Carl Schmitt
Carl Schmitt; drawing by David Levine


Carl Schmitt was born in the small Westphalian town of Plettenberg and died there in 1985 at the age of ninety-six. Virtually unknown in America, he is today considered in many European countries, especially in Germany, to be one of the most significant political theorists of the century. His books, the most important of which were written during the Weimar years, remain in print in many languages and are the subject of intense scholarly debate. Not even increased awareness of the circumstances surrounding Schmitt’s active collaboration with the Nazi regime has dampened interest in the man and his writings.

The story of that collaboration is distressing. On May 1, 1933, while a professor of law at the University of Cologne, Schmitt applied to join the Nazi Party. Although he was hardly in the vanguard of the movement, as his party membership number (2,098,860) attests, his decision was not really surprising. During the previous decade he had become prominent as an anti-liberal political and legal theorist, and as an outspoken critic of the Versailles Treaty and the Weimar Constitution. As German parliamentary democracy disintegrated in the 1920s under the strains of political extremism on both left and right, Schmitt advocated temporary dictatorial rule by the Reich president, which he argued would be legal under the emergency powers granted by Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution.

When the German government finally invoked Article 48 in 1932 and appointed a Reich commissar for the state of Prussia in an attempt to block the Nazis from coming to power there, Schmitt defended the appointment before the State Constitutional Court. He lost the case, but his arguments in favor of temporary dictatorship so impressed Nazi officials that after they came to power a few months later, they invited him to become one of the regime’s legal counselors. Schmitt accepted, and within months newspapers were calling him the “crown jurist” of the Third Reich.

Like a number of other German intellectuals, including Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, and Gottfried Benn, Schmitt publicly supported the Nazis in the early days of the Third Reich. But as Andreas Koenen shows in his detailed new book on the Schmitt “case,” he went further than they did, becoming a committed, official advocate of the Nazi regime. Under the patronage of Hermann Göring, he was appointed to the Prussian State Council, received a professorship in Berlin, and edited an important legal journal. The Nazis obviously hoped that Schmitt would supply juridical respectability to Hitler’s actions, and they were not disappointed. Soon after joining the party he wrote pamphlets defending the Führer principle, the priority of the Nazi Party, and racism, on the grounds that “all right is the right of a particular Volk.” After the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, when Hitler had Ernst Röhm and his other adversaries in the SA executed (among them a close friend of Schmitt’s), Schmitt published an infamous and influential article arguing that Hitler’s act “was itself the highest justice.”

Schmitt reached the moral nadir of his collaboration in October 1936, when he spoke at a conference on “German Jurisprudence in the Struggle Against the Jewish Spirit.”1 There he called for purging Jewish works from libraries and encouraged his colleagues to avoid citing Jewish authors, or, when unavoidable, to identify them as Jews. “A Jewish author has for us no authority.” After warning his colleagues that the Jews’ renowned “logical sharpness” was only “a weapon aimed at us,” he closed by quoting Hitler’s words:”By warding off the Jews, I struggle for the work of the Lord.”

In fact, Schmitt’s speech was an effort to ward off his own enemies in the government at a time when the more radical and committed Nazis were purging those suspected of ideological softness. Like Heidegger during the same period, Schmitt found his classes under surveillance by the SS, and he was publicly attacked by rival Nazi jurists. He made a last-ditch attempt to recover his influence between 1939 and 1941 by putting forward a theory of what he called the Grossraum, or geographical sphere of influence. Although he appealed to the Monroe Doctrine as a precedent and claimed that the theory would preserve peace in an age of mass democracy and mechanized war, it was a transparent attempt to justify Hitler’s imperialistic ambitions for the Third Reich. (Schmitt would later claim that he was trying to modify and redirect those ambitions.) But he failed to salvage his reputation within the regime, and as the war became total war he was almost completely forgotten. He lost most of his official positions, but continued to teach in bombed-out Berlin until the war’s end.

Schmitt’s reputation as Hitler’s “crown jurist” put him high on the list of suspects to be interrogated by the Allied forces occupying Berlin. He was arrested by the Russians, released, arrested again by the Americans, spent eighteen months in an internment camp, and was finally sent to Nuremberg for questioning. To his Russian interrogator he arrogantly announced, “I drank the Nazi bacillus but was not infected.” In language reminiscent of Heidegger’s self-justifications, Schmitt tried to persuade his American interrogator at Nuremberg that he had felt superior to Hitler and had tried to impose his own interpretation of National Socialism. As for the Holocaust, he reminded his questioner that “Christianity also ended in the murder of millions of people.” In the end he was released and returned to his hometown, never to teach again.


Until his dying day Schmitt remained aggressively unrepentant about his collaboration. In the immediate postwar years he devoted much energy to writing self-exculpatory notebooks, some of which were published a few years ago in Germany under the title Glossarium, in a luxury edition with a gold placemarker and Schmitt’s embossed signature on the cover. The book created a sensation, shocking even Schmitt’s defenders with the brutality of its language. “Jews remain Jews,” Schmitt writes, “while Communists can improve themselves and change…. The real enemy is the assimilated Jew.” “Better Hitler’s enmity than the friendship of these returning émigrés and humanitarians.” “What was really more indecent:joining Hitler in 1933, or spitting on him in 1945?” He even composed a short anti-Semitic poem, which can be loosely rendered:

Everyone speaks of elites,
But the facts they refuse to face:
there are only Isra-elites
in a great planetary space.

Schmitt bore his fate ignobly after the war, pouring his spleen into his lachrymose, self-pitying notebooks. But far from being forgotten, he became steadily more influential as time passed. Although he cultivated the myth of having retired into the “security of silence,” he was in fact a tireless self-promoter who during the early years of the Federal Republic rained flattering letters and autographed books on anyone he thought might respond. A decade after he was interned by the Allies, Schmitt’s home in Plettenberg became a pilgrimage site for any and all who wished to debate politics with the former “crown jurist.”

Yet although Schmitt himself was undoubtedly a forceful personality, it was the rediscovery of his books that gradually established his current reputation in Europe. Raymond Aron, whose liberal convictions were unshakable, met with Schmitt and carried on an intermittent correspondence with him, and in his Mémoires called him a great social philosopher in the tradition of Max Weber. Alexandre Kojève, the Russian philosopher who gave lectures on Hegel attended by leading French intellectuals in Paris during the 1930s, visited Plettenberg in the Sixties, explaining to an acquaintance that “Schmitt is the only man in Germany worth talking to.” Jacob Taubes, an influential and somewhat mysterious professor of Jewish theology in New York, Jerusalem, Paris, and Berlin, argued that the anti-Semitic Schmitt, along with Heidegger, was among the most important thinkers of our time. Taubes’s advocacy was crucial in reintroducing Schmitt’s work to German students when political radicalism was at its most popular during the Seventies; he thus encouraged one of the more curious phenomena of recent European intellectual history:left-wing Schmittism.2

In the decade since his death Schmitt has become the most intensely discussed political thinker in Germany. Hardly a month passes without a book about him or a new edition of his writings appearing there. Staat, Grossraum, Nomos is the latest and largest collection of his minor essays to be published, and the scholarly studies reviewed here are only a few of the most recent publications. Interest in Schmitt’s life is also intense. Paul Noack’s pedestrian biography has proved popular enough to warrant a paperback edition, and there is even a regular publication called schmittiana that collects newly discovered Schmitt correspondence, memoirs, bibliography, and gossip. Since Schmitt’s political past is now widely known, this intense interest in him—which, to judge by the number of new translations and studies in English, is spreading—deserves examination.


The range of Carl Schmitt’s political writings was vast and many of the most important works have yet to be translated. These include essays and books on the history of ideas, geopolitics, forms of government, the relation of church and state, and international relations, as well as an imposing treatise, Constitutional Doctrine (1928), now in its eighth German edition, which is still considered a classic work on its subject.

Yet the best introduction to Schmitt’s thought remains his The Concept of the Political, a short essay that Ernst Jünger once described as “a mine that silently explodes.” It first appeared as a journal article in 1927, was expanded and revised several times by the author, and has now been reissued in English translation with a helpful introduction by Tracy Strong. In it, Schmitt takes the question with which all political theory must begin—What is politics?—and reformulates it as: What is “the political” (das Politische)? By “the political” he does not mean a way of life or a set of institutions, he means a criterion for making a certain kind of decision. Morality finds such a criterion in the distinction between good and bad, aesthetics finds it in the distinction between beauty and ugliness. What is the criterion appropriate to politics? Schmitt answers in his characteristically oracular style:”The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”


On the nature of friendship, a central theme in classical political thought, there is hardly a word to be found in all Schmitt’s writings. We are left with the impression that friendship arises only from shared animosities. The enemy he means is a public enemy, not a private one; for Schmitt a collectivity is a political body only to the degree that it has enemies. If, as a German, Itake France or Russia to be my enemy, Ibear the individual Frenchman or Russian no personal grudge, and his personal moral and aesthetic qualities are a matter of complete indifference to me. Enmity is a precisely defined relation that arises when, and only when, I recognize that certain persons or groups are “existentially something different and alien,” and represent “the other, the stranger.” Schmitt does not use the term “existential” casually; he believes that defining one’s enemies is the first step toward defining one’s inner self. “Tell me who your enemy is and I’ll tell you who you are,” he writes in his Glossarium; and again, more economically, “Distinguo ergo sum.”

If the act of distinguishing oneself from one’s enemies is the essence of politics, then politics implies the hovering threat of conflict and, ultimately, the possibility of war. Thomas Hobbes was the first to see enmity developing naturally out of human relations, and his treatise Leviathan conceived a political order capable of controlling the outbreak of hostilities. Ever since Hobbes, political thinkers have associated war with the breakdown of healthy politics, treating it as an exception rather than the rule.

Schmitt, by contrast, believes that such exceptions show that everything is potentially political because everything—morals, religion, economics, art—can, in extreme cases, become a political issue, an encounter with an enemy, and transformed into a source of conflict. Even the most liberal nations will beat their free-market plowshares into swords if they feel their survival genuinely to be at stake. Enmity simply is an essential element of human life:”The entire life of a human being is a struggle,” he writes, “and every human being symbolically a combatant.” A world without war would be a world without politics; a world without politics would be a world without enmity; and a world without enmity would be a world without human beings.

It is important to see here that Schmitt does not arrive at this view inductively after surveying the bloody record of political history. He is making an assumption about human nature that is meant to reveal the true lessons of history. If we accept this assumption, Schmitt thinks, we must then conclude that every human grouping requires a sovereign whose job it is to decide on what to do in the extreme or exceptional case—most important of all, to engage in war or not, with one enemy or another. The state’s sovereign decision is just that: a decision resting on no universal principle, and recognizing no natural bounds. (For Schmitt, the Roman practice of appointing temporary dictators to arbitrarily break the deadlock between competing social classes was the purest classical expression of the need for sovereign decision.)

This doctrine of Schmitt’s has acquired the name “decisionism.” Its target was modern liberalism, which conceives of the state as a neutral institution, under the rule of law, engaged in promoting compromises and resolving differences among individuals or groups. According to Schmitt, the liberal ideal of a morally universal and pacified world order developed in explicit opposition to the natural enmity between human groups and to the sovereign’s arbitrary decision-making. Since it is not based on what Schmitt saw as the fundamental elements of the political, he claimed that there is “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.”

This statement raises a conceptual difficulty that Schmitt was never able to resolve. At times he speaks as though liberalism had succeeded in overcoming natural enmity, and that this is to be regretted. He complains frequently that ours is an “age of neutralization and depoliticization,” and that the healthy tensions of political life have been dissolved by private consumption, public entertainment, and “perpetual discussion”—all identified by him with liberalism. Yet he also asserts that liberalism is political, but unsuccessfully so. The weaknesses of liberal governments—their burdensome legal formalism, their hypocritical “neutrality,” their oscillation between military pacifism and moral crusading—are the result of their attempts to evade the natural enmity that defines their own political existence. In either case, liberalism remains, in his view, contemptible.

Schmitt’s voluminous pre-war writings on politics and jurisprudence, on which his current fame rests, can all be read as applications of the principles of political enmity and sovereign decisionism formulated in The Concept of the Political. In Legality and Legitimacy (1932) he maintained that the chaos of Weimar politics arose from liberals’ unwillingness to confront their own domestic enemies on the extreme left and right. He criticized the Weimar Constitution for permitting parliamentary pluralism and the legal procedures that encouraged endless debate, without providing a way of maintaining the regime’s unity and legitimacy. He also argued in The Constitutional Guardian (1931) that no individual or institution in Weimar was responsible for defending the constitution, and therefore the nation, against its internal enemies on the radical right and left. This view, it should be noted, was shared by many German jurists at the time.

The ultimate problem with liberalism, according to Schmitt, is that it fears decisions more than it fears enemies; but sovereign decisions are unavoidable in politics, even those founded on democratic principles. Having started from an assumption about belligerent human nature, Schmitt then tries to find historical evidence for the permanent political necessity of controlling it arbitrarily. His book Dictatorship (1921), a history of the institution from Roman times up to the Soviet “dictatorship of the proletariat,” subtly tries to restore the conceptual legitimacy of dictatorship by asserting that the refusal to accept the necessity of moderate, temporary dictatorship had given birth to absolute ones. He followed this book with The Intellectual Condition of Contemporary Parliamentarism (1923), a very influential analysis in which he claimed that temporary dictatorships, which carry out the will of a united people immediately, are more consistent with democratic rule than liberal parliamentarism, which governs indirectly through procedures and elites.3 Even his classic treatise Constitutional Doctrine depends on the assertion that constitutions are not “absolute,” that they merely give concrete form to the distinctiveness of a Volk (a concept that remains disturbingly vague in Schmitt’s writings); they therefore depend on a “previous political decision” giving that people “existence, integrity, and security.”

Schmitt’s postwar writings, while less polemical than his earlier ones, are if anything more ambitious. In The Nomos of the Earth (1950) he sketched out a mythical history of international relations based on the relation of human enmity to the conquest of land, sea, and air. Schmitt saw in the growing geographical ability of modern man to move and exert influence throughout the globe the cause of the simultaneous dissolution of sovereignty and the extension of enmity. The result of these tendencies in our century, he suggests, will be total wars, fought by countries against absolute enemies, using all their resources, and guided by universal but unenforceable moral principles. In his Theory of the Partisan (1963) Schmitt further speculated that the rise of guerrilla warfare and terrorism was linked to this same historical process, as wars between nations gave way to civil wars or wars of national liberation waged by supranational networks of partisans. While Schmitt clearly preferred the old system of spheres of influence ruled by enemy sovereigns conducting limited national wars (what he called a system of Grossräume), he expressed no nostalgia. His tone in his late works is cool and analytical.

Schmitt’s influence owes a great deal to his direct, lapidary style, which is unencumbered by the peculiar burdens of German Wissenschaft. Compared to the baroque works of his academic contemporaries (and ours), his generally short books can read like poetry. It is perhaps testimony to Schmitt’s literary gift that he continues to be widely read today, despite public knowledge of his Nazism and anti-Semitism, and that so many in Germany continue to find him a source of instruction and even inspiration.

But there are more immediate reasons why Schmitt’s political works are beingstudied today. One is that his political preoccupations—sovereignty, national unity, the dangers of ignoring enmity between nations, constitutional stability, war—have once again become the central themes of European politics. Another is that he is among the few political theorists concerned with such questions that Germany has seen in this century, and the only major one to be active after the war. The Federal Republic has produced a number of important political historians, but until recently political philosophy was dominated by Marxism and the Frankfurt School, which tended to dismiss as distractions traditional political questions such as sovereignty, constitutionalism, and national self-assertion. In this vacuum, arguments have now been made, on both the left and the right, that Schmitt is the thinker from whom we have the most to learn about the problems of “the political.”

The conservative case for studying Schmitt has been the most popular in the scholarly literature and the conservative German press, and has even influenced respected historians like Reinhart Koselleck and jurists like Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. It presents itself publicly as a realistic corrective to liberalism rather than as an alternative to it. It takes from Schmitt the conviction that the ideas on which liberalism appears to be based—individualism, human rights, the rule of law—are fictions, and that the real foundations of national political life—unity, leadership, authority, arbitrary decisions—are illiberal. While the liberal fictions may be noble and even necessary for conducting the ordinary business of modern government, statesmen and political theorists must keep their eyes fixed on the real forces that drive politics. When they try to cultivate liberalism while neglecting the genuine foundations of a political order, the results are disastrous, especially in foreign policy. Ever since the two world wars, Western liberals have considered war “unthinkable.” In the view of Schmitt’s conservative admirers, this only means that war has become more thoughtless, not less frequent or less brutal. All liberal governments—Germany included—must be willing to help friends and harm enemies.

The left-wing case made for studying Schmitt is certainly a curiosity but also more interesting and radical than the conservative one. In the interviews with Schmitt published by the Maoist Joachim Schickel or in the recent books by the French writer Chantal Mouffe, there is a greater willingness to state opposition to liberalism openly in a spirit closer to Schmitt’s own. The left-wing writers, too, begin with his presupposition that liberal ideas are fictions; then they take the next step of arguing that such ideas are also the ideological weapons of a ruling class whose arbitrary decision established them in the public mind. Liberal “neutrality” (always in ironic quotes) actually serves the interests of particular classes and provides a structure for the forces of domination, aided by institutions, like schools and the press, and by repressive ideas, like toleration, that masquerade as liberation. In the view of some European leftists, Schmitt was a radical (if right-wing) democrat whose brutal realism can help us today to rediscover “the political” and restore a sense of legitimacy through the popular will. His critique of parliamentarism and the principle of neutrality can be seen in a left-wing light as unmasking domination in liberal societies; his unabashed defense of the friend-enemy distinction is said to remind us that politics is, above all, struggle.4

The transition from Herbert Marcuse to Carl Schmitt, in part by way of Michel Foucault’s ideas about power and domination, proved remarkably easy for a small but important part of left-wing opinion in Germany, France, and Italy, beginning in the Seventies. This was not a simple case of les extrèmes se touchent. Schmitt’s antiliberalism provided a welcome substitute for Marxist economic and historical theories, which by then had fallen into disrepute. That Schmitt’s later writings also discussed the end of colonialism, the rise of guerrilla war, and the dangers of economic globalization only made him more attractive to freethinking elements of the European left. Little wonder, then, that young revolutionaries who had once cut sugar cane in Cuba found themselves taking the train to Plettenberg, sharing compartments with their conservative adversaries.


To judge by most recent accounts of Schmitt’s thought, then, Schmitt was (depending on one’s leanings) either a classical political theorist who studied the foundations of politics without liberal moral illusions, or a radical exposer of liberal hypocrisy and ideology. But such views of his intellectual legacy hardly do justice to Schmitt’s deeper ambitions, which were not those of a mere commentator on contemporary politics. There is a remarkable lack of seriousness among those studying and promoting Schmitt today, whatever their partisan motivations, an unwillingness to probe too deeply into his moral universe. For even if we leave aside how Schmitt applied his doctrines to the political circumstances of his time, we are still left wondering what the basis of those doctrines really was. What convinces Schmitt that human enmity is existentially so fundamental? Why is he so determined to portray the political order as resting entirely on the arbitrary decision of a sometimes hidden sovereign? What makes liberal society so contemptible in his eyes? Schmitt himself argues for his views by claiming to reduce political phenomena to their basic principles. It is therefore only appropriate that we seek out his own deeper assumptions and motivations.

The first critic to begin such an examination of Schmitt’s work was Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher who later had a distinguished career at the University of Chicago. In 1932 Strauss, then a young man, published a review of The Concept of the Political which Schmitt thought the most penetrating thing written about his essay.5 At the time Strauss shared many of Schmitt’s views about the failures of modern liberalism, but he also noted the equivocations in Schmitt’s case against it. Hobbes assumed man’s natural belligerency in order to make the case for controlling it. Schmitt, for his part, argued against liberalism’s attempts to control human enmity, which he saw as natural and necessary, and which he gave every indication of wishing to intensify. Strauss perceived that Schmitt was not just lecturing utopian liberals about an inescapable “logic of the political”; he was actually an admirer of “animal power” who was advocating political enmity and decisionism. In Strauss’s words, Schmitt’s polemic was meant “to clear the field for the battle of decision” between the liberal faith and “the opposite spirit and faith, which, as it seems, still has no name.”

Strauss cast doubt on Schmitt’s carefully contrived image as a political realist but did not speculate further about the content of this nameless faith. That task has now been undertaken by Heinrich Meier, a diligent German scholar who in 1988 wrote a densely argued book asserting that Schmitt recognized the force of Strauss’s criticisms and substantially changed later editions of The Concept of the Political in light of them. Meier’s detective work, which has now appeared in English translation as Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, made a case for seeing Schmitt primarily as a “political theologian,” whose ambitions had been exposed by the “political philosopher” Strauss.

Though Schmitt had indeed published a short work with the title Political Theology in 1922, many specialists in Schmitt’s work considered Meier’s thesis to be forced and idiosyncratic, and Ionce shared this view myself. Yet when Schmitt’s Glossarium appeared in 1991 and German readers discovered bizarre theological reflections on nearly every page, Meier’s book received unexpected confirmation. Since then much Schmitt scholarship has concentrated on the theological aspects of his thought. Some of this work, as we see in the volume edited by Bernd Wacker, usefully connects Schmitt with the general crisis in German theology and political thought at the beginning of the century, particularly with Protestant and Catholic thinkers such as Karl Barth, Friedrich Gogarten, and Erik Peterson. Much of it, like Günter Meuter’s bloated and unfocused book on Schmitt’s “fundamentalist critique of the age,” simply muddies the issues.

Standing far above the rest, however, is Heinrich Meier’s new study, Die Lehre Carl Schmitts (Carl Schmitt’s Teaching), which covers all of Schmitt’s writings, including his Glossarium. It shows Meier to be a theologically “musical” reader of Schmitt (Walter Benjamin was another) who hears the deep religious chords sounding beneath the surface of his seductive prose. Meier’s work has forced everyone to take a second look at the assumptions underlying Schmitt’s better-known writings and reconsider some that have been ignored.

One of Schmitt’s half-forgotten but explicitly theological works is his early Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923), which has now appeared in a new English translation. This work is important because it shows that beneath Schmitt’s surface realism lie some very firm notions about the ideal political order and how nearly the Catholic Church once embodied it. The great political virtue of the Church, he writes, is always to have understood itself as a complexio oppositorum, a complex of doctrinal and social opposites brought into harmonic unity. The Church places the need for unity above all else since it must rule authoritatively over the society and represent it before God. Its authority is legitimized symbolically through ritual rather than legally through neutral rules; it sees itself as representing the entire body of the faithful, not particular individuals. Schmitt saw the Church’s understanding of the good political order as having come under attack in the modern age, threatened by the idea of political individualism and by a capitalist economy that subordinated social ends to calculating means. While he was under no illusion about the Church’s reacquiring political authority in modern Europe, he had a very precise (if fictional) idea of the unified Christian world we had lost, and this remained his standard for measuring all subsequent political developments.

This is not to say that Schmitt was a Catholic thinker in any traditional sense. Although he was born into a conservative Catholic family, his theological speculations are an entirely homemade brew of modern existentialism and premodern heresies that the Church suppressed centuries ago. Schmitt’s God is not the God of Saint Thomas, ruling over a rationally ordered natural world in which human beings find their place, but a hidden, decision-making God, a sovereign who has already revealed divine truths once and for all, and whose authority offers the sole foundation for those truths. And the central truth He has revealed to us is that everything is a matter of divine politics. In Political Theology Schmitt writes,

The political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision…. This also holds for the question whether a particular theology is a political or an unpolitical theology.

As Heinrich Meier explains, this equation of politics and theology is for Schmitt a revealed truth closed to the rational inquiry of secular philosophy, which cannot hope to penetrate the mystery of revelation. At a certain point, one must simply decide—about politics as much as about faith. The sovereign decides on political action and we must decide the question “Christ or Barabbas?” The problem with liberals, Schmitt remarks ironically, is that they meet this question with a proposal to adjourn or appoint a committee of inquiry.

If Schmitt’s decisionism is difficult to explain in traditional theological categories, his principle of political enmity is impossible to reconcile with his professed Christianity. Although he appeals to the doctrine of original sin, writing that “all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil,” his distinction between friend and enemy is closer to the gnostic bloodlust of Joseph de Maistre than to the Sermon on the Mount. In several places he speaks of the creation of the world as issuing from a divine struggle, and human conflict for him seems to be a reenactment of this struggle, willed by a God who has condemned us to be political. Cain was set against Abel, Esau against Jacob, and the whole of humanity was set against Satan, whom God told, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15). In The Concept of the Political Schmitt finds the true character of human political enmity captured in a speech by Oliver Cromwell, who once described papist Spain as “the natural enemy, the providential enemy [whose] enmity is put into him by God.” Commenting on this passage, Meier remarks that Schmitt seemed to believe “that the enemy is part of a divine order, and that war has the character of a divine judgment.”

Seen in this light, the liberal search for peace and security represents a rebellion against God; and the serpent who tempted us was none other than Thomas Hobbes. Schmitt, who is sometimes mistaken for a Hobbesian, actually wrote a critical study of him, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1938), which has just appeared in English. This is perhaps Schmitt’s most self-revealing and (not by chance) most anti-Semitic work, and Meier is right to concentrate on it. Like Schmitt, Hobbes understood man to be belligerent and religion to be simultaneously a source of political unity and conflict. But rather than accept perpetual conflict as the price to be paid for the unity offered by a Christian polity, Hobbes, in Schmitt’s analysis, devised an absolutely secular polity ruled mechanistically by a “mortal God” who was the central controlling force in a civil—that is, non-Christian—religion. By replacing the true God with a human one, Schmitt alleges, Hobbes taught Christian Europe how to evade God’s divine command, “fight thy enemy.”

In Schmitt’s twisted reasoning, the real beneficiaries of modern liberal peace were not cowards and atheists but Jews, the quintessential domestic “strangers.” We learn this, he says, by studying Spinoza, “the first liberal Jew,” who, following Hobbes, preached toleration of private religious beliefs. This principle enticed Christians into letting down their guard and permitting Jews to pursue their “will to power” through Masonic Lodges, synagogues, and literary circles, which in turn spawned the political and economic order dominated by Jews today. According to an ancient kabbalistic tradition, Schmitt asserts, the Jews stand on the sidelines while the Christian peoples heed God’s call to battle, and the Jews “then eat the flesh of those killed and live off it.” Liberalism simply institutionalizes this practice.

The liberal secular state, then, is the product of a battle not between nations or classes, but between man and God. Man decided that the enmity between human beings that God commanded was too harsh; he preferred peace and plenty to the miracles of saints and the decisions of sovereign rulers. The prototypical figure of the modern age is the romantic, a new human type whom Schmitt acutely dissected in Political Romanticism (1919). Freed from God and rulers, cushioned by the comforts of bourgeois life, the romantic is an empty shell of a man who flits from commitment to commitment as occasion demands, conversant with all faiths but believing in none.

Against the romantic with his tolerant liberalism stands an assortment of modern revolutionaries and reactionaries who continue to see political struggles in the apocalyptic terms of religious war. The anarchist Bakunin’s motto, “Ni Dieu, ni maître,” earned him Schmitt’s respect as the “theologian of the anti-theological, the dictator of the anti-dictatorial,” while the nineteenth-century Catholic counter-revolutionary Donoso Cortés is praised by Schmitt for perceiving the satanic quality in man’s rebellion. Enemies in the great conflicts of the revolutions of 1848, these two precisely understood each other; they saw the decisions before them and made them without flinching.

Those who call for “existential” decisions always manage to be living in decisive times. As Meier shows in the fine concluding chapter of his study, Schmitt saw his work as a bulwark against the forces of modern history, which in his view had reached a crisis. “Iam a theologian of jurisprudence,” he writes in his Glossarium. He was, he wrote, devoted to “a real Catholic intensification (against the neutralizers, the aesthetic decadents, against the abortionists, corpse burners, and pacifists).” The Jews were not random targets of Schmitt’s wrath; nor was his anti-Semitism calculated merely to curry favor with Nazi officials.6 In his demonology, Jews represented the “providential” enemy who must be resisted by doing “the work of the Lord.”

That Schmitt never considered his decision to support the Nazis to have been more than a tactical error is also entirely consistent with his political theology. His romanticizing of Catholic institutions, his praise of Mussolini, his attempts to salvage democratic legitimacy from the legalism of the Weimar system, and his work for Hitler, while not consistent, reflect a willingness to encourage any force that might do battle against the secularized liberal age. He describes himself repeatedly as a katechon, the Greek term Saint Paul uses when speaking of the force that holds off the Anti-Christ until the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 2:6). As for his speculations about the new “nomos of the earth,” they reflect nothing so much as the messianic longings of an aging apocalyptic thinker.

Heinrich Meier’s treatment of Schmitt’s writings is morally analytical without moralizing, a remarkable feat in view of Schmitt’s past. He wishes to understand what Schmitt was after rather than to dismiss him out of hand or bowdlerize his thought for contemporary political purposes. And if this seriousness leads Meier to vastly overstate Schmitt’s own significance as a thinker, it has the advantage of throwing indirect light on an important phenomenon that he represents within liberal society.

Like any other political doctrine, liberalism makes assumptions about things human and divine, and these assumptions are, and ought to remain, open to disinterested reflection. Those who seriously question such assumptions are not necessarily wrong to do so and their arguments ought to be engaged. But for nearly two centuries now, the advocates of liberal ideas have also found themselves confronted by opponents like Schmitt, who are so convinced that the modern age represents a cosmic mistake that they are willing to consider any extreme, intellectual or political, to correct it. While few of Schmitt’s contemporary promoters may share his peculiar theological vision, many display his violent distaste for liberal society; and like him they long passionately for a new dispensation. Given the power of such passions, and the damage they can cause, we should be scrupulous in distinguishing liberalism’s genuinely philosophical critics from those who practice the politics of theological despair. Anyone who tries to learn from Carl Schmitt without making this elementary distinction will have learned nothing at all.

This Issue

May 15, 1997