Heller, Hermann

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Heller, Hermann


Hermann Heller (1891–1933), German political scientist, was born at Teschen in Austria. He taught at Kiel, Leipzig, Berlin, and Frankfurt. In 1933, he emigrated and died in Madrid in the same year.

Heller revived political theory in Germany, where it had been emptied of content by both legal positivism and political voluntarism. The central problem of order, Heller taught, is the tension between will and norm, which must not be resolved in favor of either pole. Man’s nature is essentially Utopian, looking toward what ought to be. What ought to be, however, cannot order human existence without the acts of a public will that in any society makes binding decisions about legal rules and assures their regular enforcement. The modern state is essentially a hierarchically organized unity of will that performs the function of deciding and enforcing positive law within a given territory. In relation to the legal system, the state is sovereign, that is, a supreme will subject to no other will. For the sake of the law, the state must in an emergency maintain itself even against the law. The sovereign will, however, can posit law only within the range of transpositive fundamental principles of law (Rechtsgrundsatze), which are either formal (logical) or substantive (ethical) norms.

Heller construed this higher law not as unchanging but as shaped by various historical civilizations. Political theory must explain the state in world-immanent terms but not reduce it to nature. Rather, the state is a part of human culture (defined as facts suffused with meaning). It exists in and through human activities, among which it has reality as a gestalt, a structure retaining its identity in the flow of its changing parts. The proper method of political theory is neither normative nor causal but, rather, sociological. It can never be “value-free” in Max Weber’s sense, although it can free itself from bias. An explanation of the state must take into account underlying social entities, for example, historical entities of national culture (Kultureinheiten). Human nature, a constant in any political order, must be seen as shaped by history. Man, society, and culture are basic conditions of any state and cannot be artificially produced.

Much of Heller’s work dealt with the political crisis of the West. He conceived of it as a collapse of political order stemming from the destruction of political theory by positivism. The antipolitical notion of the automatically self-regulating natural order produced modern legal positivism, which construed the concept of order without the state and apart from any concrete content. As a reaction there arose the twentieth-century cult of sheer force—or the strong man—and the notion of the intrinsic value of a command. Heller blamed this development on the bourgeoisie, which, when it was in power, disavowed its former moral convictions about the necessity of order and embraced positivist legality instead.

Heller was a leading German socialist, although not a follower of Marx, whose materialism and historical messianism he rejected. Socialism was justified, he felt, by the desirability of social homogeneity, of a community of interests and values that alone can form the basis of a democratic state. Class antagonism endangers this community, which can be restored only by including the workers in its economic and cultural benefits. No such community is possible apart from the historically grown unity of common national language, traditions, values, and ways of life. Socialism and the national community are interdependent. Heller’s socialism was national although not nationalistic. He favored the unification of Europe as the only way of safeguarding national cultures in an age of superpowers.

Heller’s thought was eclectic rather than derived from any one master. Although he rejected the major conclusions of Hegel, Marx, Weber, Dilthey, and Kelsen, he made use of some of the ideas and methods of each to compensate for the biases of the others. The result was not a historical dialectic but a dialectic that synthesized elements which political theorists had often separated. Man consists of both body and soul, society includes physical as well as spiritual meaning, legal order presupposes both norm and will, political theory must use not only causal but also normative analysis, and so forth. It was his ability to hold such tensions in his mind without trying to resolve them for the sake of a unified system that secured Heller’s position as one of the strong voices of sanity in an age of political disorder.

Gerhart Niemeyer

[See alsoPolitical Theory; Positivism; State; and the biographies ofAustin; Kelsen.]


1921 Hegel und der nationale Machtstaatsgedanke in Deutschland: Ein Beitrag zur politischen Geistesge-schichte. Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner.

(1925) 1931 Sozialismus und Nation. 2d ed. Berlin: Rowohlt.

1926a Die Krisis der Staatslehre. Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 55:289–316.

1926b Die politischen Ideenkreise der Gegenwart. Kiel (Germany): Hirt.

1927 Die Souveränität: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie des Staats- und Völkerrechts. Leipzig and Berlin: de Gruyter.

(1929) 1931 Europa und der Fascismus. 2d ed. Leipzig and Berlin: de Gruyter.

1930 Rechtsstaat oder Diktatur? Tubingen (Germany): Mohr.

1934a Political Science. Volume 12, pages 207-224 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1934b Political Power. Volume 12, pages 300-305 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1934c Staatslehre. Leiden (Netherlands): Sijthoff.