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Born on June 5, 1901, in Leipzig, the site of the first significant defeat of the Napoleonic armies, Friedrich was the son of renowned professor of medicine Paul Leopold Friedrich, the inventor of the surgical rubber glove, and a Prussian countess of the von Bülow family. He attended the Gymnasium Philippinum from 1911 to 1919, where he received an elite German secondary education focusing on classical languages and literature (at his American naturalization proceeding, he described his religion as "Homer"). Friedrich studied under Alfred Weber, the brother of Max Weber, at the University of Heidelberg, where he graduated in 1925, having also attended several other universities and even put in a brief stint working in the Belgian coal mines.
Friedrich's family had strong ties to the United States. His brother, Otto Friedrich, went on to become an industrialist prominent in the German rubber industry. Both brothers lived and studied in America on and off immediately after World War I, but Carl elected to remain in the United States and Otto to return to Germany. They temporarily broke off relations during the 1940s because of Otto's allegiance to the Nazi party and prominent role in German industry during the Third Reich, but they reestablished contact after the end of World War II.
In the 1920s, while a student in the United States, Carl founded, and was president of, the German Academic Exchange Service, through which he first met the love of his life, Lenore Pelham, also a writer and then a student at Rockford College, outside Chicago. The two later married. In 1926, he was appointed as a lecturer in Government at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. from Heidelberg in 1930. When Hitler came to power, he decided to remain in the United States and become a naturalized citizen. He was appointed Professor of Government at Harvard in 1936.
Friedrich's main areas of thought were the problems of leadership and bureaucracy in government, public administration, and comparative political institutions. An extremely popular lecturer, Friedrich also wrote prolifically, producing 31 volumes on political history, government, and philosophy and editing another 22 (then the second most in Harvard's history). In the 1930s, Professor Friedrich also played a leading role, with one of his students, the then-unknown David Riesman, by his side, in efforts to help Jewish scholars, lawyers, and journalists who were fleeing Nazi Germany and other Fascist regimes resettle in the United States. He persuaded one of them, the pianist Rudolf Serkin, to give a concert at his farm in Brattleboro, Vermont, an event which led to the establishment of the Marlboro Music Festival.
An expert on German constitutional law and the conditions surrounding its breakdown, Friedrich supported representative democracy. He strongly opposed direct democracy, however, particularly the use (or misuse) of referendums, as leading to totalitarianism. He stressed the necessity for maintaining the rule of law, supplemented by a strong infrastructure of civil institutions, and was highly suspicious of grass-roots popular movements.
During World War II, Friedrich helped found the School of Overseas Administration to train officers for military work abroad and served as its director from 1943 to 1946. He also served on the Executive Committee of the Council for Democracy, concerned with convincing the American people of the necessity for fighting totalitarianism and with strengthening national morale.
Friedrich, who was arguably the most knowledgeable scholar in his field (of German Constitutional history) of his time, was endowed with a healthy self-regard. Indeed, some of his colleagues at Harvard regarded him as a "somewhat hybristic person who was overly confident of his own abilities."
Friedrich was the author of an article "Poison in Our System" for the June 1941 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, criticizing Songs For John Doe, an album of songs against Roosevelt's peacetime draft (issued in May 1941, before Hitler's Germany had declared war on the United States), by the Almanac Singers, who included the then twenty-one-year-old Pete Seeger, performing under the pseudonym 'Pete Bowers'. Friedrich was apparently as alarmed by the potential for uncontrolled spread of such topical songs as he was by their (fairly innocuous by current standards) content, and opined that "mere" legal suppression would be an inadequate antidote, calling for the establishment of civilian pressure groups to take cultural countermeasures:
These recordings are distributed under the innocuous appeal: "Sing out for Peace". Yet they are strictly subversive and illegal. . . The three records sell for one dollar and you are asked to "play them in your home, play them in your union hall, take them back to your people." Probably some of these songs fall under the criminal provisions of the Selective Service Act, and to that extent it is a matter for the Attorney-General. But you never can handle situations of this kind democratically by mere suppression. Unless civic groups and individuals will make a determined effort to counteract such appeals by equally effective methods, democratic morale will decline.
From 1946 to 1948, Friedrich served as Constitutional and Governmental Affairs Adviser to the Military Governor of Germany, General Lucius D. Clay. He advised the American military on the denazification of Occupied Germany and participated in work leading to the drafting of the West German Basic Law and the creation of Germany's States' constitutions. He later advised on the constitutions of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Israel, among others. Between 1955 and 1971, Friedrich was Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University and Professor of Political Science at the University of Heidelberg from 1956 to 1966.
He taught alternately at Harvard and Heidelberg until his retirement in 1971. He later taught at the University of Manchester and Duke University, among others. He also served as president of the American Political Science Association in 1962 and of the International Political Science Association from 1967-70. In 1967, Friedrich was awarded the Knight Commander's Cross of the German Order of Merit by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Friedrich's concept of a "good democracy" rejected basic democracy as totalitarian. Some of the assumptions of Friedrich's theory of totalitarianism, particularly his acceptance of Carl Schmitt's idea of the "constitutional state", are viewed as potentially anti-democratic by Hans J. Lietzmann. Schmitt believed that the sovereign is above the law. Klaus von Beyme sees the main focus of Friedrich's theories as the "creation and preservation of robust institutions". This can be seen as influencing his work on the creation of Germany's States' constitutions. His best guess as to when this might occur was the year 2000.
- The Philosophy of Kant, edited with an introduction [Kant's moral and political writings] (New York: Random House/Modern Library [#266], 1949).
- The Age of the Baroque: 1610–1660 (New York: Harper & Row, 1952).
- Der Verfassungsstaat der Neuzeit ['The Modern Constitutional State'] (Berlin, 1953).
- The Philosophy of Hegel, edited with an introduction (New York: Random House/Modern Library, 1953).
- Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, with Zbigniew Brzezinski (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956; second edition 1965).
- The Philosophy of History by Hegel, trans. J. Sibree, new introduction by C.J. Friedrich (Dover, 1956). ("[H]e revolutionized the sciences of man, of culture and society, and neither the humanities nor the social sciences have ever been able to think and talk again in the naive and simple terms that characterized them before Hegel wrote.")
- Totalitäre Diktatur (The Totalitarian Dictatorship). (Stuttgart, 1957).
- Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963).
- Tradition and Authority (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
- The Pathology of Politics: Violence, Betrayal, Corruption, Secrecy, and Propaganda (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
- Edmund Spevack, Allied Control and German Freedom: American Political and Ideological Influences on the Framing of the West German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) (Munster: Verlag), p. 192.
- Quoted in "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-06-03. Retrieved 2016-02-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Copies of Songs for John Doe were destroyed later that same year after Hitler invaded the USSR. Military intelligence and the FBI searched for this supposedly "subversive" material but were unable to find any copies, only locating the Almanac Singers themselves the following year. By that time Hitler had declared war on the USA and the Almanacs (and virtually all Americans) now fully supported the war, and had even issued another album, Dear Mr. President, (in January 1942, after Pearl Harbor) of songs to that effect.
- Hans J. Lietzmann, Von der konstitutionellen zur totalitären Diktatur. Carl Joachim Friedrichs Totalitarismustheorie (From Constitutionalism to Totalitarian Dictatorship: Carl Joachim Friedrichs' Totalitarianism Theory). Alfred Söllner, Ed. Totalitarismus. Eine Ideengeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts (Totalitarianism: A History of 20th Century Thought). (1997).