Reading Nietzsche: the Nazis Ruin Everything

“Europe is not so small,” Nietzsche wrote in a letter to his sister, Elisabeth, in March of 1885, “and if one does not want to live in Germany (and in this I am like him), one still does not need to go so very far away. But of course I do not have his enthusiasm for ‘things German,’ and even less for keeping this ‘glorious’ race pure. On the contrary, on the contrary—”

The “him” in this case is Dr. Förster, husband of Nietzsche’s sister and all-around horrible person. He left Germany in 1886 to emigrate to Paraguay, and in the following year he set up a colony known as “Nueva Germania”—sort of like a Jonestown for delusional Right-Wing ideologues.

Nietzsche earlier wrote in a letter to his friend, Malwilda, about the rift with his sister over the good doctor:

Meanwhile the situation has been changed by my radical break with my sister; for heaven’s sake, do not think that you should mediate between us and reconcile us—there can be no reconciliation between a vindictive anti-Semitic goose and me.

Now read this article by David B. Dennis, professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, (“How the Nazi Party Recast Nietzsche”) about how the Nazis, with the help of Nietzsche’s sister, of course, co-opted (and by co-opted I mean completely changed) Nietzsche for their own twisted ends. He writes (apologies for the long quote, but it’s telling):

Cultural renewal in accordance with such perceptions of intellectual history was a central premise of the larger project of the Third Reich, fundamental to Hitler’s aims. But this agenda also contributed to the most destructive impulses of the movement. Indeed, German cultural identity as shaped by the Nazi regime did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler’s racist standards of judgment were grounded in cultural terms, as he stated in Mein Kampf: “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” According to the Völkischer Beobachter, Jewish creators such as Heine, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—among many others—supposedly belonged in the latter, so they and their kind had to be eradicated.

Demonstrating that great cultural figures of the past would have agreed with these premises was a priority in the Nazi newspaper. One contributor put it in these stark terms: “to win over to our movement spiritual leaders who think they see something distasteful in anti-Semitism, it is extremely important to present more and more evidence that great, recognized spirits shared our hatred of Jewry.”

In the case of Nietzsche, however, this process required a little more “spin” than the “selective scavenging” for biographical and textual evidence that scholar Steven Aschheim identified as the usual mode of such politicization. Some Völkischer Beobachter contributors recognized that Nietzsche had not been a committed anti-Semite, and had even criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, his own sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. One editor, for instance, said about Nietzsche: “His work contains other crass contradictions and obscurities, especially in his treatment of the Jewish Question, where he sometimes confesses himself as an Anti-Semite, and then as a philo-Semite. Equally obscure is what he understood as race and nation. This may be a result of the eruptive nature of his creativity and the shortness of his life, which didn’t allow him enough time to go into these issues deeply.”

But other contributors wrote as if aligning Nietzschean ideas with Nazi anti-Semitism posed no difficulties at all. One article listed carefully selected passages from Beyond Good and Evil to show that Nietzsche “expressed himself extraordinarily farsightedly on the Jewish Question.” An article entitled “Nietzsche as Warner about the Jewish Danger” insisted that Nietzsche concerned himself with the Jewish Question, “as every clear thinking, every sensitive Aryan-German person must.” Nietzsche, the paper said, recognized the danger threatening Germans in the form of a completely foreign and utterly different race, and “warned us—and like so many hundreds of great, significant men who warned us before him, he warned in vain!”

And so, like usual, Nazis ruin everything for everybody.