Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nietzsche and Nazism

On Times Online, Ben McIntyre seeks to cleanse Nietzsche of the posthumous stain of Nazism:

Two gravestones stand side by side in the churchyard of the little village of Röcken, south of Leipzig: one belongs to Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the greatest and most misunderstood philosophers; the other marks the grave of his sister Elisabeth, a lifelong anti-Semite who hijacked her brother's writings after his death and used them to serve the cause of Nazism, leaving a stain on his philosophy that has never been fully erased.

Today, bulldozers belonging to a power company are preparing to dig up the town where Nietzsche and his sister were born and buried, to get at the seam of coal that runs beneath. Nietzsche and his sister may have to move. His followers are enraged; villagers say exhuming their famous son would be sacrilege; environmentalists, quoting Nietzsche's epithet “Be true to the soil”, wonder why yet more coal is being excavated to poison the world's atmosphere. I would be delighted to see Nietzsche dug up, if only for the symbolic opportunity to rescue him from the clutches of his appalling sister.

Before insanity struck him down in 1889, at the age of 44, Nietzsche lived in fear of being misunderstood. “Above all,” he wrote in Ecce Homo, “do not mistake me for someone else.” He was a conservative elitist, an aphorist of brilliance championing individual greatness in the midst of mediocrity. His writing is explosive and apocalyptic, dense and complex, and often shocking in its violence.

But Nietzsche was no Nazi. He vigorously opposed German nationalism, as he rejected all mass movements; he had no time for ideologues, mocked the notion of a Teutonic master race and loathed anti-Semitism in all its forms.

This happens to coincide with a passage from a book I've just dipped into: Fascism: A History, by Roger Eatwell, one of the star historians of the various forms of that political movement. Eatwell acknowledges the Elisabeth Nietzsche/Bernard Forster problem, but doesn't think it's quite as simple as McIntyre makes it:

In adult life, Nietzsche journeyed from ivory tour academic to ailing grand tourist. It is highly doubtful whether he would have felt any affinity with the working-class, unintellectual side of "proletaryan" Nazism. Many have stressed that Nietzsche criticized German nationalism and biological theories of race, but this argument needs probing more carefully. Nietzsche's critique of German nationalism was essentially twofold. First, he believed that it was diverting attention from more general European problems, especially the rise of decadence. Second and related to this first point, he saw modern German culture as too materialist, too philistine. But this did not mean that there was nothing about Germany that Nietzsche admired. He had a great respect for Frederick the Great and celebrated a more ancestral, heroic German spirit. Nor was his thinking completely opposed to racism. Central to his beliefs was a desire to save Europe from decadence and from the threat of newer and more virile nations. Ultimately, it is impossible to be sure how Nietzsche would have reacted to the development of the main fascist regimes. On balance, the evidence points to the idea that he would have opposed them -- though some who shared many of Nietzsche's views, for instance the major philosopher Martin Heidegger, were to support the Nazis on the grounds that they offered the best vehicle for creating a new world.

The main difference between Nietzsche's philosophy and fascism was not so much nationalism or racism as his pessimistic view of the possibilities of imminent change.

Eatwell points out that Nietzsche's conservatism, as well as the inspiration in Nietzsche conservatives have historically found, underscore the silliness of measuring fascism on a right-left spectrum. It's most likely his elitism and pessimism about the prospects of revolutionary action that would have distanced Nietzsche from the Nazis. In turn, people like Jonah Goldberg are absurd (and cynical) to try to link fascism to liberalism, but its particular incompatibility with Nietzsche underscores the "progressive" nature of what the Nazis envisioned.

The Eatwell excerpt is found on page 12 of the 1995 Penguin softcover edition.