New Normality? – Abstract #7

Hanno Balz: Head of State of Exception. Federal German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the supralegal crisis management during the 1970s

During the escalation of the “German Autumn” in 1977 the Federal German government resorted to a specific form of crisis management that had been described as an undeclared state of exception. It was Federal chancellor Helmut Schmidt in the first place who oversaw the anti-terrorist measures in the situation room where the executive branch ruled for six weeks beyond any parliamentary control. This article examines the role that Helmut Schmidt had played for the creation of a “subjective state of exception” (Julius Hatschek) and how this could be seen as stemming from Schmidt’s earlier experiences and handling of crisis situations dating back to the 1960s. In this regard it has to be asked with Giorgio Agamben, if in the West German case, the state of exception had become the rule.

Im Laufe der Eskalation während des “Deutschen Herbstes” 1977 griff die Bundesregierung mit der Einrichtung zweier Krisenstäbe auf eine spezifische Form der Krisenbekämpfung zurück, die später als unerklärter Ausnahmezustand charakterisiert wurde. In erster Linie war es Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt, der die Maßnahmen zur Terrorismusbekämpfung in den Krisenstäben koordinierte, in welchen die Exekutive für sechs Wochen die Politik jenseits parlamentarischer Kontrolle bestimmte. In diesem Beitrag wird die Rolle Helmut Schmidts in diesem “subjektiven Ausnahmezustand” (Julius Hatschek) untersucht und inwiefern diese beeinflusst war von Schmidts früheren Erfahrungen mit Krisensituationen, die bis in die 1960er Jahre zurückreichen. In diesem Zusammenhang wird mit Giorgio Agamben gefragt, ob in der Bundesrepublik damals der Ausnahmezustand zur Regel wurde.

Keywords: Helmut Schmidt, German Autumn, Red Army Faction, Necessity Law, Crisis Management.

This article is part of the forthcoming issue Matthias Lemke  / Ece Göztepe / Olivier Cahn (Ed.), New Normality? State of Emergency as Contemporary Government Technique.

Abstract 7/15: Hanno Balz (Johns Hopkins University) – The undeclared State of Emergency during the ‘German Autumn’ 1977


When Carl Schmitt wrote about the „emergency“ („Ernstfall“) as being constitutive for the ultimate dualism of friend and foe, he outlined a theory of the state of emergency. Such emergency was repeatedly being invoked during the debate on terrorism in West Germany in the 1970s.

During that decade, the conflict between the Red Army Faction and the West German state proved to be a paradigm for the growing political polarization of communications in German society. It can be said, the terrorism-debate was the struggle over the state of the nation, and so the discoursive, political and moral boundaries were heavily disputed.

Both sides of the confrontation were also engaging in specific performances/performative acts that adressed a wider public – it was all about a demonstration of power. More than that, it showed that Carl Schmitt’s notion of political decisionism comes to bear on the reality of the states’ dealing with terrorism as well as with the terrorists’ “propaganda of the deed”.

Often the reactions from the West German executive authority were called an “undeclared state of emergency”. However, in political discourse of that time “Ausnahmezustand” became a frequently used term that implied a level of wishful thinking and therefore had a mobilizing quality. In recent publications I have called the effects and affects of Moral Panics during the German Autumn a “felt/perceived state of Emergency” (gefühlter Ausnahmezustand).

In my presentation at the Kolloquium at DHIP I therefore want to focus on the discoursive and performative qualities of a state of emergency during the German Autumn of 1977 and how this was referred to on both sides of the confrontation.