Josef Pieper on Carl Schmitt

Now that I’ve had the honor of appearing in the pages of the Catholic Herald, writing on the second volume of Josef Pieper’s autobiography, I thought I’d share an excerpt from the first volume, No One Could Have Known:

At this time Carl Schmitt was also a frequent guest in Schranz’s house. Naturally I knew the “Third Reich’s constitutional lawyer” as (to his irritation) he was called, from my days as a law student. “Sovereign is he who gives judgment in the exceptional case”—phrases such as that were not easily forgotten. But until now I had not got to know the man any more closely. I was well aware of the inconceivably flagrant anti-Semitic statements he had made in the first years of the Nazi regime, and I did not see how any argument could justify them. Suddenly, however, he was sharply attacked in an article on constitutional issues in the Schwarzes Korps, the weekly paper of the SS, which threw him from the saddle. Overnight he had been dismissed from all Party offices. Since then, Dr. Schranz said, one could talk sensibly to him once again. —It was in fact a delight to his sparkling conversation. I immediately understood the fascination, for good and evil, that must have radiated from this academic teacher. But to attack his polished theses one needed considerable courage in facing banality. On the very first evening I asked him why, in his book on “the concept of the political” he had not written a syllable about the bonum commune, since the whole meaning of politics surely lay in the realization of the common good. He retorted sharply: “Anyone who speaks of the bonum commune is intent on deception.” Of course it was no answer; but it had the effect of initially disarming his opponent.

This man’s cynical attitude toward the world could probably be traced back to his earliest experiences. “ ‘Elite’? —That is a group of people who have the highest incomes and pay no taxes!” He seemed to delight in such formulations. He practically never spoke about his own experiences. Only once did he turn to me, as if he felt I needed enlightening in these matters, and say: “I know them all, these brown-shirted powers-that-be. Don’t imagine that any of them gives a fig for the famous Weltanschauung when it comes to holding power!” He also loved continually to apply irony to the “merely academic-humanistic world” as he mockingly put it; he had nothing but scorn for people who study the history of ideas and who, for instance, think they can interpret the “teaching” of the Stoa without adverting to the fact that a man like Seneca lived continually in danger of his life at Nero’s court and formulated his “philosophy” in that setting. I think that Carl Schmitt’s real strength lay in depicting such concrete historical situations. One unforgettable night, for instance, somewhat affected by our host’s excellent wine, he spoke of the difference between land and sea, between the law of the offshore and the law governing things found on terra firma; between a land fortress, which can honorably hoist a white flag, and a warship which, though landlubbers may regard it as a “floating fortress”, can never capitulate like fortresses on land, but only has the choice between victory or annihilation.

On the whole, however, these discussions never banished the uneasy feeling that what was interesting was given priority over what was true. I recalled the old dictum that the truth that nourishes and the brilliance of formulations seem to be incompatible. —All the same, when I heard of the witty elegance with which Carl Schmitt had managed to get himself an early release from internment after the war, it struck me as the kind of tribute that intellectual superiority—however “purely formal” it may be—can appropriately exact. Before the Russian commission he maintained that his allegedly Nazi past would have to be understood after the pattern of von Pettenkofer’s experiment. The examining officer, although apparently an educated man, naturally had no idea what he was talking about. Around the beginning of the century Max von Pettenkofer, a German scientist, put forward the thesis that infectious diseases were not caused by the bacillus alone; what was decisive was the human being’s susceptibility to disease. To prove this thesis, he drank a glass of water containing a whole culture of the cholera bacillus—and indeed, remained in good health, Carl Schmitt’s conclusion was this: “You see, I did the same thing. I have drunk the Nazi bacillus, but it did not infect me!”—which, of course, if it were true, would really and truly have made his conduct inexcusable. But they laughed in bewilderment and agreed to his release. That is, assuming the story was not invented and put about by Carl Schmitt himself.

Evidently even today (1968) the octogenarian has hardly changed. In the latest edition of the German Who’s Who one reads that his “hobby” is collecting “unusual rhymes and unreal conditional clauses”. I am afraid that that, too, is more “interesting” than true.


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