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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2014

Department of History, Columbia University E-mail:


In his Mémoires, published in the year of his death in 1983, Raymond Aron—the French sociologist and Cold War champion of liberalism—astonishingly remarked that as a man of high culture Carl Schmitt could have never been a Nazi. Aron's defenders have typically downplayed his mature views on Schmitt: for how else could the main defender of the liberal faith in France devote himself to salvaging the reputation of the greatest antiliberal of the age? This essay argues, however, that Aron's bizarre statements about Schmitt actually provide a crucial aperture into the nature of Aron's liberalism. I will begin by placing Aron's comments about Schmitt within his Clausewitz project of the 1970s. Aron took Schmitt as a guiding inspiration even as he sought to overcome Schmitt's existential interpretation of Clausewitz. By doing so, Aron hoped to establish a rational foundation for political action. Yet Aron's attempt to contain Clausewitz would not only lead to a renewal of interest in Schmitt's thought; it would also revive Aron and Schmitt's correspondence that had lain dormant since the early 1960s. As the 1970s advanced, this would have implications for how Aron viewed Schmitt, especially in light of the critical German reception of Penser la guerre, Clausewitz. This essay concludes by looking at the intellectual legacy of Aron's Schmittian inspirations—at just the time he became the avatar of contemporary French liberalism

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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This article was originally a term paper I wrote for an independent study with Samuel Moyn at Columbia University in the fall of 2009. My thanks to Professor Moyn for his encouragement to publish it and for his invaluable suggestions. I am grateful to have also benefited from the comments of Duncan Kelly, Etienne Balibar, Noah Rosenblum, Thomas Meaney, Lydia Walker, Benjamin Schumpmann, Asheesh Siddique, Timothy Shenk, Pollyanna Rhee, Alana Hein and four anonymous readers. I am indebted to Michèle Le Pavec at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Matthias Meusch at the Hauptstaatsarchiv in Düsseldorf for their assistance with manuscripts.


1 Aron, Raymond, “Tyrannie et mépris des hommes,” La France libre, 3/16 (Feb. 1942), 291–300, cited in Aron, L’homme contre les tyrans (New York, 1944), 71. All translations are mine unless otherwise notedGoogle Scholar.

2 Aron, Raymond, Mémoires (Paris, 2010), 837Google Scholar.

3 Anderson, Perry, The New Old World (London, 2011), 163Google Scholar.

4 Aron, Mémoires, 837.

5 Bondy, Françoise, “Carl Schmitt: juriste ou légiste?Commentaire, 8/32 (1985–6), 1110–12, 112Google Scholar.

6 Rovan, Joseph, “Raymond Aron et L’Allemagne,” Commentaire, 8/28–9 (1985), 250Google Scholar.

7 Müller, Jan-Werner, A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-war European Thought (Princeton, 2003), 99Google Scholar.

8 This occurred in 1987 after Nouvelle école—a French New Right journal—devoted a special issue to the thought of Carl Schmitt: Nouvelle école, 44 (Spring 1987). For contextual information regarding this controversy see Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, “Carl Schmitt, nazi philosophe? Lecteurs de droite et de gauche,” Le Monde, 6 Dec. 2002.

9 Audier, Serge, La pensee anti-68: Essai sur une restauration intellectuelle (Paris, 2009)Google Scholar.

10 See for instance Judt, Tony's comments in The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago, 2007), 146–7Google Scholar. This is also on display throughout the works of Brian C. Anderson and Daniel J. Mahoney, which attempted in the 1990s to revive American interest in Aron's work: Brian C. Anderson, “The Aronian Renewal,” First Things, March 1995, 61–4; Anderson, , Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political (New York, 1997)Google Scholar; Mahoney, Daniel J., The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron (New York, 1992)Google Scholar.

11 The volume where Aron systematically discusses Tocqueville and Montesquieu is Les étapes de la pensée sociologique (Paris, 1967).

12 Aron, Raymond, Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, trans. Holoch, George (New York, 1990), 240Google Scholar.

13 Judt, Tony, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944–1956 (New York, 2011), 317Google Scholar.

14 For works addressing the Weber reception in France see Pollak, Michael, Max Weber en France: L’itinéraire d’une oeuvre (Paris, 1986)Google Scholar; Hirschhorn, Monique, Max Weber et la sociologie française (Paris, 1988)Google Scholar.

15 Aron, Raymond, Paix et guerre entre les nations (Paris, 1962)Google Scholar.

16 Aron, Raymond, Penser la guerre, Clausewitz, vol. 1, L'âge européen; vol. 2, L'âge planétaire (Paris, 1976)Google Scholar.

17 Schmitt, Carl, La notion du politique et Théorie du partisan, trans. Steinhauser, Marie-Louise (Paris, 1972)Google Scholar.

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19 Kriegel, Blandine, Querelles français: Entretiens avec Alexis Lacroix (Paris, 2008), 277Google Scholar.

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21 Raynaud, Philippe, “Que faire de Carl Schmitt?”, Le Débat, 131 (2004), 163, original emphasisCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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23 Faye, Jean Pierre, Langages totalitaires (Paris, 1972), 633Google Scholar. son, Faye's, Faye, Emmanuel, has made similar charges about Heidegger's thought in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933–1935, trans. Smith, Michael B. (New Haven, 2011)Google Scholar.

24 Sternhell, Zeev's Ni droite ni gauche (Paris, 1983)Google Scholar; Levy, Bernard-Henri's L’idéologie française (Paris, 1981)Google Scholar. In 1983 de Jouvenel sued Sternhell for bringing to light his brief membership in the fascist Parti populaire français and his relationship with Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to France during the occupation. Aron, who was ill at the time, testified on behalf of de Jouvenel's defense that he “was one of the two or three leading political thinkers of his generation.” He also remarked that Sternhell's Ni droite ni gauche was “the most ahistorical book that I can conceive of. The author never places things in the context of events. He gives fascism a definition so vague and imprecise that it could refer to anyone. He loses sight of the fact that national socialism was, in the thirties, a theme which spread about Europe. It is true that we, the men of that generation, despaired about the weakness of democracy. We sensed that war was coming. So we dreamed. But it is inadmissible that this be used to defame people who are worthy of respect, even with regard to their mistakes.” Le Monde, 19 Oct. 1983. Aron died of a heart attack while leaving the courtroom. Yet for our purposes, Aron's views of de Jouvenel as a great man who momentarily succumbed to fascism bears light on Aron's later views of Carl Schmitt's Nazi involvement. For background on the controversy involving Sternhell and de Jouvenel see Wohl, Robert's “French Fascism, Both Right and Left: Reflections on the Sternhell Controversy,” Journal of Modern History, 83/1 (March 1991), 91–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Bar-On, Tamir, Where Have All the Fascists Gone? (London, 2007), 4043Google Scholar.

26 Aron, Mémoires, 936.

27 Stark, Joachim, “Raymond Aron, Clausewitz und die Kritik der historischen Vernunft,” Zeitschrift für Politik, 35 (1988), 199Google Scholar.

28 Aron, Paix et guerre, 97, 213.

29 Raynaud, Philippe, “Raymond Aron et le droit international,” Cahiers de philosophic politique et juridique, 15 (1989), 115–28Google Scholar.

30 Aron, Raymond, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (London, 2009), 207–8Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., 207. One can quote many instances, but the following is emblematic of many other Schmittian-inspired passages in Peace and War: “The opposition of land to sea—the one which symbolized the contrast between the remote control of the ocean and the yard-by-yard occupation of the earth, or even between the possessive and stay-at-home spirit of the territorial power and the adventurous and commercial spirit of the maritime power—tends to lessen or to assume a new character . . . In terms of myth, we might say that earth and water are henceforth subject to the law of air and fire.” Ibid., 208. For Schmitt's mythological discussion of the opposition between land, sea, air and fire see Schmitt, Carl, Land und Meer: Eine weltgeschichtliche Betrachtung (Stuttgart, 2011)Google Scholar.

32 Cited in Tommissen, Piet, “Raymond Aron face à Carl Schmitt,” in Tommissen, ed., Schmittiana: Beiträge zu Leben un Werk Carl Schmitts VII (Berlin, 2001), 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Aron, Peace and War, 87, 292–3.

34 Cited in Laak, Dirk van's Gespräche in der Sicherheit des Schweigens: Carl Schmitt in der politischen Geistesgeschichte der frühen Bundesrepublik (Berlin, 2002), 219Google Scholar.

35 Raymond Aron, “Naissance des tyrannies,” Cited in Aron, L’homme contre les tyrans, 123.

36 Raymond Aron, “Tyrannie et mépris des hommes,” Cited in Aron, L’homme contre les tyrans, 71.

37 14 Dec. 1954, Carl Schmitt Nachlass RW 265.

39 Oppermann, Matthias, Raymond Aron und Deutschland: Die Verteidigung der Freiheit und das Problem des Totalitarismus (Ostfildern, 2008), 453Google Scholar.

40 Müller, A Dangerous Mind.

41 Ibid., 99.

42 1 Oct. 1963, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

43 Müller, A Dangerous Mind, 99.

44 Aron, Mémoires, 853.

45 Oppermann, Raymond Aron, 453.

46 See Freund, Julien's intellectual biography: “Ebauche d’une autobiographie,” Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 19/54–5 (1981), 28, 30Google Scholar.

47 Aron, Mémoires, 857.

48 Müller, A Dangerous Mind, 101.

49 5 Feb. 1964. Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

51 Letter from Freund to Schmitt: “Raymond Aron has criticized that this work is too Schmittian,” 28 April 1964, Carl Schmitt Nachlass RW 265.

52 Oppermann, Raymond Aron, 453.

53 Manfred Baldus remarks that Schmitt's Concept of the Political had been partially translated into French in 1933 by the banker Pierre Linn—a friend of Jacques Maritain—who refused to publish it after learning of Schmitt's entrance into the NSDAP. He further comments that though many French jurists and intellectuals have been familiar with Carl Schmitt throughout the twentieth century, it is only in the last few decades that there has been a general willingness to discuss his works since previously he was without question discredited. See Baldus, Manfred, “Carl Schmitt im Hexagon,” Der Staat, 26/4 (1987), 576–86Google Scholar.

54 On this point see in particular Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine's interview with Jürgen Habermas: “Habermas entre démocratie et génétique,” Le Monde, 20 Dec. 2002.

55 17 April 1967, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

56 Oppermann, Raymond Aron, 453.

57 16 March 1962, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

58 8 May 1962, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

59 22 June 1977, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

60 Aron, Raymond, Marxismes imaginaires: D’une sainte famille à l’autre (Paris, 1970)Google Scholar. Aron's articulation of the end of ideology can be found in Mahoney, Daniel J. and Anderson, Brian, eds., The Opium of the Intellectuals (New Brunswick, 2009), 305–24Google Scholar.

61 Manent, Pierre, “Raymond Aron—Political Educator,” Aron, Raymond, In Defense of Political Reason (Lanham, MD, 1994), 15Google Scholar.

62 This association was put forward by a number of liberal thinkers during the student protest movements in the Federal Republic of Germany, some of whom Aron knew quite well. See, for instance Riccardo Bavaj, “A Cultural Crisis of the West: Liberal Intellectuals and the Challenges to ‘Western Civilization’ in the 1970s,” conference paper delivered at the German Historical Institute, University of Pennsylvania, 15 Oct. 2009.

63 Aron, Marxismes imaginaires, 20.

64 Bourdieu, Pierre, “With Weber against Weber,” in Schultheis, Franz and Pfeuffer, Andreas, eds., The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Essays (London, 2011), 121Google Scholar, original emphasis. Aron viewed Bourdieu as one of the major intellectual influences behind the May events. See Aron, Raymond, The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt (New York, 1969), 71Google Scholar.

65 Aron, The Elusive Revolution, 72–99; Aron, “Remarques sur le nouvel âge idéologique,” in Klaus Von Beyme, ed., Theorie und Politik (Leiden, 1971), 226–41.

66 See Châton, Gwendal, “Désaccord parfait: Le Contrepoint libéral dans la configuration intellectuelle des années soixante-dix,” in Baudouin, Jean and Hourmant, François, eds., Les revues et la dynamique des ruptures (Rennes, 2007), 147–8Google Scholar.

67 For a fascinating discussion of Aron's intellectual trajectory in the 1970s see Châton, Gwendal, “Entre désir d’engagement et passion de l’indépendance: L’itinéraire politique singulier de Raymond Aron,” in Hourmant, François and Leclerc, Arnault, eds., Les intellectuels et le pouvoir: Déclinaisons et mutations (Rennes, 2012), 4972Google Scholar.

68 For a collection of Aron's writings on Pareto, Machiavelli and the tradition of political realism see Aron, Raymond, Machiavel et les tyrannies modernes (Paris, 1993)Google Scholar.

69 Aron's balancing act here has been described by Châton, Gwendal as promoting a “post-Kantian Machiavellianism”: “Pour un ‘machiavélisme post-kantien,’ Raymond Aron, théoricien réaliste hétérodoxe,” Etudes internationales, 43 (2012), 389403CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 Aron, Penser la guerre, 2: 119, 210Google Scholar.

71 For the most extensive discussion available on the history of Aron's use of the friend/enemy distinction see Ligio, Giulio De, “La vertu politique Aron, penseur de l’ami et de l’ennemi,” Etudes internationales, 43 (2012), 405–20Google Scholar.

72 For a discussion of this debate see Strachan, Hew, “Clausewitz and the Dialectics of War,” in Strachan, Hew and Herberg-Rothe, Andreas, eds., Clausewitz in the Twentieth-First Century (Oxford, 2007), 1444CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Aron, Penser la guerre, 1: 161Google Scholar.

74 Perreau-Saussine, Emile, “Raymond Aron et Carl Schmitt, lecteurs de Clausewitz,” Commentaire, 103 (2003), 622Google Scholar.

75 Müller, Jan-Werner, Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification and National Identity (New Haven, 2000), 211Google Scholar.

76 Aron, Penser la guerre, 1: 173.

77 Schmitt, Carl, Theory of the Partisan, trans. Ulmen, Gary L. (New York, 2007), 51Google Scholar.

78 Ibid., 53.

79 Ibid., 52.

80 Perreau-Saussine, “Raymond Aron et Carl Schmitt,” 622.

81 Aron, Raymond, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, trans. Booker, Christine and Stone, Norman (London, 1983), 369Google Scholar.

82 Ibid., 363.

83 Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan, 10.

84 23 Jan. 1973; 6 Feb. 1973, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 24.

85 Aron, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, 362–3.

86 “After all,” as Aron stated in the late 1970s, “one of the things that cement national unity is the threat from outside.” Cited in Aron, Raymond, Thinking Politically: A Liberal in the Age of Ideology, eds. Mahoney, Daniel J. and Anderson, Brican C. (New Brunswick, 1997), 297Google Scholar.

87 5 Feb. 1971, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 208.

88 14 March 1972, 18 March 1976, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 208.

89 19 Nov. 1977, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

90 “Miroir de Carl Schmitt,” Revue européenne des sciences sociales (ed. Julien Freund and Piet Tommissen), 16/44 (1978), 6.

91 Cited in Piet Tommissen, “Raymond Aron face à Carl Schmitt,” 115.

92 Hepp, Robert, “Der harmlose Clausewitz,” Zeitschrift für Politik, 25/3 (1978), 303–17, 390–429Google Scholar.

93 Laak, Gespräche in der Sicherheit des Schweigens, 261.

94 Baverez, Nicolas, Raymond Aron: Un moraliste au temps des idéologies (Paris, 2005), 554Google Scholar; Aron, Mémoires, 838, 840–843.

95 Hepp, “Der harmlose Clausewitz,” 392.

96 Ibid., 423.

98 Ibid., 422.

99 For Schmitt's thoughts on Nuremberg see his “The International Crime of the War of Aggression and the Principle ‘Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege’,” in Timothy Nunan, ed., Writings on War (New York, 2011), 125–97.

100 5 Nov. 1979, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 208.

101 13 Nov. 1979, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 208, italics mine.

102 Aron, Raymond, “Verdächtiger Anwalt: Bemerkungen zu Robert Hepp Rezension,” Zeitschrift für Politik, 26/1 (1979), 284308Google Scholar.

103 Cited in Tommissen, “Raymond Aron face à Carl Schmitt,” 124.

104 4 Dec. 1979, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 208.

105 6 Jan. 1979, Archives privées Raymond Aron, no 206.

106 Cited in Tommissen, “Raymond Aron face à Carl Schmitt,” 124.

107 For a recent history of this debate in France see Kervégan, Jean-François, Que faire de Carl Schmitt? (Paris, 2011)Google Scholar.

108 See the comments by Laignel-Lavastine, “Carl Schmitt, nazi philosophe?”

109 Yves Charles Zarka, “Carl Schmitt, nazi philosophe?”, Le Monde, 6 Dec. 2002.

110 This includes Aron's questionable interpretation of Nazi Germany, which heavily relies on Haffner, Sebastian's The Meaning of Hitler, trans. Osers, Ewald (Cambridge, MA, 1983)Google Scholar. For Aron's mature views on Nazi Germany see Aron, Raymond, “Existe-t-il un mystère nazi?”, Commentaire, 2 (Fall 1979), 339–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar. There is an English version available: “Is There a Nazi Mystery,” Encounter, 54 (June 1980), 29–41.

111 For Manent's understanding of his relationship with Aron see Manent, Pierre interviews with Bénédicte Delorme-Montini, Le regard politique (Paris, 2010), 4955Google Scholar.

112 Manent, Pierre, Democracy without Nations: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, trans. Seaton, Paul (Wilmington, 2007)Google Scholar; Manent, A World beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State, trans. LePain, Marc A. (Princeton, 2006)Google Scholar; Manent, Modern Liberty and Its Discontents, ed. Mahoney, Daniel J. and Seaton, Paul (Lanham, 1998)Google Scholar; Manent, The City of Man, trans. LePain, Marc A. (Princeton, 1998)Google Scholar; Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. Waggoner, John (Lanham, MD, 1996)Google Scholar; Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Balinski, Rebecca (Princeton, 1994)Google Scholar.

113 Manent's most recent article to appear in First Things is entitled “Between Athens and Jerusalem: Neither Philosopher nor Prophet Alone Can Sustain the West,” First Things, Feb. 2012, 35–39.

114 Storme, Tristan, “Pierre Manent et l’examen de la démocratie européenne: La reviviscence d’une systématique d’extraction schmittienne,” Raison publique, 9 (Oct. 2008), 105–29Google Scholar; Camus, Anaїs and Storme, Tristan, “Carl Schmitt, lecteur de Tocqueville: La démocratie en question,” Revue européenne des sciences sociales—European Journal of Social Sciences, 49 (2011), 734CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Audier, Serge, La pensée anti-68: Essai sur les origines d'une restauration intellectuelle (Paris, 2008), 148Google Scholar.

115 Manent, Pierre, Cours familier de philosophie politique (Paris, 2001), 87Google Scholar.

116 It simply reads: “Each nation determines its external actions in sovereign fashion: chooses its allegiances, wages war, or makes peace.” Manent, World beyond Politics, 33.

117 Ibid., 33.

118 “The Jewish law, the Torah, and the Muslim law as well, the Sharia, regulate all the actions of the members of the community, without distinguishing between the secular and religious domains.” Ibid., 26.

119 Ibid., 27–8.

120 Pierre Manent, Democracy without Nation, 53.

121 Schmitt, Carl, Theodor Däublers ‘Nordlicht’: Drei Studien über die Elemente, den Geist und die Aktualität des Werkes (Berlin, 1991)Google Scholar. Schmitt, Carl explicitly labeled Islam “the enemy” of Christianity in The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (New York, 2006), 65, 87Google Scholar.

122 Serge Audier, La Pensée anti-68, 183.

123 Tristan Storme, “Pierre Manent,” 105–29.

124 Asad, Talal, “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” in Vries, Hent De and Sullivan, Lawrence Eugene, eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-secular World (New York, 2006), 510Google Scholar.