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Carl Schmitt’s Land & Sea, Part 7

[1]1,955 words

Part 7 of 9

Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson


Portuguese, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, and En­glishmen fought one another for the division of the new Earth. The means, though, were not exclusively military; the struggle also entails diplomatic negotiations and suits for the best legal title.

At that stage, one could afford being magnanimous to the aborigines. One would land, stick a cross in the ground, carve the coat of arms of one’s king in the bark of a tree, or mark a boulder with the great seal, or stick an official title between the roots of a tree.

The Spaniards were partial to those solemn proclamations by which they would make known to a band of aborigines gathered at the spot that from then on, their land belonged to the Castilian crown. Such appropriations, loaded with symbols, were deemed legally sufficient to acquire whole islands and conti­nents. No government, whether Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, or English, paid any attention to the natives’ rights to the land.

Another aspect was the fighting among the European conquerors themselves. In those circumstances, each would stick under the other’s nose the legal title that they happened to have at hand. When useful, one would go so far as to invoke the agreements concluded with the natives and their chiefs.

As long as Portugal and Spain, two Catholic powers, were not challenged from the outside, the Pope in Rome could issue legal titles, institute order in newly-con­quered lands, and arbitrate between the conquering powers. In 1493, that is to say, one year after the dis­covery of America, the Spaniards obtained from Pope Alexander VI an edict by which the Pope, in virtue of his apostolic authority, was granting to the king of Castile and Leon, and to his heirs, the recently discov­ered West Indies, as a secular fief of the Church.

The edict even traced a line crossing the Atlantic, a hundred miles west of the Azores and Cape Verde. All the territories discovered west of the line were to be held by Spain in fief from the Pope. Later on, through the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain and Portugal agreed that all the land discovered east of that line should go to Portugal.

Thus began the vast partition of the whole of the New World, although at the time Christo­pher Columbus had only discovered a few isles and pro­montories along the coast. Nobody had yet any accurate idea of the configuration of the planet, though that fact was no obstacle in the impla111antatlon of its re­distribution in all its vastness and multiplicity. The dividing line traced by the Pope in 1493 marked the be­ginning of the struggle for the new fundamental order, for the new nomos of the world.

For a century or so, the Spaniards and the Portuguese would refer to the Papal concessions in their attempts to refute the claims raised by the French, the Dutch, and the English. Brazil, discovered in 1500 by Cabral, un­contestedly became Portuguese as long as that segment of the American coast found itself inside the eastern, that is to say, the Portuguese zone, following a shift of the dividing line westwards.

Notwithstanding, the other conquering powers did not consider themselves bound by the Spanish-Portuguese agreements, and besides, the Pope’s authority was not enough to inspire them with respect for the territorial monopoly enjoyed by the two Catholic powers. With the onset of the Reformation, the nations converted to Protestantism would openly contest the authority of the Roman pontiff. Thus the struggle for the ownership of the new Earth turned into a struggle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, between the world Catholicism of the Spaniards and the world Protestantism of the Huguenots, the Dutch, and the English.


The Christian conquerors did not put up a united front against the aborigines, as long as they faced no common enemy that was really threatening. On the other hand, the religious war that they waged among themselves, the world-wide contention between Catholicism and Protestantism, was more ruthless, the stronger its historical impact. Under that aspect, and given the scenes of actual fighting, the partition skirmish looked like a war of religion, which it was too. But there was something more to it, the full dimension of which becomes obvious only if we pay attention the opposition between the elements and to the simultaneous breach between the high-sea world, on the one hand, and the land-bound world, on the other.

Great poets set several of the protagonists of this all-encompassing war of religion on stage. The Spanish king Philip II and his enemy Queen Elizabeth of England became a favorite topic of dramatists. Both appear in Schiller’s outstanding tragedies and are each placed in antithetical situations in one and the same play. They are beautiful and eloquent scenes, no doubt, but the deepest conflicts, the true friend-foe oppositions, the ultimate elemental forces and clashes would not manifest themselves in this manner.

At the time, Germany could offer no such stageworthy, heroic figures. One German alone became the hero of an important tragedy in that age between 1550 and 1618, which was so eventless for her, and that was Emperor Rudolph II. You have heard little of him, and it is true to say that he is hardly remembered. Nonetheless, his name belongs to this context here, and another great dramatist, Franz Grillparzer rightly placed him at the centre of one of his tragedies, Fraternal Strife in Hapsburg (Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg).

The very problem and greatness of Grillparzer’s play is that Rudolph II was not an active hero, but rather a brake, a delaying factor. He was something of a katechon, a concept which we came across earlier. What could Rudolph do in the Germany of those times? It was quite a lot, as he understood that the fighting that was going on far from the German borders was no concern of Germany whatsoever. And it was an impressive achievement on his part to be able to delay the Thirty-Years War by several decades.

Peculiar to Germany at the time was the fact that the country did not take part in the wars of religion, nor was it in the position to do so. No doubt, Germany was not free of the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but that opposition inside Germany was altogether different from the confrontation for the possession of the world going on between Catholicism and Protestantism, and which had embraced the entire globe.

Indeed, Germany was Martin Luther’s homeland and the cradle of the Reformation. But the fighting among the world-conquering powers had long exceeded the original opposition between Catholicism and Protestantism. A more clear-cut and deeper-going conflict emerged above and away from Germany’s internal problems, namely that between the Jesuits and the Calvinists. Henceforth, the friend-foe distinction would serve as the axis of world politics.

In Germany, the Lutheran princes and the estates, particularly the first Protestant prince of the Empire, the Prince-Elector of Saxony, did their utmost to remain loyal to their Catholic Emperor. When a military league of the Evangelical German estates was formed on the Calvinists’ initiative, the so-called Union, and in turn the Catholic estates reacted to it by setting up the League, the Lutheran Prince-Elector of Saxony no longer knew where he belonged. As late as 1612, negotiations were going on in regard to his possible affiliation to the Catholic League.

The hatred which the Lutherans nourished against the Calvinists was no less than their hatred of the Papists. Neither did the Catholics have any better feelings towards the Calvinists. That aver­sion cannot be explained only by the fact that, general­ly speaking, the Lutherans were more observant of the principle of obedience to authority than the more active Calvinists.

The main reason lies in the feet that dur­ing that period, Germany would be pushed back and away from the European conquest of the New World, and that ultimately, she was pushed from the outside into the world-wide confrontation among the Western conquering powers. At the same time, we must not forget that the Turkish advance was threatening its south-eastern flank. Jesuits and Calvinists from Spain, the Netherlands, and England would place before Germany choices that had no­thing to do with her internal situation. Some of the estates and princes that were Catholic but not Jesuit, or Protestant without being Calvinist, tried to avoid a quarrel that was utterly alien to them.

In order to suc­ceed, however, they would have needed a willpower of their own, an autonomous determination. In its absence, and that is what happened eventually, they withdrew into a state, which has been rightly described as “neutral-passive.” The result was the transformation of Germany in­to the battlefield of a war of conquest that was waged overseas, perfectly alien to her and in which she did not take any active part.

Calvinism was the new militant religion, perfectly adapted to the elemental thrust seawards. So it became the religion of the French Hugue­nots, of the heroes of Dutch freedom, and of the English Puritans. It also became the religion of the Great Prince-Elector of Brandenburg, one of the rare German princes to have a taste for naval power and col­onies. The continental Calvinist communities, those of Switzerland, Hungary, and other countries, had no signif­icant repercussions upon world politics unless they joined the train of maritime forces.

Every non-Calvinist would cringe from the Calvinist faith, and above all from the stern faith in the predestination of man for all eternity. In secular terms, the doctrine of pre­destination is the utmost elevation of the human conscience that claims to belong to a world other than the doomed and corrupted world. In modern sociological terms, it may be said that it is the highest degree of self-consciousness, characteristic of an elite assured of its social position and its hour in history. To put it simply, it is the certainty of salvation, and this redemption is the very meaning of the whole world histo­ry, eclipsing any other idea. Inspired by this certainty, the Dutch villeins could sing their joyful hymn: “The land will become sea, and so will be free.”

When in the sixteenth century the elemental energies started turning towards the sea, their success was such that they soon irrupted into the arena of world politics and its history. At the same time they had to translate themselves into the intellectual vernacular of the age. They could not simply remain whale-hunters, sailors, or freebooters. They had to seek spiritual allies, the most daring and the most radical of the kind that would break with the myths of the preceding age most thorough­ly.

That ally could not be the German Lutherans of the day, with their penchant for territorialism and conti­nentalization. As in Germany, the end of the Hanse and of the German power in the Baltic Sea coincided with the emergence of Lutheranism, so the Dutch maritime suprem­acy and Cromwell’s ruthless decision coincided with the advent of Calvinism.

To be sure, little of all this has come to our knowledge. Most of the historical studies that have seen the light of day remain bound to a con­tinental, territorial perspective. Consistently, they have eyes only for the continental space and state is­sues, and as far as Germany is concerned, only for territorial evolution, and as a result, remain addicted to the narrow perspective of the petty states and con­fined spaces.

But let us turn our eyes to the sea: almost instantly we notice the osmosis, I would even call it the historical brotherhood, between politicized Calvinism and Europe’s unleashed maritime energies. Even the religious battlefields and the theological slogans of the period were pervaded by the opposition of the elemental forces that brought about the shift of historical existence from land to the sea.