Successively Professor of Law at the Universities of Greifswald (1921), Bonn (1922-3), Cologne (1933) and Berlin (1933-45), Schmitt enjoyed a successful career as a teacher and writer on legal and political theory, establishing himself as a formidable conservative critic of the Weimar Constitution which he attacked for having weakened the State and for clinging to a liberalism that was incapable of solving the problems of a modern mass democracy. Schmitt repudiated the liberal antithesis between law and politics, the notion of a government ‘by laws and not of men’, and the very notion of parliamentary democracy as an antiquated bourgeois method of government. But though a harsh critic of the pluralism of Weimar, Schmitt had opposed the extremists of Right and Left, before the Nazi seizure of power, even supporting General von Schleicher’s efforts to block or end the Nazi adventure. With the passage of the Enabling Act of 24 March 1933, there was a decisive change in Schmitt’s attitude and later in the same year he described it as the ‘provisional constitution of the German revolution’, the genesis of a new legal-political order.
On 1 May 1933 he joined the NSDAP and rapidly emerged as the leading legal theoretician of the Nazi State.
In the early years of the régime he was protected by his association with conservatives like von Papen and Johannes Popitz, and by Goering who made him a Prussian State Councillor and enjoyed patronizing prominent intellectuals and artists. In November 1933 he became Director of the University Teachers’ Group of the Nazi League of German Jurists and in June 1934 editor of the leading law journal, Deutsche Juristen-Zeitung. But apart from Goering and Hans Frank, Schmitt had no connections with the upper Nazi hierarchy, who had their own legal theorists like Werner Best, Reinhard Höhn and Frank himself. Schmitt might protest that the law is ‘what the Führer wills’, but his status as a late-comer, a traditional conservative and an intellectual made him vulnerable.
In December 1936 the SS organ Das Schwarze Korps denounced his anti-semitism as a sham and quoted his earlier opinions, which had been critical of Nazi race theories. Schmitt’s Party work came to an end, though thanks to the intervention of Goering and Frank, he retained his chair of law at Berlin and his official title of Prussian Staatsrat. Eventually he joined the inner emigration', but was coolly received, given his earlier willingness to lend intellectual respectability to the Nazi régime. In his memoirs, written in 1950, Schmitt provided a tame and unconvincing apologia for his National Socialist career, claiming that once the Weimar system could no longer protect him, he had no option but to transfer his allegiance to the new regime, as long as it granted him this protection.
For all his intellectual brilliance, Schmitt could never transcend the narrow opportunism and fawning subservience which the holders of power inspired in him.
Schmitt, who had not been anti-semitic in his Weimar period (he dedicated his classic work of 1928 on constitutional law, Verfassungslehre, to his Jewish friend, Dr Fritz Eisler, and paid homage to the Jew, Hugo Preuss, the creator of the Weimar Constitution), increasingly indulged in racism in order to make his ideological conversion more convincing. Thus he justified the Nuremberg race laws as ‘the constitution of freedom’ and in October 1936 presided over a conference of university law teachers in Berlin, where he demanded a purging of the ‘Jewish spirit’ in German law. This opportunism, also visible in other areas, did not prevent the Nazis from regarding him with some suspicion and ultimately as politically unreliable.
During WW IISchmitt continued to publish prolifically and to attempt to remove all suspicions concerning his loyalty - he greeted the Rohm Blood Purge as ‘the highest form of administrative justice’ though he was fortunate enough to escape it - but increasingly he came under attack from Nazi theorists who accused him of neglecting the centrality of race and Volk. Nor were his past associations with Jews and liberals forgotten or the fact that he was still a Roman Catholic.