The Guardian, 6 October 2018
The German philosopher has been adopted by the alt-right, but he hated antisemitism. He has been misappropriated and misread, argues his biographer
Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin are the great triumvirate of 19th-century thinkers whose ideas still have huge impact today. Nietzsche was philosophy’s supreme iconoclast; his sayings include “God is dead” and “There are no facts, only interpretations”. Highly relevant, yet his association with concepts such as the Übermensch, master morality, slave morality and, possibly most dangerous, the will to power, have also contributed to him being widely misinterpreted. There are three myths in particular that need dynamiting: that his politics were on the far right, he was a misogynist and he lacked a sense of humour.
Misappropriation has been rife. Richard Spencer, a leader of America’s “alt-right”, claims to have been “red-pilled by Nietzsche”, while Jordan Peterson quotes extensively from him. But let’s start with the Nazis. Growing up in Bismarck’s reich, there were three things Nietzsche hated: the big state, nationalism and antisemitism. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, that is the end of German philosophy,” he wrote, and “I will have all antisemites shot.”
His sister Elisabeth held contrasting views. She married a notorious antisemite agitator (Nietzsche refused to go to the wedding), and the couple went off to Paraguay to found a New Germany of “pure-blooded” Aryan colonists. By the time the colony failed in 1889, Nietzsche had lost his reason. Elisabeth returned to Germany, where she took charge of her brother, gathered up all his papers and founded the Nietzsche Archive.
When it came to faking news, Elisabeth was a pioneer. On her brother’s death in 1900, Elisabeth didn’t think his death mask was sufficiently impressive, so she faked a second one. She did the same to his writing, rummaging about in his literary estate, cutting and pasting at will. She published an unreliable biography of him and delayed publication of his autobiography, Ecce Homo, until she had deleted uncomplimentary references to herself.
Nietzsche was always very sparing in what he published, but he loved playing around with book titles. He wrote many more titles than books. One he scrapped was The Will to Power. He scrawled a shopping list on the abandoned title page. But Elisabeth took fragments from here and there, concocted a book called The Will to Power and published it under her brother’s name. It was such a success that a few years later she published a greatly expanded edition.
Elisabeth lived until 1935. This gave her almost 40 years to doctor texts and letters and manipulate the literary estate. The Nietzsche Archive became an institution filled with extreme rightwingers, whose aggressive nationalism chimed with her own. Among them were Oswald Spengler, and Alfred Bäumler, who oversaw book burning in Berlin and prepared Nietzsche’s texts for new editions, including another The Will to Power that again gave the impression the text had been authored by Nietzsche himself. Bäumler was joined as editor in the Nietzsche Archive by Martin Heidegger. The two of them took the extraordinary view that Nietzsche’s published works hardly counted because the real philosophy resided in the Nachlass, the unpublished literary estate that Elisabeth had already manipulated to her own ends. This allowed them to continue jigsawing dislocated fragments to put their own ideas into Nietzsche’s mouth.
Elisabeth greatly admired Mussolini. In 1932 she persuaded the Weimar National theatre to put on a play written by him. Hitler showed up during the performance and presented her with a huge bouquet of flowers. A year later, now chancellor of Germany, he visited the Nietzsche Archive, carrying his customary whip. He remained for an hour and a half. When he emerged the whip had gone. In its place he grasped Nietzsche’s walking stick, presented to him by Elisabeth… [+]