Your studies require you to read a text by an antisemitic Nazi. What do you do?

Should we be okay with having to read something written by a notorious antisemitic Nazi? Student Carien van Velde did it, but not without reservations. Afterwards, she threw it in the bin.

For a course outside my own faculty, we were asked to read a text by the controversial German law philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888- 1985). He was a man who wrote extensively on legality, legitimacy, politics and theology. He was also a high-ranking member of the Nazi party. 

It’s nearly impossible to see his definition of politics as separate from his life outside academics. In his view, someone was either a friend or an enemy, and when they were the latter, the only way to deal with them was competitively and combatively (a strong distinction between us and them, a matter of life or death). Schmitt was also strongly against democracy and pluralism in general and he held strong antisemitic opinions. 

I was startled by the whole thing. It didn’t feel quite right for students to be reading his work. I decided to email my lecturer, asking him why we had been told to read this (I emphasised that it wasn’t my intention to protest the decision). 

The lecturer explained how important it was to be critical of these kinds of texts and not just passively read the material. The way he saw it, Schmitt’s philosophy is inextricably linked to his political views and sheds light on how his views run the risk of resulting in dangerous politics. 

Are his theories so important that we should ignore what he did outside the university?

He isn’t the only one with this approach. I recently attended a debate on academic freedom and presented this case to one of the speakers there, who said he felt the same way my lecturer did. I was happy with their responses.  I read the text and my lecturer also allowed me to discuss it in class, which led to a constructive conversation.

But I can’t shake this bad feeling that I have.  

I feel that being able to critically yet constructively relate to a text and someone’s convictions is one of the most important lessons universities have to teach.  A diversity in the curriculum and viewpoints is essential for this – the university fulfils a great role in democratic civic education. 

Nevertheless, it also means that certain figures and theories remain a part of canon. We essentially keep putting them on a pedestal, even when we’re critical of their ideas. 

I wonder: are Schmitt’s theories so important that we should ignore what he did outside the university when considering whether or not he should remain part of the canon? In doing so, aren’t we indirectly celebrating his intellectual identity and ignoring his extreme lack of morality?

We also stop taking academics who commit fraud seriously, and justly so

But that also leads to a dilemma. While banning him means rejecting him, we also risk disappearing into our own bubble. It would also do a disservice to the diversity of academic theories. But we also stop taking academics who commit fraud seriously, and justly so. 

I think it would be good to be more aware of the controversies surrounding certain academics. While Schmitt’s actions took place outside the university, they were serious enough that we can’t ignore them. It would be good for lecturers to be aware of this during class, preferably without students having to bring it up. 

The discussion between me and my lecturer shows that you can bring up issues like this without it turning into a whole thing. I learned from it, and I assume it gave him some food for thought as well. We may not have completely agreed, but that’s okay. If there’s ever a place where people are allowed to disagree, it’s a university. After our discussion, we still treated each other with respect. 

Although I might be a slight hypocrite here, because I didn’t treat Schmitt with any of that same respect. After reading his work, I threw it right in the bin. I would have loved to adopt my lecturer’s attitude, but I simply can’t stand Schmitt.  

Carien van der Velde is doing a master’s at the Faculty of Religion, Culture and Society



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