the power of the German national state in the world, did not fit the situation of 1919.”

Nor did his ideas about how governmental power should be allocated under a democratic constitution. At a time when Germans were embarking upon their brave new republican experiment, Weber’s mind was casting back to the Bismarck whom he had once criticized for emasculating the middle class and rendering parliamentary institutions ineffective. He had no faith in the socialists’ ability to rule Germany as he thought it should be ruled, and he seems to have felt that, in all the years that had passed since his appeal to them in 1895, the bourgeoisie had failed to develop the commitment to the state that he had required of them. Now he convinced himself that the country required a plebiscitary or Caesarist statesman on the Bismarck model. This would not obviate the need for a strong parliament. Indeed, Weber seems originally to have believed that such a body might well be the most effective school of leadership in the nation. Now, however, he believed that it should be balanced by a charismatic leader who did not have his roots in parliament and the parties but would, on the basis of popular legitimation, determine and direct national policy without unnecessary interference as long as he was successful. When he proved not to be, he could be removed, although it was never quite clear how this was to be effected.

In an article on Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto included in Max Weber and his Contemporaries, David Beetham has called this idea “the really substantial innovation in liberal democratic theory,” expressing “just that combination of democratic and decisionist elements that liberal theory required.” This is not a description that will commend itself to everybody. When Weber, in the constitutional deliberations of December 1918, proposed that the president of the new republic be based upon his model, he was attacked by the left for seeking to create a presidency that would be too much like a monarchy, and his proposal lost. Whether its acceptance would have prevented or hastened the fall of the Weimar Republic no one of course can say, although the question is one that can generate a good deal of heat among Weber admirers. Mommsen tells us of the indignation expressed by some of the members of the Heidelberg Congress of Sociology in 1964 when it was suggested, in a number of papers, that there was a lineal connection between Max Weber and the political scientist Carl Schmitt, the so-called “Mephistopheles of the pre-Hitler period,” who argued that the prerequisite of sound politics was the rejection of liberal moralizing and the acceptance of force and conflict as the basic realities of the political process. Schmitt carried the theory of decisionism to the point of arguing that “he is sovereign who makes the decisions regulating the emergency situation,” and he used this argument to legitimize Hitler’s bloody action against the SA in June 1934.

Mommsen writes sensibly that it is clear that Schmitt could take plebiscitarianism to its logical conclusion by building on Weber’s theories, all the more easily because “Weber had subordinated basic democratic values to the interests of national power.” The charismatic-plebiscitary leadership, he adds, quite clearly materialized in 1933 in a different form from that which Weber had in mind. Even so, it is unmistakable that “Weber’s theory of charismatic leadership combined with the radical formalization of the meaning of democratic institutions helped, if only marginally, to make the German people receptive to support of a leader, and to that extent to Adolf Hitler.”

And the results were, of course, much more dreadful than anything committed by “The Woodcutter of Doorn.”

This Issue

February 18, 1988