The publication of the correspondence between Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger is an intellectual event of some moment. The letters collected in this volume span a full half century—from 1930, when the two first met in Berlin, to 1983, shortly before Schmitt died at the age of 97. Jünger survived him by over a decade, dying in 1998 at the age of 103. The care and skill with which this collection has been edited by Helmuth Kiesel makes it an impressive accomplishment: German literary scholarship at its best. Detailed notes and background information are provided on nearly every letter, ending with an authoritative afterword on the relationship between the two thinkers. In a handsome production, only an index is missing. The volume makes compelling reading. In range and level, it stands comparison with Benjamin’s correspondence with Adorno or Scholem, or the thematically closer exchange between Leo Strauss and Alexander Kojève. The letters are usually more laconic, sometimes enigmatic, than such counterparts. But they are never dull or cumbersome. Schmitt and Jünger were in different ways masters of a German prose running against the grain of the language: terse, clear and elegant.
When the two men met in 1930, each enjoyed a distinctive eminence in Weimar intellectual life. Schmitt had risen from an obscure Catholic background in Westphalia to become one of Weimar’s foremost legal authorities. But his wider reputation rested on a series of remarkable essays spanning a much broader range of themes: a political critique of German Romanticism; exploration of the theological background of Emergency Powers; portrait of the Roman Church as European bulwark against Bolshevism; diagnosis of the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism; and—not least—a theory of politics as a field constitutively defined by the distinction between friend and foe. Oscillating between moderate republicanism and counter-revolutionary decisionism, his main political links were with the Catholic Zentrum.
Jünger at this stage enjoyed a more dramatic notoriety. From a somewhat more respectable, though by no means elevated, Protestant background (his father was a pharmacist), as an 18-year-old he ran away to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. Brought home from Africa, he fought for Germany during the First World War on the Western front with such distinction—he was wounded seven times—that he was awarded the highest Prussian medal for courage, Pour le Mérite. His celebration of modern warfare in a coldly burnished, clinically exact prose, Im Stahlgewittern (In the Storm of Steel) was an immediate best-seller in 1920. An active participant in the paramilitarism of the Freikorps, he won further renown with works portraying the life-world of front-line soldiers as the model for a totally mobilized society of war and work to come. As a writer, Jünger was closely associated with ideas of a ‘conservative revolution’; after a brief flirtation with the NSDAP in the mid-twenties, he moved towards the circle of ‘National Bolsheviks’ around Ernst Niekisch. His record was much more engaged with the far Right than was that of Schmitt. But in the vision of the latter’s Concept of the Political he found reason to exalt. The correspondence opens with his salute to it, just after they became acquainted at Schmitt’s initiative. ‘You have invented a special technology of war: a mine that explodes silently. One sees as if by magic the ruins collapse; the destruction is over before it becomes audible.’
If the two were drawn together by similarities of style and outlook—both were adventurers, to some extent loners, in their respective mileux—their paths crossed over when the Nazis came to power. Schmitt, after spending the last years of the Republic as constitutional advisor and confidant to von Papen and Schleicher, and warning of the dangers of Nazism, rallied to the Third Reich and became a top figure in its legal establishment, under the protection of Goering. His adhesion to the regime, if it was certainly in part opportunistic—he was soon piling up honorary titles and strategic positions in a severely purged corps of academic jurisprudence—also answered to certain of his convictions. Hitler’s regime seemed to offer a drastic solution to many of the problems of political order that Schmitt had posed so starkly in Weimar times.
Jünger, unexpectedly, took the opposite route. Initially an activist in the sub-culture of right-wing paramilitarism from which the Nazis had emerged, he later became detached from any organized movement, maintaining friendships not only on the Right but on the anarchist or deviant Left as a well, in a spirit closer to literary bohemia than political faction. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he retired from Berlin to the provinces, where he was viewed with some suspicion by the new authorities. In these conditions, letters between the two men necessarily became allusive. Behind them, however, were more forthright and face-to-face political discussions. From the outset, Jünger warned Schmitt of any too close association with the new regime, whose inner circle he knew all too well. When Schmitt was offered a position on the Prussian State Council in 1933, Jünger advised him to leave the country and go to Serbia to live with his in-laws, as a scholar in voluntary exile, instead of accepting this poisoned chalice. In the following year, when Hitler staged the murderous Roehm purge and Schmitt publically defended the assassinations, Jünger told him he had committed political suicide and advised him to equip his domicile with machine-gun nests.
Two years later Schmitt was evicted from his niche in power, under a withering attack from the SS as a crypto-Catholic careerist who had no place in the regime. Confined to academic life again, he continued to be intellectually productive, with publications—on Hobbes; the structure of international relations; land and sea-power—which might help him recover the favour of the regime, without committing himself too expressly to its policies. Jünger, meanwhile, was writing his coded novel on tyranny, Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), published just before the war broke out in 1939. Shielded as a war hero by the Army High Command, he was awarded the Iron Cross for his part in the defeat of France, and posted to Paris as cultural attaché in the occupation regime. There, at the centre of literary and artistic life under the occupation, he knew Cocteau, Céline, Drieu la Rochelle, Brasillach, Sacha Guitry and many others; and in the autumn of 1941 arranged for Schmitt to be invited to speak at the German Institute, with a side-trip to Port-Royal on which the two exchanged reflections.
When the Officers’ Plot struck in July 1944, narrowly failing to kill Hitler, the Kommandantur in Paris was deeply implicated, and leading generals shot. Jünger, aware of the plan to overthrow Hitler although not a participant, was lucky to escape into retirement. Schmitt, a close friend of civilian participants in the plot in Berlin, was not taken into their confidence. The two men ended the war in the humble capacity of air-raid wardens. After it, their fates diverged dramatically. Schmitt was arrested, jailed and interrogated for the better part of two years by American prosecutors, stripped of all academic positions, and released into ostracism—a forbidden figure in the Bonn Republic. Jünger, on the other hand, suffered no sanctions in the French Zone, and was soon publishing his Parisian Diaries to general acclaim. The next fifty years saw a brilliant second literary career, in which successive novels and essays established him as lucid ecological sage and counter-cultural anarch, whose passing was a national event. The author who made his name by exalting the approximation of humans to machines became a writer calling for the protection of nature against humans—without great alterations of style; a unusual case in German, or perhaps any letters.