University of Wisconsin–Madison

Matthew Unangst, Carl Schmitt and the Jews: Sovereignty

1651 - Hobbes Leviathan by Abraham Bosse
1651 – Hobbes’s Leviathan by Abraham Bosse

This is the third in a series of posts about Raphael Gross’ Carl Schmitt and the Jews.

Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty, that the sovereign is “he who decides on the state of exception,” has taken a central role in sovereignty studies since the 1930s. Here too, Gross argues, we can see the influence of Schmitt’s antisemitism. For example, Schmitt argued that the early modern theorist Jean Bodin had portrayed state power negatively because of the influence of Kabbalah, distorting Thomas Hobbes’ theory of the Leviathan into a negative.

Schmitt’s concept of the nomos, central to his political philosophy, also derived from Protestant theology. German Protestant theologians had argued that each Volk had its own nomos, determined by biology. In his reading of Romans, Wilhelm Stapel read Paul as arguing that there could be no binding moral law for Christians everywhere, but that each nation would need its own nomos. A Christian community to keep order in the world was no longer possible, and the world required one Volk to take the role of keeping the order.

Germany’s nomos, theologians argued, was under siege by Jews. Jews believed in the rules for all humanity, such as the Ten Commandments, laid out in the Old Testament. Schmitt appealed to history in his argument. He argued for the Spanish Inquisition as a political model, specifically for its targeting of converted Jews as insincere. The Grand Inquisitor served as a model for Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty in a pure act of decision in a state of emergency. In Schmitt’s writing, Jews were agents of the Antichrist, accelerating history while only the traditional order, the “Katechon,” held it together. The Byzantine Empire had served that role against Islam for centuries. In the twentieth century, the German Reich was the only power able to hold back this acceleration, promoted by Jews.

Matthew Unangst, 2017
Matthew Unangst is a Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Washington State University. He received his Ph.D. from Temple University in 2015. His current manuscript, “The Geography of Empire: German Colonialism, Race, and Space in East Africa, 1884-1907,” explores the ways in which German, African, and Arab ideas about East African spaces and their relationship to their inhabitants shaped ideas about race, governance, and world history. His research interests are in the intellectual history of empire and the history of geography, as well as in both German and African intellectual history more broadly.

But that power could not work through a liberal legal system. In Schmitt’s thought, authority makes law, not truth or abstract ideals. True sovereignty could not reside in a liberal parliament, but rested with the person or body who could decide in a moment. German sovereignty could reside in a specific person, Adolf Hitler, who had the power to make decisions and act as the “Katechon.”

Again, there are parallels in today’s political rhetoric in the United States. Giorgio Agamben has examined the role of Schmitt’s sovereignty in the creation of the Global War on Terror in the early 2000s. Legal theorists in the Bush administration argued that international legal norms did not apply in the case of terrorism, which existed outside the legal order. The Trump administration has built on the Bush framework, and presents his United States as the only force in the world holding back global disorder. During the presidential campaign, he claimed that Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s policies had created global disorder with their focus on issues outside the United States’ national interest in favor of a global “cabal.” In the place of those policies, Trump has promised to expand the War on Terror, and create global American sovereignty through force.

That such ideas can continue to circulate with relatively little criticism of their association with a Nazi jurist owes much to Schmitt’s self-fashioning after the Second World War. The final post in this series will examine that process.

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