Nietzsche and the Third Reich: Max Whyte on the Nazified Nietzsche

Max Whyte
Max Whyte

On January 30th, Max Whyte, Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, gave a lecture at ECLA entitled “Nietzsche and the Third Reich”, in which he presented and analyzed some of the ways in which Nietzsche’s philosophy was used for the political purposes of the German National Socialists.

From the very beginning, the lecturer stated his position: it is an exaggeration to conclude that Nietzsche’s appropriation proves that the ideologists of Nazism were completely “ignorant of and wrong about” the nature of Nietzsche’s beliefs, but it is necessary to compare the phases and process of this appropriation with the content and form of Nietzsche’s thought, in order to differentiate the “Nazified Nietzsche” from the philosopher’s other guises.

 The lecture was structured around four main themes, corresponding to stages of Nietzsche’s Nazification: 1) the identification of Nietzsche as a political resource; 2) the legitimization of this approach (facilitated by earlier phases of appropriation ); 3) confrontation (internal disputes over the meaning and strategic use-value of the philosopher’s work); 4) indoctrination (Nietzsche as “an article of official indoctrination”).

Providing a short outline of the phases of the philosopher’s work (early, middle and late periods), Whyte emphasized that it was especially the late period (the period which produced the concept of the will to power and of the Übermensch, 1882-1889) which attracted the Nazi ideologists. They avoided the more ambiguous, “free spirit” phase (middle period, 1878-1881), which was less compatible with their premises.

A veritable “gold-mine of possibilities,” in the words of Steven Aschheim, Nietzsche’s work remained ambiguous and protean in the public mind up until the First World War. After that, the philosopher came to be regarded not only as a “friend of war”, but also as a herald of the great change that was awaited by European civilization and society. These became common themes in the works of, as The Times of London referred to them, Nietzsche’s “conscious and unconscious followers.”

The philosopher’s sister and virulent Nazi supporter, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, made an important contribution to the history of Nietzsche’s adoption by the Nazis. From the early years of the Weimar Republic, Nietzsche’s ideas were used in support of nationalism.

Influential figures like Thomas Mann emphasized the German-ness and manliness of Nietzsche, while Ernst Bertram compared him with Dürer’s knight, unswervingly pursuing the Holy Grail of spiritual salvation. A Heraclitean view of Nietzsche, drawing upon a vision of the world as site of endless becoming and conflict, brought heroic features into the foreground; Ernst Jünger’s “heroic realism” has a kinship with this tendency.

An agonistic image is created through references to Nietzsche’s 1872 essay “Homer’s contest”. In his lectures on Nietzsche, Heidegger evoked such an image (although Heidegger’s attitude, as a whole, is more ambiguous).

In 1930, with the publication by Alfred Bäumler (one of the most influential academic philosophers in Nazi Germany) of the book Nietzsche, The Philosopher and the Politician, the Nazification of Nietzsche became official. In 1941, advocating the birth of a “new Europe,” Goebbels quotes Thus spoke Zarathustra without attribution.

Moving on to the phase of confrontation, Max Whyte pointed out some of instances in which, contrary to the general contemporary trend, Nietzsche’s thought was considered incompatible with Nazi ideology (among the detractors were the Nazi Wagnerians, who “never forgave” Nietzsche for abandoning Wagnerianism).

In some cases, for instance, the critique offered by the educator Ernst Krieck, Nietzsche’s philosophy was condemned as elitist, individualist, and antithetical (particularly in its attitude towards Jews) to Nazi racial thinking.

However, these objections did not hinder the progress of Nietzsche’s appropriation, and his figure was invoked in the mass communication programme of the regime. Cheap editions of key texts were printed and Thus spoke Zarathustra took its honourable place next to Mein Kampf in the vault of the Tannenberg Memorial.

Hitler visited the Nietzsche archive, to the delight of its founder Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. In a famous photograph, Hitler is said to symbolically “subject” Nietzsche (his bust, in the photograph) to his own views. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Nietzsche was seen as a guiding and inspiring figure in the war against communism as well as the visionary prophet of a new Europe.

The celebration, in 1944 at the Archives in Weimar, of the hundredth anniversary of Nietzsche’s birth, while in the background of a profound crisis, confirms his influence and his aura.

On this occasion, Alfred Rosenberg, one of the key political figures of the National Socialist regime, produced a speech in which Nietzsche is said to represent, among many other things, the guiding answer to the question of whether human greatness is still possible. On the occasion of the centenary, Mussolini sent a statue of Dionysus to the Archives as a symbolic gift.

Having reviewed the main themes and dynamics of Nietzsche’s appropriation by Nazism, Max Whyte emphasized the need to critically consider the details of this process, without automatically rejecting the Nazified Nietzsche as a false invention with no basis in the philosopher’s preoccupations and claims.

by Aurelia Cojocaru (2nd year BA, Moldova)

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