The myth of Friedrich Nietzsche as the godfather of Nazism was created by his sister Elizabeth – but is that the full story? SUNA ERDEM explores a century-old case of fake news
Friedrich Nietzsche is widely considered one of the greatest and most interesting philosophers of all time.
The 19th century German thinker challenged accepted moralities and even inspired the comic book hero Superman with his description of a heroic human ideal in his wacky book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He has now gained new currency in the postmodern world of ‘alternative facts’ for his persistent questioning of the idea of objective truths. Yet three quarters of a century ago, his name was mud. And if you believed much of what was written in those days about his unpleasant affinity with Nazism – and is written still – it was all allegedly because of a dose of alternative fact-making by his sister, Elizabeth Forster Nietzsche.
Scathing of the meek, an admirer of power and with his ‘blond beast’ description of the superman (probably referring to a lion), Nietzsche – who died in 1900 – was during the Second World War considered to be a prophet of National Socialism, inspiring the Nazi idea of the Aryan Master Race. An early friend of the famously anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, a Nazi favourite, Nietzsche was believed to have shared the composer’s racist views. In the wake of the war his books were not touched, particularly by Anglo-Saxons. PG Wodehouse included a reference in a Jeeves and Wooster story about Nietzsche being ‘unsound’.
I studied Nietzsche at university, and as I read his dense books and the fog began to lift, it seemed that he might not be quite as mad and bad as I had assumed on first taking him on. It was then that my tutor introduced me to Elizabeth, who had a very close relationship with the philosopher and kept house for him after their parents died.
However, as Nietzsche developed his ideas, the distance between the conservative and upright Elizabeth and her iconoclastic brother Friedrich began to grow – it was he, after all, who famously declared ‘God is Dead’, in an often misunderstood expression about the consequences of religious decline. His attacks on traditional Christian morality went against the grain for her and she was angered by his private life. Nietzsche, in his turn, was upset by her marriage to the anti-Semitic Bernard Förster, a committed German nationalist and eugenicist, who believed in the selective breeding of desirable people.
The Försters went off to Paraguay in 1887 to found a Utopian Aryan colony in the jungle. Nueva Germania was a disaster. Most of its Germanic inhabitants died of disease and hunger. Bernard Förster committed suicide two years later.
At the same time, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown. He gradually lost his faculties and when Elizabeth returned to Germany she cared for him and took charge of his estate. When he died she had full control of his literary and philosophical legacy. The works of the writer of seminal titles such as Beyond Good and Evil, The Antichrist, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, the creator of a bewildering array of oft-quoted aphorisms including ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger’ and ‘if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’, were hers to present as she liked.
According to many later 20th century scholars, Elizabeth then set to work, amending and editing Nietzsche’s output to give it a pre-Nazi spin, moulding it to fit her own anti-Semitic, racist ideology. She published Will to Power, a book filled with Nietzsche aphorisms that she had selected. They point to the fact that in the 1930s, National Socialists supported the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, which Elizabeth founded. When she died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral. Elizabeth has been blamed for adulterating and prostituting her brother’s thoughts for her own ends, making him a pariah for future right-thinking intellectuals.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the German-American philosopher, translator and poet Walther Kaufmann began to question the narrative that Nietzsche gave rise to Nazism, that the rehabilitation began. Soon Elizabeth was the pariah. The examination into her alleged wrongdoings continues to this day.
Publishing his Nietzsche Encyclopedia at the start of this decade, Christian Niemeyer, a psychologist and Nietzsche specialist from Dresden University, said he had catalogued an even longer list of falsifications by Elizabeth than previously thought.
Niemeyer maintained that Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche used ‘dirty tricks’ to hide Nietzsche’s hatred of leading anti-Semites and racists, and that she missed out more than 100 aphorisms that should have been in Will to Power, while most of the remainder were incorrect. He said that of 505 of her brother’s letters that Elizabeth had published in 1909, only 60 were original versions, and 32 were entirely made up. Elsewhere, he said Elizabeth removed comments by her brother criticising anti-Semitism and alluding to the Jews’ ‘spirit’.
‘Förster-Nietzsche did everything she could – such as telling stories about Nietzsche, writing false letters in the name of her brother, and so on – to make it seem that Nietzsche had been a right-wing thinker like herself,’ Niemeyer said at the time. ‘It was she who created the most destructive myth of all: Nietzsche as the godfather of fascism.’
So the man who gave us perspectivism – that much supposed truth depends on context and viewpoint – was skewered by his sister’s own perspectivism and spin? Through my now-retired tutor, I get in touch with Professor Robert Holub at Ohio State University, who has written widely on Nietzsche.
I wasn’t expecting his reply – to blow this theory out of the water. Holub claims that the idea that Elizabeth’s admittedly questionable interventions alone made her brother a Nazi darling was itself a kind of alternative fact. Like fake news nowadays, repetition by others made the concept widely acceptable and unquestioned.
‘I’m not defending Elizabeth,’ Holub says. ‘She wasn’t a nice person. But I don’t think she made her brother into a National Socialist – if you look at the record with a non-prejudicial view you see that … She probably got close to the Nazis in the same way that people now crowd around Trump – they were the ones in power. She actually belonged to a different far-right party. Her brother was apolitical.’
People conflate her bad editing and choices with a malign motive, Holub explains. In some letters, she includes his criticisms of anti-Semitism, and some of her omissions were simply negative references to herself.
A lot of detail about Will To Power in Nietzsche’s own writings corresponds with some of what was published posthumously. The toxifying of Elizabeth in the 1950s, he says, was so scholars could discuss Nietzsche without having to squirm. He needed to be made Salonfahig, suitable for refined literary salons, without the taint of Third Reich associations. Nietzsche was a complex character with strong, uncomfortable views on democracy, elitism and religion that were not palatable in the later 20th century. He valued Europeanism over nationalism and hated anti-Semites, but he was no liberal. There was a lot in his ironic, ambiguous and mischievous writings and ideas that Nazis could easily claim as their own, whatever he really meant. He is probably the most misunderstood and misappropriated writer ever. Feminists, socialists, communists, anarchists, libertarians have all claimed him at various times.
What is surely true is that it was Elizabeth’s efforts that helped spread her brother’s fame. The writer and journalist Ben Macintyre, who wrote a book about Elizabeth Nietzsche in the 1990s, said that her desire to nurture a man of genius led to her determination to try and turn her brother into a kind of cult. ‘Perhaps there would have been a Nietzsche cult without Elisabeth,’ he wrote. ‘But it would have been, I think, neither so popular nor so dubious without her remarkable talents for propaganda.’
We’ll never know what Nietzsche would have made of Nazism. The same goes for Nietzsche and Trump, who have been connected in numerous academic and mainstream articles trying to decide whether or not it’s all the 19th century German philosopher’s fault that we now have Donald Trump in charge of the free world. Still, while Nietzsche thought some truths were relative, he probably wouldn’t dispute the measurable size of an inauguration crowd.
‘Nietzsche was saying something that made sense in the 19th century,’ Holub fumes, reminding me that ideas current at the time included eugenics, space and matter, and Darwin. ‘To bring it into the realm of Donald Trump is a vulgar thing to do. Trump, who doesn’t think or read at all … How can you?’
Nevertheless, issues around truth, perspective and research touch a nerve today, when competing ‘facts’ appear online and opinions are formed on the basis of 140 characters or YouTube propaganda videos. So-called Islamic terror, destructive populism, Brexit – what might have been avoided if everybody did the research?
And as for Nietzsche, his sister and the Nazis – how appropriate that what people thought was the overturning of an original myth about Nietzsche might itself in fact be based in a myth.
In other words, the idea that Elizabeth was responsible for fake news about her brother was actually fake news. Possibly. Probably. Or something like that. It’s all about perspective, after all. Confused? You should be.
Suna Erdem is a freelance writer and journalist