Kevin Jon Heller on Carl Schmitt and Nuremberg

Over at Opinio Juris, my co-blogger Kevin Jon Heller has a post on the German political theorist Carl Schmitt and the history behind his brush with a Nuremberg prosecution at the end of the Second World War.  It is drawn from research for Kevin’s book on the Nuremberg trials; given the interest that law professors and others have taken in Schmitt’s work over the years, I thought the VC audience would find it interesting.  Kevin has done very interesting research into this whole episode at Nuremberg:

I am particularly fascinated by how close Carl Schmitt, the political theorist who has influenced both the right and the left, came to being a defendant in one of the trials.  After Schmitt joined the Nazi Party in 1933, he had been appointed the head of the Union of National-Socialist Jurists and had written a number of pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for the self-published German Jurists’ Newspaper.  Schmitt had a falling-out with the SS in 1937 and resigned his position as Reich Professional Group Leader, although he was able to keep his professorship at the University of Berlin because Goering protected him.

As I detail in the book, the OCC submitted three different trial programs to the US’s Occupational Military Government (OMGUS): on 14 March 1947, 20 May 1947, and 4 September 1947.  Schmittt was listed in the first program as a possible defendant in what the OCC called the “Propaganda and Education case.”  …  At some point between 14 March and 20 May, when the OCC submitted its second trial program, Taylor’s staff decided not to prosecute Schmitt.  The second trial program no longer includes Schmitt as a possible defendant.

Kevin cites to an article in the social/critical theory journal Telos, of which I was long an editorial associate, along with the late great founding editor Paul Piccone, and an astonishingly long list of people you might not have expected to have done a stint with a New Left, then Post New Left, then sometimes left and sometimes right editorial board.  Fred Siegel, Seyla Benhabib, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, David Pan, Joe McCahery Moishe Gonzales, it’s a really, really long list.  (Once in a while it has done important articles on critical jurisprudence – I am proud to say that as an editor in the 1980s, I commissioned a piece from Martha Minow, “Law Turning Outward,” that bears re-reading today, if only if were online!)  It is subscription only, dense, difficult, highly abstract and theoretical reading, within a sometimes alien critical theory tradition that is part homegrown and part European intellectual inheritance – and over the course of forty years, some of the best social theory in the world.

(One of these days I’ll talk about why social theory is both important and ripe for revival.  This, despite the general collapse of social theory into mere identity politics in the academy, thus driving people interested in rigorous thinking into more technically rigorous, but also more “surface” fields, such as economics, and the imitation of economics in other fields.  Maybe I’ll ask the current Telos editor, Russell Berman, if he’d like to take a crack at explaining why it matters.)

As to Schmitt, well, Telos was largely responsible for introducing him to the American academic community, translating and commenting on much of Schmitt’s output.  Schmitt continues to resonate today – the idea of emergency, after 9/11, for example, attracted much discussion.  In Europe, Schmitt overcame his past as a Nazi collaborator – rather, it seems never to have been much of an issue – and developed a very wide following across ideological boundaries, and considerable influence on the political theory of the Continent.  One reason I first read Schmitt was that it was clear to me I couldn’t understand Continental political theory, including Habermas and many others, without understanding Schmitt; he was a crucial part of the background discussion and intellectual assumptions over decades.

In the United States, the invocation of Schmitt always raises at least as a backdrop the question of Schmitt as a Nazi party member and full-on collaborator over important years.  My own view is that Schmitt was not a Nazi, far from it – in the ways in which Nazism was truly radical, Schmitt was a reactionary.  By all measures, a morally repellent character who saw where things were going in Germany and hopped aboard, and then saw where they were going and hopped off again.  But not a Nazi in his thinking or, really, sympathies despite, true, his long list of public intellectual credentials during historically crucial years.

The truth is, as an intellectual matter, I think Schmitt has long since run out of steam in terms of what he offers to American political and social theory.  This is possibly because I was intimately involved at Telos in the Schmitt revival from the beginning, felt like I absorbed what seemed important to me, and moved on by the 90s.  For example, the notion of emergency in Schmitt is both deeper but more alien to American political thought than, I suspect, many American theorists think – they really mean something that just is regular old consequentialism pushed hard, whereas for Schmitt, such notions are part of a far deeper and more committed system.  And although I once wrote a paper not long after 9/11 with a section carrying the very Schmittian title, “Criminals and Enemies,” what I meant by that had little to do with Schmitt and I was amazed at how quickly it was cast in Schmittian terms.  Far, far more important than Schmitt in contemporary American social theory – if there were such a thing outside the cul-de-sac of identity politics – is the revival of New Class theory in the American contempory context, and a theory of elites.