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Book: Dictatorship

Flawed view of dictatorship from nazi ideologue

Dictatorship

by Carl Schmitt

(Polity, £17.99)

Language is a shifting medium, no more so than in the field of legal jargon. The law may be "an ass," as Charles Dickens's Mr Bumble objected, but the lawyer is nevertheless the expert in obfuscating common sense.

Carl Schmitt - known in his later career as the "crown jurist of Hitler's Third Reich," published his scholastic study of the concept of dictatorship in 1921 as he, along with the rest of German society, was coming to terms with humiliating defeat and the struggles of the emerging Weimar republic.

Schmitt's intention was to clarify the term dictatorship, saving it from the vague generality of the popular catchphrase.

He provided a complex historical examination of the "dictator" from Roman times, when the role simply signified "an extraordinary Roman magistrate," through the medieval and Renaissance ages where the office developed into that of a "commissar" with special powers, serving the interests of the sovereign particularly at periods of crisis, to the watershed of the French revolution.

Then the term became more recognisably "modern" as class conflict came into politically charged focus.

The book might have appeared innocently as an objective academic study had we not the evidence of Schmitt's later involvement with the nazis, and his virulent anti-semitism which continued to his death in 1985.

While his work does undeniably add to the legalistic-historical study of dictatorship, when Schmitt attempts to explain that Robespierre and Cromwell were not in the true sense dictators, the former deriving his authority from the Convention and the latter from God, the argument is very strained.

The peoples of those times, as now, would surely have recognised dictators when at the receiving ends of their power.

In fact the final pages of Dictatorship, along with the lengthy appendix on the constitutional article of the new Weimar republic dealing with the dictatorial role off the president of the Reich in the event of the need to restore public order, reveals Schmitt's determination to support the ultimate power of the establishment should there be a return of the brutally suppressed revolutionary risings in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Presumably Hitler resolved all Schmitt's legalistic contortions to validate dictatorship. No need for juridicial quibbles then.

Gordon Parsons

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