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.
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