Carl Schmitt

Fascism has been one of the most destructive ideas ever tested in the real world. Because of this, it is crucial to understand the theory, logic, and arguments that have made it seem, for some, like an appealing political system. 

Carl Schmitt Carl Schmitt

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Table of contents

    The idea of fascism stands on a few principles: it rejects the notion that violence is not an appropriate political tool, requires a clear sovereign, is in constant need of an enemy to combat, and requires a thick conception of the nation. All of these ideas spring forth most clearly from the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, someone whose ideas made Nazi Germany possible and provided a theoretical framework for any leader or state wishing to try their hand at the system.

    Carl Schmitt is a critical figure in modern political thought because he developed an incredibly destructive critique of liberalism as a political model. Schmitt's work is a frontal assault against the idea of liberalism. In conducting his assault, he brings into focus several severe problems with the liberal state:

    • It denies the presence of a clear sovereign.
    • It refuses to see politics as a friend/enemy distinction.
    • It creates opportunities for individuals who wish to destroy it.

    While Schmitt's ideas may seem extremist to a first-time reader, few other theorists will so precisely show the flaws with a liberal system of governance as Carl Schmitt.

    Carl Schmitt biography

    Carl Schmitt Carl Schmitt in 1904 carl schmitt biography StudySmarterFig. 1 – Carl Schmitt.

    Born in 1888, Carl Schmitt grew up in a rapidly changing Germany. After World War I ended, the Germans established the Weimar Republic. In this environment, Schmitt developed his theories about politics and law.

    Weimar was the city of Germany where the constitutional assembly met, and the new republic was born. It lasted from 1918 until 1933, beginning the Nazi era. It was the first constitutional federal republic in the nation's history.

    He was a senior member of the Nazi Party and a German lawyer and political theorist. Schmitt spent much time writing about how to use political power effectively.

    After the war, Schmitt was tried for his role in Nazi Germany, but he was ultimately acquitted. He spent the rest of his life in exile, first in France and then Spain. He died in 1985 at the age of 96.

    Schmitt's role in the Nazi party

    Schmitt became a member of the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933. Within days, he backed the party's decision to burn books by Jewish authors, praised the destruction of "anti-German" material, and called for a broader "cleanse", including works by authors influenced by Jewish views.

    Schmitt was named editor-in-chief of the German Jurists' Journal, a Nazi journal for attorneys, in June 1934. In July, he released "The Leader Protects the Law", a justification for the Night of the Long Knives political murders based on Hitler's authority as the "highest form of administrative justice".

    He involved himself in conventions and the academic society in Berlin at the time. Mainly, he served as the chairman of a law teachers' convention in 1936, when he asked that German law be cleansed and that all Jewish scientists' writings be marked as such.

    These ideas made Schmitt very unpopular during the Weimar Republic era, but they would become even more controversial after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. As a supporter of Nazi Germany, Schmitt helped justify some of the regime's most oppressive policies, including the Holocaust. He eventually fell out of favour with the Nazis and was arrested in 1945.

    His most important roles were: Chair of the Committee for State and Administrative Law, Prussian State Council and Head of the Association of National Socialist German Jurists

    Carl Schmitt after World War II

    American soldiers arrested Schmitt in 1945, and he spent more than a year in an internment camp before returning to his hometown. He never regretted his role in establishing the Nazi regime and opposed every attempt to destroy nazism.

    Despite his exclusion from the academic and political mainstream, he continued his studies in international law from the 1950s onwards.

    Carl Schmitt's political theory

    When studying Schmitt's theory, it is essential to consider his context. The political climate he participated in made his theory essentially aggressive and straightforward to the political relationships between the state and its enemies.

    In his essay "On Dictatorship", he established the need for an authority that decides how to apply the law for it to be effective in issues like interpretation and determination. Here, he defined sovereignty as the authority that decides on the state of exception.

    Schmitt defines democracy as a political system characterised by the ruler's identity and rule. Ruler and ruled are identical if and only when the rulers and the ruled share the identity that the community has chosen to turn into the basis of its political identity. This happens when deciding on its enemies.

    State of exception was a concept created by Carl Schmitt where a sovereign can surpass the law to protect the public in emergencies.

    To explain what would entail a state of exception, let's use a modern example: During the COVID-19 pandemic, many states like Spain, Italy and China brought a state of exception to contain the spread of the virus, and people no longer had the liberty to, for example, be out in the street after the curfew established by those governments.1

    In this "state of exception," the sovereign is responsible for creating normality. Schmitt phrased it as building the political identity of the community through the suppression of the normalcy interrupted by those enemies of the state.

    But what happens when that normalcy is interrupted? He answered this question by contemplating the sovereign dictatorship as an enemy of democracy, as dictators don't defend the constitution and try to create a new rule of law in the people's name.

    His concept of sovereignty and dictatorship brings the idea that a ruler is central to democracy because it exercises as long as a democratic constitution is created. When not, a dictatorship comes in place.

    Schmitt's political notion relied on the distinction between friends and enemies of the state. Even though an individual might have enemies, the personal implications are not a political phenomenon. That's why the distinction between enemies and friends was purely public and, therefore, an issue of the nation.

    Carl Schmitt: The Concept of Political

    Schmitt considers "the political" more important than any other domain, such as the economy, because it is the most fundamental to identity. As was previously mentioned, Schmitt's conceptual realm of state sovereignty and autonomy bases itself on the contrast between friend and adversary. As Schmitt says:

    "The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly...But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger…"2

    This distinction is made "existentially". This means that the enemy is whoever is "in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible."2

    In this essay, Schmitt considers the collectivisation of friendship and hatred as the core of politics. He claims the government must establish political foes out of a legitimate concern for the state's security rather than moral intuitions.

    The recognition and destruction of the adversary became a crucial component of the national identity under the Third Reich, where this political idea was influential.

    The rising of Nazism in the Weimar Republic is a perfect example of Schmitt's theory. According to his contribution, the biggest threats to liberal governments exist because the liberty of expression allows fascist thoughts to go unchecked.

    Carl Schmitt: Political Theology

    Carl Schmitt Political Theology Carl Schmitt StudySmarterFig. 2 – Carl Schmitt Political Theology.

    During his time as a professor at the University of Bonn in 1922, he published Political Theology. In this book, Schmitt solidified his authoritarian beliefs with the now-famous definition: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception."3

    Sovereign, understood as a supreme authority, was a conflicting concept for those who believed that no one could come before the constitution. However, under political hostility, how can the sovereign uphold decisions not contemplated in the constitution? And how can the laws tell what's the exception if enemies arose in different and new situations?

    This is explained in the book through the powers of the ruler: The sovereign can determine what an exception is and how to exercise control to save the group's identity in the face of enemies.

    Let's bring back the example we discussed earlier. In the face of an unexpected pandemic, many criticised the measures taken to fight it1. Meanwhile, Presidents decided how to deal with an enemy who wasn't physical but represented a threat to the group.

    Carl Schmitt criticises any effort to discredit the sovereign authority provided by the constitution and liberal institutions as legal orders require a sovereign to enforce its framework.

    Carl Schmitt's critique of liberalism

    Carl Schmitt is known as the most critical enemy of liberalism. His work on the state of exception was used to defend some of the most horrific human rights violations during World War II and also stated a precedent for decades to come on the exercise of law as the supreme power in a country.

    Liberalism is a political philosophy based on equality and individual liberties before the law.

    Schmitt was worried about what happens when a nation faces enemies that the law isn't prepared for. That's how his concept of sovereignty came to life and his main critique of liberalism.

    As long as liberal governments allow the freedom of thinking about other ideologies and policies, they will constantly be threatened with replacement, as Nazism replaced the Weimar Republic. Without systems to prevent the enemies' growth, they are vulnerable to destruction.

    According to Schmitt, this is a liberal absurdity that the government should treat as political hostility. The state must fight to keep and preserve its identity. However, what is the basis of this identity?

    Usually, the people's identity is thought to be the majority's will. However, Schmitt believed that if a majority can overrule a minority and identify its will with the people's will, then it is also possible a minority can impose their will as the nation's identity.

    Schmitt acknowledged that legitimate political rule must appeal to the people's will. Regardless, no citizen has more of a right than any other to hold political power. Therefore, every citizen should participate on equal terms in exercising political rule.

    Carl Schmitt - Key takeaways

    • Carl Schmitt was a senior member of the Nazi Party and a German lawyer and political theorist. His work on using political power effectively helped excuse the acts of the Fuhrer during the Third Reich. After the war, he was tried for his role in Nazi Germany, but he was ultimately acquitted.
    • Schmitt was a prolific writer with works on the concept of politics and political theology. His political beliefs are based on identifying a common enemy to build a national identity. Furthermore, he believed that sovereignty rested on the person who the constitution allowed the power to install a rule of exception in emergencies.
    • Carl Schmitt is also known as the most important critic of liberalism. He believes it to be intrinsically unstable as it denies political identity, allows to foster other political ideologies and denies the people equal participation in politics while tending to other interests.


    1. Corradetti, Claudio, and Oreste Pollicino. 2021. "The 'War' Against Covid-19: the State of Exception, State of Siege, or (Constitutional) Emergency Powers?: The Italian Case in Comparative Perspective."
    2. Schmitt, Carl (1996). The Concept of the Political.
    3. Schmitt, Carl. (1992) Political Theology.
    4. Fig. 1 – Carl Schmitt 1904 Schulklasse ( by Unknown Author ( licensed by CC-PD-Mark (
    5. Fig. 2 – Carl Schmitt - Politische Theologie Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, München und Leipzig, 1922 ( by ( licensed by Public Domain.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Carl Schmitt

    What Carl Schmitt political philosophy?

    Carl Schmitt's political philosophy comes down to identifying the people with a national identity set by the sovereign. This involves a clear distinction of roles, such as friend or enemy. His political philosophy is also grounded on the powers and responsibilities of a ruler to establish exceptions to the law while acting within its bounds and enforcing it. 

    What does Carl Schmitt mean by friend vs enemy?

    He meant this distinction as a way for a ruler to strengthen the nation through identification. He believed that an essential aspect of government was politics, as they represented existence. They deviate from affecting the government by directing hostilities to a common enemy.

    What is Carl Schmitt concept of the political

    According to him, the political is the existential foundation for every other aspect of government since it determines identity. Identity is determined by a familiar foe, not necessarily due to nationality, but through general hostility.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

     Which political landscape influenced much of Carl Schmitt's ideology?

    Carl Schmitt was involved with the Nazi Party by the end of World War II. True or false?

    What was Schmitt's role in the Nazi Party?


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