A review of Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? by Jacob Golomb and Robert S. Wistrich, eds.

The editors say that Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be simplified, but that has happened periodically; and his work has been utilized by both conservatives and radicals. (It may be an irony that so accessible a writer requires interpreters.) Nietzsche’s high regard for superior natures, a spiritual aristocracy, and his critique of conventional morality, and tolerance of nihilism, made him suspect.

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett 

Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?
On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy
Jacob Golomb and Robert S. Wistrich, eds.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
341 pages. ISBN 0691007101

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is someone for whom words such as brilliant, disturbing, original, radical, and strange might have been coined. Reading his work helps one to make sense of all sorts of vague impressions and thoughts one may have been too afraid to think through. I always admired Nietzsche for his willingness to question everything; and to choose forms of culture and thought that were useful to him and his projects, something I imagine would be important to African-American thinkers and writers who have inherited various traditions, not all of which are helpful in fulfilling needs or achieving hopes. Nietzsche reminds me not only of the power philosophy has, but of the power of language: his language is one of forceful insight, of formidable style, of wit, of challenge and outrage, of nobility and spirituality. Nietzsche is very attractive; and he can be just as repellent. He was taken up during his life by French historian Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, Danish critic Georg Brandes (yes, Georg), and Swedish playwright August Strindberg, and after his death by Thomas Mann, Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, and Cornel West—and Hitler and Mussolini. I did an independent study course on Nietzsche many years ago in college and, in my lasting admiration for his criticality and wit, I was taken aback a few years ago when I mentioned him in the midst of a friendly conversation with an Asian studies professor and she described him as a founder of fascism—I didn’t know what she was talking about, but now Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? has made the root of her questionable assumptions clear to me.

Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?, a book with a grayish gold cover featuring a double or mirrored illustration of the middle-age Friedrich Nietzsche over which a pale red swastika is superimposed, is a collection of essays divided into two main parts, one devoted to theory and the other to practice. The essays focus on the dynamic, provocative thinking of Nietzsche, and how his ideas—including criticism of Socratic philosophy, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and democracy; and acceptance of conflict and unequal strength among men; and affirmation of radical individuality, spiritual power, and a re-evaluation of all values—have been adopted by other thinkers, activists, and national leaders. The essays are preceded by acknowledgements, a note on sources and abbreviations, a contributors list, and the editors’ introduction; and following the essays are a list of Nietzsche works referred to in the essays, and a bibliography of Nietzsche scholarship, and an index. The book’s participating scholars are located in Israel, the United States, Austria, and Germany, and they are: Jacob Golomb, Berel Lang, Wolfgang Muller-Lauter, Alexander Nehamas, Menahem Brinker, Yirmiyahu Yovel, Robert S. Wistrich, Daniel W. Conway, Stanley Corngold, Geoffrey Waite, Robert C. Holub, Mario Sznajder, David Ohana, Kurt Rudolf Fisher, and Roderick Stackelberg.

The book’s introduction by its editors, Jacob Golomb and Robert Wistrich, refers to Hitler’s visit to Nietzsche’s archives at the invitation of Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, the philosopher’s sister, who was known for editing and promoting his work, and for her marriage to a well-known anti-Semite and for emphasizing the inspiration Nietzsche’s work provided Germany’s national socialists, the Nazis. The Hitler visit seems to have been little more than a publicity event, though Mussolini was an actual reader of Nietzsche. The fascists in Germany and Italy used the philosopher to give their movement philosophical weight and cultural prestige. Thus, the purpose of the book is to examine how this was possible. “What was it in Nietzsche that attracted such a Nazi appropriation in the first place?” ask the editors (2).

The editors say that Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be simplified, but that has happened periodically; and his work has been utilized by both conservatives and radicals. (It may be an irony that so accessible a writer requires interpreters.) Nietzsche’s high regard for superior natures, a spiritual aristocracy, and his critique of conventional morality, and tolerance of nihilism, made him suspect. He did want a new kind of man to be born. George Lukacs, the Marxist theorist, saw him as an apologist for capitalist imperialism, and a carrier of irrationalism. Although taken up by nationalistic movements, Nietzsche did not like the nationalizing of philosophy and values (his subsequent critique of the revered German composer Richard Wagner was partly rooted in that dislike). Nietzsche has been accused of anti-Semitism and seen as a prototypical fascist, though his own views on Judaism were complicated, and he advanced no precise political program. He admired the independence and resources, and the cosmopolitan participation in European life, of Jews; and he thought Jews able to resist the impersonal tenor of much modern life. However, he identified Christianity and the elevation of the weak and the meek as ideas the Jewish religion gave birth to; and he saw the success of such beliefs in the world as the spiritual revenge of a people overwhelmed by social and military force. (The essays in the anthology can be dense with the determination to be clear, to be precise; and consequently writers do repeat facts, ideas, and quotes—and do not always avoid inelegant statements. There are also, alas, typos in the book.)

Jacob Golomb’s “How to De-Nazify Nietzsche’s Philosophical Anthropology?” discusses the distinction Nietzsche makes between primitive energy and its fulfillment, with the ideal being a form or discipline that would give shape to force; and Golomb argues that the Nazis misunderstood Nietzsche’s emphasis on force: Nietzsche believed in the strength to overcome—first of all, one’s own faults—and the Nazis misread Nietzsche’s affirmation of spiritual force as the advancing of physical or political might. Nietzsche was concerned with the standards and values individuals set for themselves; and his ideal did not rest on biological or racial distinctions, but spiritual character. Nietzsche anticipated the possibility of misinterpretation and fought it; but was responsible to a certain extent for the mis-readings that surrounded his work, according to Berel Lang, in “Misinterpretation as the Author’s Responsibility.” Nietzsche was accepting of authority and uninterested in democracy, but Lang does not see this as the equivalent of fascism, which many still find hard to define (other than specifying examples such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco). Pro-state, authoritarian, anti-democratic, warlike, and dedicated to the determinations of a concentrated will—comes fairly close to a definition, or at least a description of fascism. Lang notes that Hitler was more likely to cite Schopenhauer and Wagner as authorities, rather than Nietzsche; and Lang provides a quote from the Hitler-era German professor Ernst Krieck (the quote comes up several times in this anthology): “Apart from the fact that Nietzsche was not a socialist, not a nationalist, and opposed to racial thinking, he could have been a leading National Socialist thinker” (53).

Obviously, public perception can develop around a person, thing, or idea that has little or nothing to do with reality. An example of that is given by Wolfgang Muller-Lauter, who was a boy during the age of Hitler: Muller-Lauter was alienated by the uses to which Nietzsche’s name and work were then put. Praise be what makes hard was a Nietzsche phrase, a self-admonition not a social imposition, taken out of context, as Hitler wanted his own new man to be greyhound-agile, leather-rough, and steel-hard. The Nazis and Nietzsche both shared a high regard for mythology, but Nietzsche himself had recommended that his work be read slowly, deeply, cautiously; and it wasn’t until decades later, around 1962, that Muller-Lauter, as a professor, read and discovered Nietzsche for himself—seeing not a forbidding system but an experimental, subjective, fragmentary, searching discourse that included a regard for pre-Socratic philosophers, the European Renaissance, and approving comments about Jews. (Muller-Lauter notes that there is a questioning Nietzsche and a judgmental Nietzsche.) Nietzsche’s philosophy, Muller-Lauter concludes, allows for various interpretations, various possibilities, for both good and evil.

Noble souls act nobly. “Nobility of soul and nobility of action cannot therefore be separated from one another. Though it is very difficult to say what that is, noble actions must be of a certain kind: they are contrary to those that betray…its lack and they must be importantly different from the actions that are common in one’s world,” says Alexander Nehamas in “Nietzsche and ‘Hitler’” (94-95), an essay that examines the prospect of an evil hero. Is it possible to be different, or to make a difference, and be unnoticed? Making a difference is one of the requirements for being a hero, posits Nehamas, who concludes that in refusing to reject the possibility of an evil hero, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not entirely admirable.

It may be that an omniscience is asked of Nietzsche that no honest writer would even pretend to provide; and that this request also denies the free will of others, as we do not have to not take any philosopher’s work as our instruction manual. Human, we think, we choose, we change. Nietzsche’s early social milieu in Germany was marked by anti-Semitism, which he moved away from personally and philosophically (a close friend was the psychologically astute intellectual Paul Ree, a Jewish man). Nietzsche made a distinction between ancient and contemporary Jews, notes Menahem Brinker in “Nietzsche and the Jews.” Nietzsche rejected the composer Richard Wagner’s crude anti-Semitism—Wagner wrote and published Judaism in Music, which encouraged the speaking out of prejudices against Jews (hate speech). Nietzsche also rejected romanticism and nationalism, which his former hero and mentor Wagner personified. Nietzsche, preferring individuality of taste and musical lightness, rejected Wagner’s preoccupation with his audience, his vain self-image, and his use in music of an infinite melody that seemed falsely sublime, writes Yirmiyahu Yovel in “Nietzsche Contra Wagner on the Jews.” Whether Wagner’s actual work contains fascist elements is not conclusive; music is even less literal than philosophy. (“By the time Nietzsche published his Human, All Too Human, 1878, he had come to the conclusion that Wagner—the extroverted, conquering all-Germanic hero—was nothing but a lamentable decadent ready to crawl on his knees before the Cross, while still clinging to his dark Teutonic gods” (150), writes Robert Wistrich in “The Cross and the Swastika.” Nietzsche saw Wagner’s work as unhealthy; as brutal, hysterical, and morbid; as repulsive.)

The first essay in part two, the section devoted to practice, Daniel Conway’s “Ecce Caesar: Nietzsche’s Imperial Aspirations,” discusses Nietzsche’s concern with the real effects of philosophy on the individual spirit and in the world; and of course it is practice that has the potential to make almost any philosophy controversial. (Philosophy, then, is no longer abstract.) While Nietzsche may have wanted Germany to develop in certain ways, as an exemplary state, he wished for a culturally unified Europe, while seeing the inclination to create political empires as an aspect of decadence. Arguably, culture is the form that corresponds to the spirit whereas the state is the protector and regulator of bodies; and Nietzsche, who sometimes idealized the philosopher as an amoral lawgiver, saw culture and state as interdependent antagonists. Conway speculates that some of Nietzsche’s ideas that may seem like anti-Semitism are actually intended to mock anti-Semites (ironic extremism, an inversion of values—and reading Conway I thought of Oscar Wilde, another witty but serious thinker whose views were often the opposite of conventional reasons and conventional prejudices). Conway suggests that Nietzsche, whose imperial ambitions seem anachronistic and nostalgic, both admired and feared the Jews as an alternative power, a power of spirit, thought, and values; and for their unmanageability by others; and as a force nearly more mythic than human. (Sometimes African-Americans in the U.S. have been used as Jews were sometimes used—as cultural resource, as spiritual conscience, as other. The hard question is whether it’s possible to be as compelling a spiritual presence if one gives up the religious morality Nietzsche—and I—dislike.)

It is Nietzsche’s rhetoric and style that allow for diverse interpretations, several essayists agree. His work has a poetic power, and as with the woman-tormented poet Holderlin (1770-1843), Nietzsche was regarded by many Germans as a herald of national greatness, states Stanley Corngold and Geoffrey Waite in their essay, “A Question of Responsibility: Nietzsche with Holderlin at War, 1914-1946.” It’s said that Holderlin and Nietzsche shared longing, rage, and desire for a greater Germany, a Germany of world-historical importance. Thus, one sees in one place Nietzsche is for nationalism and in another against it—seen as too French, too anti-German, too pro-Jewish; and in one place Nietzsche is seen as for individuality and in another against it—depending on the reader, the viewer. Nietzsche and Holderlin, who died a year before Nietzsche was born, were two genuine culture heroes put to questionable use, as Hitler also used the military, the church, the schools, and other artists and thinkers for his own objectives. (It would have been interesting to know what else in Holderlin’s work the Germans had loved. After the German defeat at Stalingrad, when Germany could see it would likely lose the second world war, German pessimism connected with the theme of death in Holderlin’s work.)

Nietzsche’s values could be placed in various contexts with various resonances. During the first world war, a special edition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra had been disseminated to 150,000 German soldiers; and in the second world war it was referenced even more by the German military. His sister, an enthusiast for fascism and an anti-Semite whose funeral Hitler would attend, had edited Nietzsche’s letters to convey a false sense of the intimacy between brother and sister, and she pulled together Nietzsche’s notes to create a manuscript, The Will to Power. (Reading about her, she seemed to me a classically bad editor—willful, distorting, dishonest, insensitive, and market-driven.) However, Robert Holub (“The Elisabeth Legend”) argues that her responsibility for the perception of Nietzsche’s connection to fascism has been exaggerated; and that she published letters that clearly show political disagreements between her and her brother and that she acknowledged he wasn’t an anti-Semite. It seems that rather than originate things in Nietzsche’s work that interested the Nazis, she emphasized what was already there that would interest them.

An even more direct line exists between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Mussolini, as the Italian leader actually read and revered Nietzsche (and he sympathized with Nietzsche’s loneliness, with Nietzsche’s self-publishing, and the lack of welcoming reviews of Nietzsche’s work, something that makes Mussolini more human—at least to a writer). It was however Gabriele D’Annunzio who was the significant interpreter of Nietzsche in Italy (D’Annunzio also attacked the French revolution for eliminating the natural differences between people). D’Annunzio, like Mussolini, agreed with Nietzsche’s idea of life as art, of the possibility of living dangerously; and D’Annunzio saw Mussolini as a modern Italian hero, recalls “Nietzsche, Mussolini, and Italian Fascism” by Mario Sznajder. (That Nietzsche admired ancient Rome and was known to have toured Italy in 1876 and 1889 couldn’t have hurt. Nietzsche had thought men of the Renaissance were superior types; and D’Annunzio agreed.) Nietzsche, who argued against guilt, resentment, and critiqued eternal ideas, had an appeal for admirers of a tenacious modernity. Mussolini advanced the idea of the solidarity of the strong, something that would limit the exercise of individual will. Nietzsche’s influence seems philosophical—in terms of abstract values, in terms of a call to the spirit—rather than political or practical.

Of course it is that suggestive, ambiguous philosophy that makes it possible for Nietzsche to appeal to both conservatives and radicals. Nietzsche looked at the undersideof philosophy, and also saw the secular in the sacred, says David Ohana, before going on to discuss Ernst Junger (1895-1998), an adventurer, military man, and thinker, an existential nationalist, whose thinking was modeled on Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power, and whose own preoccupations were for industry and the army. Junger thought Germany failed in the second world war because it wasn’t totally mobilized, a rather frightening thought—could the country have been more mobilized?

It is possible to see Nietzsche as a radical egoist, a critic of the bourgeoisie, and a philosopher, a philosopher who criticized common morality and thought science made new experiments possible. Then, Nazism can be seen as an experiment of philosophy, according Kurt Fischer’s “A Godfather Too.” Fischer thinks some people have interpreted Nietzsche so that the more bruising aspects of his thought seem peripheral, leaving an essentially humanist Nietzsche on the page, on the public stage, but that Nietzsche’s philosophy actually made everything thinkable, including atrocity. Roderick Stackelberg also points out the artificiality of establishing an essential Nietzsche. Whereas Ernst Junger thought Germany wasn’t mobilized enough during the second world war, Ernst Nolte wanted to see the Nazi period and Jewish holocaust absorbed by history, and no longer of singular terribleness (is it incorrect to point out how alike these two Ernsts are?). Nolte, says Stackelberg, saw German aggression as justified in face of the communist threat, and as an embodiment of a European response; and said Nazi anti-Semitism was part of being anti-liberal. Nolte used Nietzsche’s desire for the destruction of decadent forms as a justification of murder.

I think symbolism in literature or philosophy is reverberating, an expansion of meaning; but symbolism in life, such as turning people into symbols, is typically a reification of thought, rigid thinking, the narrowing of meaning.

Nietzsche’s philosophy—it can be said to embody a crisis of values after the death of god—and Nietzsche’s critique of progress hampers the political arguments of both conservatives and radicals, and, says Stackelberg, his “failure to provide concrete social analysis renders futile efforts to pin down his substantive political position” (315).

Reading Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? did not convince me that Nietzsche began or encouraged fascism, only that his own words were used by fascists—and words are instruments that can be used for good or ill, just as a knife can be used to trim thorns from a rose, to spread butter on bread, or to cut a man’s throat.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Changing Men, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.