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Friday, June 10, 2005

Nietzsche, again

LI received a letter the other day wishing us good luck on our Nietzsche postings, but warning us that we were probably on a fool’s errand. Maybe so. Still, it does seem to us that the controversy about Nietzsche and fascism makes a strange detour around the arguments of the fascists themselves, and this is something we’d like to correct. And we’d like to correct it using one of Nietzsche’s own habitual methods: the question, for us, is what problems faced a philosopher who wanted to make Nietzsche into a proto-Nazi? And, a companion question, what benefit did Nietzsche bring to Nazism?

In Lehmann’s intro, one of the problems that has to be dealt with is that Nietzsche happens to have been multiply claimed between 1890 and 1933. Here’s the way Lehnmann states the problem:

It is not the year 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death, that is decisive in bringing to a close the mental reality that we call the 19th century. It was only 1914 that decisively pushed that reality into the past. And if we say that we are closest to Nietzsche not only of all his contemporaries, but among all German thinkers of the past, we meant that his will and his greatness only became visible through the experience of the first world war.

This is how we understand the curious fact that more than a quarter century of Nietzsche scholarship has not succeeded in bringing the philosophy of this thinker out into the open. A writer of such wonderful clarity and transparency of language, who has spoken so often and so extensively about his intentions and tasks – does it require a particular interpretation and the instrument of interpretation, “philology”, in order to grasp his fundamental concepts? Just this, that each person who reads Nietzsche thinks that he is the master of his thought, was the cause of the misunderstanding of his philosophy.”

What is behind Lehmann’s time scheme?

We are all familiar with the pictures and trivia – the picture of Hitler at Nietzsche’s house, posing with a simpering, aged Elizabeth; Hitler sending Nietzsche’s collected works to Mussolini as a present sealing the Axis pact; etc., etc. Those scenes, and their precedent in the work of people like Lehmann, succeeded in one crucial aspect: they pretty much sealed the relation between Nietzsche and fascism, driving out rival claims. But it gives us a very skewed picture of Nietzsche’s reception to think that only the fascists claimed Nietzsche at this time. In fact, the Goethe-kultur of the German speaking countries had absorbed Nietzsche as the last German classic long before then. We know about the effect Nietzsche had on the modernist generation between 1890 and 1914 (which Lehmann denigrates, following, in this, Nazi policy): the influence on Gide, on Svevo, on Shaw, on Barres, on Hamsum, on Hesse, on Mann, on Musil – it is hard to find a writer from that time who hadn’t some opinion of Nietzsche. Or several, over the course of a lifetime – Musil and Mann are notable in this respect. There was also the influence on Jewish culture – in this period, Nietzsche was considered, as Otto Weiniger puts it somewhere, a “philo-Semite.” Martin Buber translated Zarathustra into Polish. The greatest Jewish philosopher, perhaps, of the twentieth century, Franz Rosenzweig, built Der Stern der Erloesung partly out of his struggle with N. But less noted is the political claiming of Nietzsche. The liberal-social democratic party in Germany was particularly attracted to Nietzsche. The German politician who first declared himself Nietzsche’s follower was not Hitler, but Hitler’s antithesis, Walter Rathenau, who was assassinated in 1922, after Rapello. In Nazi eyes, Rathenau was an ideal devil: a rich, liberal, Jewish industrialist associated with that government party that surrendered in 1918 – which is surely not the effect Lehmann wants to emphasize. In a polemic with Sloterdjik over Nietzsche, (the Right Nietzsche in the belly of a left Trojan Horse) Detlef Hartman claims that Nietzsche work was the “most radical driver’ behind the Taylor-Fordist regime advocated by Rathenau, Weber and Schumpeter – that indeed, the idea of ‘creative destruction” has a Nietzschian geneology.

Tucholsky made fun of the overuse of Nietzsche, in this period. Like a lot of the Vienna spirits, Tucholsky went from admiring Nietzsche to comparing him, unfavorably, with Schopenhauer:

“Tell me what you need, and I will find a Nietzsche quote for you. With Schopenhauer, this isn’t so easy. With Nietzsche? Pro Germany and anti-German. For peace and against peace. For literature and against literature. Whatever you like.”

In that atmosphere, the first and most successful Nazi move was to clear out rivals.

I am not, by the way, making an exculpatory argument – or not yet. There is a newspaper logic that goes like this: x says that the world is round, and y says that the world is flat. So the truth must be in the middle – the world is shaped like a Frisbee. That’s the very definition, to me, of what Nietzsche called herd thinking. Because many sides claimed Nietzsche doesn’t mean one side was not correct. While I think Nietzsche’s thinking contains a good many themes that allow one to see the belligerance, nationalism, and worship of power of the fascists as symptoms of nihilism, I also think there are plenty of footholds in Nietzsche lending themselves to a rightwing reading. There is a line of thought that says, the Nazis misunderstood Nietzsche – and fundamentally I agree with that. But they also understood things about Nietzsche. The hagiographic approach to Nietzsche, criticized by T.V., is all about avoiding those things. So the question is, pace Tucholsky, – did the Nazi editing of Nietzsche have internal textual and conceptual support from the man who wrote, in the Antichrist: ‘The weak and misbegotten shall be driven to extinction. This is the first law of our love of humanity. And one should give them a helping hand”? A sentence over which, as Nietzsche might have put it, a Verhaengniss hangs.

More, hopefully, tomorrow.

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