Carl Joachim Friedrich (1901-1984) was a German born educator whose writings on law and constitutionalism made him one of the leading American political theorists of the period after World War II.
Carl Joachim Friedrich was born on June 5, 1901, in Liepzig, Germany, the site of the first significant defeat of the Napoleanic armies. He attended several universities, receiving his doctorate from Heidelberg, and immediately began a distinguished career as a political theorist at Harvard University. He taught at Harvard until his retirement in 1971, although he also lectured at Heidelberg in the 1950s as well as at a variety of other schools, including Colby College, Duke University, and the University of Manchester in Great Britain, after his retirement.
In addition to his teaching and writing, Friedrich also served in a number of significant advisory positions. After World War II he advised Gen. Lucius Clay, then military governor of West Germany, on the issues of denazification, the visitation of American professors to newly reopened German universities, the writing of constitutions for the West German landers (or states), and the drafting of the 1949 Bonn Constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany. That constitution restored democracy to the people of West Germany. Later, in the 1950s, he also served as an adviser to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, assisting in the reorganization of a semi-autonomous government there. He subsequently advised the European Constituent Assembly and in 1962 he served as president of the American Political Science Association.
Friedrich wrote upon a wide range of topics, once authoring a book on the Baroque Age. He spent most of his time and was best known, however, for his writings on political theory. In one sense, his work is difficult to classify, for although he vigorously opposed all forms of totalitarianism, he was also suspicious of the potential excesses of liberal democracy as it was practiced in the Western industrialized nations. He was best known for his famous statement on the rejection of a political society which would attempt to maximize personal freedom. He argued that "most people are very glad to leave a lot of things to other people," and he concluded, therefore, that democratic societies should not encourage everyone to try to have their own way politically.
In spite of these reservations, Friedrich nonetheless strongly endorsed the idea of democracy and argued particularly for the value of a constitutional democracy which placed strong institutions between an often unbridled citizenry and the policies which governments make. As a consequence, Friedrich believed greatly in the rule of law, arguing that it was only through a carefully designed system of legal protections that any democracy could choose its leaders, perform the public's business in a orderly manner, and prevent either the citizenry or the public office holders from excesses.
Friedrich's views on issues like democracy, law, constitutionalism, and justice were the result of his own extensive work on the history and the evolution of such ideas as well as his deep understandings of what had gone wrong in countries where democracy had failed. He had his biases, having little use for either the public's reliance upon a popular leader or for an over reliance upon mass institutions such as political parties as the key to democratic government. Certainly the rise of the National Socialists and Adolf Hitler in his native Germany had a great impact upon Friedrich's views.
Although Friedrich wrote extensively on such issues as power, community, liberty, and authority, he always returned to democracy, law, and constitutionalism as his main themes. He was hopeful that an increasing number of nation states would adopt constitutions which would guarantee democracy themselves, and he wrote extensively on the emerging need for what he called a "world community of law." His work on totalitarianism stressed the similarities of communism as practiced in the Soviet bloc with Hitler's fascism. He clearly identified communism as a threat to world peace and order.
Apart from more practical theories of politics, however, Friedrich also wrote extensively on the great modern age philosophers. Specifically, he wrote about theories of knowledge and how it was that people thought about things. He approved of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, arguing that Kant's skepticism about people's knowledge was not only accurate but served as a worthwhile brake upon the arrogance of those who thought they understood too much. He did not approve of the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, feeling that Hegel's all-encompassing theories of knowledge permitted the righteous sense of ultimate insight that justified totalitarian political movements. He once wrote that Hegel was "the philosopher of war and the national authoritarian state."
He criticized Hegel as well for adopting a theory of knowledge which incorporated different perspectives as they originated from different observers. Again, he agreed with Kant on this issue, Kant maintaining that the difference in the perspective of different observers prevented universal understandings of the highest questions of philosophy. Friedrich also feared that acceptance of what he called the "relativist" position of Hegel on philosophical questions would inevitably lead to an ethical relativism which would undermine the acceptance of universal moral and legal principles. Though some writers disagree vigorously with Friedrich's interpretations of Hegel, it is clear that Friedrich's views upon knowledge and philosophy were closely related to his sincere desire to have legal and democratic values triumph over totalitarianism and injustice. Friedrich died in Lexington, Massachusetts, on September 19, 1984.
For additional information, particularly after World War II, see Edward N. Peterson, The American Occupation of Germany—Retreat to Victory (1977), which details Friedrich's role in interceding between his native German people and the sometimes poorly informed American occupation forces after World War II; John Gimbel, The American Occupation of Germany (1968) which includes references to Friedrich's role in reducing some of the excesses of denazification, which he felt had unfairly included too many Germans; and Jean Edward Smith, The Papers of Lucius D. Clay (1974) which describes Friedrich's relationship to Military Governor Lucius D. Clay and the confidence which General Clay had in Friedrich.