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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.

The routes by which Nietzsche’s ideas and their diverse interpretations reached the public varied, but a central role was performed by the Nietzsche archives, established in 1894, five years after Nietzsche’s collapse into madness, by his ambitious and indefatigable sister Elisabeth. They were the two surviving children of a pastor’s widow in Saxony, and originally very close, with Elisabeth providing Nietzsche with adoration and sometimes, when her mother could spare her, joining him to keep house for him in Basel where he was a professor of classical philology during the 1870s. But their relations later became bad, partly because Nietzsche fell in love with the beautiful, dashing, and emancipated Russian girl, Lou Salomé—later to have a distinguished career as a disciple of Freud as well as being Rilke’s mistress—and Elisabeth was very jealous.

But a deeper rift occurred when Elisabeth married a fanatical anti-Semite and German racist, Bernhard Förster. In 1886 he and his wife with a group of trusting disciples went off to found an agricultural colony in Paraguay where they hoped to preserve the purity of the Aryan race far away from a Europe which they believed was rapidly being ruined by Jewish influences and racial corruption. (It is ironical that three years later a group of Jewish emigrants sponsored by Baron de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association set off to found a colony over the frontier in Argentina in order to escape persecution in Europe—an enterprise that turned out as disastrously as the Försters’.)3

Elisabeth Nietzsche’s Paraguayan experience provides the core of Ben Macintyre’s Forgotten Fatherland, an enjoyable and informative book which is both a biography of Elisabeth Nietzsche and an example of the familiar English genre of joky, self-deprecating travel literature. Macintyre set off for Paraguay to see what he could find out about Nueva Germania, as the Försters’ colony was called, and was remarkably successful in discovering in the remote forest both descendants of the original settlers and the remains of their buildings, including Elisabeth and Bernhard’s rather pretentious mansion, Försterhof. A small, forgotten group of people still clings to memories of Elizabeth—“A brave woman and beautiful”—their grandparents’ beliefs still surviving perhaps in their reaction to Nazis such as the notorious Dr. Mengele, who had sought asylum in Paraguay and were still the object of intense interest to the “gente perdida,” as the Paraguayans called the few remaining settlers on the site of Nueva Germania. Like so many similar colonies it had ended in catastrophe, with mounting debts (Nietzsche always refused to make any contribution in response to his sister’s appeals), and finally Bernhard’s suicide in June 1889.

Elisabeth was to be as active in concocting stories about her husband’s death and denying that he had killed himself as she was in asserting that her brother’s illness was not due to syphilis and that there was no congenital streak of madness in the family. After a visit to Germany, where her brother was being cared for by their mother, Elisabeth returned briefly to Paraguay where she was confronted by hostile and disillusioned colonists claiming that “the first condition for any improvement in New Germany is the removal of Frau Förster.” On the pretext—not entirely implausible—of having to help her mother look after Friedrich, she returned to the family home at Naumburg in Saxony and began the next phase of her career.

Her object was now to make the reputation of her brother and to devote herself to the spreading of her version of his teaching and life. In 1897 the mother died, and Elisabeth remained in sole charge of her brother, who was increasingly unaware of what was going on around him, but who even in his collapse inspired awe: the theosophist Rudolf Steiner wrote, “In inner perception I saw Nietzsche’s soul as if hovering over his head, infinitely beautiful in its spirit-light, surrendered to the spiritual worlds it had longed for so much but had been unable to find before illness had clouded his mind.” Elisabeth was now in effect completely in control of Nietzsche’s notes and writings, and edited them ruthlessly, excising things that did not suit her idea of his doctrines. The Will to Power was assembled by her and presumably there is still work to be done in reassembling and reinterpreting the notes and fragments Nietzsche left behind, now that, since 1989, the Nietzsche archives have been reopened after years of control by Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche and the Nazis and then by the Communists, who closed them altogether.

It is very largely to Elisabeth that we owe the image of Nietzsche the Prussian nationalist and anti-Semite. She raised money to house the archieves in Weimar, thus putting Nietzsche in the same category as Goethe, whose archives were already there. She reestablished relations with Bayreuth and the Wagner family, for whom she had once worked as an au pair nanny, but with whom contact had been difficult after Nietzsche’s bitter attacks on his former hero Richard Wagner. The Nietzsche archives became increasingly a place of pilgrimage for nationalists, culminating in a visit by Hitler to the eighty-seven-year-old Elisabeth in 1933. (Both Aschheim and Macintyre reproduce a photo of the event.) In the process Elisabeth had lost the support of many of those originally associated with the archive, among them Rudolf Steiner and the collector and diarist Count Harry Kessler, who could not go along with what seemed to them the falsification of Nietzsche’s image. Elisabeth’s reign lasted till her death in 1935; and the annexation of Nietzsche by the Nazis was symbolized in 1938 by the construction of a memorial and an auditorium adjacent to the Vila Silberblick, which Elisabeth had raised money to buy in 1897 in order to provide a home for herself and the archives.

The denazification of Nietzsche, so to speak, has led to a new interest in his philosophy, in his thought as much as his influence. He had already contributed much to the philosophy of Jaspers and Heidegger. In the 1930s Jung in Zurich had devoted a seminar that lasted four years to the study of Also Sprach Zarathustra, and, as Aschheim shows clearly, it brought out not only much about Nietzsche, but also much about Jung’s own ambivalent attitudes. “Modern people follow Zarathustra,” Jung wrote, “but [Nietzsche] did not see that he was really anticipating the whole future development, that there would be a time when what he says here would come true. It is as if the whole world had heard of Nietzsche or read his books, and had consciously brought it about. Of course, they had not. He simply listened in to that underground process of the collective unconscious and he was able to realize it.” Although Jung was even ready to admit that “Fascism has done any amount of good for Italy,” in Germany Nietzsche could not be held responsible for what happened:

You see in how far Nietzsche is a forerunner. But the Germans…are not so gifted that they would learn it from Nietzsche; it just happens to them…. In a certain way he anticipated in his own life and his own body what the future of his people would be.

And Jung’s conclusion is a surprising one, though it reminds one of that German Youth Movement leader who advised that Nietzsche was not suitable for its younger members. Zarathustra, Jung said, “is a book…which should be reserved for people who have undergone a very careful training in the psychology of the unconscious. Only then, having given evidence of not being overthrown by what the unconscious occasionally says, should people have access to the book.” Freud, too, seems to have been aware of just how frightening Nietzsche can be, and, in Peter Gay’s words, treated Nietzsche’s writings as texts to be resisted far more than studied. And late in life he wrote, “I rejected the study of Nietzsche although—no, because,—it was plain that I would find insights in him very similar to the psychoanalytic ones.”4

The influence of Nietzsche on the development of psychoanalysis is the subject of a new contribution to Nietzsche’s mythological status—Irvin D. Yalom’s novel, When Nietzsche Wept. (This is not the first fictionalization of Nietzsche’s life: Aschheim mentions a play by Paul Friedrich as early as 1910.) Yalom, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, deals with an imaginary encounter in 1882 between Freud’s friend and patron Josef Breuer and Friedrich Nietzsche engineered by Lou Salomé in the hope that Breuer could do something about the desperate state of Nietzsche’s health. The consultations soon turned into a reversal of roles and a series of sessions in which Nietzsche ended up by analyzing Breuer, removing his sexual obsession with Bertha Pappenheim—a lady famous in the history of psychoanalysis as Anna O. I must confess to being unenthusiastic about novels that put real people into situations that never existed, and find some of Yalom’s clinical detail rather hard to take (“On rectal examination, Breuer palpated no rock-hard cancer nodules but found instead a spongy, benign enlargement”) as well as the matey exchanges between Breuer and Freud:

“You know, Sig, maybe that should be the goal of treatment—to liberate that hidden consciousness”…”Josef, I’ve enjoyed this consultation. And I appreciate the way we confer—it’s an honor for me to have you take my suggestions seriously.”

Still, the author has great familiarity with the Viennese medical scene in the 1880s as well as a taste for Viennese cuisine, and he shows considerable ingenuity in using his thorough knowledge of Nietzsche’s writings to put plausible words into Nietzsche’s mouth. He brings out well some of the links between Nietzsche’s ideas and the practice of psychoanalysis in, for example, Nietzsche’s awareness of the strength of the unconscious, of the need to excavate one’s own self. Perhaps one day he will go on to write a sequel in which Breuer cures Nietzsche and enables him to complete The Will to Power without leaving it to Elisabeth. After all Nietzsche himself wrote, “Facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations.”

God may not be dead, if the revival of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism is any evidence, but Zarathustra undoubtedly lives, even if his messages are as ambiguous as ever. Nietzsche, absolved in part at least from the stigma of having started the First World War and inventing the Nazis, is now seen as an important moral and metaphysical philosopher. His ideas about language have been taken up and adapted by semiologists and deconstructionists. His writings on classical literature have been reexamined in the light of current anthropological theories and recent critical studies of Greek tragedy. Interest in Nietzsche has led to a renewal of interest in those thinkers who influenced him, especially Schopenhauer, while the writers he himself influenced, such as Heidegger, are central if controversial figures on the intellectual scene.

When one turns to what is the theme of Aschheim’s book—Nietzsche’s broader impact upon German politics and identity—perhaps there is not much sign of impact, at least in Germany itself. But what of Nietzsche’s influence on political culture elsewhere? Here, however much Nietzsche might have disapproved of some things done in his name, the signs are not entirely reassuring: Are we, for example, to regard the Serbian warlords carrying out “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia as would-be supermen, or at least as acting in the tradition of the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, who was fond of reciting passages from Nietzsche to his friends in the cafés of Belgrade and assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, thus lighting the fuse that started the First World War.

No amount of sanitizing or academicizing can disguise the frightening aspects of Nietzsche’s thought; his fleeting but terrifying visions of violence and destruction cannot be masked by the poetic beauty of much of his language or the sharpness of his wit. What are we to make of a passage like this?

Let us look ahead a century and assume the case that my attempt to assassinate two millennia of antinature and human disfigurement has succeeded. That new party of life which would take the greatest of all tasks into its hands, the higher breeding (Höherzuchtung) of humanity, including the merciless extermination (schonungslose Vernichtung) of everything degenerating and parasitic, would make possible again that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian state will grow again.

In spite of all attempts to treat Nietzsche as if he were an academic philosopher or a postmodern critic, he is still the confused and frightening prophet who wrote in The Will to Power, “The spell that fights on our behalf, the eye of Venus that charms and blinds even our opponents, is the magic of the extreme, the seduction that everything extreme exercises.” It is this “jusq’au boutisme,” the sense that he will stop at nothing, that is so alarming about Nietzsche’s message; and perhaps the truest disciples of Nietzsche are those who have the will and the hardness to go to any lengths. One of them, the French critic and philosopher Georges Bataille, quarreled with André Breton and the Surrealists because they were not “black” enough, just as he saw that Nietzsche’s refusal to recognize any limits meant that fascism and Nietzscheanism were incompatible, since fascism used its power to imprison, exile, and kill everything that could constitute an aristocracy of “free spirits.”5

There will be no end to the differing interpretations of Nietzsche because the core of each of them can be found in Nietzsche himself. The self-contradictions are at the heart of his message. He in fact remains what he himself once wrote in his notebook as a young man: “I will vanish in a dark thunderstorm and for my last moments I shall be at once a man and a lightning flash.” His contradictions make him in fact his own worst enemy, a man who can constantly be quoted against himself. Perhaps his admirer the poet Stefan George in his mysterious and beautiful poem on Nietzsche’s death sums it up:

Du has das nächste in dir selbst getötet
Um neu begehrend dann ihm nachzuzittern
Und aufzuschrein im schmerz der einsamkeit.

(You have killed what is closest to you
So as then with fresh desire to go shuddering after it
And cry out with the pain of solitude.)
—Stefan George, “Nietzsche,” Der Siebente Ring

  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. 

  3. 3

    See Kennee Beth Switzer, “Baron de Hirsch, the Jewish Colonization Association and Canada 1891–1914,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (University of London, 1982). 

  4. 4

    Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (Norton, 1988), pp. 45–46. 

  5. 5

    Bataille’s On Nietzsche, first published in French in 1945, has recently been issued in an English translation by Bruce Boone with an introduction by Sylvère Lotringer (Paragon House, 1992).