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…

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