The Search for a New Beginning: Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers as Critics of West German Parliamentarism


The Search for a New Beginning: Hannah
Arendt and Karl Jaspers as Critics
of West German Parliamentarism



THE DISGUST FELT by intellectuals towards parliamentary regimes and parliamentarians is a commonplace. Parliaments come to decisions by counting votes, and participation in parliamentary debates requires getting elected. These are conditions that are, indeed, indispensable for parliamentary politics, which has been based since early modern Britain on principles, such as free elections, free mandate, free speech and freedom from arrest ( parliamentary immunity), that also aim at guaranteeing fair play and mutual equality between parliamentarians.

In the wake of the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the German Grundgesetz (Basic Law) from 1949, we have to remember that the criticism of the Bonn Republic and its parliamentary practices was widespread in the era of Adenauer and Erhard.1 Intellectuals, in particular, were suspicious of parliamentary government: on the right, these included Carl Schmitt, Ernst Forsthoff and Hans Freyer; on the left, from Jürgen Habermas to Johannes Agnoli; and also many in the middle of the political spectrum. They all shared an extremely pessimistic view on the prospects of the Federal Republic, its parliamentary practices and the Grundgesetz.

Hannah Arendt was one of the most eloquent apologists of the activity of politics in the twentieth century, but she was never well acquainted with the political and rhetorical practices of the parliamentary regime. Even she failed fully to appreciate that parliamentarians, due to both their daily political experiences and the distinct parliamentary procedures of deliberation and debate, are frequently superior to scholars in political judgement.

In a previous piece,2 I have written a critical comparison between Arendt and Max Weber regarding their relationship to the acceptance of representative democracy, discussing mainly Arendt’s On Revolution from 1963. In this essay, I continue this topic with Arendt’s comments on the politics of the German Federal Republic. However, it turned out that she did not have so much to say on the subject.3 Arendt long held the Federal Republic to have been a failure, and she expected it to run its course and expire.4

For this reason I decided to include in this discussion two pamphlets by Arendt’s teacher and friend, the philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik5 and his reply to critics of the first, Antwort.6 Jaspers had been a professor in Basel since 1949, but he remained a German citizen. His books are strongly indebted to Arendt’s early critique of West German politics and deal with a distinctly Arendtian problem, the planned statute of limitations (Verjährung) on the criminalisation of Nazi crimes. Jaspers analyses the parliamentary debate on this proposal, which ultimately failed in the Bundestag, and regards the entire debate as symptomatic of the state of the Federal Republic.

My aim in this essay is first to interpret Arendt’s and Jaspers’s political thought in its relation to parliamentarism, specifically as realised in the Federal Republic of Germany and the forms and practices of the West German polity. I consider Arendt and Jaspers as examples of anti-parliamentary tendencies among scholars who are otherwise sympathetic to democracy. My approach is that of a historically-oriented political theorist, rhetoric and Max Weber scholar.


My analysis extends the concept of parliamentarism, viewing it not merely as a technique of government, but as an ideal type of distinctly rhetorical political culture. We can construct a typology of parliamentarism consisting of four dimensions: parliamentary government in the sense of the responsibility of government to parliament; parliamentary politics based on the rhetorical practices of ‘government by speaking’ (Macaulay); the procedural character of pro et contra parliamentary debate; and the indispensable role of professional politicians in parliamentary politics. Each dimension manifests a slightly different aspect of the deliberative genre of rhetoric. We can also detect a specific variant of anti-parliamentarism corresponding to each dimension: rejection of the parliamentary responsibility of government, of parliamentary ‘bavardage’, of the proceduralism of parliamentary politics and debate, and of the professionalisation of parliamentarians.

These aspects of parliamentarism and anti-parliamentarism may have differing emphases in different countries. We can imagine, for example, rhetorical excellence in the parliaments of presidential regimes, such as in the United States at certain stages of its history, or parliamentary governments that have been highly suspicious of rhetoric, as in the Scandinavian countries. For this reason, when discussing how a specific regime relates in the political thought of an individual thinker to an ideal type of parliamentarism, all four aspects and their respective differences deserve to be discussed.

Parliamentarism in West Germany after World War II had its special features. The parliamentarism of the Bonn Republic was not that of high eloquence, notwithstanding the brilliant rhetoricians, such as Herbert Wehner, in the Bundestag. The strong position of the parties in the electoral system, with half of Bundestag members chosen on the basis of party lists, and even directly-elected members dependent on the parties, has been a major reason for the generally low quality of rhetoric in the Bundestag.

Of equal importance is the ambiguous formulation in the Grundgesetz combining the free mandate of individual members with the party-based parliamentary practices.7 The constitutional lawyer Gerhard Leibholz even declared the free mandate of the members practically outdated in a ‘party state’.8 This view tends to eliminate the procedural character of the parliament as a deliberative assembly and to make it, in Edmund Burke’s terms, a ‘congress of ambassadors’,9 with the parties as mandatants. Leibholz’s thesis has been severely criticised by scholars10 and parliamentarians.11 The ambiguity of the Grundgesetz remains, and the ‘party state’ aspect indicates a limit to how far the Federal Republic can be called a fully parliamentary regime.

Hannah Arendt does not join anti-parliamentarians such as Thomas Carlyle and Carl Schmitt in anti-rhetorical denunciations of parliament as a talk shop (Schwatzbude). For her, speech is an inherent part of politics, and a silent politics is contradictio in adjecto.12 Especially in her Denktagebuch, Arendt is a strong admirer of ancient rhetoric with its agonistic political culture of debating in the Agora.13 Her admiration for the debates in the non-elected assemblies, from the wards of New England to the soviets of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, is also well known.

Arendt and in particular Jaspers were critical of the strong parties of the Bonn regime. Nonetheless, the core of their critique seems to reach deeper, to the parliamentary form of representative democracy itself. The critique suggests a failure to recognise the importance of parliament as a representative and deliberative institution as well as the procedural character of parliamentary politics, based as it is on the principle of debating agenda items from opposed points of view.


In 1950 Hannah Arendt published in Commentary the article ‘The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany’, based on her three-month visit to the country just after the first Bundestag elections and the formation of the Adenauer Government. What was striking for Arendt was the lack of republican ‘new beginning’ after the Nazi regime, due to the failure of German citizens, politicians and academics to confront the Nazi past. Arendt was at that time completing The Origins of Totalitarianism, stressing the unique novelty of the Nazi regime in its militarily meaningless destruction of the Jews. She was struck by the experience of how this destruction was not seen in Germany as the main point of the Nazi rule: ‘A lack of response is evident everywhere.’14

Arendt interprets her conversational informants in Germany as fleeing from the reality of the destruction, and who produced all kinds of excuses instead of manifesting guilt or remorse. Matters of fact are ‘treated as if they were mere opinions’,15 and the totalitarianism seemed to have led to a deficient sense of judgement.16 The bold currency reform of Ludwig Erhard was producing ‘feverish busyness’17 instead of efficient production. The arbitrary and half-heartedly implemented practices of the Allied denazification initiative, while holding the promise of a break with past, appeared to her to have been squandered, thus destroying the ability clearly to judge right and wrong and producing ‘a moral confusion’.18 In particular, the Americans’ advertising campaign style against the Nazi horrors was experienced as counter-productive. She also parodied the State-centric thinking of the Germans, to which neither business nor the trade unions could form a counter-weight; she further parodied the trust in the universities as the arena that would lead the way out of the misery.

An interesting point in Arendt’s disappointment with Germany concerns her harsh political judgement of the federal character of the new Republic. She had expected that federalism would both prevent a concentration of power and provide grounds for citizens to express their immediate interests in the form of ‘grass-root democracy in the field of communal and local affairs’.19 However, she regarded the Länder governments as a complete failure due to the deficiencies in the denazification programme as well as to the social consequences of Erhard’s economic policies. The West German local government appeared to Arendt to be a mere combination of folklore and corruption,20 and she had the impression that the Federal Government in Bonn and the Länder governments did not exercise any control of each other, the apparatus of the parties forming their only connecting link.

For Arendt the main problem of German politics was the party system based on pre-Hitler era parties that had been easily destroyed by the Nazis.21 In the German parties, tactics triumphed over the exhausted ideologies, and the party machines seemed geared mainly to providing jobs and perks for their members.22 The parties thus provided an area for mere opportunists, who refused to draw lessons from history. All of this drove Arendt to the conclusion that the legacy of totalitarianism had not been overthrown. The only hope that remained for her was the vision of a federative Europe.23

These were the main points in Arendt’s narrative on the intellectual and political situation in West Germany in the months following the foundation of the Federal Republic and the constitution of the first Bundestag and the Adenauer Government.24 Her narrative was lucid, but in many respects dilettantish.

Take the case of parties. The party landscape of West Germany, though it may have replicated with only slight modifications the Weimar parties, did correspond to the broad pattern of post-war West European parties. The party constellations were based on the opposition between Social Democrats and Conservatives or—as in Italy, France and Belgium—Social Democrats and Christian Democrats (the latter were re-founded in West Germany on an inter-confessional basis). The Liberals, the Communists and others played a minor role in other West European multi-party regimes too. To imagine a spontaneous, bottom-up formation of parties on a local or regional basis without ideological or tactical considerations is not a realistic political judgment of the general party constellations in post-war Europe.

Arendt’s Report is remarkable, above all, because she does not mention at all any of the new, unique features of West German constitutional politics. There is no hint of the debates of the Parlamentarischer Rat consisting of the representatives of the Länder for the preparation of the interim constitution, the Grundgesetz.25 The Grundgesetz itself contained decisive new elements, such as the constructive vote of no confidence and the individual right to asylum. She also does not comment upon the first Bundestag elections of the 1949, their consequent results and the election of Konrad Adenauer as Federal Chancellor by a one-vote majority.

Probably for Arendt, the lack of a new beginning in Germany after World War II was manifested primarily by the absence of a constituent assembly. Why does she not consider the deliberations of the Parlamentarischer Rat as an attempt to form new foundations for the Federal State? We can imagine that she, as did Jaspers later, held it to be too dependent on the decisions of the Allied powers and not formed on a spontaneous contract between local initiatives. But was such a contract even remotely thinkable in the post-war situation in which, by Arendt’s own admission, the citizens were lacking in the capacity for sound political judgement?

Of course, Arendt was less interested in the political institutions themselves than in the political culture as their ‘substrate’. She did not talk so much with the politicians acting in the parliaments, governments and parties, but rather with academics and literati. The cultural perspective was for her reason enough to doubt the legitimacy of the new institutions and practices, without considering them in detail. She blames also the Allied powers, which did not provide the conditions for a new beginning, either in radically breaking with the Nazi past or in leaving the Germans to form their own institutions spontaneously from the local level without the intervention of the parties.

With the formation of the Federal Republic and the preceding establishment of the Länder parliaments, procedures and institutions for the parliamentary process of debating and judging were established. To claim that the parties dominated this process is not inaccurate, but the factual domination of the parties should be distinguished from the institutionalisation of the parliaments. The parliaments’ procedures refer to a condition for acting politically that is more dependent on parliamentary form than on historical and national tradition. The procedural mode of parliamentary politics conceptually precedes the formation of parties in terms of the importance of the former’s deliberation of agenda items. The procedure also gives individual MPs the right to oppose their own parties, although ultimately at the cost of diminishing their own chances for re-election.

It seems that Arendt took the contractarian narrative of the constitution, which she later discussed in detail in On Revolution, as the only possible foundation of the modern State. She could not imagine alternatives to it. Her analysis of the new West German polity can be discussed in these terms.

An alternative apparently not considered by Arendt was provided by Max Weber, who in his essay on ‘objectivity’ proposes to replace psychologistic explanations in economics with institutional ones, insisting that institutions have the power to shape the personal qualifications.26 In a similar manner, the parliamentary and democratic institutions can be considered as mighty forces to mould and alter the Lebensführung, that is, the experiences and qualities of the persons acting in and through them. Neither the pre-parliamentary personal qualities of the members nor the origins of the institutions are by themselves decisive for determining political practice; however, the members’ involvement in parliamentary procedures and institutions can parliamentarise their style of politics independent of their personal histories and pre-parliamentary commitments. All of which, indeed, did take place in West Germany from the 1960s on, with the renaissance of a more debate-oriented political culture.27


The lack of insight into the value of institutions and procedures was a major reason for Arendt’s pessimistic judgement of post-war German politics. I now move to the question of how far these Arendtian reasons were used in Jaspers’s critique of the regime from the mid-1960s.

Karl Jaspers was originally a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry, but turned to philosophy, becoming a professor in the 1920s. Arendt defended her thesis on Augustine to him at the University of Heidelberg in 1928. Jaspers’s double training as a scientist and as a philosopher left its mark on his political thought, one of the effects being his conviction that philosophy is superior to rhetoric, which he more or less identified with demagoguery. From such a perspective he also had obvious difficulties in understanding the singularity of parliamentary politics, as he was looking for philosophical ‘foundations’ for politics in general.

Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik? from 1966 starts with a debate between Jaspers and Rudolf Augstein, the editor of Der Spiegel, a liberal journal opposed to the restorative tendencies in West Germany.28 Jaspers analyses the Bundestag debates on the proposal of Verjährung, the statute of limitations on Nazi crimes, which was finally rejected after the Christian Democrats switched sides, leading to resignation of Minister of Justice Ewald Bucher (FDP). In the bulk of the book Jaspers discusses the state of intellectual life, parliament and government before the 1965 Bundestag elections. A final chapter is written after the elections which confirmed the Erhard coalition of Christian and Free Democrats.

Jasper’s reply to his critics, Antwort, was published in 1967, after the fall of Erhard and the formation of the grand coalition with Christian Democrat Kurt-Georg Kiesinger as the Federal Chancellor and the Social Democrats as the junior partner, with Willy Brandt as Foreign Minister. The Government’s proposal for emergency legislation (Notstandsgesetze) is a major concern in Jaspers’s books. Although his critique sometimes resembles that of the rising left-wing extra-parliamentary opposition in Germany, his proposals and arguments are definitely different.

Arendtian topoi shape the entire argumentation of Jaspers. He insists on a radical break with the criminal Nazi regime and calls for the insight and will to re-found the State, ‘der uneingeschränkte Wille zum Abbruch der Kontinuität zu dem Verbrecherstaat, die Erkenntnis und der Wille zur Neugründung’.29 The Federal Republic had made merely an external break, without reaching the hearts and minds as well as the political convictions of the people (‘ein äußerlich gefügtes Ordnungsgebilde … ohne Ursprung in den Herzen und Köpfen des Volkes, ohne eine neue politische Gesinnung’).30 In this sense the Republic remained an external institution, not an idea embraced by the citizens (‘eine äußere Institution, nicht eine innere des Denkens der Bürger’).31

Jaspers yearns for ‘a jump to a new beginning’ from the Federal Republic (‘der Sprung zum neuen Anfang’).32 The longing for a political origin based on a constituting event, Gründungsereignis,33 directly corresponds to the point of Arendt’s critique from 1950 and her On Revolution. Such views give the impression that a moral conversion of every citizen would have been required as a condition for the new State. Jaspers’s demand for a new conviction (Gesinnung) in the singular is a further example of a thinking that sets unity before plurality.