Carl Schmitt and the Question of Political Experience

Carl Schmitt and the Question of Political Experience


Hans Sluga



Carl Schmitt is known to us as an acute though controversial political thinker but his biographer tells us an unnerving story that might seem to undermine his claim to our attention. The case raises broader questions, I want to suggest, about the relation of political thought to experience. This proves, however, an elusive topic and something needs to be said about it before I can turn directly to Schmitt and the story about him I have in mind.

The first thing to note is that political theorists do not worry enough about the evidential sources, the cognitive status, and the epistemic aporias of their undertaking. They have (so they think) more urgent and practical tasks to fulfill. Such confidence is, however, undermined by even the most elementary considerations of a political epistemology. I have two reasons for addressing this topic, as I do here, in connection with Schmitt. The first is that Schmitt’s own considerations can help us to advance the epistemological inquiry needed and the second that its outcome can assist us in determining the uses and limitations of Schmitt’s political theorizing. It is along this wide arc of reflection that I propose then to move in this essay: I begin with somewhat programmatic remarks of an epistemological kind, turn next to observations about Schmitt and his politics in 1933 and then to the promised story which takes place eleven years later. I conclude with some further epistemological considerations about Schmitt’s work and political theory as a whole.


Elements of a political epistemology

Aristotle is, as far as I know, the only political philosopher to have wondered over the relation of theory to experience. We can give him credit for this but must add immediately that he too speaks of the matter only in an aside and in terms that are ultimately inadequate. He raises the topic, in fact, only once at the very end of the Nicomachean Ethics and then in the limited context of an attack on sophistic political theory. He complains there that the sophists purport to be able to teach what politics is (ta politika) while none of them has ever actually practiced it. Real politicians, he adds, become expert through practical engagement in politics and thus draw on ability (dynamis) and experience (empeiria) rather than on abstract reasoning (dianoia). He concludes somewhat inconsequentially that “this is why those who want to know about politics also seem to require experience.”[1] The first thing to note here is that Aristotle’s words are surely disingenuous since, just like the sophists, he himself never practiced politics but still wrote a book on ta politika. His observation that politicians come to their expertise through practice rather than the study of political theory is seductive but calls for some obvious qualifications. It does, in any case, not establish that political theorizing requires the same. The argument appears valid only because of the ambiguous meaning of the word “experience” which in Greek, just as in English, can refer to hands-on engagement with … and also to a more detached acquaintance with…. It appears evident that the theoretician of politics requires the latter and it may also be true that the practical politician needs hands-on experience. But this does not show that the theoretician requires the same kind of practical expertise. The one point on which Aristotle seems right is that the sophists cannot claim to be able to teach practical political expertise just because they believe to have a theoretical grasp of what politics is.

By concentrating on this dispute Aristotle, however, misses out on another and more important characteristics of political experience, both in its hands-on and in its acquaintance version. This is that experience in either sense can give us always only a selective and partial hold on political reality. The domain of politics is, unlike the subjects of natural science, radically unsurveyable.[2] By this I mean to pick out the following five characteristics. (1) What we call politics is a domain of such complexity that we can, in fact, have no comprehensive view of it. Politics deals, after all, with the most intricate and the most far-reaching interactions between human beings which are, in turn, shaped by various economic, psychological, and cultural factors. Even the most elementary facts concerning who did what to whom, when, and how are therefore subject to disagreement and when it comes to determining political motives and intentions the hermeneutic uncertainties multiply. Political matters are thus always in dispute and political disagreement concerns not only values, interests, and goals but just as much the facts on the ground. (2) Every particular political fact is seen in the light of the entire concurrent situation. Political phenomena are, in other words, holistic in nature and can be understood only as such. (3) While the current political situation is typically non-transparent, this holds even more so for the past which, in turn, bears on how we perceive the present and the future. (4) Political epistemology has to recognize, furthermore, that we experience this entire complex domain always only from a spatiotemporally circumscribed viewpoint. We see the world from here and from now and even small shifts in location can affect what we perceive and how we see it. (5) What is more, we are situated in this domain not as abstract observers but as interested parties who are naturally inclined to form subjectively colored and self-serving pictures of it. We must say then of every political situation that there is always more than one way to experience it and that politics is, indeed, to a large extent a sorting through and sorting out of the resulting different view-points.

The discovery that all political experience is partial would seem to justify some caution with regard to political theorizing. At a minimum it would seem to imply that we can consider political theories to be only speculative, that is, far-reaching extrapolations from the available data. Alternatively, it might suggest that only carefully delimited political theories can be justified by the data. Given such uncertainties it should not surprise us that at every moment there exist competing political theories. Given the paucity of the data on which those theories are based, we should also not be surprised to discover that they employ the most diverse explanatory concepts and that they may range from the sober to the paranoiac. More surprising is, however, that these theories are for the most part boldly maintained, that each of them presents itself almost always as all-encompassing, and that each of them contains within it almost always a withering critique of alternative theories.

We can illuminate this peculiar situation by throwing a glance at the area of religion. Religions, too, are preoccupied with large and, in fact, unsurveyable aspects of human existence. The data on which they are based are mostly speculative and uncertain and generally colored by wishful thinking. As a result, we discover that in this area too we encounter a rich array of competing doctrines. There is never just one religion, but many counter-religions; there is never just orthodoxy but multiple heterodoxies and heresies and even the most absurd beliefs have their devotees. Discourse between these belief systems proves to be full of obstacles since each of them claims to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and each seeks to expose deviant doctrines as degraded or evil. Every religious doctrine believes itself, of course, to be grounded in some experience. This experience has, however, a quite peculiar character: it typically takes the form of a sudden illumination or revelation, of a moment of vision or enlightenment; in short it has always the character of an existential encounter. We may call the type of experience involved here “formative” since in each case it forms the horizon in which the entire religious doctrine is situated. While such experience justifies (in some sense) the induced belief, it helps at the same time to immunize the believer against any new and discordant experience. This is now ignored, rejected off hand, or re-interpreted the light of the formative experience. Formative experience thus lends certainty to the belief where this would be otherwise not available. Transitions from one belief system to another do occur, but they do not have the character of a reasoned transformation of thought, they take the form rather of conversion, that is, the wholesale abandonment of one belief and the fervent submission to a new one in the light of a new illuminating experience.

Equivalent things can be said about the political domain and our political theories. This is not to suggest, of course, that religious dogma and political theory are in exactly the same condition. The facts to which religion refers us are typically beyond everyday reality. Religious doctrines can for that reason be maintained in the face of any encounter with actually reality. They prove thus strongly immune to countervailing experience and are dislodged not through an accumulation of evidence but through personal or social upheaval. This is not true in the same way in the domain of politics. Political theory in contrast to religious dogma is always checked by the reality principle. Still, we discover that in the political arena comprehensive doctrines are also upheld in a recalcitrant fashion, that is, even in the face of strong contradictory evidence. We may want to explain this by observing that in both the area of religion and that of politics doctrinal convictions serve not only the purpose of theoretical understanding but also that of enabling action. In order to perform the latter role, such doctrines may have to be held with undoubting certainty, without limitation on their scope, and in absolute opposition to deviant claims. This still leaves the question how in the case of political theory that purpose is achieved. I want to suggest here that the mechanism is essentially equivalent to that we have identified in the area of religious dogma, that in politics, too, our theories are built on formative experiences. The nature and content of these experiences will, of course, differ from those in the religious domain. They may be the experience of poverty, war, ethnic strife, cultural dislocation, injustice, and so on. Such experiences may reflect actual though select features of the political reality but may equally be illusory and the political doctrines derived from them may accordingly be more or less “realistic” or fantastic.

Some such thought is, indeed, to be found also in Schmitt. He writes of the 1848 revolution at one point as the “all determining event” and dividing-point of the century. “Every significant effect, every specific type of the 19th century has to be determined in relation to this historical break,” he notes and continues that “the generation for which the year 1848 was the great experience of their youth” (Bismarck, Richard Wagner, etc.) remained “imprinted from there” even decades later and even after it had turned into the establishment.[3] Schmitt ascribes to the 1848 generation a formative experience in our sense. Its political thinking is “imprinted” with a “great experience” that stays formative even after the social-political standing of its bearers has changed. A similar idea is worked out in Schmitt’s essay on “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations.” It  argues that our concept of the political varies over time as the central domains of our culture shift. These shifts define “stages” in the evolution of European culture. This is not meant to say that everyone in a century lives at the same stage. “On the contrary, there is always a pluralistic side-by-side; men of the same time and the same country, even of the same family live next to each other in different stages.” If we can speak of different central stages, he continues, this means only that in this period “the leading elites changed, that the evidence of their convictions and arguments altered continuously together with the content of their intellectual interests, the principle of their action, the secret of their political successes, and the readiness of the masses to let themselves be impressed by certain suggestions.”[4] For different individuals in one and the same culture, politics may thus present itself in different ways. These individuals see their own cultures differently. We might say that “the experience” of their culture is different and that these experiences are formative of how they, in turn, conceive of things politically. Such formative experiences may conform more or less to the socially dominant mode in which politics presents itself. The elite and the masses may be operating with different conceptions of one and the same moment and these conceptions may, in turn, once again be grounded in different formative experiences of the cultural and political situation.


Schmitt and Heidegger

I will try to illustrate this matter further by turning to Carl Schmitt who is a particularly troubling figure in the history of political thought. I agree with those who consider him to have been a singularly acute political thinker. His stress on the friend-enemy distinction as fundamental to politics is surely illuminating. Nevertheless, we are rightly disturbed by Schmitt’s political misjudgments, specifically so in the 1930’s and 40’s, which threaten to invalidate everything he has said. In taking that stance, we are motivated by a weaker version of Aristotle’s argument. Where he holds that practical expertise and, hence, good practical judgment on political matters is a prerequisite for political theorizing, we are now saying that a theorist’s political misjudgment may undermine our faith in his theory. This may still be too strong, as I will try to show, but in suggesting a broader separation of theory from practical judgment, I am aware that I am at the same time raising questions about the relevance of theory to practice. This is, however, something at which I can here only gesture.

What is troubling in Schmitt can be brought out most easily by comparing him to the better known yet similarly controversial figure of Martin Heidegger. Schmitt’s life mirrors, indeed, in many respect that of Heidegger and his work is problematic on some of the same grounds. In both cases it is the ominous figure of Adolf Hitler that stands in the way of a reasoned assessment. Born in 1888, Schmitt was an exact contemporary of Heidegger and Hitler and like them lived in young adulthood through the tribulations of the First World War, through the collapse of Imperial Germany, the subsequent rise of a shaky democracy, and an era of economic turmoil and ultimate devastation. As a result, all three men were ready by 1933 to wager the future of Germany on a dictatorial system of government. Schmitt’s and Heidegger’s work before that moment had certainly not been on the lines of Nazi mythology (as exemplified in Hitler’s Mein Kampf or in Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century) but both men proved willing to make common cause with Hitler’s movement and joined the Nazi party in the Spring of that year. Both had at the time considerable achievements behind them and both of them were on the brink of international recognition. Neither of them was thus forced to join on either personal or professional grounds; both were instead motivated, so it appears, by a mixture of anxiety, hope, and overweening ambition. Heidegger withdrew, of course, from active political engagement after a year while Schmitt retained his place in the political limelight until he was forced to the side by more radical elements in the Nazi movement. However, neither of them broke openly and decisively with the system while it existed. This and their later refusal to distance themselves from their evident misjudgment has exposed both men and their work to continued criticism.

The comparison may help us to see at the same time that Schmitt was ultimately the more distressing figure. For Heidegger was, of course, not, in the first instance, a political thinker, He had paid minimal attention to politics before 1933 and even afterwards remained sketchy in his political thinking. When the two men made contact in 1933 they discovered indeed common ground but it was Schmitt who set the political tone in their exchange of ideas. He sent Heidegger a copy of his essay on the political and inscribed it provocatively with Heraclitus’ aphorism that “conflict is the father of all things and king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, others free.” Heidegger, in return, acknowledged the significance that Schmitt’s essay had for him and specifically expressed his appreciation of Schmitt’s quotation from Heraclitus and when he himself reflected on politics two years later he began with that same aphoristic formula.[5] But where Schmitt had spoken of the conflict at the heart of politics as due to an existential division between human friend and enemy and thus in anthropological and political terms Heidegger saw such conflict as arising metaphysically in being itself. Even at his most political, Heidegger appears thus to have been motivated by broad ontological intuitions metaphysical and not by directly political ones.[6] Schmitt’s intuitions appear, on the other hand, seem to have been immediately political in character. He had certainly been focused on matters of politics since the time of the First World War and had written extensively on the topic. One should therefore have expected from him a more mature political judgment in 1933 than from Heidegger.

In trying to reach a proper critical perspective on Schmitt’s achievements and his limits as a political theorist I want to focus here not on the obviously troubling moment of his engagement with the Nazis in 1933 but on the more intriguing and I think more illuminating question of his relation (or, rather, lack of relation) to the assassination attempt on Hitler in July of 1944.


Schmitt and the conspiracy against Hitler

One of the civilians involved in that plot was Johannes Popitz, an arch-conservative politician who was also a financial wizard and had helped first the Weimar government through its economic woes and had subsequently offered his services to Hermann Goering as Minister of Finance in the Prussian State government. In that role he had continued till the moment of the attempt on Hitler’s life though increasingly opposed to the regime and more and more troubled by his involvement in it.

Carl Schmitt had come to know Popitz in 1929 and the two men had instantly recognized each other’s intellectual qualities, their shared political values and on that basis they had established a friendship in which they promoted each other’s ideas and fortunes.[7]  It was Popitz who introduced the ambitious Schmitt into Berlin’s political society while Schmitt incorporated, as he freely admitted, Popitz’s ideas in his 1931 book on The Guardian of the Constitution (Der Hüter der Verfassung). Their intellectual and personal contacts intensified when Schmitt was appointed to a professorship in Berlin in 1933. The two men then moved into adjoining villas in the exclusive neighborhood of Dahlem and from that moment on met regularly to talk about matters of shared interest and, in particular, about politics. In the course of those years, Schmitt’s admiration for Popitz never diminished. In 1940, for instance, he wrote glowingly of Popitz’s “great authority,” his “statesmanlike intelligence,” his “administrative and financial expertise,” and his “sense for a genuine theorizing in the best German tradition.”[8]

The idyllic picture of this friendship is, however, marred by the curious fact that Popitz never told Schmitt of his growing disaffection with Hitler and his decision to join the plot against his regime. [9]  By the summer of 1943 Popitz was deeply embroiled in this conspiracy and just as deeply regretful of his past engagement with Hitler’s system – so much so, in fact, that after the failure of the plot and his arrest and trial he declared his imminent execution an act of atonement for his previous errors. His change of mind was thus certainly of the greatest personal significance to him. Still, he never breathed a word to Schmitt about the plot itself or his change of mind about Hitler’s regime. He never made the slightest attempt to draw Schmitt into the plot, he never sought to bring him into contact with the other plotters, he never even mentioned the possibility of such a plot in Schmitt’s presence. It is true that by the middle of 1943 Popitz was under heavy police surveillance and had to be cautious about every word he uttered but this hardly explains his silence towards Schmitt, supposedly his close friend and ally. Popitz certainly knew that Schmitt was no rabid Nazi and years of acquaintance had taught him that he could rely on the man. After his arrest he entrusted Schmitt, indeed, with taking care of his family and everything else. How then do we explain Popitz’s silence? All we have is what he told his daughter on the matter – and in this lies the truly unnerving part of story with which I am here concerned. Popitz apparently told his daughter again and again that Schmitt simply understood nothing of politics.

Given their long association, we cannot take this to mean that he distrusted Schmitt’s integrity or intelligence or that he considered Schmitt’s writings without any merit. He seems to have thought, rather, that Schmitt lacked a sense for the political realities. But Popitz’s complaint was surely not just that Schmitt was no expert in practical matters; he appears to have thought, rather, that Schmitt’s thinking about politics, however intriguing it might be, lacked realism. That kind of doubt strikes me, indeed, as justified with respect to the way Schmitt interpreted three of his most central notions: namely, (1) his decisionism, (2) his belief in the need for the inner unity of the state, and (3) his views on political obligation.

On Schmitt’s picture politics concerns existential choices between friends and enemies. These are not absolutely predetermined but once the choice is made one must hold on to them to all possible extents. To do otherwise would be to fall back into the unprincipled occasionalism that Schmitt had decried in his early book on Political Romanticism. The circumstances suggest that Schmitt believed to have made such a choice in 1933. In the waning days of Weimar he had unsuccessfully urged the last pre-Nazi government to outlaw both Hitler’s movement and the Communist Party with the help of the constitution’s emergency decree. When this maneuver had been rejected as undemocratic and Hitler was finally voted into office on January 20, 1933, Schmitt staid in bed for three days, sick at heart over the unwanted turn of events. But a few months later he readily joined the Nazi party, accepted a professorship in Berlin, and became a member of Hermann Göring’s State Council. True to this fateful decision, he never broke with the Nazis, not even after his fall from grace in 1936 when Himmler and the SS discovered what he had been up to before Hitler’s rise to power. This faithfulness to his own earlier decision reflected, in turn, his conviction that the distinction between political friend and political enemy should ideally coincide with the boundaries of the state. He had been highly critical for that reason of the parliamentary system before 1933 with its party divisions, its endless debates and irresolvable disputes. On Schmitt’s picture, there would be ideally no divisions within the state and politics would become exclusively foreign politics. Finally, Schmitt held that political obligation was not based on some abstract duty but related directly to the sovereign’s ability to protect his subjects.

Schmitt was surely not wrong in thinking of himself as a Hobbesian in all these respects. His decisionism can, indeed, be interpreted as reformulating the Hobbesian theory of the social contract, his belief in the ideal unity of the state and the reduction of politics to foreign affairs corresponds to the Hobbesian doctrine of the absolute power of the sovereign, and his view of political obligation is directly and openly indebted to Hobbes’ formula “protecto ergo obligo.” In reflecting on Schmitt’s option for the Nazis it may, indeed, be illuminating to compare it to Hobbes’s decision to return to England in 1651 and to accept the sovereignty of the Cromwellian commonwealth. This is not to suggest that their respective choices should be judged in the same way. I mean to say only that the reasons which moved Schmitt and Hobbes to make their choices were in essence identical. This is certainly how Schmitt himself saw it when in the Winter of 1945-46 he sought to look back on the Nazi years. Of the German intelligentsia during that time – a group in which he surely included himself – he wrote apologetically: “It was full of fear of any civil war and showed little talent for conspiracies and plots.”[10] Instead of revolt there remained for this group “the old and proven quiet tradition of a withdrawal into private inwardness joined to the greatest willingness to cooperate correctly with everything demanded by the legal government of the day. And both positivists and pietists could easily agree to the practical conclusion that a government against which there existed not even a shadow counter-government was legal.” (Ibid.) Schmitt emphasized in this context once more “the eternal link between protection and obedience” (p. 20) and noted that a scholar can, after all, not choose his regime at will, concluding: “When the situation becomes completely abnormal and when no one protects him from outside against the internal terror, he must determine the limits of his loyalty by himself… The duty to unleash a civil war, to commit sabotage, and to become a martyr has its limits.” (p. 20-21) In the following year, Schmitt wrote in similar tones of Hobbes as a friend and intellectual brother who had not only been familiar with “the essential character of the modern Leviathan but also knew how to deal with it and how an independently thinking individual should best conduct himself when he examines such a dangerous subject.” (p. 66) Hobbes had been a man without illusions. “He went were he could reckon with the end of civil war and where he found effective protection. He did not mean to run into the knife of those who controlled power and law in his age… In fear and caution he became ninety years old and led the life of an independent spirit.” (p. 67)

Schmitt, too, was to live ninety years and more and he outlived not only his friend Popitz but almost all his contemporaries. Still, his words provide only a weak excuse for his quietude during the Nazi years and they would certainly not have been accepted by Popitz and his companions. Almost all of them had like Schmitt supported the regime in its early days. The soldiers among them had even sworn an oath of loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler. But they had all come to revise their earlier decision and had joined in the plot against Hitler despite their unease about their act of betrayal. Few political philosophers have recognized that deception, betrayal, and treason are regular and sometimes even necessary and defensible instruments of politics.[11] This widespread failing may be due to the fact that almost all political thought is conceived from the perspective of the state, government, and political order and hence seeks to uphold the values of promise keeping and the fulfillment of contracts and lauds such virtues as loyalty, faithfulness, and commitment. Betrayal (whether personal or political) is a shadier matter altogether and seems to encounter resistance in the deepest recesses of the psyche. This certainly appears to be true in Schmitt’s case. His early diary shows how he clung to the woman he loved despite numerous signs of her treachery. He did not have it in his the heart to abandon her and, instead, got married and even added her family name to his own. One day, however, his wife was gone together with all his possessions and money. Schmitt, the faithful Catholic, asked the Vatican to annul the marriage but was rebuffed and thus forced to marry his second wife in a secular ceremony. Even then he could not bring himself to break with the Church. And again, he could not get himself to break with the Nazis either after the Röhm Putsch in 1934 when many other bourgeois intellectuals distanced themselves from Hitler or after his own fall from grace with the Nazis in 1936, or after any of the other marking stones in the history of the system (the Kristallnacht, Stalingrad, etc.). It was almost as if each act of betrayal and each disaster spurred him on to stick even more fervently to his chosen commitment.

It was perhaps part of that same mindset that in his theory made him characterize the choice between political friend and political enemy as existential in character. The enemy, he wrote in The Concept of the Political, in “the other, the stranger,” he is, “in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien.”[12] Conspirators, on the other hand, are forced to strike all kinds of deals and establish all kinds of alliances, some temporary and some permanent, some with like-minded people and some with those who are “really” enemies and who may at a later moment once again turn into declared opponents. This was certainly true for the plotters against Hitler who counted conservatives and socialists, concerned Christians and sober nationalists, pacifists and militarists in their ranks. Popitz and a few others even urged that Himmler, the leader of the SS, should be drawn into the plot. They knew of Himmler’s ambitions and considered him useful in trying to bring Hitler down. They reasoned that they might later be able to turn the table on Himmler and his following. As it was, this contact with Himmler proved disastrous to the conspiracy. Himmler’s loyalty to Hitler was greater than his ambition and so through the surveillance of Popitz the Nazis were able to uncover the whole network of the conspiracy. Schmitt’s commitment to a decisive and clear-cut division between friend and enemy would, in any case, have made him a bad conspirator in this situation. He appears not to have understood that in politics distinctions between friends and enemies are not always decisive, that the political world is not made up of those who are existentially similar to us and those who are existentially other. We find ourselves, instead, generally moving in a field of shifting alliances, of temporary associations, of particular interests that we share while we differ in others. There are, in consequence, many levels, many degrees, and many kinds of political affiliation and political opposition and politics proves often to be an operating in a no-man’s land between sides that are not at all clearly defined.[13]

Popitz may thus have been right when he kept Schmitt out of the circle of the conspirators on the grounds that he failed to understand politics. But Schmitt’s kind of non-understanding allows for the possibility that he did at the same time discern some basic and illuminating characteristics of politics, that he did possess an insightful view into the nature and meaning of politics, and that he formulated a powerful and coherent concept of the political. Nothing in the actions of the conspirators committed them, after all, to the conclusion that politics was not a matter of exceptional, unique moments, that it was not a matter of sovereign political agents taking charge, and that it was not a matter of making fundamental decisions. On the contrary, everything they did would have confirmed in them this particular vision of politics. Nothing also forced the conspirators to reject Schmitt’s view of politics in terms of friend-enemy constellations. They differed, however, on the nature of such friend-enemy groupings – whether they should be conceived as existentially grounded or whether they might not also at times prove to be temporary, shifting, contingent, and partial alliances. What is both intriguing and troubling in Schmitt is, precisely, that we cannot easily dismiss the impression that he has got hold of something essential about politics. We may dispute with him whether all politics can be captured in the terms he makes available, but there is no doubt that exceptions, active subjects, decisions, and friend-enemy constellations characterize large parts of what we know as politics. But we are still also at the same time troubled by Schmitt’s personal history, by his actual political choices, by his apparent blindness to the nature of those he associated with, and by his stubborn determination to hold on to decisions once made.

But what exactly was the nature of the formative experience that pushed his thinking in this direction? Was it his reading of Hobbes that proved to be a formative experience? Or was it the horror of civil war that proved for both men the decisive experience? We need not doubt the importance of Hobbes for Schmitt’s thinking. But we must note that Hobbes did not, in fact, make the distinction between friend and enemy basic to his political theory. The terms “friend” and enemy” play, indeed, no role in his theorizing and his commonwealth is not defined by the polarity of friend and enemy but by its internal, quasi-contractual order. What gives Schmitt’s theory its distinctive character is, moreover, not the friend-enemy schema as such but the rigidity with which he enforces it. From where, then, derives the existential character of the friend-enemy grouping as Schmitt understands it? What is the origin and nature of the formative experience that constitutes and maintains it?

For this we must go back to an earlier moment in Schmitt’s life. A diary he kept  from October 1912 to February 1915 can help us further. The entries in it begin during a particularly turbulent time in Schmitt’s life with the conclusion of his studies and his first steps in a professional career and they end when he is drafted as a soldier into the armies of the First World War. Throughout, the diary is suffused by a sense of profound anxiety, resentment, and anger. Schmitt’s future appears as yet entirely uncertain; he is utterly impoverished, living on nothing but bread, butter, and the occasional cup of tea; his personal relationships are utterly insecure; the political situation is increasingly unstable. Far from hailing the beginning of the war in 1914 as an act of liberation, as so many Germans did at the time, Schmitt notes in his diary that “an immense mass of pathological feelings is now building up all over Europe so that perhaps very soon an epidemic of insanity will roll over people and we won’t be able to recognize ourselves anymore.”[14] His feelings turn particularly dark when his close Jewish friend, Fritz Eisler, is killed on the battlefield within months of the outbreak of the hostilities. Schmitt  records moments of complete despair at the time and thoughts of suicide. It is at this lowest point that he experiences a moment of overwhelming illumination. On October 18, 1914 he opens Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety and his eyes falls on some remarks about fate and genius. “God be praised, I am saved,” Schmitt’s diary notes that day. “I know now that I am right in my belief in fate.”[15] Everything, he concludes, depends on what kind of person and how he proceeds from this singular decisive moment. It is not my intention to decipher here the full meaning of this moment of enlightenment. What matters is that three things stand out in the diary entry. First, Schmitt’s deep sense of anxiety, second his identification with genius and fate, and third his reliance on one of the founders of existential thought. I have already considered anxiety, hope, and ambition as motives in Schmitt’s political choice in 1933. What remains to be emphasized is the deep and lasting impact that Kierkegaard had on him. This becomes more apparent still eight years later in Schmitt’s Political Theology of 1922. He refers there to Kierkegaard as someone who has demonstrated “the vital intensity possible in theological reflection in the nineteenth century.” This vitality shows itself, according to Schmitt, above all in Kierkegaard’s recognition that “the exception explains the general and itself.”[16] Kierkegaard is speaking here of the irreducible character of the particular event, of  concepts as arising from such particulars but never fully capturing them, and of human thought and action therefore as having to focus on the uniqueness of the particular. On this view, human beings should not conceive of their actions as mere implementations of rules or norms. They must take responsibility, rather, for the individual decisions they make. They must choose for themselves, must take a stand and say to themselves “either-or.” We can see then that Schmitt’s reference to Kierkegaard was intended to give support to his political decisionism.

I conclude then that Schmitt’s formative political experience is to be found in his encounter with Kierkegaard and that this led him eventually to think of the friend-enemy schema in the existential terms he adopts and that here is to be found the source of the aporias in Schmitt’s politics after 1933. This is not to adopt the view that Schmitt was ultimately a theological thinker. It is important here that the content of his moment of enlightenment was not religious nature, that it concerned fate and genius rather than any specifically religious and Christian matter. The truth is, rather, that his formative experience of an the existential character of human choice has certain structural features in common with the religious choice between good and evil: it is the idea of a definitive and fateful decision.



I began by distinguishing two meanings in the term “political experience.” (1) We say of people that they possess such experience when they have been engaged in political affairs for a long time, when they know the people, the institutions, the rules, the machinations and tricks that are part of the business of politics, when they can move boldly and efficiently through the political process. Political philosophers typically lack experience in this sense. (2) But there is also the experience of being struck by a distinctive feature of politics, of coming to see politics in the unifying light of a single formative experience. This is, perhaps, the particular power of philosophy and it can provide us with broad understandings of the nature of politics. These, in turn, can help us to navigate the political waters but they can also make us misjudge the political realities. The two kinds of experience overlap but do not necessarily co-exist.

Having made this distinction we are left to wonder about the exact nature of the achievement of a thinker like Schmitt and, more generally, about the possible achievements of political theory. What do political thinkers grasp when they develop theories on the basis of their formative experiences? How far can we trust those  experiences and how far can we trust the theories built on them? I want to urge here at the end that we cannot do without formative experiences in politics. While such experiences may at times limit the horizon of our understanding of politics, they are needed, in the first place, to open up such horizons and thus make political thinking possible. A strictly positivistic science that restricts itself to accumulating objective political data is, in fact, impossible and what presents itself as such is, instead, only an enterprise that relies on formative experience in a tacit and unexamined manner. The lesson to be learned is not that we must do without formative experiences but that not every such experience is equally illuminating and that that every such experience needs to be scrutinized. The proper conclusion is a moderate skepticism with respect to political theorizing and if we are to blame Schmitt for anything it is precisely for this lack of skepticism towards his own formative experiences, his own conceptual distinctions, and his own thought.



[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1181a.

[2] I have borrowed this term from Wittgenstein who writes in the context of an examination of meaning and language:  “A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view (übersehen) of the use of our words. – Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity (Übersichtlichkeit).” (Philosophical Investigations, § 122) Wittgenstein seems to be implying that cultural phenomena in general lack such perspicuity. He does not, however, raise the question whether the same might not be true of natural phenomena as well. Should we not say, for instance, that we also do not command a clear view of the totality of astronomical facts? In order to distinguish this possible form of unsurveyability I speak of the “radical unsurveyability” of political phenomena as characterized by the following five features.

[3] Carl Schmitt, “Die Stellung Lorenz von Steins in der Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts,” in Carl Schmitt, Staat, Großraum, Nomos, p. 157.

[4] Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen, pp. 81-82.

[5] Hans Sluga, “‘Conflict is the Father of All Things’: Heidegger’s Polemical Conception of Politics,” in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, edited by Richard Polt and Gregory Fried, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2001, pp. 205-225.

[6] This shows, significantly, that the formative experiences behind a political view need not themselves be political in character but can draw on any domain of human consciousness.

[7] For details on this whole story see Paul Noack, Carl Schmitt. Eine Biographie, Propyläen, Frankfurt 1993, specifically pp. 102-107.

[8]Schmitt, “Die Stellung  Lorenz von Steins,” loc. cit., p. 160.

[9] Roger Manville and Heinrich Fraenkel, The July Plot. The Attempt on Hitler’s Life in July 1944, The Bodley Head, London 1964.

[10]  Carl Schmitt, “Ex Captivitate Salus. Experiences from the Time of 1945-47. Greven, Cologne 1950, p. 18.

[11] An exception is Stuart Hampshire who writes: “Deception and concealment in politics, and the complexity of motive that leads to treachery, have always attracted me… I have difficulty in imagining that purity of intention and undivided purposes can be the normal case in politics. I believe that many people feel divided between openness and concealment, between innocence and experience…” He goes on to say that there exists an “unavoidable split … between acclaimed virtues of innocence and the undeniable virtues of experience.” Moral theory, he argues, tends to cover this rift and therefore has often a fairy-tale quality in relation to politics. Stuart Hampshire, Innocence and Experience, Harvard U.P., Cambridge, Mass. 1989, pp. 11-12.

[12] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translated by George Schwab, Chicago Uinversity Press, Chicago 1996, p. 27.

[13] Schmitt was wrong not only in his thinking about the role of friend-enemy divisions in politics. He was equally mistaken in what he thought about the unity of the state. In this he was not only forgetful of the inherently pluralistic character of all politics but certainly also entirely unrealistic in the actual situation of his time. Germany had, in fact, been deeply divided before 1933 and no act of a sovereign power could make it otherwise. Hitler’s abolition of the political parties, of a free parliament, and of political debate had papered over the differences but they re-appeared like hidden messages after the rain in the internal divisions of the new regime, in the conspiracies against it, and more forcefully still after the war in the division between East and West. Finally, one must say that Popitz and the conspirators understood better than Schmitt the destructive and self-destructive character of the Nazi system. While they might or might not have quarreled with Schmitt’s Hobbesian account of political obligation, they would probably have reminded him that by 1943 Hitler was no longer protecting the German people and that for this reason alone, if for no other one, obedience to his orders could no longer be considered obligatory.

[14] Ibid., p. 291.

[15] Ibid., p. 222

[16] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, translated by George Schwab, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1988, p. 15. The passage Schmitt quotes is from Kierkegaard’s Repetition.

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