Assessments of the many first-rank European thinkers who sympathized or collaborated with fascism—Heidegger, De Man, Céline, Jünger, Gentile, Croce, Della Volpe, Pound—are inevitably problematic. In the case of Carl Schmitt, the difficulties are compounded by the apparent discontinuity of his political positions and his anomalous relationship to the intellectual traditions of the right. Coming to us from a disturbing place and time—and, for English readers, in the scrambled fragments of an ad hoc translation process—Schmitt’s writings do not fit within any grid of contemporary academic specialization.footnote1 A sober evaluation requires both a careful diachronic contextualization and a critically informed interrogation of his work.

‘Decisions and Indecisions’, Benno Teschke’s intervention on the thinker in nlr 67, seeks to cut through these complexities. A historical sociologist of early-modern European state formation and transitions to capitalism, Teschke established his reputation with The Myth of 1648.footnote2 The positive contribution of his latest essay lies in its discussion and critique of Schmitt’s thinking on these subjects, as set out in The Nomos of the Earth. Teschke develops a striking reading of this formidable work, couched within a broader reflection on the contemporary reception of Schmitt’s oeuvre, and the intellectual and political continuities of his trajectory as a writer. Teschke’s essay presents a portrait of a fascist ideologue, whose legacy currently provides the theoretical underpinning for us neo-conservatism. Its burden is that Schmitt has returned to cast a baleful shadow on American foreign policy, the field of international relations and the mainstream of intellectual life more generally; but that his writings have, nonetheless, little if anything to say about the current historical moment or past ones. He builds his case in the course of reviewing Reinhard Mehring’s important new biography, Carl Schmitt, Aufstieg und Fall.footnote3

Building on a previously articulated framework of periodization and contextual interpretation, Mehring’s carefully documented account measurably advances our understanding of Schmitt’s life and career. An assessment of the biography might have spotlighted this new historical material, and considered what changes it compels us to make in our understanding of this controversial figure. By and large, Teschke declines to convey much of the fascinating story Mehring tells, instead essentially complaining that it is not the sort of study that he would like to see. In his view, Mehring simply fails to pass an appropriately damning moral judgement on the manifestly culpable subject of his study. Above all, the biography’s painstaking examination of the 44-year-old’s motives for joining the nsdap in May 1933 is peremptorily dismissed. Instead, Teschke proposes a ‘theoretical edifice’ consisting of character traits and political dispositions that in his view ‘predestined Schmitt like few others’ to ‘opt for Hitler’.footnote4 Clearly many of Schmitt’s contemporaries did not think his decision was a foregone conclusion, as they were shocked and angered by it. In order to determine what in his past predisposed him to join, a more careful consideration of motives of the kind that Mehring presents cannot be simply brushed aside. And if Schmitt’s decision is going to be explained by some deeper intellectual and political affinity, making sense of his complicated intellectual relationships with other currents on the right, both before and after 1933, is absolutely indispensable.

Teschke seeks to demonstrate that Schmitt’s ‘international political thought and historical narrative’ are ‘empirically untenable and theoretically flawed’—as he specifies: ‘replete with performative contradictions, subterranean reversals of theoretical positions, omissions and suppressions, mythologizations and flights into épreuves étymologiques’.footnote5 In response, let me first of all provide a very bare sketch of Schmitt’s thinking on the position of the German state in the international order after the end of the First World War, and let the reader decide whether Teschke has fairly conveyed the gist of his thinking.

For Schmitt, the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations were attempts by legal means to freeze the post-war status quo, subjecting Germany to a new regime of international fiscal and military controls. In this new order the victorious Great Powers preserved their full prerogatives while the defeated were subject to invasive, destabilizing qualifications of their nominal sovereignty in the form of sanctions, embargos, international supervision of their foreign debt repayments and punitive interventions for non-compliance. If the modern concept of law presupposed a uniform jurisdiction over subjects, then the dictates of the post-war settlement were legal only in the nominal and attenuated sense that this now threadbare term had come to assume, as states were subject to this international regime to vastly varying degrees. This crisis of legal form was the most general expression of an epochal breakdown of the classical bourgeois separation of the state from the sphere of economic relations, as well as of the state’s monopoly of legitimate force over its own territory and subjects, unfolding in a Europe stuck between the old regime and welfare capitalism. The historical boundaries and conditions of a whole conceptual network of oppositions—war and peace, belligerents and neutrals, soldiers and non-combatants—that presupposed this separation of state and society, of ‘the political’ from ‘the economic’, were beginning to dissolve. Disorder manifested itself in the increasingly contentious, not to say arbitrary, application of these terms to old and new varieties of conflict. The new measures of international pacification were increasingly difficult to distinguish from a continuation of war, giving rise to an in-between condition of interminable low-level international disorder stalked by outbreaks of civil war and economic meltdown.

Over this zone of patchwork and faltering sovereignties the United States came to exercise vast influence as a creditor power, operating indirectly through institutions that it controlled but to which it did not subject itself, like the League of Nations. Reparations payments to New York, and loans flowing back from it to a tenuously stabilized Europe, formed the monetary artery of an unsustainable status quo. It was often said at the time that the age of sovereign states was passing and that, if declining or backward peoples relinquished the old-fashioned prerogatives of sovereignty, they would eventually emerge out of the tunnel into a new age of international law and prosperity. Whatever the likelihood of that would have been, Schmitt’s Weimar-era writing on international and constitutional conflicts sought to address the consequences of a German and European drift into a highly volatile, increasingly American-centred world economy, without any political safeguards to stave off impending storms.footnote6

This summary account conveys a sense of some of the historical realities that came into relief in Schmitt’s work. It seems reasonable that some of it would resonate in contemporary conditions—as different as they are from his times, the age of international revolution, fascism and total wars between the world’s most powerful states. It is plausible that Schmitt’s picture is incomplete, that there might be much more to say, or indeed that one should hold a more positive view of the situation described here than of what preceded it or came after. These would be legitimate considerations in drawing up a balance on Schmitt. Teschke, however, can see little more in these writings than a quasi-theological valorization of sovereign decisions and an illiberal fixation on drawing lines between friends and enemies. The upshot is that he offers little to strengthen our grasp of the history of the facts and norms of liberal imperialism, then and now.