Critique as Apologetics: Nolte's Interpretation of Nietzsche

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Critique as Apologetics: Nolte's Interpretation of Nietzsche

Postby admin » Thu Mar 22, 2018 3:18 am

Critique as Apologetics: Nolte's Interpretation of Nietzsche
by Roderick Stackelberg
From "Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy," edited by Jacob Golomb and Robert S. Witrich
© 2002 by Princeton University Press



In his recent study of the political reception of Nietzsche in Germany, Steven Aschheim has warned (with particular reference to Walter Kaufmann) against the kind of intellectual history that tries to discredit particular interpretations of Nietzsche by constructing an essential Nietzsche from which the interpretation in question deviates. Such an essentialist approach, which renders Nietzsche's legacy "either as a record of deviation from, or as faithful representation of, a prior interpretative construction of the 'real' Nietzsche," cannot do justice to the dynamic diversity of Nietzsche's actual influence, nor does it illuminate the actual processes through which Nietzsche historically has been appropriated. [1] In the postmodernist view, Nietzsche's philosophy cannot yield a single definitive interpretation. Viewed through different lenses, Nietzschean texts will always take on a multiplicity of meanings. The critical issue for Aschheim is not to pin down what Nietzsche "really" means, but rather to map the ways he has been received and used. It does not get us very far, Aschheim warns, to convict the Nazis of misusing Nietzsche (although he does concede the usefulness of exposing deliberate distortions such as Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche's erasures and forgeries), because Nietzsche did indisputably serve as a source of inspiration for many Nazis. What needs to be explained is why this was the case and why the Nazis were so easily able to exploit Nietzsche's philosophy for their purposes.

Although he acknowledges that no unmediated, causally direct relationship between Nietzsche and Nazism can be demonstrated, Aschheim finds that Nietzsche remains relevant as a

key to explaining national socialism's attraction to the outmost limits, its arrival at a grotesque novum of human experience .... The perception ... persists that its historical significance resided in its unprecedented transvaluations and boundary-breaking extremities and its emphases on destruction and violent regeneration, health and disease. Nazism in this sense continues to be regarded by many as a politics - however debased and selectively mediated-wrought in the "Great" Nietzschean mode. [2]

Aschheim cites with approval the thesis of the controversial German historian Ernst Nolte that Nietzsche was the progenitor of the concept of extermination that the Nazis put into practice. Although he is critical of Nolte's evasive language and apologetic agenda, Aschheim finds Nolte's interpretation useful in explaining the important function that Nietzsche served in Nazi ideology, especially after 1933: "Nietzsche's positive quest for life affirmation is linked to his call for the brutal destruction of those life-denying, emancipatory forms responsible for the prevailing decadence and decline of vitality." [3]

There is no doubt that many Nazis derived inspiration from Nietzsche, no matter how much they might be proven wrong about Nietzsche's intentions. At the same time, it should be noted both that a surprising number of Nazis remained skeptical of Nietzsche's purposes [4] and that many anti-Nazis also drew strength and inspiration from Nietzsche's works. The function of Nietzschean texts is not dissimilar to that of the Bible or other religious scriptures, which have also served throughout history to inspire a great variety of actions and beliefs. Aschheim fails to point out, however, that Nolte's approach is far more essentialist than that of critics like Kaufmann, who deny the legitimacy of linking Nietzsche with the Nazis. Nolte's interpretation of Nietzsche is based on an intuition of Nietzsche's "true" purpose and "world-historical" role, not on a close analysis of his works, nor on empirical investigations of the ways in which his works were mediated and received by the Nazis. Influenced by his former mentor Heidegger, Nolte approaches history as a philosopher, seeking not so much to describe historical events as to discern their "inner truths" or "higher truths." His phenomenological method seeks to understand the internal logic of historical actors and events and frees him from having to provide empirical proofs for his assertions and conjectures. [5]

Nolte's Historical Project

The purpose of Nolte's tetralogy on the history of modern ideologies [6] is to situate German National Socialism in the context of a European and eventually worldwide civil war precipitated by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. The apologetic possibilities inherent in this interpretative scheme emerged clearly in the Historikerstreit of 1986, in which Nolte deplored the fact that National Socialism had not yet taken its normal place alongside other past events in the public's historical memory. [7] As a passionate foe of the emancipatory movements of the 1960s and of "multiculturalism," Nolte blamed this lack of normalization on the special interest of feminists, pacifists, anti-imperialists, rebellious youth, and Holocaust victims and survivors in keeping alive the memory of Nazism as a uniquely immoral historical movement. His contention that the Holocaust represented an understandable, if not justifiable, preemptive response to the perceived communist threat evoked a storm of protest among historians in Germany and abroad. Nolte's critics accused him of seeking to rationalize and normalize the German past for conservative political purposes. [8]

In Nolte's version of history, Lenin's Russia was the instigator of the European civil war and the pioneer of mass murder. Hitler's Germany, on the other hand, represented the leading edge of the international fascist countermovement that adopted and refined communist techniques in order to destroy its "world-historical" opponent. Nolte in effect transformed Nazism into a European phenomenon. By thus down-playing the specifically German and racist features of National Socialism, Nolte devised an interpretative framework ideally suited to normalizing and even vindicating the Nazi past. Nolte's version of history linked Nazism to the revolutionary tradition in a more plausible and dialectical way than conventional conservative accounts. Conservatives tended to describe fascism as the product of a broad revolutionary movement ("the rise of the masses") that had also produced communism. Nolte gave due emphasis to the fundamental difference and mortal antagonism between Left and Right, but he insisted on the causal (and criminal) priority of the left. This interpretative framework also allowed him to invoke Nietzsche as the intellectual and inspirational guru of the Nazi counterrevolution.

Nolte's Nietzsche Interpretation

The attempt to scapegoat Nietzsche as a way of deflecting responsibility for fascism away from the traditionalist conservative right is not new. After the Second World War, the German Right frequently denounced Nietzsche's anti-Christian animus as the source of fascism, partly as a way of exculpating their own conservative and Christian values from complicity in the Nazi debacle! Nolte's interpretation of Nietzsche is unusual, however, because his purpose is less to discredit Nietzsche by pinning responsibility for fascism on him than it is to dignify the fascist (or militantly anticommunist) cause by tracing its intellectual lineage to Nietzsche. Nolte's dubious appropriation of Nietzsche thus pays indirect tribute to the rehabilitation of Nietzsche after the war. His penchant for meta historical symbolism and symmetry had already led Nolte, in the last chapter of Three Faces of Fascism, the book that made his reputation in 1963, to juxtapose Nietzsche and Marx as the great ideological antipodes of the nineteenth century. Rejecting both "practical transcendence" (exemplified by Marxism) and "theoretical transcendence" (exemplified by Christianity), Nietzsche had called for the unbridled celebration of life and immanent reality that for Nolte typifies fascism.

According to Nolte, the essence of Nietzsche's philosophy (and the spiritual core of fascism) is contained in his summons, in Ecce homo, to form a new "party of life" dedicated to the extermination of the sick and degenerate: "That new party of life which undertakes the greatest of all tasks, the improvement of mankind, including the ruthless destruction of all that is degenerate and parasitical, will make possible again that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian condition must once more grow." [10] In Der europaische Burgerkrieg Nolte again casts Nietzsche as the progenitor of the concept of extermination (Vernichtungskonzept) that was put into practice by the Nazis. This provocative thesis forms the core of his book Nietzsche und der Nietzscheanismus, published in 1990. [11]

Just as Nazism and the Holocaust represented reactions to and copies of the "more original" Bolshevik precedents, so Nietzsche's philosophy is interpreted as a reaction to the destructive egalitarianism of Marx, whose works, as Nolte concedes, Nietzsche never read, but whose doctrines furnished (in Nolte's view) the most representative statement of the values Nietzsche most despised. To preserve the symbolic symmetry that relates Nietzsche to Marx in the same way that Nazism is related to Bolshevism (as mirror image and diametrical opposite), Nolte stresses the commonalities as much as the differences between these two great thinkers. Both shared an antipathy to the philistine, commercial, bourgeois society of their day; both developed a this-worldly critique of Christianity; both thought in terms of history and prehistory; both shared the idealist impulse to restore an earlier harmony and totality on a higher level; and both viewed ancient Greece as a paradigm for a regenerated future. Most importantly, for Nolte's purposes, both Nietzsche and Marx supposedly developed similar but diametrically opposed concepts of extermination, Marx calling for the destruction of the bourgeoisie (those who rose above the working masses); Nietzsche, in counterattacking mode, calling for the destruction of all who blocked the rise of superior individuals. Typically, Nolte considers the egalitarian imperative more destructive in theory (and ultimately in communist practice) than its elitist counterpart. Furthermore, Nolte presents the Nietzschean-Nazi reaction as at least partly justified by the real and potential threat of egalitarian destructiveness. [12]

Nolte is aware that Nietzsche can hardly be constrained within any dogmatic position, let alone a partisan political one, without slighting the many contradictory and apolitical aspects of his philosophy. Indeed, Nolte anticipated objections to his own interpretation by citing what has become a virtual truism of Nietzsche scholarship: By selective quotation Nietzsche can be used to defend a variety of contradictory positions.  [13] He devoted a large portion of his book to an analysis of Nietzsche as a "battleground" (Schlachtfeld) of contending ideological forces, which then crystallized into distinct movements in the years that followed the end of Nietzsche's productive life in 1889. [14] Through selective appropriation a variety of movements could draw on Nietzsche for support. By tracing the impact of his philosophy on both the Right and Left up to 1914, Nolte hoped to show the relevance of Nietzsche's antipolitics to contemporary political issues and his appeal to political thinkers.

The prevalence of left-wing Nietzscheanism before 1914 actually strengthens Nolte's argument, not only because it illustrates the formal affinities (despite substantive differences) between Left and Right on which Nolte's analysis of fascism rests, but also because it reinforces his contention that Nietzsche embodied the divisions of German society from which fascism and the "European civil war" evolved. According to Nolte, Nietzsche not only prophesied the coming civil war but also furnished the counterconcept to the more "original" exterminatory concept of Marx:

To this socialist concept Nietzsche wants to juxtapose an equally radical concept also aiming at "extermination" - the concept of a biological and simultaneously historical and philosophical extermination that is obviously connected to the former, more original concept of social extermination by a causal nexus but is not entirely derived from it. [15]

Nolte thus enlisted Nietzsche in the right-wing cause in almost the exact language he used in the Historikerstreit in calling for a revision of the received historiography of Nazism. Nietzsche's assigned role is to dignify the cause of counterrevolution, which, like its original model and mortal adversary, the socialist revolution, can also trace its lineage back to one of the seminal thinkers of the modern age. Nietzsche serves another apologetic function as well for Nolte: the sheer scale of his "exterminatory concept" - the eradication of the weak, the sick, the failures [missratenen], and the many-too-many [vielzuvielen] - makes the Nazi extermination program pale by comparison. [16]

Can the crucial role assigned to Nietzsche in Nolte's sophisticated apologetic project withstand critical scrutiny? Nolte's task is not an easy one. To succeed in constraining Nietzsche within this apologetic framework Nolte must overcome some formidable objections to the notion of Nietzsche as proto-Nazi. [17] First, he must defuse or reinterpret Nietzsche's unequivocal denunciations of anti-Semitism, nationalism, and the German Reich. Secondly, he must show that in breaking with Wagner Nietzsche was not repudiating the volkisch ideology for which Wagner and Wagnerism stood. And thirdly, Nolte must face the contradiction that Nazism was fed by precisely those moralistic and moralizing values that Nietzsche opposed. I will deal with each of these issues in turn.

Nietzsche's Denunciation of Anti-Semitism

Particularly his anti-anti-Semitism seems to put Nietzsche in total opposition to what many historians consider the decisive component of Nazi ideology. How could Nietzsche, who in his late fragments called for the execution of all anti-Semites and identified Jewish bankers (as well as Prussian officers) as optimal recruits for his "party of life," be viewed as the spiritual father of a movement that perpetrated the Holocaust?

Nolte employs three partially contradictory arguments to overcome the objection of Nietzsche's anti-anti-Semitism. First, he attributes to Nietzsche a thoroughgoing anti-Judaism based on the fact that Christian morality grew out of Jewish roots. According to this argument, Nietzsche's hostility to Christianity masks an even more fundamental hostility to Judaism, from which Christianity arose. But because Nietzsche's anti-Christian critique of priestly Judaism can hardly be equated with nineteenth-century volkisch anti-Semitism, which generally posited the superiority of "German Christianity" and therefore epitomized the ideology that Nietzsche most vigorously denounced, Nolte must resort to a second, more questionable stratagem. By redefining nineteenth-century anti-Semitism as essentially a left-wing movement, a petty form of socialism (Schmalspursozialismus), fed by the economic ressentiments of the lower middle classes, Nolte can rationalize Nietzsche's opposition to anti-Semitism as a form of antisocialism.

This argument is reinforced by the fact that already in the nineteenth century anti-Semitism was designated by socialists like August Bebel as "the socialism of fools." In Nolte's interpretation, volkisch anti- Semitism is transformed into an emancipatory and egalitarian ideology that Nietzsche opposed on those grounds. Not entirely comfortable with such sophistry, however, Nolte also occasionally resorts to a ploy favored by such Nazis as Alfred Baumler, who asserted that Nietzsche's opposition to anti-Semitism was merely a practically motivated attitude designed not to alienate a group that exercised a powerful role in the publishing field in Germany. Nietzsche was supposedly worried that any association with anti-Semitism would harm his chances of gaining fame. [18]

Nolte's third major argument in his effort to reconcile the contradiction between Nietzsche's opposition to anti-Semitism and his putative function as the intellectual precursor of a movement that undertook the genocide of Jews is to claim that Nazi anti-Semitism was derivative of and secondary to the antisocialism for which Nietzsche and the Nazis stood. According to Nolte, Nazi anti-Semitism was derived from opposition to the liberal and egalitarian values whose eradication Nietzsche had heralded. Nolte thus blithely advances the paradox that both Nazi anti-Semitism and Nietzschean opposition to anti-Semitism were similarly motivated by their shared opposition to socialism. This stunning contradiction is plausible only if it can be shown that the nineteenth-century Jew-hatred that Nietzsche condemned was of a qualitatively different kind than the Nazi variety and did not embody the anti-egalitarian, antidemocratic, anti-Marxist values that were so central to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Nolte resolves the paradox by attributing to Hitler greater originality than the historical record allows. It was Hitler who supposedly first made the close linkage of Jews with socialism that provided the motive for the Holocaust. [19] Hitler conceived the radical notion that the only sure way to eliminate communism and all the other supposedly baneful consequences of modern intellectualism was to eliminate the Jews. Hitler must ultimately absorb the blame for the unwarranted radicalization of what Nolte considers an essentially rational and defensible cause -- already anticipated by Nietzsche - the defense of Europe against communism. In tracing the excesses of fascism solely to Hitler's lunacy, Nolte echoes a theme that dominated traditional conservative German apologetics in the immediate postwar period.

Is it correct to imply, as Nolte does, that Nazi anti-Semitism had a different motivation than the nineteenth-century Judeophobia which Nietzsche condemned? Numerous studies have shown the continuities in anti-Semitic stereotypes over the centuries. [20] The theme that links all historical forms of anti-Semitism, whether religious, economic, political, or racial, is the identification of Jewishness with materialism and immorality. For centuries Jews were held to be immoral because they stubbornly refused to accept the "superior" teachings of Christ. Jews supposedly rejected the Christian path to salvation through renunciation of the world in order to be free to pursue worldly gain for selfish ends. According to Christian anti-Semites (the particular targets of Nietzsche's scorn), Jews would not abjure material possessions and worldly power for the higher "kingdom within" or "beyond."

In the anti-Semitic mind, Jewishness stood for worldliness, selfishness, intellectual cunning, and lack of precisely that Christian idealism, asceticism, and self-denial that Nietzsche denounced as inimical to life. Nineteenth-century anti-Semitism in fact epitomized those aspects of Christian "virtue" that Nietzsche most abhorred. The Nazis, to be sure, were no Christians, but though their biological world view deprived Jews of the previously available options of conversion and assimilation, the Nazi images of Jews perpetuated the same age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes that Nietzsche disdainfully rejected. Clear lines of continuity lead from the racial and political anti-Semitism of ideologues like Eugen Duhring, Adolf Stocker, or Houston Stewart Chamberlain to National Socialism. The identification of Jews with "materialistic" progressive ideologies like liberalism and socialism was not a Nazi innovation; anti- Semitism and illiberalism were closely linked in conservative and rightwing politics in Nietzsche's lifetime as well. [21]

Nietzsche's Denunciation of Nationalism

Nietzsche's opposition to nationalism is easier for Nolte to deal with, because it can be used to support the latter's contentions that fascism was an international movement and that the Second World War was in its essence a European civil war between defenders of traditional European culture and society and their left-wing egalitarian challengers. According to this view, Nietzsche attacked nationalism because it undercut the larger and more important struggle between the transnational elites and the masses. Petty nationalist loyalties merely reflect the resentments of the herd and obstruct the rule of the strong and the healthy across national boundaries.

But then how could Nietzsche be aligned with the Nazis, for whom nationalism surely represented the highest value? Nolte's predilection for thinking in terms of "ideal types" makes the resolution of this paradox possible, too. For Nolte, anti-Marxism remains the defining characteristic of fascism (as it was, in his view, the ruling passion in Nietzsche's work.) Nationalism, no matter how genuinely felt by its adherents, served the primarily instrumental function of mobilizing mass support for the struggle against a militantly international ideology. Nolte accepts the Nazis' claim of defending European culture against the destructive threat of "Asiatic Bolshevism" as more than mere self-serving propaganda. He even adduces their success in recruiting non-German formations for the SS and the Wehrmacht as evidence for the validity of their claim. Hence Nietzsche's "good European" can actually be cited in support of Nolte's contention that Nazism must be understood in the context of what would become a worldwide civil war. Insofar as Hitler personified the (admittedly extreme) reaction of the European bourgeoisie to the even more extreme Marxist world revolution, even Hitler could qualify as a "good European." The implication of Nolte's argumentation is that a war between Germany and the Western powers would not have been necessary, if the West had not sought to obstruct the Nazis' counterrevolutionary crusade. [22] In the cold war that followed the Second World War, according to Nolte, the European civil war spread across the globe.

Nietzsche's Denunciation of the German Reich

But what about Nietzsche's growing disillusionment and exasperation with the recently unified German Reich, as expressed in increasingly vitriolic language in his late works? Nietzsche's denunciations of the Bismarckian Reich, culminating in his declaration of war against the House of Hohenzollern in the last weeks before his mental breakdown, pose little problem for Nolte, because he accepts the interpretation of both Nazis like Baumler and Marxists like Lukacs that Nietzsche's attacks on the Reich came from the right, not the left. According to this view, Nietzsche criticized the German Reich not for abusing power, but for failing to exercise it vigorously enough. Although liberal historians, guided by normative notions of civil liberties and representative government, portray the Second Reich as a quasi-absolutist regime, for Nietzsche (as read by Baumler or Lukacs) the Reich was flawed by its readiness to embrace democratizing trends.

It is indeed hard to say with finality whether Nietzsche despised a man like William II's Court Pastor Adolf Stocker for his anti-Semitism or for his "socialism," for his bigotry or his humanitarianism, or perhaps both, because Nietzsche provided so few references to concrete social policies. Yet the only full-scale study of Nietzsche's reactions to the political currents and events of his own time, Peter Bergmann's Nietzsche: The "Last Antipolitical German" (1987), concludes that the mature Nietzsche attacked the Bismarckian Reich not for its liberal but for its illiberal tendencies. "Nietzsche's adult life," Bergmann writes, "was one long flight from the patriarchal politics of the Reich." [23] The democracy he attacked was the one he saw embodied in the intolerant right-wing populism of the Second Reich. Nietzsche's contention that socialists were inspired by resentment and revenge was provoked by Eugen Diihring's National Socialism and Stocker's equally bigoted brand of Christian socialism, not by the doctrines of Marx. Read against this background, Nietzsche's elitist strictures appear as indictments more of the religious and nationalist right than of the socialist left. [24]

Significance of the Break with Wagner

Interpreters who link Nietzsche with Nazism usually do so by ignoring or downplaying his break with Wagner and all that it signifies. Wagnerian ideology foreshadowed, after all, a good deal of the volkisch tenets of National Socialism, including anti-Semitism, social conservatism, and Germanomania. Hitler referred to Wagner in effusively favorable terms in Mein Kampf, whereas Nietzsche's name was never mentioned. The links between Bayreuth and the volkisch movement are direct and uncomplicated. [25] Volkisch authors displayed a distinct preference for Nietzsche's Wagnerian phase and frequently viewed his later works with suspicion and distaste. [26] With little exception they admired the young Nietzsche's fervent critique of the hated century of progress. In his early works they could find the themes that formed the stock-intrade of volkisch ideology: the unique character and mission of the German people; the distrust of foreign influences; the exorcism of Socratic rationalism (and, by implication, "Jewish" rationalism in the present); the denunciation of a degenerate society in the thrall of secular, materialistic, and democratic values; the need to shape the masses into a Yolk; and the failure of the Bismarckian state to stem the leveling philistine tide or to promote a unified national culture. Wilhelm Laubenthal, author of an intellectual history of late nineteenth-century Germany from a volkisch perspective (1939) and admirer of The Birth of Tragedy and the Untimely Meditations, regretfully conceded that nothing of value for National Socialism could be derived from Nietzsche's later works. [27] Nietzsche himself explicitly repudiated the romantic nationalism of The Birth of Tragedy in the self-criticism that accompanied its reissue in 1886. [28] That same year he also refused to reissue the Untimely Meditations.

Surely his uncompromising critique of the Wagnerian worldview, which he had enthusiastically embraced in his youth, must absolve the mature Nietzsche of complicity in Nazism? Nolte employs two main arguments to defuse Nietzsche's critique of Wagner. First, Nolte maintains that Nietzsche opposed Wagner as a representative of the revolutionary tradition he came to despise. [29] Nolte conveniently ignores the fact that by the time he befriended Nietzsche, Wagner had long since repudiated his republican sympathies of 1848. Indeed, in The Case of Wagner and Ecce Homo, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that his break with Wagner involved a rejection of his volkisch ideals as well. [30] If Nietzsche opposed Wagner for his revolutionary sympathies, then it was the volkisch revolution that he opposed.

Nolte's second, more plausible, and more problematical argument in respect to Nietzsche's apostasy is to insist that in his late phase Nietzsche reverted back to his first anti-Enlightenment stage. [31] This argument deserves careful consideration, for it is indeed crucial to an evaluation of Nietzsche's relationship to Nazism. From his early phase Nietzsche certainly retained the overwhelming regenerative urge so typical of Wagnerian idealism; but the kind of regeneration he now envisioned had little in common with the nationalism, anti-Semitism, and moralism championed by Wagner and his volkisch retinue. In his mature works, Nietzsche ruthlessly pursued the origins of the idealist mind-set in the Western moral and religious tradition. At its source he claimed to find a nihilistic inclination to self-destruction that the human being of the future would have to overcome. A transvaluation of values would achieve the ancient Faustian dream, so important in the German intellectual tradition, of creating a higher type of human being, persons more capable of channeling the sufferings of life into creativity than the timid conformists of the common herd.

Nazism and the Western Moral Tradition

No doubt a variety of movements and individuals committed to the revitalization of culture could derive their inspiration from Nietzsche's regenerative zeal. Many Nazis indisputably derived inspiration from Nietzsche, no matter how much they might have misinterpreted him. Nazism was a multifarious movement that did not draw its inspiration from only a single source. The crucial question, however, is this: Was National Socialism a movement inspired primarily by immoralism and the rejection of traditional values, or is it, as I believe, more properly understood as a movement that grew out of excessive moral zeal, a movement of moral rearmament and idealism, however perverted a form this idealism may have taken? In Nietzschean terms, was Nazism a reaction against slave morality or was it itself a form of slave revolt?

This is not a question that can be answered solely by applying normative criteria to Nazi atrocities, which surely would lead us to the conclusion that Nazism violated all normal and conventional moral principles. It is a question that requires empirical historical investigation based on an analysis of the many kinds of sources that shed light on the Nazi mind-set and the volkisch world view. Such an investigation reveals, I believe, that the antecedents of Nazism lie in a reaction against amorality and "permissiveness" more than in their fulfillment. In my view, Nazism represents "the triumph of squeamishness, of resentment, of purism and moral intolerance, of the need for rigid control and total order," the triumph, in other words, of the ascetic ideal that Nietzsche denounced. [32] As George Mosse has written, the Nazis "persecuted all those who stood outside the accepted norms of society," the norms that Nietzsche attacked. [33] The closest relative of Nazism is the kind of religious absolutism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism that has so often legitimated the most heinous crimes in the name of higher ideals in the past.

But what about the urge, so central to Nazism, to purify the Germanic race of any persons (or qualities) viewed as weakening, infecting, or degenerating the racial fabric? It is this urge that Nietzsche appears to be encouraging with his call in The Antichrist and Ecce Homo for the extermination of the weak and the sick. But what did Nietzsche mean by the "weak" and the "sick"? Clearly it was not the Jews that Nietzsche put into this category. His notion of degeneration was elastic, to be sure, including all values, attitudes, and motive forces (foremost, of course, conventional Christian morality) that he regarded as inimical to life. But he is very explicit on one point: the ultimate sickness of the modern age was embodied in Wagner, his music and his ideas. "Is Wagner a man (Mensch) at all?" Nietzsche asks in The Case of Wagner; "Is he not rather a sickness?" [34] From 1880 on, at the latest, it is clear that for him the movements of Wagner, Stocker, and Duhring, precursors of Nazism all, embody the chief contemporary expressions of the slave mentality he so consistently decried in his late works. In its venom and intensity Nietzsche's assault on moralism and nationalism remains unsurpassed.

Nietzsche considered Wagner his great antipode, but Wagner hardly qualifies as a philosopher. If Nietzsche's philosophical antipode is taken to be not Marx, but Plato and the idealist, metaphysical mind-set, the more comprehensive political implications of his philosophy are revealed. In his critique of ideology and religion, and in his atheism, Nietzsche was in fact far closer to Marx than to idealist philosophers such as Kant or Hegel, whom the former both criticize from their anti-idealist vantage points. If his critique of idealism is put at the center of his philosophical project, Nietzsche's undeniable antipathy to socialism can then be seen to extend to all its nineteenth-century forms, whether revolutionary, Christian, or national. Read in this way, he becomes the clairvoyant critic of impending totalitarianism who warned of both fascism and communism. His target is the tyranny of the moral majority, the reign of the true believer, the dominance of idealists who derive their fervor and conviction from their perceived possession of absolute moral truth. In such a reading, Nazism itself represents the slave revolt that Nolte identifies solely with socialism and communism.

The Uses of linking Nietzsche to Nazism

Attributing responsibility for fascism to Nietzschean amorality serves conservative purposes by distracting attention from the role of conventional morality and traditional institutions in the origins of fascism. If Nietzsche's encouragement of amorality and transvaluation formed the inspirational core of fascism, how seriously do we need to take his anti- German strictures - or any of his precepts for that matter? His fulminations against the German Reich and against Christianity and Western morality lose their sting. The Imperial German system and its ideology are effectively rehabilitated by being the target of Nietzsche's protofascist assault.

For conservatives the establishment of a motivational link between Nietzschean amorality and fascist atrocities has the additional advantage of undercutting the Left's appropriation of Nietzsche over the past thirty years. In postmodernist interpretations the dogmatic prophet of the Ubermensch has been largely supplanted by the perspectivist philosopher of pluralism. His critique of reason is no longer perceived as the road to absolute tyranny, but rather as a liberation from the tyranny of the absolute. Contemporary postmodern interpretations present a Nietzsche no less radical than in the past, but one who no longer poses a political threat to liberal society. Indeed, in interpretations such as Richard Rorty's, Nietzsche's way of viewing the world offers the best guarantee against the dogmatisms of Left and Right. [35] Perhaps because postmodern interpretations have made Nietzsche at least potentially useful to the Left as a source of subversive strategies and ideas, he has come under renewed attack from the Right. Imputing protofascism to Nietzsche becomes a way of discrediting postmodernist interpretations and foreclosing their interpretative approach. If Nietzsche can be made responsible for fascist excesses, his enhanced postwar reputation works to the advantage of revisionist apologetics. For if Nietzsche's antiegalitarian philosophy can be read as the harbinger of a benign postmodern pluralism, then that other alleged offspring of his thought, modern fascism, cannot be all bad, either. Indeed, in his political biography of Martin Heidegger, Nolte defends Heidegger's option for National Socialism as supposedly the only reasonable alternative to communism from the perspective of well-meaning Germans in 1933. [36]

Nietzsche's Susceptibility to Nazi Appropriation

Nietzsche's significance and continuing relevance throughout the twentieth century is the result of the widespread recognition that his works are perhaps the most representative statement of the late nineteenth-century sense of crisis induced by the "death of God," the perceived collapse of objective meaning and universal truth. His prophetic call for a "transvaluation of values" could appeal to a great variety of alienated individuals and groups by no means restricted to the political right. This was due at least in part to the nature of Nietzsche's philosophy, which is deliberately perspectival and open-ended and therefore subject to a variety of interpretations. [37] Nietzsche made a definitive rendering of his ideas virtually impossible by refusing to foreclose any experimental options in the process of thinking and self-overcoming. His thought cannot be classified as simply destructive and reactionary or emancipatory and progressive.

A great variety of political causes have found inspiration in Nietzschean thought, and even today there is nothing approaching complete consensus on Nietzsche's politics. However, if advocacy or rejection of human equality as a social ideal determines the place of individuals or movements on the political spectrum, Nietzsche clearly belongs well on the Right, perhaps even on the extreme Right. Nietzsche and the Nazis (and their Germanomanic precursors as well as Christian conservatives) shared the same political enemies - the democratic, liberal, and socialist movements that emanated from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This is probably the most important reason that Nietzsche's philosophy could be so readily exploited by the Nazis, despite his unequivocal condemnation of nationalism, anti-Semitism, the German Reich, Wagnerian Germanophilia, and romanticism. It is also the main reason Nietzsche has been anathema to the Left, especially the Marxist Left, which has traditionally viewed Nietzsche as one of the major precursors of fascism. [38] As a political thinker Nietzsche has always appealed mostly to political conservatives who value hierarchy and rank, the authority of elites, and the subordination of the masses. His works, as much as Wagner's, reflected the undemocratic tenor of German society in his day. Though he may have thought of his "herd animals" and "last men" as members of oppressive "silent" or "moral" majorities, not excluded or exploited groups, and though he may have opposed democracy at least in part because of his apprehensions of the destructive form that the mobilization of the masses was bound to take in Germany, his approach was too apolitical to make these essential distinctions clear.

Nietzsche's rejection of progress and equality made aspects of his philosophy usable for the Nazis without having to distort them. Though a critic of idealist "self-deception" and national vanity, he shared the idealist disdain for merely political freedoms. True to the idealist heritage, Nietzsche's formula for human salvation was not to change material conditions through reform or revolution, as progressives would have it, but to change human ideals. His precepts aimed not at the creation of a just society, but at the development of a higher type of human being. To him, as to the idealists he criticized, politics (i.e., agitation for social and political reform) was a debased activity.

The field of Nietzsche interpretation will continue to provide the terrain, as it has throughout the twentieth century, on which fundamental issues are symbolically fought out. Diverse movements and schools of thought will continue to appeal to his thought. It is precisely because of his radical denial of ultimate truth that today he is hailed as the philosopher of postmodernism. But the criticisms that have been raised against postmodernism - that its political implications even in its left-wing appropriations are profoundly conservative - can be leveled against Nietzsche himself. Nietzsche's failure to provide any concrete social analysis renders futile all efforts to pin down his substantive political position and leaves concepts like "herd animals," "blond beasts," "supermen," "the will to power," "party of life," and "destruction of all that is degenerate and parasitical" to be filled with substantive meaning by his various interpreters. This lack of political consciousness made his philosophy useful to the Nazis and it makes his thinking serviceable to their apologists today.



This essay draws on portions of my article, "The Philosopher of Fascism? Nietzsche Through the Eyes of Ernst Nolte," Platte Valley Review 22, no. 1 (Winter 1994), 38-47.

1. Steven E. Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992),4-5.

2. Ibid., 330. See also Aschheim's "Nietzsche, Anti-Semitism, and Mass Murder," in Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (New York: New York University Press, 1996), esp. 71; and "Nietzsche, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," in Nietzsche and Jewish Culture, ed. Jacob Golomb (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 3-20.

3. Aschheim, Nietzsche Legacy, 325-26.

4. See the dissertation by Hans Langreder, "Die Auseinandersetzung mit Nietzsche im Dritten Reich: Ein Beitrag zur Wirkungsgeschichte Nietzsches" (Christian-Albrecht-Universitiit Kiel, 1971), and Roderick Stackelberg, "Nietzsche und der Nationalsozialismus," Prima Philosophia 2 (July-September 1989): 425-41. See also Aschheim, Nietzsche Legacy, 252.

5. See Wolfgang Schieder, "Der Nationalsozialismus im Fehlurteil philosophischer Geschichtsschreibung, zur Methode von Ernst Noltes Europaischem Burgerkrieg," Geschichte und Gesellschaft 15 (1989): 89-114.

6. The four volumes of Nolte's tetralogy (in order of publication) are Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, die Action francaise, der italienische Faschismus, der Nationalsozialismus (Munich: R. Piper, 1963), English version, Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism, trans. Leila Vennewitz (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966); Deutschland und der Kalte Krieg (Munich: Piper, 1974); Marxismus und Industrielle Revolution (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982); and Der europaische Burgerkrieg, 1917-1945: Nationalsozialismus und Bolschewismus (Berlin: Propylaen, 1987).

7. On the Historikerstreit, see Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); the collection of documents, Historikerstreit (Munich: Piper, 1987), unreliably translated into English by James Knowlton and Truett Cates, Forever Under the Shadow of Hitler: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit, the Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1993); and Ernst Nolte, Das Vergehen der Vergangenheit, Antwort an meine Kritiker im sogenannten Historikerstreit (Berlin: Ullstein, 1988).

8. Jurgen Habermas, "Ene Art Schadensabwicklung, die apologetischen Tendenzen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichtsschreibung" ("A Kind of Damage Control: Apologetic Tendencies in Current German Historical Writing"), Die Zeit, July 18, 1986.

9. For postwar conservative critiques of Nietzsche, see Karl August Gotz, Nietzsche als Ausnahme, zur Zerstorung des Willens zur Macht (Freiburg: Karl Alber, 1949); Ernst Barthel, Nietzsche als Verfuhrer (Baden-Baden: Hans Buhler Junior, 1947); Konrad Algermissen, Nietzsche und das dritte Reich (Celie: Joseph Giesel, 1946); Alfred von Martin, Geistige Wegbereiter des deutschen Zusammenbruchs: Hegel- Nietzsche - Spengler (Recklinghausen: Bitter, 1948); and E. Sandvoss, Hitler und Nietzsche (Gottingen: Muster-Schmidt, 1969).

10. KSA, 6:313, as cited in Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, 444. "Jene neue Partei des Lebens, welche die grosste aller Aufgaben, die Hoherzuchtung der Menschheit in die Hande nimmt, eingerechnet die schonungslose Vernichtung aller Entartenden und Parasitischen, wird jenes Zuviel von Leben auf Erden wieder moglich machen, aus dem auch der dionysische Zustand wieder erwachsen muss" (Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, 533). This passage can be translated to emphasize the biological aspect of Zuchtung and the genocidal implications of Vernichtung, as does Aschheim in The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 326: "That new party of life which would take the greatest of all tasks into its hands, the higher breeding of humanity, including the merciless extermination of everything degenerating and parasitic, would make possible again that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian state will grow again."

11. Nolte, Der europaische Burgerkrieg, 514-15; Nietzsche und der Nietzscheanismus (Berlin: Propylaen, 1990).

12. Nolte, Nietzsche, 23-27, 54, 75.

13. Ibid., 110.

14. Ibid., 10. The term "Schlachtfeld" is from a letter to Heinrich Koselitz (July 25, 1882), KGB, 6:230.

15. Nolte, Nietzsche, 80.

16. Ibid., 195.

17. For a convincing refutation of the thesis that Nietzsche's thought gave rise to Nazism, see Weaver Santaniello, "A Post-Holocaust Re-Examination of Nietzsche and the Jews: Vis-a-vis Christendom and Nazism," in Nietzsche and Jewish Culture, ed. by Jacob Golomb (London & New York: Routledge, 1997), 21-54. Santaniello argues that the Nazis deliberately misinterpreted Nietzsche in order to silence him. They did not misunderstand Nietzsche; they understood only too well that he was not on their side. See also her Nietzsche, God, and the Jews: His Critique of Judeo-Christianity in Relation to the Nazi Myth (Albany: State University of New York, 1994). For a contrary view, see Bernhard H. F. Taureck, Nietzsche und der Faschismus, eine Studie uber Nietzsches politische Philosophie und ihre Folgen (Hamburg: Junius Verlag, 1989). Taureck considers Nietzsche's destruction of reason and his alleged "racial ontology" to be "protofascist." See also Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, esp. 232-330; Henning Ottmann, Philosophie und Politik bei Nietzsche (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1987), esp. 1-8; Stackelberg, "Nietzsche und der Nationalsozialismus," 425- 41; Giorgio Penza, "Zur Frage der 'Entnazifizierung' Friedrich Nietzsches," Vierteljahrshefte fur Zeitgeschichte 34 (January 1986): 105-116; Kurt Rudolf Fischer, "Nazism as a Nietzschean Experiment," Nietzsche-Studien 6 (1977): 121; and Langreder, "Die Auseinandersetzung mit Nietzsche im Dritten Reich."

18. Nolte, Nietzsche, 107-108, Alfred Baumler, Nietzsche der Philosoph und Politiker (Leipzig: Reclam, 1931), 105, 146.

19. Nolte, Der europaische Burgerkrieg, 514-15.

20. See particularly Peter Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978); and Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti- Semitism, 3 vols. (New York: Vanguard, 1975).

21. See Aldo Venturelli, "Asketismus und Wille zur Macht, Nietzsches Auseinandersetzung mit Eugen Duhring," Nietzsche-Studien 15 (1986): 107-39; Geoffrey G. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), esp. 396-458; Roderick Stackelberg, Idealism Debased: From Volkish Thought to National Socialism (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981), 104-60.

22. See the review of Der europaische Burgerkrieg by Hans Mommsen, "Wissenschaft als Ressentiment," Geschichte und Gesellschaft 14 (1988): esp. 498-99, 502.

23. Peter Bergmann, Nietzsche: The "Last Antipolitical German" (Bloomington: Indiana, 1987), 175.

24. Venturelli, "Asketismus und Wille zur Macht," esp. 138-39. See also Uschi Nussbaumer-Benz, Nietzsche, Nadelohr der Philosophie? Eine Einfuhrung in die Wille-zur-Macht-Thematik (Cuxhaven: Junghans, 1991), esp. 226-43.

25. See Winfried Schuler, Der Bayreuther Kreis von seiner Entstehung bis zum Ausgang der wilhelminischen Ara: Wagnerkult und Kulturreform im Geiste volkischer Weltanschauung (Munster: Aschendorff, 1971), esp. 1-27; and Joachim Kohler, Wagners Hitler: Der Prophet und sein Vollstrecker (Munich: Karl Blessing, 1997).

26. Stackelberg, "Nietzsche und der Nationalsozialismus," 428,435.

27. Wilhelm Laubenthal, Der Gedanke einer Geistigen Erneuerung Deutschlands im deutschen Schrifttum von 1871 bis zum Weltkrieg (Frankfurtam Main, 1939), esp. 19-20. There are many other examples of works published before and after 1933 that appeal primarily to the Wagnerian Nietzsche. See Stackelberg, "Nietzsche und der Nationalsozialismus," 428.

28. KSA, 1:20.

29. Nolte, Nietzsche, 147.

30. KSA, 6:36-7, 39, 357-64.

31. Nolte, Nietzsche, 56.

32. This is my argument in Idealism Debased, 159.

33. The quote is taken from Mosse's review of Homosexualitat in der NS-Zeit, ed. Gunter Grau, in Central European History 26, no. 3 (1996): 368. Mosse viewed Nazism as the radicalized and corrupted expression of a bourgeois morality and respectability intent upon cleansing the world of any outsiders who could not be "normalized." See, in particular, his Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York: Howard Fertig, 1985) and Nazism: A Historical and Comparative Analysis of National Socialism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1978).

34. KSA, 6:21.

35. On Nietzsche's pragmatism and perspectivism see, for instance, Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). See also his articles, "The Contingency of Selfhood" and "The Contingency of Language" in the London Review of Books, May 8, 1986 and April 17, 1986.

36. Heidegger: Politik und Geschichte im Leben und Denken (Berlin: Propylaen, 1992), esp. 296. See also the review by Thomas Sheehan, New York Review (January 14, 1993), 30-35, and the exchange of letters, April 8, 1993. See also the chapter on Heidegger in Nolte's Geschichtsdenken im 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Propylaen, 1991).

37. Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy, 8.

38. The leading orthodox Marxist treatments of Nietzsche are Georg Lukacs, Die Zerstorung der Vernunft, vol. 2, Irrationalismus und Imperialismus (1954; reprint, Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1974), esp. 7-87; English version, The Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980); and Franz Mehring and Georg Lukacs, Friedrich Nietzsche (Berlin: Aufbau, 1957).
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