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Nietzsche vs. Nietzsche

The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890–1990

by Steven E. Aschheim
University of California Press, 337 pp., $40.00

Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche

by Ben Macintyre
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $20.00

When Nietzsche Wept

by Irvin D. Yalom
Basic Books, 306 pp., $20.00

Of the three thinkers who have been among the most influential of the twentieth century—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—Marx has, for the moment at least, been cast aside and Freud no longer holds the unchallenged position he once had. That leaves Nietzsche, whose thought seems particularly appropriate to the fragmented, bewildered, and contradictory world of the 1990s. It is easier for Nietzsche to retain his influence because, unlike Marx or Freud, he did not leave a coherent body of doctrine about the course of history or the nature of man but rather a whole range of ideas about metaphysics, morals, art, history, and almost everything else. It is not that he was an unsystematic thinker; indeed there are passages in his work where systems are carried to their most shocking extremes. He was, like Rousseau, one of those writers whose own internal contradictions lend themselves to a variety of opposing interpretations, so that each reader finds in his work what he is looking for or what he thinks he needs.

But, just as Marx’s ideas are thought to have been discredited because of the failure of the political, social, and economic systems purported to be based on them, so Nietzsche’s reputation has suffered from his appropriation by the Nazis and more generally by the belief that he personally inspired everything that is wrong with the Germans: “I should think there is no instance since history began of a country being so demoralized by a single writer,” Thomas Hardy wrote in October 1914. It is true that even among the Nazis there were people who were worried about claiming Nietzsche as their inspirer. As one of them wrote, “Apart from the fact that Nietzsche was not a socialist, not a nationalist and opposed to racial theory, he could have been a leading National Socialist thinker.” But in general he was accepted both in Germany and abroad as, in the words of one commentator in the 1930s, “the pioneer, the ideological founder of the Third Reich.”

The post-Nazi reassessment of Nietzsche’s thought started in 1950 with the publication of the first edition of Walter Kaufmann’s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ, a work that set up the model of the “gentle” Nietzsche who could not offend humanist liberal sympathies, at the cost perhaps of underestimating some of the most powerful and challenging aspects of his thought. Just how many varieties of Nietzscheanism have been possible is shown very clearly in Steven Aschheim’s The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890–1990. Aschheim’s admirable exposition and interpretation confirm the view expressed by William Gass in The New York Review in 1988 (reviewing among other books what is perhaps the best of the many recent studies of Nietzsche’s ideas, Alexander Nehamas’s Nietzsche: Life as Literature), “Nietzsche is buried between the misreadings of his texts.” So we have Nietzsche the SS man, Nietzsche the Socialist, Nietzsche the Protestant, Nietzsche the Vegetarian, Nietzsche the Deconstructionist, Nietzsche the Futurist, Nietzsche the Surrealist, or simply Nietzsche the madman with, in Isadora Duncan’s words, “a vision of transcendental truth.”

Aschheim has assembled a vast amount of information about the widely varying interpretations of Nietzsche in Germany and, apart from anything else, we can only admire his stamina in reading so much potentially boring material and making it interesting. The only disadvantage of this kind of intellectual history is that it is hard to know how much actual influence some of the writers whom Aschheim discusses in fact had and how far they were simply isolated cranks—as, it could be argued, Nietzsche himself might have seemed before the sudden surge of interest in his writings. This interest started in the 1890s, after his mental collapse in 1889, and by the time of his death in 1900 a thinker who ten years earlier had only been known to a few friends and admirers had become an international best seller. By the 1890s there were many people in Germany ready for at least one of Nietzsche’s messages—the challenge to bourgeois respectability and restrictive conventions, the appeal to “become what you are.” As Seth Taylor writes in his Left Wing Nietzscheans: The Politics of German Expressionism, “Nietzsche was…ripe for absorption by a young generation which was not only alienated from mainstream society, but also from society’s main oppositional movement [socialism].”1 But it was not long before some Socialists at least were claiming Nietzsche as their own.

The young Chaim Weizmann wrote at the beginning of this century:

On Monday Mlle. Axelrod, from Berne, is giving a lecture here on Nietzsche and soc[ialism]. Poor, poor, Nietzsche, what ugly lips will be uttering his words, and these Messrs. Soc[ialists] are trying to pull their little red cap on that giant genius’s head. It seems clear enough that none liked that fraternity less than Nietzsche. They might have let him…lie peacefully in his grave instead of bandying his name about, and to what purpose?

The little red cap didn’t in fact fit very well, although Socialists could make use of Nietzsche’s phraseology. The will to power of the ruthless supermen of the bourgeoisie could be attacked; socialism could be seen as providing a true revaluation of all values, while any revolutionary movement could respond to Nietzsche’s general subversiveness. Or again perhaps it was the proletariat that was destined to provide the supermen of the future. But orthodox socialism could not really absorb Nietzsche, although he was to be an important influence on the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School, which Aschheim discusses at length; and the main Marxist interpretation remained that Nietzsche was the typical philosopher of a decadent bourgeoisie.

Anarchists had less difficulty in absorbing Nietzsche’s teaching. Emma Goldman, for instance, wrote that “Nietzsche was not a social theorist, but a poet and innovator. His aristocracy was neither of birth nor of purse; it was of the spirit. In that respect Nietzsche was an anarchist, and all true anarchists were aristocrats.” And Gustav Landauer—literary critic, Zionist, murdered after the failure of the Munich soviet republic of 1919—linked socialism with a Nietzschean concept of the Will and a Nietzschean irrationalism and belief that life requires illusion: “Socialism is possible and impossible at all times; it is possible when the right people are there to will it…or only supposedly will it but are not capable of doing it.”

Even more surprising than Nietzsche the Socialist is Nietzsche the Feminist, claimed as such enthusiastically by Helene Stöcker, one of the leaders of the early women’s movement in Germany, and by the Socialist Lily Braun, in spite of his notorious pronouncements about women (“You are going to women? Do not forget the whip”) and his dismissive listing of women along with “Englishmen, shopkeepers, Christians, cows…and other democrats.” Yet here again it was Nietzsche’s message of liberation, of the possibility of self-creation, so that—who knows?—there might be a superwoman, as well as a superman, which could appeal to the feminists of the fin de siècle. And of course, to the embarrassment of some of the serious political feminists, there were women in the Bohemian circles in, for instance, the Munich suburb of Schwabing or in the artists’ colony at Ascona in Italian Switzerland, for whom Nietzsche’s message was one of sexual liberation and erotic freedom.

In view of the later history of Nietzsche’s adoption by the Nazis, it is important to remember that, like so many other groups, Jews began to make celebratory, apologetic, and defensive uses of Nietzsche. This is a subject on which Aschheim is particularly interesting for what he tells us about both the German Jews and Nietzsche’s own complex and ambivalent attitudes. “After all,” Aschheim writes, “no other contemporary thinker of similar stature has been more complimentary to the Jews and more scathing to their enemies.” For Nietzsche at some moments Judaism was the forerunner of Christianity and so partly responsible for Christian morality which, in Nietzsche’s view, was based on a false humility, a slave mentality, and on a ressentiment which was, as he put it in The Antichrist, “the rancor of the sick instinct which was directed against the healthy, against health itself.” But at other times the Jews are a chosen people: “Jews among Germans are among the higher race—more refined, spiritual, kind.” And in a famous passage which could be used as an argument both by philo-Semites and anti-Semites, he wrote,

Among the spectacles to which the coming century invites us is the decision as to the destiny of the Jews of Europe. That their die is cast, that they have crossed their Rubicon is palpably obvious; all that is left is for them either to become the masters of Europe or to lose Europe. They themselves know that a conquest of Europe or any act of violence on their part is not to be thought of…but they also know that at some future time Europe may fall into their hands like a ripe fruit if they would just extend them. To bring that about they need, in the meantime, to distinguish themselves in every domain of European distinction and to stand everywhere in the first rank until they have reached the point at which they themselves determine what is distinguishing…. Then…when Israel will have transformed its eternal vengeance into an eternal blessing for Europe, then there will again arrive that seventh day on which the Jewish god may rejoice in himself, his creation and his chosen people—and let us all, all of us, rejoice with him.2

Some Jews indeed complained about the attempt to turn Nietzsche into a Jewish prophet, as an Orthodox rabbi had done when he wrote,

In so far as Jewish morality holds world-flight and renunciation to be immoral, it creates very immanent, very earthly moral values. The commandments of Judaism relate to life itself in all its details…. Every Jew who consciously fulfills one of the socalled ceremonial laws thereby enacts the transvaluation of all values of which Nietzsche spoke.

For many of the younger generation of Zionists, however, Nietzsche expressed what one of them called “a new song of life affirmation and powerful courage” which would enable the Jews to express, in a phrase of the young Martin Buber, “the life-feeling of the Jews.”

By 1914 there were few aspects of European cultural and intellectual life that had not been affected by Nietzsche’s ideas, just as his language permeates, for example, much of the poetry of Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke. In music Richard Strauss wrote his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896; Gustav Mahler originally entitled his Third Symphony (1893–1896) The Gay Science, while in 1905 Frederick Delius set passages from Nietzsche in A Mass of Life. But, as Aschheim rightly points out, it was the First World War that gave a new emphasis and a new perspective to Nietzsche’s message. While some English intellectuals were eagerly holding Nietzsche responsible for the war, in Germany he was taken up enthusiastically by government and public as the apostle of an extreme nationalism: as Zarathustra had exclaimed, “You say that it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.” German soldiers took copies of Zarathustra into the trenches, along with the Bible and Faust. How much they read of them is another matter, but the German government apparently though it worthwhile to distribute an especially durable edition of Zarathustra to them, and sales increased notably: 40,000 copies were sold in 1917 alone. Although some people protested against this misuse of Nietzsche, the German propaganda of the First World War locked him securely into the nationalist camp.

  1. 1

    Walter de Gruyter, 1990, p.23.

  2. 2

    See also Steven Aschheim’s fuller discussion of the problem, “Nietzsche and the Nietzschean Moment in Jewish Life,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, XXXVII (Secker and Warburg, 1992), pp. 189–212.

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