Carl Schmitt: A Biography
Reinhard Mehring (trans. Daniel Steuer)
Reinhard Mehring’s Carl Schmitt: A Biography, dutifully translated by Daniel Steuer, is a difficult book for two reasons. At well over 500 pages, with complex jargon and a healthy dose of German-language legalese, it is an exceptionally dense biography by necessity; to truly appreciate Schmitt, the man and one of the leading legal minds of the Third Reich, understanding his juridic and philosophical development is a prerequisite for virtually all else. While his life’s broad personal and familial outlines are thoroughly rendered in the text, it is his ideas, his arguments, his contributions to Nazism which appropriately receive primary attention. Second, and related to the focus on Schmitt’s evolving political thought, this book is difficult for the reading experience it provides—a brilliant man’s steady descent from the traditions of realist international relations theories and debates over the role of the state toward justifying and rationalizing total state capacity for domination of civic life. As Steuer notes in his translator’s preface, understanding Schmitt’s life story, “if . . . [it] proves one thing, it is that intelligence is neither a protection against delusion nor a guarantee of moral integrity” (xii). As his life unfolds over the first several chapters—from unlikely, humble origins to the highest rungs of German academia in the interwar period and, later, into the judicial machinery of Hitler’s Reich—one’s initial appreciation for Schmitt’s intelligence and wit, his seemingly mundane yet relatable personality traits, all erodes under a constant sense of foreboding. His escalating rhetoric and detachment from moderating influences in his life move in lockstep with the rise of Nazism and Hitler, but appear inseparable. The reader is constantly forced to contextualize his transformation: to what extent was Carl Schmitt’s “Nazification” driven by his sincere belief in the promise of the totalitarian regime? While unsatisfactory to some readers, Mehring deliberately avoids spelling it out, opting instead for a “quasi-positivist,” maximally impartial presentation. The unavoidable result is a far more terrifying portrait of Schmitt than even Hannah Arendt offered of the self-parodying, but authentically arch-villainous Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of an eminently knowable evil.
Mehring moves through Schmitt’s life in (mostly) chronological order, but begins his introductions elsewhere, in Schmitt’s mid-sixties, long after the fall of Hitler and the separation of the two Germanys. At the outset, Mehring explores Schmitt’s “conception of himself,” in his own words for a contributor’s biographical note: “a white raven that can be found on every blacklist” (xv-xvi). Picking up on these “ciphers,” Mehring dismisses their veracity, then sets up the broadest outline of the text to follow, which frequently returns to this self-conception of a morally clean man amidst widespread damnation:
“[Expect] the old story of rise and fall: the biography of a social climber and outsider, who, with regard to power and law, chose as his theme the political conditions and foundations of constitutions . . . [as well as] a case study in the risks to which a committed constitutional lawyer exposes himself by becoming politically entangled . . . the gradual descent of a highly talented and slightly extravagant intellectual to the depths of National Socialist and anti-Semitic delusion [from which he] never fully recovered” (xvi).
These sweeping views of Schmitt—the man, the intellectual, the jurist, the apologist, the war criminal—which define his treatment throughout the book are absent solely in the concise, sparse overview of his early years and young adulthood. Indeed, the first chapter moves quickly to establish the young Schmitt as a bright but otherwise independent, quiet child, his formative years set in the small industrial town of Plettenberg, in what is now west-central Germany. Schmitt learned French and Latin, developed his lifelong talent for piano playing, and later he frequently moved between schools, from a “strict [Catholic] boarding school” at Attendorn to his academic career in universities across Germany and elsewhere in present-day Central Europe (3-6). Among his immediate family, Carl’s closest confidante and frequent object of correspondence was his youngest sister, Auguste: “Carl’s letters [to her] were an important link home . . . partly pedagogical in tone, and not only contained information on what happened back home but also tried to stimulate, encourage and give advice to Auguste” (25). Despite paternal condescension at times, Carl’s letters to Auguste were both sprawling and intimate, with various moments of crisp wit (“with regard to the financial side of things, we both haven’t been very careful in the choice of our parents”) or of bitter complaints “about social injustices” of modernity (“This is what makes our times so dreadful, that the individual person, what he is and... can do, never matters, but only the role he plays within society,” 26). The seemingly irreconcilable threads of Schmitt run through his long life: doting, brotherly care for Auguste and, later, for his students; his social striving, beset by years of “dependency” on others’ resources (27); and his shifting political views, from lamenting the futility of individual agency to reverence for the state as an ultimate power and authority.
The arc of Schmitt’s life is roughly split into three distinct phases in Mehring’s work, from his academic life during the Weimar Republic through the rise and fall of Nazism to the postwar, post-Nuremberg era of semi-disengagement from public life. The political instability of Weimar Germany provides not only the foundation for many of Schmitt’s critiques of parliamentary governance, but also a subject of considerable personal ire. In his written correspondence especially, Schmitt shows a constant tension between making use of the liberal openness of Weimar, and withering condemnation of its political frailty and economic crises. Weimar Berlin personifies this tension, both as “the Babel of the world” (Stefan Zweig) and as the fountainhead of an “epoch of splendor,” pervading “the Reich capital’s [rich] cultural life” (Bruno Walter). Berlin was thus a den of morally repudiated vices, yet an object of widespread desire. In Heinrich Mann’s view, the “man who had Berlin owned the world,” and Schmitt’s “social-climber” ambitions drove him constantly toward the great city. As Schmitt was pulled toward the political establishment there, he gradually abandoned academic writing, “crossing the Rubicon” and forsaking scholarly publications for the rewards of political influence (285). With the collapse of the parliamentary republic in the early 1930s and attendant rise of National Socialism, the remaking of Schmitt’s life included a casting off of old personal ties—including longtime colleagues and friends, whose support was essential to his ascendance in academia, along with others within nationalist circles, such as Ernst Jünger. Among these close associates, the number and depth of relationships with Jewish friends and their families is particularly striking. By the mid-1930s, “it becomes clear that he lost many old and close relationships because of [Nazism].” Of this turning point, as Schmitt settled into the insular halls of power in Nazi governance, Mehring concludes: “He betrayed his former life... For him, the just and the good coincided. The tyrant, ultimately, was an unhappy man. However, worse than the barbarization of the tyrants’ own souls is the fate of the persecuted” (286).
As Schmitt entered this second phase of his adult life, his writing and correspondence abandoned earlier themes: the nature of legal “right” and Church–state relations, Catholic ideals, even his polemical writings on the German “total State.” Rather, his writings became almost perfunctory. Die deutschen Intellektuellen (The German Intellectuals, published May 31, 1933), for example, is particularly notable for advancing “a legal framework for forced expatriation,” condemnation of Weimar German intellectuals (who “never belonged to the German people [nor] to the German spirit”), and open support for book-burning and mass revocations of citizenship rights (296–7). By 1939, on the eve of global war, Schmitt had achieved his remaking: a complete break with his earlier intellectual and personal social circles, as well as a faculty position at the Nazi-aligned Berlin University—and a defining slot on the “Führerrat” (Führer’s Council, 304–5). While the quality and intellectual rigor of Schmitt’s writing dramatically collapsed, his output was prolific, including treatises on the nature of “just war” (blown open, in defiance of accepted convention, to match “just cause” for war to the necessity of total war) and what constitutes “peace” (citing, of all examples, Czechoslovakia, while condemning the Versailles Treaty and all other “peace . . . of the interwar period, which allowed the toleration of hostile behaviour below the threshold of outright war,” 359–60).
The greatest weakness of Mehring’s biography owes to the lack of reliable resources available at the time of writing rather than any failing on the biographer’s part. Despite the enormous volume of Schmitt’s writing, insights into the wartime years (1939–45) are scant, or otherwise only loosely presented. While readers will see an exhaustively detailed account of Schmitt’s early years and rise to power within the National Socialist establishment, his actual conduct therein is elusive; Schmitt’s own testimony and his written correspondence during the Nuremberg Trials and immediate postwar years provide the only clues—frustratingly inconsistent and uninformative reflections, at that. Fortunately, Mehring’s concluding paragraphs highlight the constant discovery of newfound manuscripts and letters, by Schmitt and other confidants of the Nazi regime, which may fill in these research gaps through subsequent works.
In the pantheon of twentieth-century public intellectuals, Carl Schmitt often seems buried or otherwise relegated to footnotes—literally in the case of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. As such, Mehring enjoys great latitude in filling out the details of his thought, and of his turbulent personal and professional lives, to great effect. At times, Mehring’s own humor provides considerable relief to the reader; describing Carl’s first wife, Cari, the author quips that “Cari’s life had the quality of a performance on stage; whether her stage performances had quality is less certain” (42). Later in Part II (97-272), however, Mehring’s prose proves less accessible when discussing Schmitt’s writings during World War I and the Weimar era. As Weimar’s parliamentarianism collapsed and National Socialism rose, Schmitt wrote several of his definitive works in rapid succession: The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1926), The Concept of the Political (1927), and Constitutional Theory (1928), among others. Mehring consistently makes clear not only the progression of Schmitt’s rejection of Weimar Germany and its form of parliamentarianism, but also Schmitt’s opportunistic alignment with Nazism.
Mehring’s Carl Schmitt fulfills its dual aims of providing the first complete biography of its complex central figure, and even more challenging, of doing so as impartially as possible. There are countless volumes of work on Nazism, Nazi leadership, the Holocaust, and World War II broadly, across the full range of social sciences and humanities disciplines. It may not seem a fertile ground for further research, much less research which resonates with contemporary readers. Yet Mehring’s biography proves an exception through its focus on a singular character, especially Schmitt “as a political actor,” rather than purveyor of philosophical and juridic esoterica (539). In doing so, readers may see an instructive “historical ‘case’, [telling] Schmitt’s crisis-ridden life as a paradigmatic story from a crisis-ridden time” (541), offering lessons nearly a century after his first published writings. With today’s creeping radicalization of right-wing parties in Western nations, ongoing refugee crises matched only by those following the World Wars, this “case of Schmitt,” contrary to Mehring’s downplayed conclusions, should be viewed as an abject warning sign no less applicable in these present times of crisis.
Andy Jon Carr
Carr is a resident of San Francisco, California, where he works for an international nonprofit organization. He is also an editor and writer, mainly covering global politics, development, and urban sustainability.