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The Core Curriculum

Carl Schmitt

1888 CE – 1985 CE

Carl Schmitt. (Wikimedia Commons)Carl Schmitt. (Wikimedia Commons) Carl Schmitt was a German legal and political theorist.  His work focused on the state and sovereignty, the nature of politics, international law, religion and modernity and the basis of law.  He is a controversial thinker mainly because he accepted a top academic post in Hitler’s Germany and wrote in support of the Nazi regime.  His refusal to undergo de-nazification after World War II led to his being banned from holding any university post in Germany for the rest of his life.  His Nazi affiliation and activities cast a pall over his work that lingers to the present day. 

Schmitt’s most influential work was written during the Weimar period in Germany and was a response to many of the problems he saw in that political order.  The Weimar Republic (1919-1933) was Germany’s first attempt at a liberal democratic constitutional order.  Though often seen as a failure, the republic successfully weathered a civil war (1918-19) and a prolonged economic crisis brought on by the end of World War I and reparations imposed by the Allies.  What killed Weimar was the growth of anti-system parties and social movements—above all the Communists and the Nazis—along with the Great Depression, which undermined confidence in the republic and fomented political extremism.  What concerned Schmitt about anti-system parties was that they were publicly committed to overthrowing the state, yet (primarily) by legal means such as competing in elections.  Schmitt’s work in this period laid out a systematic response to the problems he saw in the Weimar constitution and focused on drastically strengthening the largely ceremonial office of president.

One reason Schmitt has continued to be read is because his work presents a series of penetrating critiques of liberalism.  For instance, on his view, liberalism seeks to evade, suppress or extinguish real politics through such ideas as universal human rights, parliamentarism and free trade, which can in principle include and benefit all and which therefore banish relations of enmity between peoples and the need for political decisions about who is the enemy that might have to be fought in actual wars.  This displaces the sovereign state –  the institution that organizes war – from what Schmitt thinks is its rightful place at the center of society and replaces it with the depoliticized market and apolitical bureaucracies or courts as the main institutions of social order.  Instead of an organization (the state) with a will that might do something unexpected, society is structured around organizations that have a predictable function like bureaucracies, courts or markets.  Liberalism therefore displaces politics as a realm of deeply consequential decisions and turns it into superficial and regularized administration.

Schmitt's work also focuses on moments of extremity such as war or the “exception,” a time of extreme emergency when ordinary law is suspended.  Schmitt thought thatt such moments revealed deep truths about politics, but that their rarity helps to obscure them.  Studying moments of exception, he argued, can therefore teach us about hidden but fundamental features of politics and law that otherwise get lost amid ordinary politics. 

Schmitt was deeply influenced by Thomas Hobbes and saw him as one of the most perceptive and systematic thinkers in the history of political thought.  Schmitt followed Hobbes in focusing on the sovereign state as the main agent of social cohesion and the guarantor of social order.  He was particularly influenced by Hobbes’ ideas about law.  In The Concept of the Political, for instance, Schmitt explicitly praises Hobbes for recognizing that the rule of law is always the rule of actual persons who make and administer the law, rather than an impartial alternative to the rule of a particular group as theorists back to Aristotle have argued. 

Major works Schmitt wrote during the Weimar era include:  Dictatorship (1921), Political Theology (1922), The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), Legality and Legitimacy (1932), The Concept of the Political (1932) and his masterpiece, Constitutional Theory (1928).  Dictatorship is a historical study that posits a distinctive form of post-French Revolutionary dictatorship that claims to act for the people without constitutional mandate; Political Theology puts forth Schmitt's theories of sovereignty and the exception; Crisis and Legality contains powerful critiques of liberal parliamentarism; Concept of the Political posits the friend-enemy distinction and the state that defines this distinction as the essence of the political;  and Constitutional Theory is a systematic argument for a quasi-liberal constitutional order.  Together these works diagnose and analyze problems with liberal democracies such as Weimar and recommend solutions to them.  Many of Schmitt’s works are quite brief, but all are written in an epigrammatic style that often requires substantial unpacking.  Later notable works include: The Nomos of the Earth (1950), a study of international law and Theory of the Partisan (1963), about irregular warfare and what we would today call insurgents or terrorists.

There are ways to read Schmitt’s work as supportive of Nazism due to its authoritarian emphasis on the importance of a strong state, executive power and a homogenous society and because of its occasional anti-Semitism.   Schmitt himself, however, never embraced the Nazi program of subjugating all other social institutions to the state.  This is because he was also an ideologically strong Roman Catholic (if not a pious one) and Nazi totalitarianism required subordinating the church to the state.  Indeed, it was partly for this reason that Schmitt fell from political favor in 1936, when the official newspaper of the SS harshly criticized him for his Catholicism, among other things.  Nonetheless, at war's end – after Schmitt was detained and interrogated by the Allies, who considered putting him on trial at Nuremburg for war crimes – he refused to undergo de-nazification. Judging from his political activities and published work, Schmitt seems to have been more of a traditional Catholic conservative than a reactionary or Nazi revolutionary.  Although he stridently opposed liberalism and was skeptical of capitalism, Schmitt nowhere argues for the creation of a new world based on any revolutionary ideology.  Indeed, one can find in Schmitt's work a prescient warning and uncanny analysis of the process by which the Nazis consolidated control of the Weimar state and of the Nazi state's subsequent geopolitical focus on making war against ideological enemies.  Nevertheless, Schmitt’s relationship with Nazism remains perhaps the most controversial element of his legacy and scholars continue to debate how much, if at all, it taints his political thought.


Written by Kevin Elliot, Core Lecturer, Politics, Columbia University


Further Reading:

“Carl Schmitt,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Mehring, Reinhard. Carl Schmitt: A Biography. Polity. Cambridge; Oxford; Boston, Polity, 2014

McCormick, John P. “Fear, Technology and the State: Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and the Revival of Hobbes in Weimar and National Socialist Germany,” Political Theory, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 1994), pp. 619-652

Specter, Matthew. “What’s left in Schmitt: Critique of an Academic Fashion.”  Lecture and Q&A, John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University. Published April 3, 2015.