Carl Schmitt on the Subhuman

The one document that most implicates Schmitt as a temporary adherent of Nazi ideology (he was a member of the NSDAP from 1933–1936) does not contain any refrence to the notion of the subhuman. The 1936 article »Die deutsche Rechtswissenschaft im. Kampf gegen den jüdischen Geist« (English: “German Legal Science at War with the Jewish Spirit”) is largely an administrative document, outlining the methodology for a research program. It does contain religious-based anti-Semitic remarks, including comparisons of Jews to the devil, and some long quotations from Adolf Hitler. But for all of their poison, in Schmitt’s remarks on the ‘Jewish spirit’ notions of the subhuman or sub-humanity are conspicuously absent, just as ethnic or religious animosities are quite absent from his writing in general.

But Schmitt did reflect on the concept of the subhuman in an interesting passage in Der Nomos der Erde (The Nomos of the Earth) (1950). The passage occurs early in Part 2, in which Schmitt is describing the formation of ‘Classical’ European International Law from the 16th-20th centuries, beginning with the land appropriations of the New World. Schmitt focuses on the various moral and theological debates, particularly in Spain, over the conquest of the New World and the subjugation of the Indian. In discussing the arguments of Spanish scholastic Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in favour of conquest, he notes the following:

Sepúlveda presented the natives as savages and barbarians (with reference to Aristotle), in order to place them outside the law and to make their land free for appropriation.
This Aristotelian argument was inhuman in its outcome. But it derived from a particular concept of humanity: the higher humanity of the conqueror. It has an interesting history. The classic formation is found first in the writings of Francis Bacon, whose tenets were adopted by Barbeyac in his commentary on Pufendorf’s concept of natural law. Bacon said the Indians were “proscribed by nature itself” as cannibals. They stood outside humanity (hors l‘humanité) and had no rights. By no means is it paradoxical that none other than humanists and humanitarians put forward such inhuman arguments, because the idea of humanity is two-sided and often lends itself to a surprising dialectic. Given the coherence of this two-sided aspect of the idea of humanity, it should be remembered that Bacon also opposed the axiom homo homini deus to that of homo homini lupus.
In the Germany of the humanitarian 18th century, one probably would have used the word “inhuman” for this other aspect of humanity. At that time, the word emphasized the discriminatory power of division inherent in humanitarian ideology. Of course, the division between human and inhuman had a political meaning and, with some justification, could be traced back to Aristotle’s Politics. In this extreme form, it was no longer Christian. But, in the 18th century, it was consistent with the victory of a philosophy of absolute humanity. Only when man appeared to be the embodiment of absolute humanity did the other side of this concept appear in the form of a new enemy: the inhuman. The expulsion of the inhuman from the human was followed in the 19th century by an even deeper division, between the superhuman and the subhuman. Just as the human presupposes the inhuman, so, with dialectical necessity, the superhuman entered history with its hostile twin: the subhuman. (102–104)

Schmitt here is providing a genealogy of the concept of the subhuman that is firmly tied to Aristotle: the subhuman is an extension of the Aristotelian argument regarding the superior humanity of the conqueror, and the inferior humanity of the conquered. The essence of this argument is that humanity is always accompanied by a “hostile twin:” what to Aristotle was the distinction of conqueror/conquered, was to eighteenth century humanists the distinction human/inhuman, and to nineteenth century thought that of superhuman/subhuman. The larger point about this “dialectic” is that humanity is never conceived as a singular — it always has this ‘double’ quality. For Schmitt, this double quality is correspondent to his own idea of the political as the division between friend and enemy.

When the subhuman is invoked today (for instance, recently by protest leaders associated with the political left), we should remember the “dialectical necessity,” as Schmitt calls it, that the subhuman always implies the superhuman, and the division of humanity into superior and inferior. Further, that the superhuman/subhuman dialectic is always a political dialectic; it always divides between friend and enemy, and as a political concept is always belonging to a sphere seperate from the juridical concept of justice.