Nietzsche – between Good and Evil
Chapter and verse on his anti-Semitism
Was Friedrich Nietzsche anti-Semitic? In Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, Robert C Holub shows that resolving this question requires painstaking analysis of his thought, both published and unpublished, likewise of his correspondence. It also demands an understanding of the milieu in which he lived and of how conceptions of anti-Semitism have changed over time. In this context, The Socialism of Fools?, by William I Brustein and Louisa Roberts, provides invaluable material.
There were probably no Jewish inhabitants either in Röcken, Saxony, where Nietzsche was born in 1844 or in Naumburg to which his family removed in 1850. Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche recalled that neither she nor her brother met any Jews during their early years. Not surprisingly, then, there are no references to Jews or Judaism in his notebooks at this time or in his correspondence prior to first attending the University of Bonn in 1864 or during the year that he resided there.
In 1865, Nietzsche registered at Leipzig University as a student of classical philology. In the same year he visited Berlin with fellow student Hermann Mushacke whose father Eduard was openly anti-Semitic. This evidently did not bother Friedrich and the two became instant friends. He also tolerated anti-Jewish statements by fellow students, Carl von Gersdorff and Erwin Rohde. Gersdorff, for one, accused “Stock market Jews” of fomenting wars and of benefitting financially from them. (Brustein and Roberts note that, in due course, Henri Rochefort, editor of L’Intransigeant, would blame the Jews for the Franco-Prussian War and for the reparations afterwards. And J A Hobson, likewise, in Imperialism, would attribute the Boer War to the influence of “men of a single and peculiar race”). Nietzsche himself made deprecatory observations about the Jewish merchants participating in the Leipzig trade fairs. To his mother he writes that he will soon be relieved “of the smell of fat and the numerous Jews”.
Richard Wagner is not responsible for Nietzsche’s negative view of the Jews because as Professor Holub demonstrates, well before he first met Wagner in late 1868, Nietzsche had already acquired the prejudices “of a noxious German Judeophobia”, which he never really relinquished. Indeed, Richard and Cosima Wagner arguably exerted a restraining influence on Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism! Brustein and Roberts show just how prevalent such prejudices were at this time, profoundly influencing the socialist movement. Thus, in 1894, Jean Jaurès was expelled from the French National Assembly after he criticised the government for not supporting a death sentence for Alfred Dreyfus. Like Édouard Drumont, the author of La France juive, Jaurès was convinced at this juncture that rich Jewish financiers (les tripotages cosmopolites) controlled France and were protecting Dreyfus, their co-religionist. Jaurès cited approvingly Marx’ 1844 essay On the Jewish Question. Brustein and Roberts opine that this latter text “articulated … hostility toward Jews that can be described as anticapitalist”. Over time, Jaurès’ position on this issue evolved as anti-Semitism became predominantly the preserve of the radical right, although he remained deeply ambivalent about the Jews.
In his opening chapter, “The Rise and Fall of Nietzschean Anti-Semitism”, Professor Holub records that Theodor Fritsch, editor of the Anti-Semitic Correspondence, contacted Nietzsche in the late 1880’s. Fritsch incorrectly inferred that, because he was associated with Wagner and because his brother in law was Bernard Förster, an initiator of the Anti-Semitic Petition of 1880, Nietzsche was himself a potential recruit for the cause. But as Eugen Dühring* subsequently observed, Nietzsche eventually disowned Wagner and he repeatedly repudiated anti-Semitism qua political movement. Indeed, Dühring’s disciple Ernst Jünemann even suggested that Nietzsche had Jewish ancestry and attributed his eventual fame to Jewish control of the press.
Nietzsche was not a systematic thinker, so his thought is eminently open to diverse interpretations. “Who cannot claim Nietzsche for their own?”, as the Weimar satirist Kurt Tucholsky demanded. So we have Nietzsche the precursor of anarchism and of fascism, even of socialism. Later, again, we have Nietzsche the existentialist and cosmopolitan. We also have Nietzsche the anti-Semite but also the anti anti-Semite! And Professor Holub proposes yet another Nietzsche – the disciple of Galton who regarded the Jews as highly selected and who advocated their intermarriage with the Junkers.
During the Great War, Also sprach Zarathustra was distributed to the German troops. Its author was appropriated by völkisch and militarist elements, who cherry picked apposite items from Nietzsche’s texts, especially from the posthumously published The Will to Power (1901,1906). This process reached its apogee during the late Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. In Nietzsche the Philosopher and Politician (1931), philosopher Alfred Baeumler, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, claimed that Nietzsche “In his innermost being was disinclined towards the Jews…” Baeumler subsequently maintained that Nietzsche had anticipated the National Socialist state. He ignored the inconvenient fact that Nietzsche had several Jewish disciples, notably Georg Brandes, Paul Rée and the Pernerstorfer Circle in Vienna, and he played down or “contextualised” his numerous anti-German utterances.
The notions of the supposed decadence of “Jewish values” and of the slave morality were central to what Holub calls Nietzsche’s “Nazi appropriation”. Indeed, in Nietzsche (1941), Harvard historian Crane Brinton agreed with Nazi exegetes such as Heinrich Härtle that Nietzsche had considered the Jews as decadents and parasites and as ultimately responsible for Christianity, democracy and Marxism.
After the Second World War, however, a process of sanitation or “decontamination” of the thinker’s reputation ensued. Here, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, whose funeral in 1935 was attended by Hitler, no less, served as a useful alibi or scapegoat. For Richard Roos, Elizabeth was “la soeur abusive”.
Other influential commentators, including Walter Kaufmann and R J Hollingdale (citing the research of Karl Schlechta in the Nietzsche archives) noted that Elizabeth had falsified certain texts and letters. They claimed that by publishing writings never authorised by him and by withholding certain others, she had falsely associated her brother with Nazism. Yet Professor Holub points out that Elizabeth had welcomed commentaries on her brother’s writings by Jewish exegetes and that she criticised Hitler’s harsh policy towards the Jews. Indeed, Holub suspects that Friedrich only opposed the anti-Semitic movement in Germany because in 1886, Bernard Förster had taken his beloved “Llama” away to Paraguay, where he attempted to found a racially pure German colony, Nueva Germania.
Neither of these impeccably researched volumes will be the last word on these convoluted issues. But they will surely be the starting point for any subsequent analysis.
*Author of The Jewish Question as a Question of Racial Noxiousness for the Existence, Morals and Culture of Nations, 1880
Robert C Holub, Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem; between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, Princeton University Press, 2016, hb, pp 271
William I Brustein & Louisa Roberts, The Socialism of Fools? Leftist Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism, Cambridge University Press, 2015, hb, pp 211
Reviewed by Leslie Jones
Dr Leslie Jones is the editor of Quarterly Review