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  • Anger ManagementCarl Schmitt in 1925 and the Occupation of the Rhineland
  • William Rasch (bio)

Some years ago I taught a graduate seminar on Carl Schmitt, the perceived relevance of his ideas to the contemporary global situation, and the anxious reaction to the revival of interest in his work. Schmitt’s justly famous analysis of the political uses of the term “humanity” were among the themes discussed, and within this context I pointed to a footnote in The Concept of the Political containing a caustic aside that I assumed would be puzzling to some of the students. As readers of Concept will recall, Schmitt maintains that the term “humanity” lays claim to universal validity and thus is, as he writes, “an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion,” because:

When a state fights its political enemy in the name of humanity, it is not a war for the sake of humanity, but a war wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a [End Page 57] universal concept against its military enemy. At the expense of its opponent, it tries to identify itself with humanity in the same way as one can misuse peace, justice, progress, and civilization in order to claim these as one’s own and to deny the same to the enemy.

(1976, 54)

Schmitt then utters his often cited “modified” paraphrase of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat,” and concludes with the following: “To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity: and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.” It is to this sentence that the footnote is appended. Here Schmitt refers to Baron Samuel von Pufendorf’s endorsement of “Bacon’s comment that specific peoples are ‘proscribed by nature itself,’ e.g., the Indians, because they eat human flesh. And in fact the Indians of North America were then exterminated” (1976, 54).

Now comes the distinctly sardonic continuation that I thought might give some students pause. “As civilization progresses and morality rises, even less harmful things than devouring human flesh could perhaps qualify as deserving to be outlawed in such a manner. Maybe one day it will be enough if a people were unable to pay its debts” (Schmitt 1976, 54–55, n. 23; translation slightly modified). Unable to pay its debts? How does one get from cannibalism to defaulting on debts, and what might this have to do with the ironically noted progress in civilization and morality? I speculated that Schmitt was articulating a specific German grievance concerning the reparation demands written into the Versailles Treaty and the German inability to pay those “tributes,” as they were often called in the Germany of the time, which resulted in the occupation of the Ruhr by the French in 1923 as part of their attempt to separate, at least economically, the Rhineland from the German state after World War I. At this point an Argentinean graduate student in history attending my seminar remarked: Is that what he meant? We in Argentina always wondered how he could have been so prescient about the future of our country!

I begin with this rather cumbersome anecdote to highlight the relationship of general principles to concrete historical and political situations. [End Page 58] Schmitt’s theoretical polemic against the “confiscation” of putatively universal principles like humanity, peace (of the eternal variety), justice, progress, and civilization is unthinkable without the experience of the First World War, its propaganda, the peace settlements that followed, and what Schmitt saw as a new form of economic and moral imperialism that sought effective control over territories without the burden of colonization or direct annexation as in the past. His indignation regarding the moral certainties of the victorious states and the status quo that that morality endorsed led Schmitt to view the League of Nations, the system of collective security it advanced, and the altered function of international law (with its putative prohibition of war as a means of settling disputes) as manifestations of power politics that no longer acknowledged the legitimacy...


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