Summer 2008

Nietzsche and the Nazis

– The Wilson Quarterly

Many scholars view Friedrich Nietzsche's exploitation by the Nazis as a travesty based on ignorance and willful distortion, but the truth may be more complicated.

During World War II, Hitler’s soldiers marched off to battle with field-gray edi­tions of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works in their packs, and ordinary Germans were occasionally urged on with the philosopher’s words. After the defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, Nazi propa­ganda minister Joseph Goeb­bels de­clared, “We shall once more justify the words of the phil­os­opher: ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger.’” Yet today Nie­tzsche (1844–1900) is one of the guiding lights of modern and postmodern thought, his exploitation by the Nazis dis­missed as a travesty based on ignorance and willful ­distortion.

Not so fast, says Max Whyte, who recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. Nazi thinkers picked selectively from Nietzsche’s vast and ambiguous cor­pus, but we must still reckon with the fact that many of the philos­opher’s ideas did lend themselves to the Nazi cause. Liberal bourgeois ­existence—­the very ideas of Christian morality, democracy, and ­rationality—­filled Nietzsche with contempt. God is dead, he declared, and mankind must reinvent itself in a new image of greatness. The door was ­open.

Among the Nazi thinkers who seized on Nietzsche was Alfred Baeumler (1887–1968). A professor at the ­Friedrich-­Wilhelms-­Univer­sität Berlin, Baeumler embraced the Nazi cause around 1930 and was granted an hour-­long audience with Hitler himself in 1931, the same year he published his influential Nietz­sche: The Philosopher and Politician. Baeumler also edited Nietzsche’s works and wrote for the general public; Whyte adds that he was “a close personal and pro­fes­sional ally of Alfred ­Rosenberg—­the ­self-­proclaimed ‘chief ideologist of National Socialism.’”

For Nietzsche, the way toward a new human future lay through the ancient Greeks, pioneered by the Übermensch, or super­man, a heroic figure who through great struggle would transcend the banalities of everyday experience. Baeumler had to make some twists and turns to get around other Nietzschean ideas, such as the philosopher’s emphasis on the creative, Diony­sian side of Greek culture (notably in music) over its more orderly Apollonian aspect. He based much of his argument on the posthumous Will to Power (1901), in which Nietzsche argued that the desire to dominate is the most es­sen­tial human drive, sur­passing even the will to ­live.

Baeumler called his simplified Nietzschean doctrine “heroic realism.” Enmity and war were not unfortunate facts of the human condition, he declared, but its essential and perpetual characteristics. Vio­lent conflict was the only path to ennobled human life. Baeumler then shifted the role of the Über­mensch to the German Volk (people), hungry for a political and cultural rebirth in the unhappy years after World War I: “The old task of our race reap­peared before Nietz­sche’s eyes: the task to be leaders of Europe.”

Baeumler was not alone among Nazi ideologists in drawing on ­Nietzsche—­the philos­opher Martin Heidegger shared his view for a ­time—­but some sharply criticized the practice. (Nietzsche had, among other things, spoken out against ­anti-­Semitism.) “Baeumler’s depiction of Nietzsche . . . was cer­tainly ­one-­sided and myopic, but it was neither incoherent nor ab­surd,” Whyte concludes. National Social­ism was not a cohesive doc­trine, he adds, and understanding it, as well as Nietzsche’s place in it, remains unfinished business for ­scholars.

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The Source: "The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler's 'Heroic Realism'" by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April 2008. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons