Nietzsche’s Legacy: Nietzsche’s Entanglement With German Identity

Yesterday, on the 114th anniversary of Nietzsche’s death, I had planned to share some writing on the memory of Nietzsche,  stressing the effect of (a bastardized version of) Nietzsche on German identity, but got caught up responding to some very interesting criticisms of an entry I had written (on a topic that interests me much, much more). I hope I will be forgiven for sharing this a day after that anniversary. I want to look at how Nietzsche’s philosophy shaped German identity during the Third Reich and in the German Democratic Republic by observing how his philosophy was received by academics and scholars, the availability of his books, and how he was memorialized. It will be shown that Nietzsche’s philosophy is entangled with German identity, whether praised by the Nazis or renounced by the leaders of the GDR.

The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was attractive to the Nazis due to his criticism of democracy, pacifism, individualism and religion and his praise for authority, racial purity and the a warrior spirit.[1] These qualities were brought to the attention of Nazi leadership by Right-wing academics such as Alfred Baeumler, Martin Heidegger, Richard Oehler, and Heinrich Haertle.[2] One of the most influential proponents of Nietzsche was the philosopher Alfred Baeumler, who wrote a book entitled Nietzsche: The Philosopher and Politician in addition to articles that were published in editions of Nietzsche’s work that politicized Nietzsche’s philosophy as supporting the radical Right.[3] These works posited that the core to Nietzsche’s philosophy was his idea of the “will to power”, which Baeumler read in a militaristic fashion of “might makes right”, choosing to ignore scholarship that connected the concept with Nietzsche’s earlier work to posit that the will to power was an individual’s existential project of becoming who one is meant to become.[4] Instead, Baeumler read the concept not as positing a struggle for individuality, but a collective struggle for power.[5] As such, Baeumler read the phrase literally and spread the idea that Nietzsche was advocating that states that will to have power should seize it.[6] Thus, given Baeumler’s divergence from standard interpretations, he must be credited for introducing a militaristic reading of “the will to power” that proved attractive to Nazi leadership.

Though he published little scholarship on Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger agreed with Baeumler that Nietzsche’s core thesis was “the will to power”.[7] Indeed, Heidegger maintained that he came to support the National Socialists after a political reading of Nietzsche, thus throwing weight behind the thought that Nietzschean politics vindicated National Socialism.[8] Heidegger’s thoughts on the relation between Nietzsche and National Socialism were highly respected at the time as Heidegger had gained notoriety throughout the world as an important philosopher because of his magnum opus Being and Time.[9] As such, Heidegger’s thinking on Nietzsche was taken seriously and likely convinced many scholars and National Socialists of the ideological connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and National Socialism.

Thus, it must be said that academics and philosophers were influential in bringing new readings of Nietzsche’s thought into public and political discourse. These new readings offered justifications for the National Socialists’ style of agonistic politics, such that the National Socialists embraced Nietzsche’s philosophy and sought to instill his ideas as they understood them in the citizenry. The polity was indoctrinated into Nietzsche’s philosophy in a way that made Nietzsche a cult figure and there was a feeling that Nietzsche’s thought expressed how a German should be, thus grasping at German identity.[10] Thus, it was through the scholarship of academics and philosophers that Nietzsche’s philosophy was made applicable to the National Socialist’s aggressive foreign policy and by extension shaped ideas of German identity. We shall discuss this further after exploring how academics in the GDR reacted to the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and National Socialism.

Scholars and academics of the Third Reich were influential in bringing Nietzsche’s philosophy into conversation with National Socialism in a way that ultimately had ramifications for the interaction of German identity and Nietzsche’s philosophy. Similarly, scholars and academics of the German Democratic Republic argued for the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and National Socialism to support the exclusion of Nietzsche’s philosophy from German identity.[11]

In the 1950’s leftist intellectuals published literature expressing their contempt for Nietzsche’s philosophy due to what they said to be his fascist undertones.[12] Of the most damning critics of Nietzsche’s philosophy was George Lukacs, who declared in The Destruction of Reason (1954) that Nietzsche was, “‘the sworn enemy of the working class,’ the chief destroyer of reason, and the trailblazer for National Socialism. He would have ‘regarded Hitler and Himmler, Goebbels and Goring as moral and spiritual allies.’ Hitler was merely ‘the executor of Nietzsche’s testament’”.[13] Accusations of this kind were the norm of critics of Nietzsche in the GDR, such that it is unsurprising that Nietzsche’s books were banned save for limited access to scholars.[14]

As late as 1987 GDR scholars rejected any merits to Nietzsche’s philosophy due to its connection with fascism.[15] At the Tenth Writers’ Congress of the East German Communist Party (SED) in 1987, Manfred Buhr, Director of the Central Institute of Philosophy in East Berlin, declared that fascist writers such as Nietzsche could never fit with a German identity that was anti-fascist.[16] He added that in the GDR there would never be a revaluation of Nietzsche.[17] Thus, for the academics and scholars of the GDR there was an undeniable connection in theory and practice between Nietzsche’s philosophy and National Socialism. It was this connection to fascism that made Nietzsche’s philosophy incompatible with German identity in the GDR.

Once academics and philosophers of the Third Reich had shown that Nietzsche’s philosophy vindicated National Socialism, the National Socialists used the scholars’ work to establish a connection between the citizens and Nietzsche’s philosophy as part of their German identity.[18] As such, Baeumler’s version of Nietzsche’s will to power as a collective struggle for power and superiority also shaped German identity during the Third Reich.[19] If the war for power and superiority was to be waged by German soldiers then the German people needed to be indoctrinated in Nietzsche’s philosophy. This was done by the mass production of Nietzsche’s works and the publication of short, easy to read books that made Nietzsche’s philosophy accessible to, “ordinary literate persons, and to show just how his ideas fit into the Nazi völkische weltanschauung [nationalist ideology].”[20] In these works the writers frequently emphasized how Nietzsche rightly extols the virtues of soldiers and warriors who are disciplined, steadfast and ruthless.[21] An oft quoted passage in these works was from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in which he declares,

to dominate and to help the highest thought to victory—that would be the only thing that could interest me in Germany […] The same discipline makes the soldier and the scholar efficient; and, looked at more closely, there is no true scholar who has not the instincts of the true soldier in his veins […] Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars—and the short peace more than the long […] war and courage have done more things than charity. Not your sympathy but your bravery hath hitherto saved the victims.[22]

This passage and passages like it were used by the Nazis to support their war for power as just and that German men should fight for their country because it was noble and right. In this way the Nazis used Nietzsche’s philosophy to influence how Germans saw themselves, in so doing shaping their identity so as to recognize themselves as belonging to a proud nation that should seize the power that it wills for. Therefore, given that Nietzsche’s philosophy was used by the Nazis to influence German citizens to see themselves as soldiers collectively pursuing power and superiority for the Third Reich, it must be said that Nietzsche’s philosophy shaped German identity in the Third Reich.

While Nietzsche’s works were widely available in the Third Reich the opposite was true in the German Democratic Republic. His books were not sold in book stores and were difficult to gain access to at libraries due to their placement on giftschraenken [poison shelves].[23] The general public could not access these books and researchers were required to obtain permission to read them.[24] Rodden, a scholar interested in Nietzsche’s reputation in the GDR notes, “Nietzsche entrees on library card catalogues bore special stamps, either ‘proof of purpose required’ or ‘limited borrowing permitted’. These books themselves […] came affixed with a red circle: the mark of the censor’s eye”.[25] Thus, while Nietzsche was widely read in the Third Reich, he was read only by scholars in the GDR. The work of Nietzsche was banned in the GDR due to its connections to a past German identity of Nazism. There was concern that Nietzsche’s philosophy could be used to justify fascism again, such that it was presumed that Nietzsche’s philosophy was inconsistent with a German identity that denounced the Nazis and fascism.[26] For this reason Nietzsche’s works were banned from the general public by the GDR. Yet, the banning of Nietzsche’s books suggests that the GDR strove to foster a German identity that was anti-Nietzschean. Therefore, because German identity in the GDR was anti-Nietzschean, German identity was shaped by Nietzsche in the rejection of his philosophy.

The National Socialists built an association with Nietzsche and his philosophy into German identity by celebrating the man and his ideas publicly. Adolf Hitler visited the Nietzsche Archive numerous times, even visiting regularly in 1934.[27] In July of 1934 Hitler presented Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche, with a wreath for Nietzsche’s grave bearing the words, “To a Great Fighter”.[28] Given that the National Socialists sought to embellish the parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy that praised brave and merciless soldiers so as to instill a warrior spirit as a part of German identity, it is not surprising that the National Socialists praised Nietzsche as a fighter due to his German nationality. Moreover, the National Socialists likely sought to connect Nietzsche to this German warrior identity so as to bring him into the fight as part of the collective in the will to power. Thus, Hitler and the National Socialists honored Nietzsche’s contributions to German identity by recognizing in Nietzsche what they thought to be the admirable features that he himself valued.

In the same year, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra officially became a sacred Hitler Youth text, and it was given a cherished spot—alongside Hitler’s Mein Kampf—in the vault of the Tannenberg Memorial”.[29] These actions in particular show with what high regard the National Socialists saw Nietzsche’s philosophy. States use memorials to remember events of that nation’s history in a way that contributes to national identity. That the Nazis chose to put a work by Nietzsche in a memorial to a victorious battle shows that they aspired to link Nietzsche’s philosophy with victory. Furthermore, the actions of the Nazis are evidence of their thinking that Nietzsche’s philosophy was worthy of being remembered with Mein Kampf as a work that formed the basis of Nazi ideology. As such, the Nazis sought to memorialize Nietzsche’s philosophy as one of the tenets of Nazism that contributed to German identity during the Third Reich.

The Nazis sought to guide German youth to forge a German identity based on readings of Mein Kampf and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Hitler desired that youth be educated in the works of Nietzsche and to this end personally donated to the Nietzsche Archive for a new memorial hall and library.[30] The expressed purpose of these additions was to, “hold conferences and workshops for German youth, who would be taught Nietzsche’s doctrines”.[31] Though the additions were not completed before the end of World War II it can be seen that Hitler desired a memorial to Nietzsche where German youth would come to study Nietzsche’s philosophy and become more aware of their German identity as being connected to that philosophy.[32] Thus, Hitler wanted to turn the Nietzsche Archive into an educational memorial to memorialize the ongoing influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy as educating Germans of their German identity.

Due to the role Nietzsche’s philosophy played in German identity during the Third Reich, the Nietzsche Archive became a symbol of the ideals of the National Socialists. Located in Weimar, Germany, the Nietzsche Archive was labeled a center of Nazi propaganda and closed by the Soviet Military Administration of the German Democratic Republic in December 1945.[33] Nietzsche’s diaries, correspondence, and personal papers that had formerly been in the Archive were put into storage in the National Research Center for Classical German Literature in Weimar.[34] Major Max Oehler, who had taken over Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche’s position of custodian of the Archive after her death, was arrested and sent to Buchenwald, a Soviet internment camp.[35]

Thus, the Nietzsche Archive served as a site of memory of a past German identity associated with National Socialism. In order to establish German identity as no longer being connected to the National Socialism that the Nietzsche Archives represented, the German Democratic Republic closed it. The official reason was because it was said that Nietzsche’s philosophy was Nazi propaganda that might incite and inspire other fascist movements.[36] It is also likely that the Archive was closed because it seemed to memorialize German identity during the Third Reich that was difficult to accept. As such, because the GDR attempted to dissociate German identity with the memory of National Socialism, it must be seen that in closing the Archive the GDR was nevertheless defining German identity in relation to Nietzsche and National Socialism. In that GDR leaders associated Nietzsche’s philosophy with National Socialism and fascism, they sought to define German identity as being anti-Nazi and anti-Nietzsche. By closing the Nietzsche Archive the GDR strove to show that they were neither Nietzscheans nor Nazis. Thus, GDR policy makers were defining German identity as a negation of Nietzsche and his philosophy. Therefore, during the rule of the German Democratic Republic German identity was in relation to Nietzsche in that it opposed his influence on German identity.

In considering how Nietzsche’s philosophy was received by academics and scholars, the availability of his books, and how he was memorialized, it has been shown that in the Third Reich Nietzsche’s philosophy was embraced by the National Socialists and the citizenry such that Nietzsche’s thinking had effects on German identity. When looking at these phenomena as they occurred in the German Democratic Republic there is a reversal of what occurred in the Third Reich. As such, it must be said that academics and politicians of the GDR saw the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and National Socialism, whether as theoretical, historical or both, and sought to expel Nietzsche’s work from public discourse precisely because it conflicted with German identity in the GDR. Nevertheless, it has been argued that Nietzsche’s philosophy was entangled in German identity in the GDR because they rejected his philosophy, such that Nietzsche’s philosophy shaped German identity in the GDR in how they were opposed to it.

 

 

Bibliography

Brinton, Crane. “The National Socialists’ Use of Nietzsche.” Journal of the History of Ideas 1.2 (1940): 131-50. Print.

John, Rodden. “Zarathustra Unbound? The New Nietzsche in the New Germany.” Midwest Quartly 40.1 (1998): 49-58. Print.

Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 7-19. Print.

Strehle, Stephen. “The Nazis and the German Metaphysical Tradition of Voluntarism.” Review of Metaphysics 65.1 (2011): 119-24. Print.

Whyte, Max. “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism'” Journal of Contemporary History 43.2 (2008): 171-94. Print.

[1] Brinton, Crane. “The National Socialists’ Use of Nietzsche.” Journal of the History of Ideas 1.2 (1940): 138.

[2] Brinton, 133.

[3] Whyte, Max. “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism'” Journal of Contemporary History 43.2 (2008): 178.

[4] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 12.

[5] Whyte, 181.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Whyte, 180.

[8] Whyte, 183.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brinton, 136.

[11] John, Rodden. “Zarathustra Unbound? The New Nietzsche in the New Germany.” Midwest Quartly 40.1 (1998): 53.

[12] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 8.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 15.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid.

[18] Whyte, 181.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Brinton, 132.

[21] Brinton, 136.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 9.

[24] Ibid.

[25] John, Rodden. “Zarathustra Unbound? The New Nietzsche in the New Germany.” Midwest Quartly 40.1 (1998): 53.

[26] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 18.

[27]John, Rodden. “Zarathustra Unbound? The New Nietzsche in the New Germany.” Midwest Quartly 40.1 (1998): 51.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Whyte, 193.

[31] John, Rodden. “Zarathustra Unbound? The New Nietzsche in the New Germany.” Midwest Quartly 40.1 (1998): 52.

[32] Whyte, 193.

[33] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 7.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Rodden, John. “‘Into the Abyss With Him!’ Nietzsche’s Reputation in the GDR.” Midwest Quartly 42.1 (2000): 18.

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