Catholic Anti-Liberalism in Weimar: Political Theology and its Critics

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Catholic Anti-Liberalism in Weimar: Political Theology and its Critics
Michael Hollerich

University of St. Thomas

[Draft version]


Considering Catholicism’s historic hostility towards everything associated with the word “liberalism,” it may seem redundant to speak of “Catholic anti-liberalism”. But in Weimar Germany anti-liberalism took many forms, particularly where politics was concerned. The present paper is limited to examining the political-theological views of two conservative Catholic intellectuals, Erik Peterson and Alois Dempf, lifelong friends and mutual admirers, and for a time university colleagues at Bonn (Dempf from 1926-1937 and Peterson from 1924-1929).1 They had numerous scholarly friends in common, but none more controversial than Carl Schmitt, also their colleague for a time at Bonn (1922-1928). In Dempf’s case the Schmitt connection was mainly through Werner Becker, a student of Schmitt’s.2 Peterson’s bond was much closer. For several years he and Schmitt were intimate friends whose ideas exercised such a strong reciprocal influence that Peterson’s biographer spoke of them as separated by a permeable intellectual membrane.3

This paper is thus somewhat triangular in character, though Schmitt himself is not primarily under review, he being much the best known of the three and serving here mainly as a foil.4 In both Peterson’s and Dempf’s cases, we will meet men of exceptional scholarly integrity and talent who harbored reservations about the Republic but stood resolutely against the Nazis. We will begin with some comments on the historiography on this topic; then move to a review of Peterson’s and Schmitt’s disagreement on political theology; and finally, and at greater length, to a consideration of Alois Dempf, sometimes regarded as a progenitor of the Catholic Reichstheologie – a paternity that has been hotly denied – which flourished briefly during the transitional years from the Republic to the Third Reich.

The issues that preoccupied the principals are not just historical. They are still with us, even if the terms and the circumstances have changed. In Germany, as I discovered some years ago while preparing introductions to a translation of several of Peterson’s publications, scholarly debate about the Catholic anti-liberals has often been embittered and slanted by contemporary theological and political disagreement. Also, the Catholic Church is still the Catholic Church, still unwilling to settle down as one denomination among many. And as every presidential election reminds us, American democracy is riven by issues that do not seem readily resolvable at the political level but entail disagreements that are virtually metaphysical and raise questions about the legitimacy of our regime. At the same time we have passed through our own existential crisis in the Middle East, which has forced us to consider the security requirements of democracy, and also to ponder a possible clash of civilizations, as a result of which Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction has assumed disturbing relevance. And now we may be headed for another one, this time domestic, which may make the 1930s seem not so long ago as we had thought.


It was almost fifty years ago that Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, then a young legal scholar at the beginning of a long and distinguished career, published an article in the Catholic journal Hochland that, as Walter Dirks said later, stirred up a real hornets nest.5 By 1960 German Catholics were just beginning the unsettling work of reconstructing Catholic involvement – and responsibility – in the events that brought Hitler to power in 1933. Rudolf Morsey’s and Erich Matthias’ landmark collection Das Ende der Parteien appeared that year. Böckenförde’s article was devoted to explaining German Catholicism’s abrupt acquiescence in the new order.6 He argued that it was necessary to posit some kind of felt affinity between Catholicism and National Socialism if we were to understand most fully the speed and enthusiasm which animated at least some Catholics. This Afffinitäts-These inspired immediate and heated opposition for reasons that had as much to do with the politics of post-war Germany as with 1933. The American Catholic journal Cross Currents rushed an English translation into print, along with a response by one of Böckenförde’s critics.7 Böckenförde, who became one of West Germany’s most prominent Catholic public intellectuals, was doubly damned in the eyes of some of his Catholic critics: not only was he a member of the SPD, rather than the Christian Democrats, but he had been a student of Carl Schmitt’s.

Böckenförde contended that it was inadequate, and certainly not his intention, to impute opportunism or cowardice to the Catholic leadership. There were characteristic Catholic habits and values that disposed some Catholics to embrace National Socialism once they had reassured themselves that the new regime would not give the anti-clerical side of the movement its head. These included such things as the defense of traditional morality; the place of religion in public life; the “organic” understanding of the social and political orders, which seemed to give more respect to community, localism, and tradition; the prominence of the principle of authority; the rejection of parliamentarism; the anti-Bolshevism; the (apparent) respect for natural law; and behind all of these, the anti-liberalism. Böckenförde drew special attention to the way that the Catholic ecclesiastical leadership seemed set above all on securing the “ecclesiastical-cultural” goods of the freedom and rights of the Church and the family, especially where education was concerned – the “particular goods” (bona particularia) dictated by the natural law. The larger political question of the transition from the Republic to the National Socialist dictatorship then appeared secondary – properly so, in his reading of the natural law tradition as expounded by modern popes, since the precise shape of government was a thing indifferent on which the Church had no competence to speak. The historic mission of the Center Party was consistent with this approach. As a weltanschauliche party, its fundamental reason for being had always been to secure those goods. Everything else scaled down from there.

“For the Center Party, as a party based on a total Weltanschauung, the unconditional thing was not the political per se but the comprehensive worldview, which found its concrete embodiment in ecclesiastical and cultural-political goals. By comparison, the political per se was of only relative importance. At the same time the party, as a Catholic party, like Catholics themselves was always under the suspicion of not being reliably nationalist. That was its vulnerable spot. As a result, once the ecclesiastical and cultural-political concerns were secured, [the party] wanted to be strongly nationalist and not to fall short of other groups in their outlook on the nation. This ‘national attitude’ arose not from political considerations but more from an unwitting compensation. In that way [the party] became susceptible to nationalist slogans and at risk of losing sight of the truly political exigencies emanating from that source. The crux of the party’s dilemma lay not in the fact that its worldview and cultural-political concerns were too slight but that they were too strong [emphasis added]. That was and is a specifically Catholic problematic.”8

His analysis was the point of departure for the dissertation that became Klaus Breuning’s Die Vision des Reiches: Katholizismus zwischen Democratie und Diktatur 1929-1934, still a landmark study, which focused specifically on the role that a political-theological Reichsideologie had played in stimulating and legitimating this early Catholic collaboration.9 Breuning surveyed a wealth of publication by conservative churchmen, intellectuals, publicists, and creative writers from the late twenties and early thirties, Austrian as well as German, and interviewed a number of those who were still alive in the sixties. The oral documentation enriched his book, and it is to his credit that so many seem to have been willing to talk candidly with him.10

One of Breuning’s subjects – although he does not seem to have interviewed him – was Alois Dempf. Breuning treats him with care and recognizes that, as a serious thinker and scholar, Dempf was more fastidious about making connections between past and present than many of those who read his books and articles. Nevertheless, he groups him with the Reich theologians, while conceding that he rejected using past Reich theological conceptions as a basis for answering contemporary political questions.11 That seems to have been sufficient to inspire friends and admirers of Alois Dempf to dedicate a memorial volume to defending his scholarly legacy after his death in 1981. The editors were Vincent Berning, whose father August Berning had been a prominent Catholic layman in the Weimar era, and Hans Maier, the distinguished Catholic political scientist and author of many books and articles.12 Berning contributed a good deal of the writing to this volume, including a rather peevish rebuttal of Breuning’s treatment of Dempf, and indeed of German “left Catholicism” in general.13 The Berning/Maier volume has been a valuable resource for this paper.

What, then, did “anti-liberalism” mean to conservative Catholic political-theological thinking? The following elements crop up repeatedly in Breuning’s survey:

  • Hostility to “the principles of 1789,” which were regarded as a vanguard in the de-Christianization of western political and social life. A favorite philosophical whipping boy here was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

  • A suspicion of democratic political forms, insofar as democracy was understood a) in terms of the (American-style) separation of church and state (America was regarded with almost as much horror as Bolshevism), and b) strict majoritarianism as an instrument for determining the common good. Opposition to the Weimar Constitution routinely began with Article 1’s derivation of sovereignty from the people, not from God.

  • Frequently condemned in the same breath as the majoritarian principle was the individualism of modern society, to which “atomistic” was an almost automatic adjective. Democratic political forms, urbanization, industrialization, all conspired to pry persons loose from inherited communal social structures and roles.

  • “Organic” vs. “mechanistic”. Another pair of modifiers that show up with regularity in the literature. The former, rooted in nineteenth century romanticism, reflected nostalgic admiration for traditional German political structures. It had a special affinity for corporatist political models and for appeals to natural law. “Mechanistic” was its companion boo-word and can usually be found in disparaging references to French or Anglo-Saxon democratic models. Here, as elsewhere in this list, a major influence is the “universalist” system of the Austrian social philosopher Othmar Spann.14

  • A preference for a clear definition of authority: the Nazi “leadership principle” answered to an already existing deep need in society – it didn’t invent it – even though Catholicism’s hierarchical principle, with its graduated structure and legal precision, did not fit seamlessly with Nazi-style populist and charismatic authority.

  • A powerful nostalgic attraction to the ideal of a medieval Christian empire, “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,” and its Hapsburg shadow. This is the visionary Reich that is the subject of Breuning’s book. It is important to note the inter-nationalism of that empire, or at least its multi-national character, which was seen as an appealing antidote to modern nationalism. Catholic anti-liberalism was not nationalistic.

  • Closely related, however, and capable of grave nationalistic exploitation, was the idea of a special German Sendung in Europe, born of its central location and its imperial Christian heritage.15

Throughout the 1920s, Catholic anti-liberalism received major inspiration from the writings of Carl Schmitt, beginning with the twin treatises Roman Catholicism and Political Form and Political Theology. The former developed the idea of “representation” and the Catholic Church’s character as a Machtform. The latter reintroduced the category of “political theology” to modern discourse, and advanced the thesis that “all modern concepts of the state and of sovereignty are secularized theological concepts.” Insisting that his purpose was strictly scholarly, Schmitt argued that there was an affinity between conceptions of sovereignty and government, and metaphysical and theological doctrines of the unity of being.

The two treatises appeared within a year of one another, and, despite the enthusiastic praise which greeted both of them,16 it became apparent that their arguments did not sit all that comfortably with one another. This was but the first of several indications that Schmitt, whose fluent gift for sharply and memorably worded dicta had made him a hot commodity among Catholic intellectuals and publicists, would prove to be an ambiguous voice.17 Eventually some of his erstwhile protégés and friends would come to suspect him of malign intent and would turn against him, most famously and damagingly, the Russian Jewish convert to Catholicism, Waldemar Gurian, who became Schmitt’s tormentor-in-chief from his exile in Switzerland.

III. The Political Anti-Political Theologian: Erik Peterson

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