Christian Hilger. Rechtsstaatsbegriffe im Dritten Reich: Eine Strukturanalyse. Beiträge zur Rechtsgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003. xiv + 249 pp. EUR 49.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-16-148057-7.
Reviewed by Benjamin Carter Hett (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York)
Published on H-German (March, 2006)
An Objective Examination of Nazi Jurisprudence
At the heart of this book, accepted in 2001 as a legal dissertation at the University of Greifswald, lies an interesting (and probably to many readers surprising) paradox: Given that post-1933 German legal literature commonly (and at great length) excoriated the legal scholarship of Weimar for its "liberalism," "individualism," "pluralism," "federalism" and "legal positivism," it is "in no way self-evident" that at least some of that post-1933 literature should continue to identify with the term Rechtsstaat--although with a different content, out of different motives and not without internal contradictions (pp. 1-2). Christian Hilger draws on a cross section of literature dealing with or touching on the Rechtsstaat under National Socialism, which sought to outline a "correct" interpretation of the term. Hilger stakes his claim to originality on two main grounds. Methodologically, he writes, his account is purely descriptive; substantively, his goal is "die Eigenheiten, Gemeinsamkeiten und Abweichungen der zum Rechtsstaat vertretenen Positionen in schärferer Kontur herauszuarbeiten, als dies bisher in der rechtsgeschichtlichen Forschung zum Nationalsozialismus geschehen ist" (p. 5). He is therefore--borrowing a term from logic--interested in the "intensional" meaning of the term Rechtsstaat for the writers he examines (p. 3).
The book consists of a close analysis of works by a relatively small number of legal thinkers, some prominent and familiar (Hans Frank, Carl Schmitt, Roland Freisler), some rather obscure (Edgar Tatarin-Tarnheyden). The book is organized in four chapters. In the first chapter, Hilger seeks to outline the positions in the "Streit um den Rechtsstaat." In part, this involves illustrating what writers after 1933 made of the recent past. Here, unsurprisingly, Hilger finds a wide-ranging consensus about the nature of that "bourgeois-liberal" past. But when the question turned to ideas about the Rechtsstaat, the debate became more complicated. For instance, Günther Krauß (really a proxy for Carl Schmitt) argued that the term Rechtsstaat could not be separated from the baggage of "bourgeois-liberal" nineteenth-century ideas and should thus be dispensed with: "es handle sich bei der Rechtsstaatstheorie um ein 'Trennungs- und Zergliederungsdenken' welches dazu neige, Materie und Form, Wort und Begriff, Buchstabe und 'Geist', Körper und 'Seele' zu trennen und zueinander in Widerspruch zu setzen" (p. 23). But, says Hilger, such radical efforts to dispense with the Rechtsstaat were in fact the exception; more typical in fact was the thought of someone like Otto Koellreutter, who was unwilling to abandon the term altogether and was engaged in a kind of salvage operation on behalf of the Rechtsstaat (p. 33ff). Here Hilger offers some thought-provoking insights into the relationship between law and politics, and the continuities of both in Germany history. For instance, he notes that essential continuities in Koellreutter's thinking from the Kaiserreich to Weimar to the Third Reich to the early Federal Republic illustrate the fact that "eklatante Veränderungen des politischen Systems nicht notwendig das abrupte Ende bisherigen rechtswissenschaftlichen Arbeitens nach sich ziehen" (p. 34).
The second and third chapters turn to an analysis of the concept of the Rechtsstaat as it developed in literature from (mostly) the 1930s. Hilger makes an interesting differentiation in the subject matter of the second and third chapters. Chapter 2 is dedicated to texts that develop a conception of the Rechtsstaat independent of its bourgeois-liberal heritage; chapter 3, on the other hand, deals with texts that use some aspects of the older concept in order to modify but not completely supplant it. It is hardly surprising to find Schmitt discussed in chapter 2, along with Frank, Helmut Nicolai, Julius Binder and Otto von Schweinichen; somewhat more surprisingly, perhaps, we find Freisler, of all people, in chapter 3 (although in chapter 4, Hilger notes the similarity between Freisler, Schmitt, Frank and Nicolai in their emphasis on racial inequality as the foundation for legal thought). Chapter 4, then, goes on to illustrate the point that the discussion of National Socialist conceptions of the Rechtsstaat cannot be exhausted by gauging how far they lie from those of the Empire or Weimar. Hilger examines the contrast and independence of conceptions of the Rechtsstaat, along with what they reveal about National Socialist legal scholars' ideas on Wertgeltung and Wertgewinnung, Volk and Staat and the ways in which these ideas influenced the construction of statutes. Hilger points out the variety of substantive starting points for determining the content of a Rechtsstaat--a racialized notion of justice for Frank, while for Binder it is "die Einheit von allgemeinem und besonderem Willen" (p. 110). In every case Hilger is at pains to rank the authors on a continuum: who was furthest from bourgeois notions of the Rechtsstaat and who was closest; who saw the most separation between sein and sollen and who saw the least; who assigned the greatest importance to Gesetzesdogmatik (the analytical explication of statutes) and who the least, and so on. Such an exercise of classification runs the risk of being overly schematic and arbitrary, and many readers will dispute Hilger's various rankings, but his assessments are careful and nuanced. At the very least his classifications strongly underscore his essential point--of just how various and contested notions of the Rechtsstaat were under the Third Reich. This is a valuable contribution. From other research on legal discourse in the Third Reich, notably the work of Michael Stolleis and Bernd Rüthers, we are certainly familiar with the complexity, and indeed the slipperiness, of Nazi legal theory, but the tight focus of Hilger's project and the many different levels of his classifications bring a new element of understanding to the picture.
A key aspect of Hilger's methodology will give some readers pause. His intellectual predispositions would have fit comfortably into the world of early twentieth-century German scholarship; in other words, he is of a highly positivistic frame of mind, and seeks a detached "description" of the ideas of these National Socialist legal thinkers. He writes that the texts will be analyzed "unter Ausblendung" of their historical-political context and conditions: "Es wird davon ausgegangen, daß dies moglich ist und zweckmässig sein kann. Man muß unterscheiden können zwischen der Beschreibung von Begriffsstrukturen, ihren Ursachen und Gründen sowie ihren Funktionen und Folgen. Auch die Annahme, in der NS-Zeit sei jede Form rechtswissenschaftlicher Äußerung politisch instrumentalisiert gewesen, macht die Herausarbeitung von Strukturvarianten im Umgang mit den Rechtsstaatsbegriff nicht entbehrlich. Denn die Analyse begrifflicher Strukturen trägt dazu bei, die rechtsdogmatischen und rechtsphilosophischen Fraktionen innerhalb der Juristenschaft offenzulegen und verspricht insofern Fortschritte für die analyse des NS-Systems" (p. 10). In a long footnote, he takes a previous author to task for the logical errors involved in his "eher normativ" effort simultaneously to describe and refute Nazi concepts of the Rechtsstaat (pp. 3-4 and n. 16). But can one really leave behind normative questions when talking about Carl Schmitt? The methodological issues here are not so easily dismissed as Hilger suggests, although his approach succeeds at laying bare the often striking divisions between these writers. Furthermore, Hilger acknowledges the risks of his approach, noting carefully that he distinguishes "the language of the sources" from the "analytical" language, in a manner in which, of course, the German conjunctive is uniquely suited to do (p. 7). This is an intelligent and useful book. Those unfamiliar with legal debates in Nazi Germany will find it a clear introduction to some of the central ideas; those familiar with the subject will find it thought-provoking reading.
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Benjamin Carter Hett. Review of Hilger, Christian, Rechtsstaatsbegriffe im Dritten Reich: Eine Strukturanalyse.
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