State of exception

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A state of exception (German: Ausnahmezustand) is a concept introduced in the 1920s by the German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, similar to a state of emergency (martial law) but based in the sovereign's ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good.


"In Schmitt's terms," Masha Gessen wrote in Surviving Autocracy (2020), when an emergency "shakes up the accepted order of things...the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules."[1]

This concept is developed in Giorgio Agamben's book State of Exception (2005)[2] and Achille Mbembe's Necropolitics (2019).[3][4] It can be either grounded upon autonomous sources of law (like international treaties) or featured as external to the juridical order.[5]

Historical examples[edit]

The typical example from Nazi Germany is the Reichstag Fire (the arson against German parliament) which led to President von Hindenburg's Reichstag Fire Decree following Hitler's advice. The consequences of entering a state of exception may unroll slowly. "Even the original Reichstag Fire was not the Reichstag Fire of our imagination—a singular event that changed the course of history once and for all," Gessen wrote, pointing out that the Second World War did not begin for another six years after the Reichstag burned.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gessen, Masha (2020). "Chapter 2: Waiting for the Reichstag Fire". Surviving Autocracy. Riverhead. ISBN 9780593188941.
  2. ^ State of Exception.
  3. ^ "Necropolitics 2003". Duke University Press.
  4. ^ Mbembé, J. -A; Meintjes, Libby (2003). "Necropolitics 2019". Public Culture. Duke University Press. 15 (1): 11–40.
  5. ^ Arthur Percy Sherwood , "Tracing the American State of Exception from the George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump Presidencies", (2018) 8:1 online: UWO J Leg Stud 1, pp. 2-3.


  • Carl Schmitt, Die Diktatur. Von den Anfängen des modernen Souveränitätsgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf, 1921.
  • Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, 1922.