Was Nietzsche Hitler’s Spiritual Godfather?

The link between the German philosopher and Nazism

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Edvard Munch's 1906 portrait “Friedrich Nietzsche.”
Edvard Munch's 1906 portrait “Friedrich Nietzsche.” Credit: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Phot
Jacob Golomb
Jacob Golomb

I became a scholar of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche thanks to the late Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel – and just when Nietzsche’s status was at its lowest point. The Nazi “storm troopers of the pen” had given him the dubious honor of being Hitler’s spiritual godfather. Prof. Yovel and I were in agreement in our interpretation of the German philosopher’s ideas as both philo-Semitic and antimilitaristic. The two of us agreed that the ironic saying that “a German philo-Semite is just an anti-Semite who likes Jews” did not at all apply to Nietzsche.

As my doctoral advisor, Yovel would warn me not to write as a foolish disciple of Nietzsche, but rather to keep a healthy distance from him. It was classic Nietzschean advice, because a true Nietzschean is a person who leaves his teacher and goes off on his own path – or, in the language of Zarathustra to his students: “Now do I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when ye have all denied me, will I return unto you.”

Nietzsche referred to Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” – a treatise on a totalitarian state, which is seen as the only thing capable, with its great weight, of restraining the human tendency to violence and all-out war – as the “cold monster.” In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Nietzsche declares: “A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters.” Moreover, in his important work “On the Genealogy of Morality,” he describes the state as a “ghastly tyranny, a grinding ruthless piece of machinery.”

Given these and other similar statements, the question of course arises: What was it about Nietzsche that allowed the distoration of his works? Is there truly no smoke without fire?

Nazi interpreters of Nietzsche focused on his philosophical anthropology, which they tried to distort under the inspiration of Hitler. The Fuehrer searched for a spiritual authority to rely on, even though he had never read even a single word of Nietzsche; indeed, in “Mein Kampf” he mentioned only Schopenhauer, and that in passing. But the “philosophers” in the service of Hitler tried to twist the German thinker’s concept of anthropology and to adapt it to the procrustean bed of Auschwitz. That is why they interpreted the fundamental concept of Nietzsche’s “will to power” in materialistic terms only. By contrast, Nietzsche himself consistently used the words Kraft (force) and Gewalt (violence) to describe material forces.

In any event, it is appropriate here to quote the words of modern Hebrew writer Micha Josef Berdyczewski concerning the discrepancies in Nietzsche: “Nietzsche’s greatness is that he always contradicts himself, and usually he is right.”

When he spoke of “the will to power,” Nietzsche meant, in part, the spiritual growth and maturation that ensue from overcoming those same elements in our personalities and life stories that repress our abilities to create. “Power” to him meant the primal energy residing in every one of us – in other words, the energy found in the primitive and undefined state. The transition from force to power is, therefore, the movement from a state of feasibility to a state of fulfillment, from the potential of power to its very embodiment in the form of spiritual power.

This leads to the conclusion that Nietzsche’s distinction between force and power is based on his assumption that power is the realization of force by its refinement. The total, ultimate victory over force is achieved by the Übermensch (superman) when he succeeds in bringing himself to the state of “transfiguration of his existence.” In other words, the state of cleansing the raw force of all its primeval biological elements and its transition to a creative power.

A 1933 edition of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf."Credit: © Matthias Balk/dpa/Corbis

If so, how then did Nietzsche receive the dubious honor of being called Hitler’s godfather? I will answer this quandary by means of questions and answers.

1. Were Nazi tendencies attributed to Nietzsche?

It is impossible to deny that the Nazis enlisted Nietzsche for propaganda purposes and evil uses. But this picture is not unequivocal, because many of them did not see his thought as a tool that could be exploited on behalf of Nazi propaganda. For example, Ernst Krieck, one of the most influential of “Hitler’s professors,” who said sarcastically that, apart from the fact that Nietzsche was not a socialist, not a nationalist and was opposed to racist thinking – he could have been a leading National Socialist thinker. Most Nazis who thought like him were nonetheless enthusiastic about forcing some sort of systematic method upon Nietzsche’s unsystematic thinking, even though they recognized that many of its components did not suit their National Socialist ideology and even contradicted it.

By comparison, at the same time, a number of the greatest French intellectuals and philosophers (such as Georges Bataille, Jean Wahl, Pierre Klossowski, Emmanuel Levinas and others) gathered in Paris in January 1937 and published a special issue of the journal Acephale devoted to the topic “Réparation à Nietzsche” (roughly: “Correcting the Injustice to Nietzsche”).

In it they claimed Nietzsche’s thought had absolutely nothing at all in common with German Nazism. Similarly, such Jewish thinkers as Theodor Herzl, Hillel Zeitlin, Martin Buber, Yosef Haim Brenner, Ahad Ha’am, A. D. Gordon, Shaul Tchernichovsky and Ze’ev Jabotinsky did not see Nietzsche’s thought as an integral part of Nazism (in spite of their great personal sensitivity to the problem of anti-Semitism). If the majority of Nietzschean scholars in our day have also acquitted him of such accusations – then why are we inclined to listen to Nazi propaganda?

2. Was Nietzsche aware of the possibility that German nationalists might distort his thought in the future?

Definitely. Nietzsche anticipated that his works would eventually be misrepresented. Here is just one of many examples to support this claim: In “Beyond Good and Evil,” he wrote that his lofty views may sound like utterances of stupidity and under certain circumstances even as criminal, if they are taken without permission by ears that were not prepared nor meant to hear them. These words remind one of the brilliant saying: “A book is like a mirror: If an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”

3. Could Nietzsche have prevented the misrepresentation of his works?

Opinions are divided on this point. Some critics claim that Nietzsche himself was responsible for distortions of his thought and did not do enough to prevent exploitation of his work. Instead of using the term “superman,” for example, why didn’t he write, as one possibility, “a gifted figure with optimal positive power.” Or, as an alternative to the problematic metaphor of the “blond beast,” why didn’t he simply write “lion,” which in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” symbolizes a person who is able to overcome on his own the obstacles on the path to achieving personal freedom and authenticity. Instead of “the will to power,” it would have been better if he had written “desire for selfhood.” And so on.

Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1875.Credit: Friedrich Hartmann

Moreover, Nietzsche’s method of writing, which is unsystematic and fragmented, makes it easy to take things out of context, to the point where they can be turned into slogans and banners – which in their own right are capable of being twisted. There are thus a number of elements in Nietzsche’s thought that made the work easier for the Nazis.

But there is an additional issue here, one that touches upon the “moderate” and humanist interpretation of Nietzsche’s writings, which became widespread in the United States following World War II. According to this interpretation, to which I too am a partner, one of the central aims of Nietzsche’s thought was to serve as an educational tool to entice his readers to dare to forge their own selfhood in the style of true “free spirits.” Nietzsche never intended to bestow upon us information on the structure of the world or its meaning. He was less interested in changing our theoretical consciousness than in changing our way of life and our relationships to ourselves and our fellow man.

This existential purpose, which necessitates in return the arousal of a change in our character and life, clarifies the meaning of the provocative and pathos-laden poetic form in which Nietzsche wraps his message. This direct form, the sharp and polished aphorisms, the figurative language, the use of myths, and the bold appellations and slogans – all are intended to evoke our feelings in a process of change that Nietzsche seeks for himself and his readers. Against strong emotional needs, such as for redemption or faith, by the horns of the altar and the horn of plenty, he wages a battle of emotional manipulation that works on his readers by means of literature. In other words, he wants to help us redeem ourselves from our need for all types of redemption. For Nietzsche, post-modernism means erasing the ideologies that support one absolute or another.

In addition, his fragmentary style and thought are very appropriate for the nonconformist life views, which have no commitment to a concrete truth, and aren't burdened down by philosophical or metaphysical jargon that drowns you in the depths of the entity or the nothingness (as in the works of Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre). Instead, Nietzsche offers us “The Gay Science,” as one of his principal works is titled. In his eyes, nonbinding lightness could well aid in freeing us of the fundamentals inculcated in us by various teachers and schools, including the university, all of which are preoccupied – in his opinion – with bibliographical nonsense and, as it were, turning their students into “walking encyclopedias.”

This is the stage of the “camel” as per Nietzsche’s metaphorical language in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” The camel carries in its hump the very substance of education and its stipulations, and in order to reach the level of “free spirit,” a person must shake off, like a “lion,” the hump his teachers have burdened him with.

To summarize this point: If we demand from Nietzsche that he write in a considered, measured manner, free of any enticements that might upset our serenity, and if we demand systematic and unambiguous writing from him – it is as if we are demanding that he not be Nietzsche. But because Nietzsche insisted on remaining Nietzsche, despite his own fear that his thinking would be distorted, then in any case he becomes responsible for this distortion. In this sense, he has been brought to justice in the court of history.

4. Can one see Nietzsche as a harbinger of the Nazis?

To answer this question, I will use a working definition of the concept of Nazism, one that stands on two main principles: first, that the good of the country comes before the good of any individual citizen; and second, an assumption of natural and biological inequality between both individuals and nations.

As to the first principle, of the state as constituting the supreme purpose that obligates everyone to serve it as its tool – in all his works Nietzsche reiterated that the individual is the one who makes history and creates society – not the reverse. As a counterbalance to the weight of the Leviathan, in other words, to the physical-material might of the state, he always emphasized the importance of the spiritual power, the creativity and the freedom of every individual. For Nietzsche too, as for Jabotinsky, “every man is a king.” I will make do here with one especially characteristic quote.

In “Twilight of the Idols,” in the chapter called “What the Germans Lack” (and in Nietzsche’s opinion they were lacking quite a lot), he refers to the "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, writing: “One pays heavily for coming to power: power makes stupid…. [P]olitics swallows up all serious concern for really spiritual matters. 'Deutschland, Deutschland über alles' — I fear that was the end of German philosophy.”

As for the second principle, on the innate biological inequality between human beings: Without a doubt Nietzsche was an elitist – and he was even aware of it. But he sought to elevate the aristocracy of the spirit, not the aristocracy of blood and race. His superman is not some aggressive bully flying about with a cape and saving the world by cleansing it of negative characters. Only spiritual excellence can place a person at the tip of the ideal hierarchy Nietzsche wanted to realize. Ironically (from the Nazis’ viewpoint, of course), when Nietzsche talks about the “magnificent blond beast,” this term does not carry any racial or biological significance. Moreover, he represents a mixture of races and people, including even completely imaginary, mythical figures. The truth is that the only racist idea Nietzsche adopted dealt with the “mixing of the races,” which would guarantee (in his opinion) preservation of the European race that would emerge from the numerous mixed marriages between the “best of the European nobility” and its Jews. It seems to me that we must see in this a provocative attempt on Nietzsche’s part to taunt German anti-Semites, in particular Richard Wagner, with whom he ultimately cut ties, partly because of his racist anti-Semitism.

In summary: It is of course possible to burn books and authors (as the Nazis did), and it is possible too to burn people because of books (for example the Spanish Inquisition). But if it is justified to judge books according to the extent to which they are misused, then it would be proper to burn such texts such as the Bible, the Gospels and the Koran – and in so doing destroy Judeo-Christian and Muslim culture in its entirety. After all, a fire burns without differentiating between blood, race, nationality or faith. Will we let it rage freely?