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Men of Steel: Superman vs Übermensch
Roy Schwartz examines whether the world’s first superhero really was inspired by Nietzsche’s ‘superior man’, and what the Nazis have to do with it.
Superman is probably the most famous fictional character in the world. From Australia to Algeria to Alaska, from toddlers to seniors, pretty much everyone knows who Superman is. Debuting in June 1938’s Action Comics #1, Superman was also the very first superhero, the mold from which all others were cast. And with the advent of World War II, he became a symbol of America. According to a recent survey, although he’s no longer the most bankable, Superman is still America’s favorite superhero. And yet, ironically, he’s often compared with or attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch (literally translated as ‘superman’ or ‘overman’) – a philosophical construct associated by some with nihilism and fascism. Is that Superman’s true origin story?
Superman has been compared to the Übermensch since his beginning. In 1941, both the New Republic and Saturday Evening Post assumed a connection. In 1943, Catholic World denounced him for it. In 1954, in his infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth, renowned child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham called Superman ‘Nietzsche in the nursery’, claiming that as the Nazi overman he engendered prejudice against ‘submen’ in children. The connection continues to be discussed and presented as fact in books and articles. The truth, as always, is more complicated.
Superman, servant of the people and fashion icon
Man Of Steel image © Warner Bros. Pictures 2013
Superman was created in 1934 by two Jewish high schoolers in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They confected their hero from different elements in their cultural orbit, including the Biblical hero Samson, the legend of the Golem, pulps like John Carter, Warlord of Mars, cartoons like Popeye, and swashbuckling films. They detail their inspirations in various interviews as well as Siegel’s unpublished memoir, and nowhere do they mention Nietzsche. Moreover, they were both children of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the rise of Nazism overseas as well as antisemitism in the US were a main impetus for creating Superman. His alter ego Clark Kent they based on themselves – he’s a bespectacled, neurotic nebbish who’s also cerebral, writerly, and wisecracking. Superman was their wish-fulfillment, while Kent was their reality. Kent was also a checklist of contemporary Jewish stereotypes, which they subvert by turning them into a pretense for concealing great power. So Siegel and Shuster’s hero was a personal avatar and a Jewish reaction formation. The last thing they would have meant him to personify was fascist ideology.
That said, the very name ‘Superman’ would have inexorably carried that connotation at the time. Whether they meant it or not, the two ideas are interlinked. The English term ‘Superman’ first appeared in 1903, in George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, translating ‘ Übermensch’. The German word was itself popularized (but not coined) by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883). Here the Übermensch is the man who transcends the rest of humanity by freeing himself from the delusional ‘good and evil’ morality of an imaginary God, to be limited in his actions only by his own will.
In this sense Superman does correspond to the Übermensch. He’s a symbol of power and superiority, a man-god in place of Nietzsche’s dead God, enforcing his own justice under no authority other than his superior might and his personal moral compass. It’s easy to label him a fascist: a super-man is by definition above man (super is Latin for ‘above’), and imposing will through violence is a hallmark of fascism. But to truly compare the character Superman and the Übermensch, Nietzsche’s actual philosophical concept must first be understood.
Nietzsche’s Übermensch vs Hitler’s Übermensch
A pioneer of existentialism and postmodernism, Nietzsche’s revolutionary ideas shaped the twentieth century Western intellectual sphere to an extent equaled only by Darwin, Marx, Einstein, and Freud. In several of his works, notably Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), he introduced the notion of ressentiment ; the idea that those who are powerless – by either circumstance of birth or weakness of character – inevitably resent the powerful few. And so, Nietzsche argues, the oppressed created a ‘slave morality’, a perversion of natural law by which what is good for the animal – vitality, independence, a will to live – becomes social evil; and what is bad for the animal becomes socially good. Strength, triumph, and dominance are portrayed as sinfulness, cruelty and oppression, while weakness is seen as a virtue, recast as humility, meekness, and peacefulness. The superior beast of prey is thus subdued by the inferior lambs, convinced that its innate power is evil, and deceiving the beast into relinquishing it.
Nietzsche traces these ‘moral prejudices’ back, before Christianity, to Judaism. “The Jews brought about that miracle of a reversal of values, thanks to which life on earth received a new and dangerous attraction”, he wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals. “With them begins the slaves’ revolt in morality.” The Hebrew Bible introduced to the world the false concepts of freedom, justice, sanctity of life, and a devotion to the spiritual over the material – corruptions of nature that have universalized the ressentiment of the slaves and enslaved the masters, leading to a voluntary degeneration and stunting of mankind.
It’s important to note that, contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not an antisemite. He meant these comments as an observation of the origins of morality, not as an antisemitic polemic; he equally repudiated Christianity for the same reasons. So he held Jewish faith in contempt, but not Jews themselves. In fact he openly spoke out against antisemitism. Nietzsche’s statement ‘God is dead’ encapsulates a rejection of all religious dogma and its attendant morality. Nietzsche’s alternative was to promote an ascendance to an entirely subjective morality dictated only by one’s own ‘will to power’. For Nietzsche the Übermensch is therefore the superior man who’s unshackled from illusory values, free to pursue his desires and actualize his greatness. With God dead, the superior man can and should take his place.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is undoubtedly harsh, but it’s not political. The Übermensch may be cold-blooded, but he isn’t a fascist, since his only purpose is himself. If the Übermensch subjugates others it is only for personal ambition, not for a national or racial ethos. Rather, Nietzsche recognised that authoritarianism of any kind subsumes individual will, and further, thought that all ideology is a craven avoidance of the austere truths of the world.
And yet the Übermensch became a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Encouraged by Nietzsche’s antisemitic sister Elizabeth, Hitler turned the Übermensch into a powerful propaganda figure, a symbol of the Aryan ‘master race’. Nietzsche’s morally transcendent man was reduced to a state-sponsored specimen of eugenics; his moral nihilism replaced with National Socialism; his rousing call to overcome humanity’s limitations turned into a pretext to enslave it.
Hitler likewise distorted Nietzsche’s views on the corrupting morals of Judaism, attributing them to race instead of religion and so creating the Untermenschen – ‘undermen’ or ‘submen’ – for the Nazi Übermenschen to eradicate as an imperative. “Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish,” Hitler stated, declaring in a speech that “The struggle for world domination is between me and the Jews.” To compare Superman and the Übermensch, therefore, a distinction should be made between the two versions of the Übermensch, the Nietzschean and the Nazi.
However, to Nietzsche, the Man of Steel would have been anathema. His Übermensch is the ultimate individualist, while Superman is the ultimate public servant, not only abiding by the ‘slave morality’ but enforcing its laws. He’s the mightiest predator, manipulated into servitude by the weaker. So in Nietzschean terms Superman is cowardly rather than heroic, depraved rather than noble, misguidedly devoted to the stunted ambitions of the letzter Mensch – the ‘last man’ – the common man who seeks only security, peace, and comfort. Superman’s slogan, ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ would mean almost the exact opposite to Nietzsche than it did to Siegel and Shuster. Nietzsche would have held Superman’s secret identity particularly in contempt. The Übermensch is humanity aspiring to godhood, and Clark Kent is a god aspiring to humanity. For the Übermensch there is no higher law, no higher authority, than himself, whereas Superman, in both identities, holds himself accountable to the same moral values and (largely) the same laws as everyone else. Worse – he is an abdication of self, a life spent in service of others, in the name of higher ideals that are nothing more than fantasy. Superman is like a biblical prophet: a champion of the very slave morality Nietzsche railed against. And like a prophet of scripture, whose importance is not in his miracles but in his message, Superman’s influence exceeds his acts of heroism. “They can be a great people”, his father Jor-El tells him in Superman: The Movie (1978): “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you”. His famous ‘S’ symbol, he declares in the more recent movie Man of Steel (2013), stands for ‘hope’. He seeks to inspire and thus serve as an indirect force for good, making him not merely a defender of the status quo but a reformer who improves it.
Nietzsche meant the Übermensch to be an aspirational figure as well, but he isn’t a call to all as Superman is. He speaks only to the few whose wills are strong enough to transcend the rest. And – arguably the most misunderstood point of Nietzsche’s philosophy here – the Übermensch is not a finite state of being; he’s a continuous process of overcoming and becoming.
Superman’s superhumanism is perhaps an opposite response to the same dehumanizing forces that gave birth to the Übermensch. The late nineteenth to early twentieth century was an era of rapid industrialization, exponential population growth, mass migration, urbanization, secularization and geopolitical turmoil, eliciting in the individual a sense of impotence and unimportance. Nietzsche saw his philosophy as a new form of enlightenment, a radical departure from the past, while Superman was a reaffirmation of foundational social values and man’s primacy. The Übermensch is Gilgamesh, a demigod on a personal quest for power and glory, whereas Superman is Moses, a humble servant-leader on a mission of goodwill and sacrifice. It’s a notion of virtue derived from a view of humanity as a community and from a cosmological order mutually exclusive to Nietzsche’s solipsistic moral nihilism.
Nietzsche Philosophising with a Hammer by Woodrow Cowher 2022
Portrait © Woodrow Cowher 2022 Please visit woodrawspictures.com
Superman’s collectivism comes not only from his American heartland upbringing, but from his experience as the last survivor of a destroyed civilization. That Jor-El was the only scientist on Krypton willing to challenge dogma and recognize their impending doom may have made him a ‘superior man’ in one sense; but his thinking was only superior enough to save his son, not himself, his wife, or his race. Nietzsche might argue that it was Krypton’s democratic science council that doomed them – a testament to the falsehood of equality – but to Superman himself, true power lies not in the hands of the individual but in the collective, which is why he doesn’t take more proactive action on Earth.
It’s Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, who’s actually closer to Nietzsche’s Übermensch. There are different versions to Luthor’s origin story, but whether born to riches or a self-made man, he attained power and influence using his genius intellect and ruthless cunning, and he flouts norms and laws in advancement of his personal goals. Ironically, what prevents him from being a true Nietzschean Übermensch is his obsessive hatred of Superman. He’s jealous of the hero’s power and public admiration, which he could never attain to the same degree. Ultimately, he’s motivated by ressentiment. Not exactly the sort of noble mindset that Nietzsche had in mind for his superior being.
As for the Nazi Übermensch, who replaces self-actualization with supremacism, and free thought with fascism, he’s exactly what Superman was created to oppose. The Man of Steel – known early on as ‘Champion of the Oppressed’ – was Siegel and Shuster’s antithesis to the Nazi ideal. And they managed to subvert the concept of ‘superman’ so successfully with him that, once universally associated with Nazism, the term has come to almost universally connote their hero. He’s a dominant power, but the laws he enforces represent the will of the people. He did start off as a roughhouse vigilante whose flagrant disregard for the law made him the most wanted man in Metropolis in Action Comics #12 (May 1939), but he still showed restraint and compassion, strong-arming true abusers of power in defense of the innocents they preyed upon. And he soon moderated, operating extrajudicially but with the knowledge and blessing of the institutions of law and government. He was eventually deputized by the mayor of Metropolis in The Man of Steel #4 (November 1986). He never kills, maims, or employs force beyond what is necessary to stop an aggressor, and when he does it’s always to protect life, freedom, and property. This makes him no more a fascist than any agent of law enforcement. The Nazi Übermensch is a man of brutal competition and utter lack of compunction, limited only by the extent of his might. Superman, mightier than the Herrenvolk – the master race – could ever be, is a man of brotherly love. And his great power could only manifest because of the compassion of the strangers who found him and took him in when he was a helpless infant. He’s Siegel and Shuster’s rebuttal to Hitler, an icon of altruistic, Judeo-Christian values, a rejection of the fascist call to rule over the weak in favor of the democratic belief in the innate value of human beings. The Übermensch is might makes right; Superman is right makes might.
There have been countless stories in which Superman has been reimagined as a despot, usually in uncanonical tales or in alternate realities. Several of these alternatives have been based on or alluded to the Übermensch, but a distinction between Nietzsche’s and Hitler’s versions is rarely made. In the latest, The Multiversity: Mastermen #1 (April 2015), Superman lands as a child in the Sudetenland in 1939, is raised by Hitler himself to become the Overman (an alternative translation of Übermensch), and leads the Nazis to win the war and conquer the world. But these popular iconoclasms only serve to demonstrate just how far removed the character is from either the Nazi or the Nietzschean model.
Superhero comics are innately philosophical. They’re a metaphoric, hyperbolic world of symbols in action. Superman, as the paragon and one of the most powerful, constantly wrestles with ethical dilemmas, chiefly those of power and responsibility. Despite repeated temptation, he almost never overreaches. He stays within to the scope of the socially acceptable, limiting himself almost exclusively to emergency work. He saves bridges from collapsing but he doesn’t build them. He rescues innocents from disasters but he doesn’t intervene in wars (since WWII). He stops bank robbers but doesn’t topple oppressive regimes. It’s a relativism that seemingly conflicts with his absolute morality. Nietzsche would likely argue it’s a stance of moral cowardice.
As a fictional character, Superman can’t be confronted with real-world issues in their full complexity without the fantasy falling apart. Realism would be his true Kryptonite. He’d become endlessly entangled in complex consequences from financial markets to governments to religious institutions. In-story, as the world’s greatest superhero, he’s unwilling to take more aggressive action on a larger scale precisely because of the slippery slope to despotism. A good example is JLA #4 (April 1997), where he fends off an invasion by white Martians, who on their planet had enslaved and exterminated the green Martians, whom they saw as inferior. Their leader, Protex, in true Nazi Übermensch fashion, spews out at Superman: “How stupid are you? You let those human sheep do what they want when you could rule the world! Stunted slaves! They look at you and see what they could have become… You know in your heart they’re inferior!” Superman’s answer is simple: “They believe in me. And in my heart I believe in them.”
After he wins the day together with his fellow Justice Leaguers, they stop to reflect on their role as superheroes. Wonder Woman ponders, “Are we doing too much or too little? When does intervention become domination?”
“Humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny,” Superman answers, resolutely, “We can’t carry them there.”
Flash then asks, “Why should they need us at all?”
Superman’s answer, again, is simple: “To catch them if they fall.”
© Roy Schwartz 2022
Roy Schwartz is the author of the new book Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @RealRoySchwartz and at royschwartz.com.