Der Briefwechsel: 1953–1983 | Reinhart Koselleck e Carl Schmitt || Der Begriff der Politik: Die Moderne als Krisenzeit im Werk von Reinhart Kosellec | Genaro Imbriano

The correspondence between the conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006) and the radical-conservative legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) is certain to attract scholarly attention—and to produce expectations. So far, we have only caught unsystematic glimpses of these theorists’ private exchanges, which began in the early 1950s. Scholarship on Koselleck, particularly Niklas Olsen’s History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck and Gennaro Imbriano’s Der Begriff der Politik: Die Moderne als Krisenzeit im Werk von Reinhart Koselleck, which is under review here, has utilized the correspondence and related archival sources, albeit noncomprehensively and without assessing their overall import for the Schmitt/Koselleck question.1 With the letters now made available in 2019’s Der Briefwechsel: 1953–1983, edited by Jan Eike Dunkhase, the wider (German-speaking) audience can form its own opinions about the thinkers’ relationship and assess their similarities and differences.

This review essay offers impressions of the correspondence for an international audience.2 In particular, I emphasize the historically oriented political theory and politically oriented historical theory for which the two correspondents are famous. Additionally, I discuss Imbriano’s Der Begriff der Politik, which relies on the correspondence and comments on Schmitt and Koselleck’s relationship in order to argue for a view of Koselleck as a self-standing theorist of politics and history. I thereby seek not only to capture the current state of the field with regards to the topic of Schmitt and Koselleck’s relationship but also to anticipate potential directions that the steadily growing field of scholarship on Koselleck might take.


The letters, postcards, and inscriptions collected in Der Briefwechsel: 1953–1983 are accompanied by two drafts of Schmitt’s review of Koselleck’s Kritik und Krise, two letters from Schmitt to Koselleck’s wife, one letter from Koselleck to Helmut Quaritsch, and a previously unpublished interview with Koselleck from 1994. Although all of these materials are relevant, the interview provides the most decisive new perspectives on the relationship between Koselleck and Schmitt.

The context of the correspondence merits brief recapitulation. Koselleck came to know Schmitt in the early 1950s while he was studying in Heidelberg, where Schmitt’s wife was being treated for cancer. Their initial contact was facilitated by Koselleck’s friend Nicolaus Sombart, who knew Schmitt from his adolescence, thanks to the wide academic circle surrounding his famous father, Werner Sombart. Throughout the years, and particularly in the 1950s, Koselleck regularly visited his mentor in Plettenberg.

Based on the account Koselleck provided in his 1994 interview with Claus Peppel, these visits were evidently demanding on Koselleck’s intellect and liver, especially given Schmitt’s indulgence in both witticism and wine, his subtly manipulative and occasionally interrogation-like discussion style, and his habit of providing his guest with piles of bedside reading, which he expected Koselleck to discuss with him in the morning. Nevertheless, the time spent in Schmitt’s study was intellectually stimulating and “secretly filled up” Koselleck’s “fuel tank” (9).

Koselleck mentioned having sometimes made notes of their debates, but without access to them, we only have a broad outline of these encounters. According to Koselleck’s later recollections, the topics of their conversations ranged from contemporary domestic politics—including, notably, the role of the Federal Constitutional Court (established in Karlsruhe in 1951), which Schmitt bitterly resisted—to visual arts, literature, and musical theory. In addition to strictly scientific matters, Schmitt, in Koselleck’s estimation, moved competently between such fields (378).

Although these face-to-face meetings provide the immediate context for many of the letters, only stray glimpses at such a colorful spectrum of topics are evident in them. In fact, the tone of the letters is somewhat restrained—possibly due to a combination of the rank difference between the two correspondents as well as prevailing letter-writing conventions, which induced a certain detached formalism. Although Koselleck took occasional freedoms to elaborate on ideas in the Schmittian register, Schmitt’s mode of expression was not particularly extravagant, especially when compared to his published postwar diary or his correspondence with others.

No matter how well-read Schmitt was, his interest in arts and literature—particularly those of other nations—was selective and purpose-oriented. Based on Schmitt’s published works, diaries, and postwar correspondence, we may assume that what unified his heterogeneous interests in the Heidelberg and Plettenberg sessions was that they possessed symbolic significance and enabled him to tie his personal fate to that of classical Europe, which he held dear. Schmitt specialists have recorded his faintly delusional identification with half-mythological figures and concepts ranging from Hamlet and Melville’s Benito Cereno all the way to the biblical katechon, or the cosmic force detaining the end of the world.3 With such imagery, Schmitt readily represented himself as the last defender of the classic tradition of European public law and as someone who sought to resist the downfall of the modern state. This directly supported his debatable postwar claims of having attempted to save the Weimar Republic rather than contributing to its downfall.

These aspects also reverberate in the correspondence. Mostly on Schmitt’s initiative, the pair discussed Schmitt’s identification with Hamlet repeatedly, if only fragmentarily, and carefully noted others’ essays on Benito Cereno. Such passages testify to how Schmitt guided the discussion with his self-positionings and subtly recruited younger scholars as witnesses to his idiosyncratic explanation of the world. In a letter he wrote to Koselleck in 1978, Schmitt characterized himself as the last theorist of the modern state, as “belonging to a passing epoch”—a description that Koselleck readily affirmed, although the formulation of “belonging to a passing epoch” may have carried a different meaning for him at this point (330). The intellectual milieu that the young Koselleck entered was shot through with such personal symbolism, and this was also the baseline that he had to transcend in order to become a theorist of history proper rather than only a guarantor of biographical testimony masked as historiography. Nevertheless, in 1978, Koselleck still asked, “who provides protection against global promises of salvation?” (330), referring to the nonutopian politics his generation had, in his interpretation, called for after the war. The formulation echoes Schmitt’s way of asking the question—that is, in terms of persons rather than institutions, such as criminal law, the German constitution, or the Federal Constitutional Court.

In the immediate postwar era, both thinkers actively sought to make sense of the prevailing political-historical reality after Germany’s catastrophe and amid the subsequent global ideological tensions of the Cold War, and this aspect of their exchange is still relevant for contemporary theorizing. Koselleck and Schmitt were adamant that the prevailing situation could only be grasped by a comprehensive philosophical-cum-historical explanation; they therefore engaged, if only unsystematically, with selected basic questions of historical and political theory: How to balance singularity and repetitiveness of events in history? What remains of the program of universal history after historicism? What is the nature of history in the first place? How new, after all, is the Neuzeit (modernity), with its ideological disarray? How did local contestations eventually turn into a worldwide duality that threatens to annihilate the entire planet? What role remains for history in the face of such eschatology? Can we understand ideologies better by tracing their structural properties, and could this help in regulating their destructive powers?

In the late 1950s, the debate was still mostly carried out in Schmittian oppositions such as land/sea, Protestants/Catholics, direct/indirect powers (169, 177)—the kind of dualisms that, when combined with those of public/secret and politics/morality, served as the impetus for Koselleck’s arguments in Kritik und Krise.4 Over time, the emphasis of Schmitt and Koselleck’s relationship shifted, gradually producing new answers to such persisting questions. The teacher/pupil relation gradually receded, and Koselleck began to introduce themes into the debate: although historical prognoses equally occupied Schmitt in the 1950s, notions such as “future horizons” (206), “temporal structures of history” (220), and “possible history” (236) were, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, already characteristically Koselleckian. Arguably, many of these ideas would not have emerged were it not for Koselleck’s theoretical discussions with Schmitt, but they nevertheless do not stem directly from the preexisting Schmittian repertoire.

A reader on the lookout for novel interpretative keys to either Schmitt’s or Koselleck’s thinking is likely to be disappointed with Der Briefwechsel: 1953–1983, though. Extended development of ideas is infrequent in the letters, and most of the exchange consists of mutual expressions of politeness, practicalities related to communicating via letters, visits, and book-acquiring, as well as anecdotal allusions to discussions of which only fragments remain. In terms of straightforward theory, the clearest additional value arguably relates to Schmitt’s occasional remarks on history, on the one hand, and Koselleck’s remarks on the need for a proper theoretical basis for historiography, on the other. The two elements are also densely interlinked.

First, the correspondence sheds some novel light on Schmitt’s postwar philosophy of world history. In the 1950s, Schmitt underscored the singularity of historical events and, in good old historicist fashion, noted that all historical truths were true only once, thus rebutting the Nietzschean eternal return of the same in favor of genuine uniqueness in history.5 Schmitt consequently abhorred dualistic historical structures—such as the contemporary East/West ideological setting or the historical opposition of land and sea that he still identified as reflected in the East/West dualism—due to their ability to produce only barrenly repeating structures. Dualisms were also inherently unstable and thus produced only intermediate solutions rather than the conservative tranquility that Schmitt sought.

For Schmitt, true historicity required a dialectically proceeding sequence of unique historical moments, although Schmitt was careful to note that this was not a form of Hegelian dialectics of concepts but the dialectics of concrete historical situations.6 Rather than dialectics taking place as immanent development within concepts, concepts were the means by which historical particularities eventually displaced one another, as reflected in the dualistic conceptual pairs of East/West, Hellenes/Barbarians, or Romans/Germans, as Schmitt indicated in 1955.7 Such Right-Hegelian starting points were arguably passed down from Schmitt to Koselleck, informing the latter’s initial comprehension of the world-historical and political relevance of conceptual history (particularly his emphasis on concepts as factors in historical processes, on the one hand, and on conceptual dualisms, which he eventually formalized into the theory of asymmetrical counter-concepts, on the other).

Although Schmitt did not emphasize the political nature of historical uniqueness, the singularity he envisioned ultimately relied on history proceeding by decisions, which were, for the most part, political, existential, and nihilistic (in the sense of arising ex nihilo). Examples included the decision to combat a particular enemy or to turn from a land-bound existence to a maritime one. Due to their inherent political nature, such decisions were capable of politicizing history as well. In Schmitt’s vocabulary, decisions were comparable to miracles or revelations in theology, or to a critical culmination point of a disease that necessitates drastic action. The adapted perspective of decisions implied that particularly intensified, decisive moments existed also in history. This meaning was contained etymologically in the term “crisis,” as Schmitt only implied and as Koselleck later laid bare in precise conceptual-historical terms; both authors also capitalized on the semantic link between “crisis” and “criticism.”

Schmitt evidently felt that he had lived through one such critical culmination point in global history. He expressed his theoretical codification of this experience in a letter delivered in August 1958:

World history is by no means a continuous flow, but rather a sequence of “quanta” that accumulate around a core situation, which remains identical during a certain time period; hence the staggering repetition of questions, until they suddenly change into completely novel core situations. (151)

Schmitt’s idea of the discontinuous nature of history, as developed in this and in adjacent paragraphs, parallels the model of challenge and response, as put forth by Arnold J. Toynbee at the time, and the logic of question and answer, as developed by R. G. Collingwood. During this period, Schmitt expressed interest in these doctrines.8 Now made available in Der Briefwechsel: 1953–1983, the passages conveying this interest might help scholars not only to pinpoint the links between Schmitt and Anglophone philosophy of history with more precision but also to assess how this interest was possibly transmitted to Koselleck. Although Koselleck is not known for having theorized the historicity of questions as extensively as Schmitt did, there are clear links between Schmitt’s reflections on singularity and repetition and Koselleck’s later theorizing of repetitive historical structures. “The repetitiveness of historical possibilities does not exclude the uniqueness of current realizations,” Koselleck noted in a 1977 letter (308). With the correspondence now available, we can better relate Koselleck’s and Schmitt’s respective renderings of the problem of recurring questions in history. A particularly fertile line of inquiry would entail addressing the flickering similarity between Schmitt’s and Koselleck’s uniqueness of historical situations and repeatability of answers, on the one hand, and Quentin Skinner’s Collingwood-inspired tracing of concepts to the questions they were intended to answer, on the other.

The second main theoretical import of the correspondence relates directly to the topic of historical uniqueness. In his very first letter to Schmitt, Koselleck called for a completely novel ontology of history to take modern historiography beyond traditional historicism, which he considered a “residual form” deriving from the concrete situation of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie and thus incapable of serving as an “answer to our situation” (11). Not at all unlike Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Mannheim, Koselleck thus relativized historicism itself as a product of a specific era.9 Following Schmitt’s lead,10 Koselleck problematized Friedrich Meinecke’s alleged tendency to see values as transhistorical categories that are postulated from the perspective of a supposedly self-standing outsider position in an inevitably linear historical process. Completely embedded within its original context, traditional historicism could not adequately answer the key questions of the post-WWII period—and the most burning question concerned the ideologies supported by historical theorizing.

Koselleck credited Schmitt’s doctrine of tracing concepts to their contemporary contexts with paving the way out of the conundrum of historicism, on the one hand, and found similar elements in Hans Freyer’s repoliticized and decision-based variant of historicism, on the other.11 The work of both former radical conservatives helped, according to Koselleck, in “cutting the ground from under the philosophies of history” (11). Koselleck’s bout with the philosophy of history—which he, in Kritik und Krise and elsewhere, identified as the driving force behind the contesting ideologies of liberalism and socialism—had already begun in the very first letter to Schmitt in January 1953 and was, at the outset, interlaced with both political and methodological questions. The habit of tracing concepts to their concrete contexts while simultaneously sketching sweeping diachronic developments in a decontextualizing manner (yet without assuming any telos-oriented inevitability) eventually became the core duality in the methodology of conceptual history. The 1953 letter and its theoretical import was noted by Olsen, and Imbriano also recognizes it (53), but scholars now have access to Koselleck’s earlier statements of intent and motivation (however opaque they may be).

How much new information, then, does the correspondence offer on the relationship between the two thinkers? Koselleck himself never made a secret of Schmitt’s formative influence on him in the 1950s. His direct expressions of gratitude—including claims that his studies in Heidelberg were “quite unthinkable without your works, Herr Professor” (62) and that Kritik und Krise “could not have been written” without the discussions with Schmitt (81)—are only a notch more confessional than his 1994 self-assessment that, “without [Schmitt’s] questions and inspiration, I probably would have thought differently” (386). Correspondingly, no scholar denies that analytical and conceptual elements from Schmitt are perceivable in Koselleck’s work. However, scholars have differed in their conclusions regarding, first, if this debt was primarily terminological or if it penetrated Koselleck’s modes of thought more deeply; second, whether the intellectual/methodological elements can be demarcated from ideological ones; and third, for how long the Schmittian elements in Koselleck’s early work remained in effect.

Regarding these concerns, the correspondence only adds nuance to what scholars have already known. One line of inquiry in recent scholarship has been to underline Koselleck’s indebtedness to Karl Löwith, partly in order to relativize Schmitt’s influences.12 Schmitt’s, Koselleck’s, and the fellow-Heidelbergian Hanno Kesting’s interest in Löwith is well established in scholarship, and the correspondence does not shed new light on this question apart from including Koselleck’s note that he anticipated Löwith’s official report on his doctoral dissertation with “fear” (27). He speculated whether Löwith’s criticism would be directed against the entire work or only against its scientific credentials (40–41)), but he also noted that the dissertation “by no means necessarily [had] to contradict” Löwith’s “skepticism regarding the philosophy of history” (34).

Imbriano, curiously, cites the last remark as support for his claim that Koselleck considered the argument of Kritik und Krise to follow Löwithian assumptions (30). If anything, such remarks instead suggest that Koselleck did not perceive his work as being unproblematically Löwithian or entirely to Löwith’s liking. In another letter written in 1953, Koselleck noted how, in addition to Schmitt’s writings, Hans Freyer’s work had also prepared a new ontology of history, one directed against the philosophy of history; he did not mention Löwith at all. Also, in a subsequent letter, Koselleck relativized Löwith’s centrality to his own argumentation in Kritik und Krise. Imbriano cites a 1975 letter from Koselleck to Hans Blumenberg—another self-standing theorist of secularization and critic of Löwith, Schmitt, and other representatives of the secularization thesis, including the young Koselleck (120). In it, Koselleck explained how he originally relied on Löwith as a contemporary standard reference before proceeding to alternative perspectives that were actually more in harmony with Blumenberg’s radically historical approach. Although this belated reply to Blumenberg’s 1966 criticism may have been driven by motives ranging from excessive politeness to apologetic hindsight, it nevertheless suggests that the Löwith link has its limits.

Although the correspondence mostly adds nuance to scholarly knowledge on the Koselleck/Schmitt relationship, the most controversial material actually comes from Koselleck’s 1994 interview with Peppel, which was conducted almost a decade after Schmitt’s death. In the interview, Koselleck noted how he read Schmitt’s Weimar-era works in the mid-1950s but did not engage with Schmitt’s writings from the Third Reich period at that time; further, Koselleck also recorded ex post his unwillingness at the time to perceive these texts as being tied to the era of National Socialism (382).

Such self-criticism concerning his partial naivete, however, did not prevent Koselleck from offering, in 1994, a somewhat contentious interpretation of, arguably, Schmitt’s most notorious text. In Koselleck’s estimation, Schmitt had to choose between cooperating or fleeing, and his decision to stay in the Third Reich was motivated by his desire to keep National-Socialist Germany on the path of the rule of law as opposed to the arbitrariness of personal rule (380). Koselleck extended this perspective to Schmitt’s 1934 text “Der Führer schützt das Recht” (The Führer protects the law), which has been read as justifying the murders of the Röhm Purge.13 Koselleck’s interpretation was that emphasis should be placed on the second part of the text and on “law” rather than “Führer,” whereby the text rather appears as a plea for legality. Koselleck reported having mentioned this change of “intonation and intention” at some point to Schmitt—something that evidently pleased Schmitt and caused him to laugh “sibyllically” (381).

Although this self-reported exegetical intervention surely demonstrates Koselleck’s tendency not to make a secret out of his links with Schmitt, it also indicates how Koselleck scarcely shunned controversy or evaded potentially explosive topics. Even if Koselleck did not intend for his comments about the 1934 text to function as an apology for Schmitt against “moral judgments” (381), the risk of being unduly misread as such is massive among even the most benevolent and well-informed audiences. For someone not wanting to be unjustly labeled as “Schmittian”—a painful experience, as he repeatedly expressed—Koselleck took hefty intellectual risks.


How, exactly, did Koselleck regulate and eventually transcend Schmitt’s influence? Apart from Koselleck occasionally presenting his autonomous research interests and later coining analytical terminology of his own, there is little direct data in the correspondence that could help us answer this question. Perhaps this question is only assessable on the aggregative level of Koselleck’s entire oeuvre; this being the case, it is of the utmost importance to acknowledge the categories in which we ask the question in the first place. In harmony with earlier scholarship, Imbriano notes how Koselleck followed Schmitt in depicting political concepts as means in ideological contestation but also “formalized” this perspective (34, 41).

The presuppositions of formalization, methodologization, or liberalization of Schmitt’s ideas, however, remain mostly between the lines in Imbriano’s book. Arguably, these processes are what scholarship should focus on, seeking to specify their meaning in comparative settings with other thinkers and other parallel categories, including “depoliticization” or “deradicalization.” Given how Koselleck’s historical and political thought arose from Schmitt’s autobiographically motivated ruminations, “depersonalization” should perhaps also be included. All of the above processes—formalization, methodologization, depoliticization, deradicalization, and depersonalization—are valid and relevant beyond the particular case of Schmitt and Koselleck’s relationship. Indeed, they pertain to the dynamics of intellectual history in general. They are processes by which epoch-bound political theory and person-related historical reflection become historical scholarship.

One noteworthy rendering of Schmitt and Koselleck’s relationship can be found in Imbriano’s study, which utilizes the correspondence to complicate our understanding of Koselleck’s gradual development into an independent intellectual. Imbriano proposes an interpretation of Koselleck as primarily a thinker of politics (understood in the wide sense of mediations and representations that enable human beings to live together) who perceived modernity in terms of an opposition between “the political” and “politics.” In this context, “the political” is synonymous with crisis, conflict, and war, and, according to Imbriano, Koselleck contrasted this pole with that of politics proper, which he understood as the mediation of conflicts (12). The proposition is credible as a description of the underlying structure of Koselleck’s views and thus is certainly worth closer scrutiny. Imbriano identifies “the political” with Schmitt’s positions, whereas Koselleck was, allegedly, after a new concept of politics, one that could help to counter the problems therein (15). Imbriano’s interpretation of how close Schmitt and Koselleck were thereby hinges on the validity of the opposition between politics and the political. Koselleck eventually agreed with Schmitt that “the political” was an inevitable “structural” feature of human life, and Imbriano claims that this constituted Koselleck’s “Schmittian heritage”; yet, for Koselleck, the political could be “neutralized and restricted” by politics, as Imbriano argues (92).

I believe that there is potentially a significant error in this interpretation, regardless of how interesting and informed it is: it is unclear whether the dualism of politics and the political represents a deviation from Schmitt. Arguably, Schmitt struggled throughout his career to balance the elements of the intensification of political conflicts, on the one hand, and the limitation and containment thereof, on the other; he thus tended to favor one aspect over the other, as required by the argument at hand.14 He was equally concerned with the over- and under-politicization of the world, and the two aspects were intrinsically related: for Schmitt, apparent underpoliticization would only serve as a temporary mask for the political, thereby actually intensifying oppositions and producing new overpoliticization in the long run.

Schmitt repeatedly engaged with the problem of neutralization after the era of the Weimar Republic, but his argument was not about the impossibility of neutralization tout court; rather, Schmitt argued that neutralization and depoliticization required that a strong state make a conscious decision to withdraw from the economy, culture, or comparable societal spheres. Attempting a general domestic neutralization on a weak pluralistic basis would instead enhance latent conflicts and further intensify politics.15 In external relations, the solution was spatial retreat into secluded interest spheres and possibly occasional political-existential wars between them, not the juridification and moralization of political wars, which Schmitt believed was the true cause of war’s totalization16—a somewhat idiosyncratic argument to which Koselleck and his Heidelberg colleagues repeatedly referred.

Schmitt certainly went to greater lengths than Koselleck to underline the problematic intensifying tendencies, and he was willing to pay a high price for his beloved peace and order (for instance, Schmitt proposed that, in modernity, political wars that were unregulated by any judicial framework were the only viable counter-measures to the moral intensification and totalization of wars). However, by attributing the belief in the human capability and necessity to restrict the political to Koselleck alone, we risk overemphasizing the radicality of Schmitt’s conservatism at the expense of overlooking his simultaneous conservative call for order.

If my basic proposition holds, then it is clear that Koselleck’s thinking did not deviate significantly from Schmitt’s with regards to this structural feature of his argumentation (which, obviously, is not to say that there were not differences as regards other issues or that they agreed on ideological ramifications). Koselleck might have misconstrued the relation in his 1994 interview when he suggested that, in comparison with Schmitt’s original version, his own, purely formalized reading of the friend/enemy opposition as a repetitive empty pattern in history also prioritized the equally justified position of the enemy (379). Treating the enemy as an equally justified, although existentially alien, part of the conflict—someone to be confronted on the same level rather than someone to be discriminated against, morally condemned, or, in the extreme case, legally executed—was part and parcel of Schmitt’s attempt to give political conflicts a controllable form. Schmitt’s theory might have been flawed or have rested on normatively unacceptable premises, or he may have been, in his ideological statements, incapable of living up to the expectations arising from his political theory; nevertheless, the conceptual logic of his theory was not categorically different from what Koselleck and Imbriano have proposed.

If we wish to show the differences in Schmitt’s and Koselleck’s respective normative-ideological commitments, we must thus address the content, rather than the form, of their arguments. Imbriano constructs the differences between the two thinkers in terms of Koselleck’s lack of “sympathy for the myth of the political,” his reluctance to “deepen and sanctify its power,” and the fact that “no aesthetics, mythology, or mystics of war” can be found in Koselleck, whereas Imbriano implies (and sometimes explicitly states) that Schmitt held such positions (13). Parallel points have been made in existing scholarship on Koselleck’s work: for instance, Olsen defined Koselleck’s deviation from Schmitt in terms of Koselleck’s call for “responsible” politics founded on “pluralistic” rather than “antagonistic” premises and aiming at “political recognition and plurality” rather than “exclusion, aggression, and conflict” or the perpetual “ideologization and politicization” of political concepts.17

Although they all look for a truly existing difference in intellectual temperament, such characterizations problematically lack detailed examinations of Schmitt’s arguments. In turn, they perform the kind of discriminating conceptual dualisms projected from the outside that both Schmitt and Koselleck theorized and argued against. The amount of aesthetics or mystics of war in Schmitt’s writings is limited, and he certainly aimed at more than merely intensifying political conflicts; further, pluralism—understood on the level of world history and states—was a standard feature of radical conservatism more broadly, and Koselleck’s anti-ideological emphasis on the plurality of history does not eo ipso spell a deviation from Schmitt and a step toward domestic political pluralism. Even if scholars of intellectual history do not want to defend Schmitt in the least, overlooking such points both secures excessively easy victories for those scholars who are more eager to read Schmitt favorably and makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate Koselleck from Schmitt, should that be a goal.

Koselleck, however, eventually departed from his early Schmittianism and acquired a political perspective of his own, as Imbriano notes (12). Despite foregrounding questions about Schmitt and Koselleck’s relationship and correspondence, Imbriano’s book does not analyze the nuances of this relationship; rather, it proceeds by analyzing transitions only within Koselleck’s thinking. At the outset of the book, Imbriano explains and justifies this decision in theoretical terms. Imbriano’s key assumptions are that Koselleck was, first, a systematic thinker who provided comprehensive reflections on the political aspects of history and, second, a theorist of history (in a strong sense) who particularly sketched the transcendental presuppositions for a possible history (14–15)).

To drive home the point of systematicity, Imbriano considers Koselleck’s historical theory almost comprehensively; however, only a segment of the analysis directly supports his main thesis on the politics/political opposition as a key to Koselleck’s work. This is not to say there are not useful observations in the book, such as those related to the analytical differences between Koselleck’s two theories of history—one regarding events and structures, another related to experiences and expectations—although the perspectives of both are typically treated together (81–82)). Another interesting topic that has received relatively little attention in scholarship is the question of Prussian history and how Koselleck used his more (social-)historically oriented perspective to distance himself from Schmitt’s typological interpretation of Prussian history in terms of soldiers and politicians. However, either a single argument focusing on the politics/political point or a set of several arguments bound closely together would have given Imbriano’s volume the coherent argumentative structure it mostly lacks; either of these argumentative techniques would have also helped to justify his extensive use of archival sources. Although it relies on the correspondence and related materials, Imbriano’s book does not really explore exactly when, why, and how the perspective of restrictive politics came to dominate Koselleck’s thinking over that of the free-floating political. The rhetorical persuasiveness of the scheme cannot quite compensate for the limits of the data.

Whereas other scholars, particularly Olsen, have underlined the theme of historical plurality in Koselleck’s work, Imbriano understands plurality in the sense of antifoundationalist relativism and, on that basis, promotes an interpretation of Koselleck as endorsing a history in the singular rather than postmodernist pluralism (15). Particularly as that very lexeme features in radical-conservative accounts of the political nature of history (such as those by Schmitt, Freyer, and their followers), a more nuanced reading of the numerous meanings of “pluralism” might have made Imbriano’s argument stronger.

The same goes for Imbriano’s discussion of “liberalism” and the gradual “liberalization” of Koselleck’s work. Imbriano observes Koselleck’s eventual “reconciliation with the political form of the Federal Republic of Germany” and notes that the gradual disappearance of “the polemical anti-liberal tones of the 1950s” reflects Koselleck’s divorce from Schmitt (126). Given this transition’s importance for not only Koselleck’s biography but also the consistency and later usability of his theoretical proposals, a more nuanced discussion of Koselleck’s relationship to liberalism would have been worthwhile. We must instead settle for a brief characterization of Koselleck’s thought as a form of “skeptical” (rather than “ideological”) liberalism (126)—apparently a form of sober-minded nonideological ideology. Locating Koselleck on the map of liberalism, however, appears a bit forced, especially as it results in such apparent paradoxes.

It would have been more fruitful to identify Koselleck as belonging to the conservative tradition broadly speaking and as a liberal conservative more precisely, whereby “liberal” becomes a qualifier for a subtype that is still to be further characterized rather than a general category, let alone a preset destination. At any rate, merely recognizing how Koselleck’s liberalism relies on his criticism of the philosophy of history and the ideological ramifications thereof does little to show the innate liberality of this scheme. Schmitt, Freyer, and others opposed single-track theories of history with arguments about historical plurality, and the point was, importantly, made against both Marxian socialism and Western liberalism (the ideological pincers of the Soviet Union and the US, respectively, that Heidegger identified as crushing Germany from two sides), although thinkers like Jacob Talmon and Isaiah Berlin provided parallel arguments that were more unambiguously pro-liberal and more consistently antitotalitarian.

In his criticism of the philosophy of history, Koselleck, from the start, interlaced his historical theorizing with questions about political ideology; in that regard, Imbriano’s interpretation of Koselleck as a political thinker through and through is undoubtedly correct. Yet we would do well to observe how Koselleck’s seamless amalgamation of politics and history stemmed less from his lived history of events or empirical source-based historiography (although these evidently motivated and molded it) than from the fundamental links between the two domains, which appeared in his early conceptual and analytical apparatus. With his work, Koselleck not only proposed but also embodied the historical and historiographical relevance of politics—and the political relevance of the historical and historiographical. Many of his key concepts in historical theory—such as saddle time, layers of time, acceleration, dualisms, or counter-concepts—carry inbuilt political resonances and exemplify the intertwining of politics and history in a mise-en-abyme fashion.

Koselleck rarely expressed his political sympathies directly in his writings, and, consequently, very few scholars have offered detailed analyses of his political views and ideological commitments. In Imbriano’s book, the actual material on Koselleck’s relationship with liberalism comes from Koselleck’s 1979 essayistic reassessment of classical liberal historiography and its contemporary heritage (126), which Imbriano juxtaposes with references to Koselleck’s scattered remarks on federal structures and interprets as implying a considerable democratic commitment (127–30)). Imbriano is certainly not alone here: due to the scarcity of evidence, the question of Koselleck’s liberalism easily turns into an unrewarding exegetical task—or a matter of belief based on others’ testimonies to the effect that the historian safely stayed on this side of the Rubicon. Sebastian Huhnholz has recently sought to relativize the alleged Schmittianism of Koselleck’s early work in favor of a more “liberal” interpretation and has, to this end, taken the contextualist method to its extremes. However, rather than addressing the question of Koselleck’s “liberalization” directly, Huhnholz also worked indirectly and sought to show Koselleck’s liberality by bringing him closer to Hannah Arendt in a supposed either/or of Schmitt or Arendt.18

One potentially productive direction for future scholarship would be to assess the “liberalization” question in light of Koselleck’s unpublished material and with more nuanced conceptual apparatuses. Defining the meaning of the term “liberalism” would also be crucial, for it is one thing to accept the democratic system in postwar West Germany, the role of political parties in it, and the concomitant basic and political rights of its citizens, even if perhaps only with a grudge, and quite another to wholeheartedly support the economic and political liberalization and emancipation from authorities—let alone the corresponding interpretation of history or the liberal-individualistic philosophy of values. There were other ways to promote federalism as an antitotalitarian force in postwar Germany than by turning to the liberal—as exemplified, for instance, by the Catholic republicanism-cum-federalism of Eugen Kogon.

Another fruitful avenue for future scholarship would be to read Koselleck more broadly in the West German cultural discourses of the postwar era. This could easily be combined with nuanced contextualization and analysis of theory. In scholarship on Schmitt, combining information from Schmitt’s diaries and correspondence with his published texts has helped to unearth previously overlooked motives and trace shifts of emphasis with added precision.19 In the future, scholarship on Koselleck is also likely to adopt biographical perspectives and employ archival material more frequently and thoroughly. With Koselleck having reached the status of a classic in international debates about historical and political theory, and with his Nachlaß available in the German Literature Archive in Marbach, works relying on pure textual exegesis—let alone those aiming primarily to introduce rather than interpret Koselleck’s ideas—will meet increased pressure in this regard. Together with Olsen’s earlier work and the (not entirely unproblematic) volume by Huhnholz, Imbriano’s book can be seen as a step in this direction.

Increased use of archival material to further clarify the genesis of Koselleck’s ideas will not only complicate his intellectual biography, thereby further developing that field of study; in the case of a thinker whose abstract categories arose directly out of contemporary considerations and whose reckoning with the heritage of radical conservatism is entirely coextensive with his broader intellectual maturation, such archival work resonates directly with the way we understand his key theorems.

Biography, here, serves historical theory without becoming a self-purposeful industry of its own and without contributing to further myth-building. Enhanced cooperation between source-oriented intellectual historians, connoisseurs of contemporary discourses, and philosophers of history is the call of the day in this particular matter. The task is not easy, though. Schmitt wrote most of his diaries in the nineteenth-century Gabelsberger stenography, which hardly anyone can decipher nowadays, and Koselleck’s handwriting is more or less illegible. Such pragmatic obstacles must, and will, be overcome in our continued effort to read historical theory, in Mannheim’s phrase, as “existentially bound” thinking.20


  1. Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck(New York: Berghahn, 2012).
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this review essay are my own.
  3. See, for instance, Ruth Groh, Arbeit an der Heillosigkeit der Welt: Zur politisch-theologischen Mythologie und Anthropologie Carl Schmitts(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1998), 115–55.
  4. See Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise: Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Welt(1959; Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973).
  5. See, for instance, Carl Schmitt, “Die geschichtliche Struktur des heutigen Welt-Gegensatzes von Ost und West: Bemerkungen zu Ernst Jüngers Schrift: ‘Der Gordische Knoten’” (1955), in Staat, Großraum, Nomos: Arbeiten aus den Jahren 1916–1969, ed. Günter Maschke (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1995), 531.
  6. Ibid., 535.
  7. Ibid., 532.
  8. Ibid., 534–35.
  9. Ernst Troeltsch, Der Historismus und seine Probleme, vol. 1, Das Logische Problem der Geschichtsphilosophie(1922; Aalen: Scientia, 1977), 11 and passim; Karl Mannheim, Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. David Kettler, Volker Meja, and Nico Stehr (London: Routledge, 2007), 127–28 and passim.
  10. Carl Schmitt, “Zu Friedrich Meineckes ‘Idee der Staatsräson’” (1926), in Positionen und Begriffe im Kampf mit Weimar – Genf – Versailles 1923–1939(Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1988), 45–52.
  11. Hans Freyer, Weltgeschichte Europas, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden: Dieterich, 1948). On Freyer and Koselleck, see Timo Pankakoski, “From Historical Structures to Temporal Layers: Hans Freyer and Conceptual History,” History and Theory59, no. 1 (2020), 61–91.
  12. This aspect is prominent in Sebastian Huhnholz, Von Carl Schmitt zu Hannah Arendt? Heidelberger Entstehungsspuren und bundesrepublikanische Liberalisierungsschichten von Reinhart KosellecksKritik und Krise (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2019). For a more balanced reading of the link with Löwith, see Niklas Olsen, “Reinhart Koselleck, Karl Löwith und der Geschichtsbegriff,” in Zwischen Sprache und Geschichte: Zum Werk Reinhart Kosellecks, ed. Carsten Dutt and Reinhard Laube (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013), 236–55.
  13. See, for example, Reinhard Mehring, Carl Schmitt: Aufstieg und Fall(Munich: Beck, 2009), 352.
  14. I have previously put forth this interpretative scheme as an inlet into the Clausewitzian elements in Schmitt’s theory of war. See Timo Pankakoski, “Containment and Intensification in Political War: Carl Schmitt and the Clausewitzian Heritage,” History of European Ideas43, no. 6 (2017), 649–73.
  15. See, for example, Carl Schmitt, “Starker Staat und gesunde Wirtschaft” (1932), in Maschke, Staat, Großraum, Nomos, 71–91; Carl Schmitt, “Weiterentwicklung des totalen Staats in Deutschland” (January 1933), in Positionen und Begriffe, 185–90.
  16. Carl Schmitt, Die Wendung zum diskriminierenden Kriegsbegriff(1937/1938), in Frieden oder Pazifismus? Arbeiten zum Völkerrecht und zur internationalen Politik 1924–1978, ed. Günter Maschke (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2005), 518–97; Carl Schmitt, Völkerrechtliche Großraumordnung mit Interventionsverbot für raumfremde Mächte: Ein Beitrag zum Reichsbegriff im Völkerrecht (1939/1941), in Maschke, Staat, Großraum, Nomos, 269–371; Carl Schmitt, Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum (Cologne: Greven, 1950).
  17. Olsen, History in the Plural, 69, 72, 190.
  18. See Huhnholz, Von Carl Schmitt zu Hannah Arendt?
  19. See Mehring, Carl Schmitt.
  20. Karl Mannheim, Ideologie und Utopie(1929; Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1995), 229.


Timo PankakoskiUniversity of Helsinki.

Referências desta resenha

KOSELLECK, Reinhart; SCHMITT, Koselleck. DUNKHASE, Eike. Der Briefwechsel: 1953–1983. Dunkhase. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2019. Pp. 459. IMBRIANO Gennaro Der Begriff der Politik: Die Moderne als Krisenzeit im Werk von Reinhart Kosellec. Frankfurt: Campus, 2018. Pp. 187. Resenha de: PANKAKOSKI, Timo. The long goodbye: recent perspectives on the Koselleck/Schmitt question. History & Theory. v.60, n.3, 2021. Acessar publicação original [IF]

Deixe um Comentário

Você precisa fazer login para publicar um comentário.