I love Nietzsche’s arrogance (‘I am not a man – I am dynamite!’) but it’s a little difficult to reconcile Nietzsche the superman with the Nietzsche who had funny turns, took to his bed and was looked after by his sister.
He famously wrote, in Zarathrusta, ‘If you visit a woman, don’t forget your whip.’ But, as Bertrand Russell observed, ‘ . . . nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women . . . ‘
Nietzsche had what he thought was a clear vision of the future of the human race in which civilisation is merely a scaffolding or structure from which a new elite race would arise that will govern in future. In The Will to Power he says: ‘A daring and ruler race is building itself up…. The aim should be to prepare a transvaluation of values for a particularly strong kind of man, most highly gifted in intellect and will. This man and the elite around him will become the ‘lords of the earth’.
In Zarathustra he describes the superman as ‘the magnificent blond brute, avidly rampant for spoil and victory.’There is little doubt that Hitler and his fellow Nazis shared this view (and that they took it partly from Nietzsche). But, aside from Hitler and his aberrant attempt at fulfilling the vision of the superman, has anything else happened historically to fulfil Nietzsche’s views? Certainly the human lot has improved over the past century but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of an elite super race emerging.
If Nietzsche’s hatred and contempt for the masses and his vision of an elite future race are not based on any real historical trend or probable future, where did they come from? John Carey says in The Intellectuals and the Masses, ‘We should see Nietzsche, I would suggest, as one of the earliest products of mass culture. That is to say, mass culture generated Nietzsche in opposition to itself, as its antagonist. The immense popularity of his ideas among early twentieth century intellectuals suggests the panic that the idea of the masses aroused.’
If Carey is right then, paradoxically, Nietzsche is almost the living embodiment of Hegel’s belief in a hidden hand of history, nothing more than a voice of frustration experiencing personally the inconveniences and loss of privilege brought about by rapid population growth giving rise to mass society.
Was Nietzsche the godfather of Nazism?
Exactly how, when and where could Nietzsche be said to have been the precursor of Nazism or to have been a prototype Nazi himself? It’s difficult to find any evidence that would stand up in court.
It’s easy to find fascist-minded people in the twentieth century (including Hitler and Mussolini) who were avid fans of Nietzsche and who believed that they themselves were the superman which he predicted.
According to William L Shirer in The rise and fall of the third Reich ‘. . . I think no one who lived in the Third Reich could have failed to be impressed by Nietzsche’s influence on it. His books might be full, as Santayana said, of “genial imbecility” and “boyish blasphemies.” Yet Nazi scribblers never tired of extolling him. Hitler often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and publicised his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man.’
It’s not so easy to find any consistent or deeply held belief in Nietzsche’s writings that show him to have a common programme with Hitler. In fact, Dr Alan Taylor (a lecturer in English at University of Texas at Arlington)argues that Nietzsche distrusted nationalism and especially German nationalism, that he hated socialism, and that he disliked ‘mass’ movements. One could add that he detested democracy. Hence he was unlikely to be in sympathy with the German National Social Democratic party – a mass movement party nominally based on nationalism, socialism, democracy and the wellbeing of the workers.
Taylor also points out that there is no evidence of anti-semitism in Nietzsche’s writings. Indeed at one point, Nietzsche refers to anti-semitism as the kind of stereotyped thinking that superior men should avoid.
There is one other factor that I think is relevant. Before the second world war, many intellectuals in England, America, France and elsewhere agreed in general with the philosophy of Nietzsche and also agreed in principle with the beliefs and views of Hitler and the Nazis regarding the future evolution of mankind. This long list included people like H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Julian Huxley, and even people like Marie Stopes. But after the second world war, once the horrors of Auschwitz had been revealed to the world, and once the reality of racial and eugenics policies and the idea of the ‘superman’ were plain to see in the activities of the SS, you would have had to go a long way to find anyone anywhere who would subscribe to the ideas of Nietzsche and the Nazis.
I strongly suspect this could apply equally to Nietzsche himself. He may have been an arrogant braggart and completely delusional about his own shortcomings, but he was certainly no monster of depravity and no anti-semite. I think he would have been horrified at what the Nazis did and even more horrified to think that they had, to some extent, acted in his name.
Was he important?
I found the following list of ideas that have been transmitted to the modern world largely by Nietzsche, on the site of Paul Brians, at Washington State University. Reading through this list, it strikes me that Nietzsche emerges as another precursor of New Age thinking rather than Nazism! It seems to me pretty clear that Nietzsche was influential but I think one must also remember that (unlike a lot of philosophers) he made very specific testable predictions — about the coming of a race of supermen — and that this core prediction has proved false.
Consider the following ideas circulating in American culture today, all of them traceable at least in part to Nietzsche, although many of them are much simpler than similar ideas held by him:
The goal of life should be to find yourself. True maturity means discovering or creating an identity for yourself.
The highest virtue is to be true to yourself (consider these song titles from a generation ago: “I Gotta Be Me,” “I Did It My Way”).
When you fall ill, your body is trying to tell you something; listen to the wisdom of your body.
People who hate their bodies or are in tension with them need to learn how to accept and integrate their physical selves with their minds instead of seeing them as in tension with each other. The mind and body make up a single whole.
Athletes, musicians, etc. especially need to become so attuned to their bodies that their skills proceed spontaneously from the knowledge stored in their muscles and are not frustrated by an excess of conscious rational thought. (The influence of Zen Buddhism on this sort of thinking is also very strong.)
Sexuality is not the opposite of virtue, but a natural gift that needs to be developed and integrated into a healthy, rounded life.
Many people suffer from impaired self-esteem; they need to work on being proud of themselves.
Knowledge and strength are greater virtues than humility and submission.
Overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental health.
You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.
Life is short; experience it as intensely as you can or it is wasted.
People’s values are shaped by the cultures they live in; as society changes we need changed values.
Challenge yourself; don’t live passively.
It is notable that none of these ideas flows from the traditional Judeo-Christian culture which dominated Europe for a thousand years. Many of them have their roots in Romanticism, with Nietzsche merely articulating impulses that others shared; but he is a major transmitter of them to the modern world.”
It may be a little difficult to see Nietzsche in all of these popular ideas listed by Paul Brians but certainly he would have recognised himself in some – perhaps even in humming along with “My Way”.
So was Nietsche a Nazi? It seems to me that the most we can allege against him is that he was a herald of Nazism – perhaps even a facilitator of fascist thinking – in the same way that writers such as Shaw, Wells and Huxley were also precursors of the same kind of thinking. But it seems to me a pity that – whatever his shortcomings and his peculiarities as a man – that his name has become so closely associated with a political movement that he would probably have detested.