An Authentic Case of a Christian Epimetheus

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Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was born into a strongly Catholic family in Plettenberg, Westphalia. His modest origins and his religious identity perhaps contributed to his ambition and also to a certain incorrigible insecurity. Trained in legal studies, he rose rapidly from academic obscurity to an appointment at the prestigious Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin in 1933, a position which he lost after World War II because of his complicity with the Third Reich. His advancement was assisted by a prolific outpouring of books and articles on jurisprudence, constitutional and political theory, and broader cultural topics, all written against the backdrop of the Weimar Republic and its fluctuating fortunes. Schmitt's writings reflect his skepticism about the reigning neo-Kantian philosophy of law and about legal positivism, his concern for the viability and legitimacy of Weimar democracy and a fascination with dictatorship, and his hostility to liberalism of all kinds, political, philosophical, economic, and religious. His brilliant style, breadth of interests, and responsiveness to current events won him a reputation well beyond the university world. Catholics hailed him as a promising apologist, though some came to doubt his political and religious loyalties when the Weimar Republic slid into its final crisis and gave way to National Socialism.

Scholars disagree about Schmitt's involvement in the death of democracy. His two biographers, Joseph Bendersky and Paul Noack, have treated him rather deferentially (Bendersky 1983; Noack 1993), whereas Andreas Koenen's Der Fall Carl Schmitt makes a perhaps excessive case for the prosecution (Koenen 1995; see Seubert 2002: Ila). Schmitt certainly had serious doubts about parliamentary democracy and the system of party politics. He strongly supported the use of Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, which authorized direct presidential rule in emergencies. By the end of the 1920s he had become an admirer of Mussolini and Italian fascism, an affinity that Piet Tommissen has suggested originated in Schmitt's horror at the revolutionary outbreaks in Germany after World War I (Quaritsch 1988: 91-2). On the other hand, he defended constitutional government, albeit in a presidential and authoritarian form, until the bitter end. He publicly opposed the National Socialists as a lethal threat to the constitution and to sound government. In the fall of 1932 Schmitt was made the Reich government's chief advocate before the Supreme Court to defend the Reich's assumption of direct rule in Prussia, which some regarded as a prelude to dictatorship. He also became an advisor to the ambitious defense minister General Kurt von Schleicher, whose brief tenure as chancellor (December 1932 to January 1933) marked the zenith of Schmitt's influence in public affairs. In January 1933 the chairman of the Catholic Center Party, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, publicly accused him of plotting a Schleicher dictatorship, which reflects the suspicion in which he was now held in the camp of political Catholicism. According to Ernst Huber, then Schmitt's student assistant, that suspicion was not groundless (Huber 1988: 40-50; Lonne 1994: 26-7).

Hitler's chancellorship and the accelerating National Socialist revolution in the spring of 1933 forced Schmitt to reconsider his anti-Nazi views. Perhaps feeling that he needed to prove his loyalty to the new regime, he surprised many of his friends by joining the party on May 1, 1933. His anxieties were intensified a year later on the "Night of the Long Knives," June 30, 1934, when Hitler authorized the murder of more than a hundred party members. Among the victims were also prominent non-Nazi conservatives such as Schmitt's former patron, General Schleicher. From 1933 through 1936 Schmitt held a number of Nazi-approved administrative and editorial appointments, in addition to his university position. During this period he published a series of legal studies that defended and legitimated the regime, including defenses of the 1934 purge and the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws. Such work has stigmatized him ever since as the "crown jurist" of the Third Reich. During this period his writing and his professional activities also reveal a blatant antisemitism. His defenders have argued that he never shared the biological racism of the Nazis, and that his antisemitism was contrived to protect himself against his enemies in the party (Bendersky 1983: 226-36). This position has become much less tenable since the posthumous publication of his diary. Others see his anti-Jewish cultural and religious prejudices as conventional: "Schmitt's anti-Semitism was standard equipment for the educated classes in Weimar, as we see indicated even in one of the few Vernunft-Republikaner such as Thomas Mann" (Lauermann 1994: 312). Be that as it may, the war did nothing to diminish those prejudices (Meier 1991: 8-9; 1998: 151-60; see also Gross 2000).

Nazi zealots and academic rivals eventually brought Schmitt down. They were assisted by the efforts of his disillusioned protégé Waldemar Gurian, a prominent Catholic writer who was forced to flee to Switzerland because of his anti-Nazism and his Jewish ancestry. Through a newsletter smuggled into Germany, Gurian campaigned relentlessly to "out" Schmitt as a pseudo-Nazi and cynical servant of whoever held power (Hurten 1972: 12-14, 119-20, 127-8). In 1936 articles in an SS newspaper intimidated Schmitt into resigning most of his posts aside from his university position. From 1937 to the end of the war he kept a low profile and turned his scholarly attention to international law. Even then, however, his publications espoused positions consistent with Hitler's expansionism. After the war he was arrested and spent a year and a half in an American military prison until his release in April 1947. Though he escaped criminal conviction, moral opprobrium clung to Schmitt for the rest of his long life. In the summer of 1945, he inscribed this verdict in his diary: "It is the bad, unworthy and yet authentic case of a Christian Epimetheus" (Schmitt 1950: 12): a puzzling statement, though it comes closer to a confession than anything Schmitt published in his lifetime (Meier 1998: 132-4). The mythical Epimetheus (meaning "Afterthought"), brother of Prometheus and husband of Pandora, was guilty of foolishness and fear: frightened by what Zeus had done to his brother, he ignored his brother's advice to take no gifts from Zeus and accepted the woman Pandora as his wife. She, of course, let loose the ills that Prometheus had confined to a jar. But the myth rather underplays Epimetheus' personal responsibility; how did Schmitt see this as a Christian story?

After he was forbidden to teach, Schmitt retreated into internal exile in Plettenberg, which he called his "San Casciano," after the place of Machiavelli's forced retirement at the hands of the Medici - another telling self-dramatization, as Heinrich Meier has noted (1991: 2-3). There he eventually resumed writing and eagerly hosted visitors who sought him out for scholarly counsel and discussion. Besides the predictable conservatives, from the late 1960s the political left showed up as well - some leftists, most famously Walter Benjamin, had always found things to admire in Schmitt. Alexander Kojève told Jacob Taubes that Schmitt was the only person in Germany worth talking to (Taubes 1987: 24). Since Schmitt's death in 1985, interest in him has grown rapidly. Today many regard him as one of the most original voices in modern German intellectual history, even though every aspect of his work continues to be contested and argued, not least his services to the Third Reich.

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