The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology and Law

Conference Overview

The Weimar Republic lasted just fourteen years, from 1919 to 1933, but many scholars argue that this brief moment in German history still resonates today. The point of this conference is to interrogate and evaluate that argument. Scholars across a range of disciplines interpret the Republic in a variety of ways. Some laud it for its heroic attempt to establish the most advanced liberal democratic state of the time, or for its culturally vibrant “classical modernism.” Historians once viewed it as the tragic outcome of a German “special path” (Sonderweg) that led directly from monarchical authoritarianism in the nineteenth century to National Socialism and genocide in the twentieth. Regardless of their emphasis, students of the Republic have insisted that “Weimar” is paradigmatic for understanding contemporary Europe and America, even in an age of globalization in which old models are allegedly irrelevant. Does the “Weimar moment” in fact have such validity? If so, what are the specific continuities and influences to which we ought to pay attention? Is the Republic to be seen as a tragic narrative of failed liberalism, a cautionary tale of the ever-present authoritarian strain in Western democracies, or a complex dialectic of both? In what ways does the Weimar moment represent a unique and unrepeatable historical moment? What finally is “the Weimar moment”?

We argue that liberalism, political theology, and law offer important insights for answering such questions. The theme of liberalism in modern German history, i.e., the “German idea of freedom,” to echo the classic formulation of historian Leonard Krieger, is the overarching problem in our deliberations. After the slaughter and defeat of World War I, Germany entered a period in which both authoritarian political traditions and evolving parliamentary practices from the prewar Imperial period were submitted to intense questioning. A moment of decision had arrived. As a coalition of Social Democrats, Catholics, and liberals established the Republic, a revived liberal movement anchored the new polity in a democratic constitution, legal jurisprudence abandoned metaphysical and natural-law traditions in favor of legal positivism and the “science of law,” and theologians debated whether nineteenth-century liberal theology was still relevant. Across the board, promising energies were released, in one direction pointing to a more secure place for the rule of law, in another toward hesitant initiatives for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Law and theology thereby not only responded to the new political situation but also defined a new political culture that was quite literally “between the times,” to use the title of an important theological journal of the era. At the same juncture, the Weimar moment exerted lateral influences, e.g., in Russian legal discourse, where German political traditions were debated and evaluated since before World War I.

The Weimar Republic was a time when legal and theological discourses revealed their intimate relation to power, all the more so when economic crisis and political contention gave rise to populist nationalism, increased anti-Semitism, and finally Nazism. Carl Schmitt, the most important legal theorist of the period, was a defiant critic of liberalism and for a short time the leading legal theorist of the Third Reich. But many socialist legal and political theorists, including Otto Kirchheimer, Franz Neumann, and members of the Frankfurt School, also gained insights from his thinking. His influence remains important and controversial today, on the Left as well as the Right. Many Catholic and Protestant theologians, ambivalent towards the liberal polity or directly opposed to it, played a role in legitimizing anti-democratic revolt, whereas others, such as Karl Barth, not only developed a still influential “dialectical theology” but also resisted Nazism. Barth in particular revealed the complexities of the moment, as later scholars praised him for his socialist views and his nascent “theology of freedom,” or accused him of political “quietism” and weak opposition to anti-Semitism. And Barth's concerns were by no means confined to only Christian theologians, as Jewish thinkers such as Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber also explored ways to escape the heritage of nineteenth-century liberalism and historicism. What sort of liberalism was on offer in this time of decision and crisis? What specific discourses and practices characterized both law and theology during the Weimar moment? What continuities and discontinuities with the present can we identify in these areas?

This conference is an interdisciplinary event that draws on the expertise of legal theorists, theologians, philosophers, and historians locally and internationally. It will take place just before the 2008 election, a moment when such issues will have a special salience. It will be of interest to Wisconsin faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students in law, Jewish studies, religious studies, history, philosophy, political science, and international relations. It will no doubt have a public resonance as well given the timeliness of the topic and the continued interest in the community in German history and culture.

It is anticipated that selected papers emerging from the conference will be published by Lexington Books, a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in a volume co-edited by Professors Kaplan and Koshar.

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