Abstract 6/15: Thomas Blanck (University of Cologne) – A revolutionary state of exception: Munich, 1918/19


While both the idea and the practice of a contemporary suspension of constitutional rights can be traced back to antiquity, the term “state of exception” (Ausnahmezustand) was coined only in the first half of the 20th century, most famously by Carl Schmitt. At the same time, it is often overlooked that his well-known definition of sovereignty must be linked to a concrete historical situation, namely the socialist revolution in Munich in 1918/19. Schmitt experienced the revolutionary collapse of the German Empire firsthand: it was this experience, I will argue, that shaped his decisionistic state theory.

Taking the link between Schmitt’s biography and political theory as a point of departure, this paper has two closely intertwined aims: concentrating on the aftermath of the First World War in Munich, it investigates the relation between the development of the concept of “exceptional” political situations on the one hand and its application as a tool of (re)establishing public order on the other hand. In doing so, it connects the abstract level of Begriffsgeschichte with the history of the actual implementation of emergency measures. In other words, the central question is: how did exceptional thinking and exceptional acting influence each other in a period of violent and revolutionary transformation in an urban context?

The paper will focus on Munich in the years 1918 and 1919. After the end of World War I, the former capital of the Bavarian Kingdom became the arena for a revolution that in many ways was far more radical and had longer lasting effects than elsewhere in Germany. On November 7, 1918, socialist Kurt Eisner proclaimed the republic and all over Bavaria, worker’s and soldier’s councils were founded, king Ludwig III abdicated. Eisner’s assassination in February 1919 strengthened the radical forces of the revolutionary movement, eventually leading to a bloody conflict between Munich’s Red Army and troops sent by the German government in Berlin. Thus, Bavaria found itself in a twofold state of exception: on the one hand, the monarchical government’s authority had collapsed within hours, leaving the revolutionary leaders in front of a constitutional vacuum that had to be filled with decrees, orders, and rules. On the other hand, the proclaimed Bavarian Freistaat (free state) itself was an exception within the framework of post-war Germany, challenging the authority of the newly formed republican government in Berlin.

The question posed above will be answered in three steps. First, I will delineate the evolution of the state of exception in Bavaria on a juridical and normative level. Special attention will be paid to the question of how the transition from the pre-war to the post-war political system influenced the government’s possibility of applying emergency measures as guaranteed by the respective constitution: did the post-war authorities rely on methods established by the former system? On which juridical sources were the countless revolutionary emergency decrees based on – if they had a juridical base at all? Second, I will examine the discourse on the exceptionality of the situation, be it regarding the political actors in Munich who legitimized their actions by describing themselves as the exceptional forefront of political and societal renewal in Germany, be it regarding the external perception of the Bavarian revolution. How did the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces – both operating officially in the name of freedom and democracy – publicly justify and communicate their actions that clearly violated the existing legal order? In a third step, I will look at the state of exception as a factor of political mobilization. Following Alf Lüdtke and Michael Wild, the state of exception can be understood as an „arena of possibilities, and of self-empowerments”. The state, thus, is “a moment of governance that is not ordered by the constitution rather than being constantly created by manifold actors, neither ‘top-down’ nor ‘bottom-up’.” [1] Consequently, one must ask whether there exists a distinction between the abstract legal order and the actual political situation within a revolutionary context at all. Or should one rather argue that once exceptional measures have been applied, there is no such thing as a normalcy anymore?

[1] Alf Lüdtke and Michael Wildt, Einleitung, in: id. (eds.), Staats-Gewalt. Ausnahmezustand und Sicherheitsregimes. Historische Perspektiven (=Göttinger Gespräche zur Geschichtswissenschaft, vol. 27), Göttingen 2008, pp. 7-38, here p. 23 (translation TB).

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