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Nietzsche & Germany

Stefan Sorgner on Nietzsche’s still-controversial influence in the land of his birth.

The first major philosopher influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche was also one of the founding fathers of sociology, Georg Simmel (1858-1918). His views on Nietzsche are contained in a series of lectures which he published in 1907 with the title ‘Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’. There, he concentrates on Nietzsche’s role as a cultural analyst and stresses the importance Nietzsche attributes to nobility. Correctly, Simmel points out that Nietzsche was not an immoralist; he was not only a critic of Christianity and traditional morality, but also a philosopher who did try to create a new and higher set of values. On the other hand, in his own work, Simmel does not put forward any positive views about future cultural developments. He only rejects the possibility that a new religion will stop the process of enlightenment.

Yet, Simmel acknowledges Nietzsche’s importance for ethics by comparing it to that of Copernicus for cosmology. Not only does Simmel discuss Nietzsche as a philosopher of culture, but also he critically analyzes the philosopher’s metaphysics. His critique of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence of everything is very well known, and regarded by some as the definitive refutation of that concept. However, I have shown in my own interpretation of Nietzsche that this is not the case, as Simmel’s counterexample implicitly contains metaphysical assumptions which Nietzsche didn’t share (Sorgner, 1999, pp.60-70). Simmel’s work bears quite a few similarities to Nietzsche’s. He frequently wrote aphorisms and essays, and the life/form distinction, which corresponds to Nietzsche’s Dionysus/Apollo distinction, is very significant for him.

The philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1965) gave an interpretation of Nietzsche which appeared in 1936. It is a wonderful book that connects Nietzsche’s life and thought. Although it stresses Nietzsche’s remarks on human nature and the human aspects of his work, it also takes cultural and philosophical aspects into consideration as well. Jaspers gives a detailed discussion of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence of everything. He correctly interprets Nietzsche’s theory of human nature as being based on the ‘will to power’ (ie the self-sufficiency or self-confidence achieved in creative activity) as an all-encompassing worldview which is intended to create a countermovement to increasing nihilism. Jaspers also recognizes that Nietzsche realized the human need to regard something as true and linked the person Nietzsche to his philosophy, stressing the important influence that this philosopher’s illness and solitude had on his worldview.

Although his individual interpretations are impressive and his understanding of Nietzsche’s approach to philosophy is surely correct, Jaspers failed to appreciate the importance of consistency in Nietzsche’s worldview. According to Jaspers, Nietzsche contradicts everything he put forward without valuing one position more than another. This is simply false, because all the apparent inconsistencies which turn up in Nietzsche’s work get resolved once one takes their perspectival relevance into consideration. One example: Nietzsche both criticizes and praises nihilism. He criticizes it because human beings need order to survive, and this they do not have in a period of nihilism. However, he praises the nihilism which arises from an increase of strength from the people, because it enables the people to get rid of the old worldview (which dominated them) in order to create a new one which corresponds to their current strength. Yet, Jaspers criticizes that nihilism which arises out of a decrease of strength because, in that case, the worldview which people get rid of demands more strength from them than the one which will arise. On the other hand, he praises nihilism because human beings sometimes need to let go for a while in order to gather strength for further endeavours.

As one can see in this example, it always depends on the perspective as to which attitude Nietzsche takes toward a concept. Yet, the estimation of the concepts arises out of a stable basic attitude – his metaphysics of the will to power. So one cannot say that Nietzsche is inconsistent, as Jaspers does. Apart from this, Jaspers’ understanding of Nietzsche is very good. One reason for this is probably because their biographies are in some respects very similar. Both suffered immensely due to life-long illnesses. Both made inquiries into human nature by being introspective. Nietzsche frequently refers to himself as the ‘first psychologist’, while Jaspers specialized in psychiatry (after studying medicine). In addition, both attribute a lot of value to the sciences. Jaspers thinks that philosophy is only possible if one takes scientific results into consideration, and Nietzsche wanted his metaphysical concepts to appeal to scientifically-minded people.

One must also consider the most important German philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). His thoughts on Nietzsche stem from the lectures he gave between 1936 and 1940, as well as from some corresponding treatises he wrote between 1940 and 1946 (Heidegger, 1979, 1984). According to Heidegger, his involvement with Nietzsche was at least partly responsible for the turn within his own thinking, which took place during the aforementioned period of time. In his earlier period, during which Heidegger published Being and Time (1926), Nietzsche was hardly present at all. Then, he became concerned with the ahistorical, fundamental, formal organization of ‘Dasein’. Dasein is Heidegger’s expression for ‘person’. However, his concern for Nietzsche shifted his interest to the historicity of Being, which means that he became interested in the philosophy of culture and, in particular, the problem of nihilism. So Nietzsche’s superb qualities as a cultural analyst were one significant reason for the turn in Heidegger’s thinking.

Heidegger interpreted Nietzsche’s theories of the will to power and the eternal recurrence of everything as metaphysical theories. However, he also regarded Nietzsche as a critic of metaphysics. So Nietzsche’s philosophy is inconsistent, according to Heidegger’s interpretation. This was the result of Nietzsche’s attempt to overcome nihilism by overcoming metaphysics, but here he failed. However, Heidegger regards himself as having managed to overcome nihilism by overcoming metaphysics. Still, he was mainly concerned with Being; so how can he claim to have overcome metaphysics, one might wonder?

According to Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger claims that thinking about our deepest concerns as values is nihilism” and “that our cultural practices can direct our activities and make our lives meaningful only insofar as they are, and stay, unarticulated, that is, as long as they stay the soil out of which we live” (Guignon, ed., 1993, pp.293, 294). If one talks about values, then one can distance oneself from them. Only when one just acts upon them without being consciously aware of them, can one regard values as necessary, self-evident and natural. It is also important to understand and appreciate that it is not one person who acts within a frame of meaning, but that it is a whole society that does so. A community needs a common background, worldview, norms and meaning.

According to Heidegger, such a shared denominator is not present in our society. It is being dominated by technology. People and machines are treated alike. Both are seen solely as the means to increasing efficiency for its own sake. However, it is not technology which has brought about this nihilism; it is our being dominated by technology which has done it. So human beings just have to regain their own space or, in Heidegger’s words, to find a new rootedness in order to escape from the present nihilism.

Given this summary of Heidegger’s later thought, one can only say that it does not differ too much from Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche also recognized the importance of having a community with a common worldview, which he tried to bring about via his transvaluation of values. Nietzsche also stressed the need to overcome the present nihilism, and he also regarded a common worldview to be the basis for the actions of human beings. On Heidegger’s account, this sort of society would have to come about “via the earth”, which means that it has to be the result of a natural, unreflected development. Nietzsche, on the other hand, thought that actual forms of society always have to be made by humankind.

So the reason why Heidegger claimed that Nietzsche did not manage to overcome nihilism by overcoming metaphysics was that Nietzsche did not manage to overcome metaphysics because he was too much concerned with questions of value. Yet, by being concerned with questions of value, one is necessarily still present in a nihilistic period. This is indubitably correct. However, Nietzsche did not claim anything else. He put forward his set of values in order to bring about a new community, and it is questionable whether one can bring about such a new community without being consciously concerned with questions of value, as Heidegger believes. This, however, is the main difference between Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s philosophy of culture. What Heidegger forgot to consider was that if one is concerned with questions of value in order to bring about a new worldview, then this attitude does not imply that one should be concerned with questions of value once the new world order is dominant (and only the latter implies nihilism).

In addition, Nietzsche is only inconsistent in Heidegger’s interpretation because the latter understands metaphysics as a worldview connected with value judgements. For Heidegger, metaphysics necessarily stands for nihilism and can therefore not serve as a means to overcome nihilism. This is, however, not Nietzsche’s understanding of the term ‘metaphysics’ in the above two cases. Nietzsche is a critic of metaphysics when it refers to all two-world philosophies. Yet, Nietzsche himself is a metaphysician, if one holds metaphysics to be a theory of the ultimate nature of the world. In this case, Nietzsche can be both without being inconsistent.

Two philosophers who never wrote separate treatises on Nietzsche, but who nevertheless were extremely influenced by him, are Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) and Arnold Gehlen (1904-1976). Although their positive views were very different, they agreed in their analysis of our contemporary culture; which was probably a result of their common Nietzschean heritage. Gehlen’s, Adorno’s, and Nietzsche’s main areas of interest are also identical: philosophy, sociology, and art. In a lecture in 1963, Adorno said that among the great philosophers Nietzsche was the one who influenced him most, even more than Hegel. This is particularly interesting, as one normally regards most of the members of the Frankfurt School, to which Adorno belonged, as being mainly influenced by the Hegel-Marx tradition, out of which the Frankfurt School developed.

As Gadamer and Habermas were not overly influenced by Nietzsche, the last major philosopher to consider is Peter Sloterdijk (born 1947). In 1983, he became the shooting star of German philosophy with the publication of his first major work, The Critique of Cynical Reason (Sloterdijk, 1987). Three years later, he published his reading and application of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; it is written in his very distinctive personal style, which differs significantly from typical analytic interpretations. Sloterdijk identifies Nietzsche’s aims with his own, by referring to his works as an “act of Dionysian ‘Kynicism’” (Sloterdijk, 1989, p.47).

Sloterdijk uses the cynicism/kynicism distinction in his Critique of Cynical Reason in order to describe and solve the problem of modernity. Cynicism is the typical state of mind within our society today and it was brought about by the Enlightenment movement. “Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness” (Sloterdijk, 1987, p.5), which means that a cynic is someone who no longer believes in any absolute values or special worldview, but belongs to an institution which is still based upon traditional principles. This situation makes the cynic miserable, because he has to stick to principles he no longer believes in. A typical example would be a professor of astrophysics, who doubts that scientific inquiries can provide us with anything useful. Sloterdijk refers to Adorno as a typical cynic.

According to Sloterdijk, the alternative to cynicism is kynicism. Like the cynic, the kynic is enlightened. Yet, this does not make the kynic miserable; it enables him to affirm his body, especially his lower drive, and to live passionately, laughing and celebrating his life. He also applies the concept of kynicism to Nietzsche, which is clearly false. Nietzsche pointed out: “only as an aesthetic phenomenon are life and the world justified eternally.” This expresses Nietzsche’s belief that Apollinian stability and order are essential for survival, and it shows that Nietzsche was not a Dionysian kynic, as Sloterdijk wants us to believe. Even so, Sloterdijk did emphasize some essential points in The Birth of Tragedy, e.g., that “the dramatic theme of the book is the relationship between the tragic and the nontragic” (Sloterdijk, 1989, p.52).

Nietzsche and The Third Reich

In discussions, one frequently encounters the view that Nietzsche was a proto-Fascist, an anti-Semite, and a raving German nationalist. However, none of these accusations is true. They still result from Nietzsche’s appropriation by Nazi Germany. Of course, it is correct that Nietzsche was worshipped in Nazi Germany, that his writings were used and referred to by many of the leading Nazi intellectuals, and that Hitler visited the Nietzsche archive in Weimar, talked to Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and attended her funeral in November 1935. Yet, one should not forget that other cultural giants, such as Goethe and Schiller, were also used by the Nazis for their own purposes, and that leading Nazi philosophers had to put forward very implausible interpretations so that they could sustain the picture of Nietzsche as a proto-Fascist.

One should also note Alfred Bäumler’s efforts to explain Nietzsche’s frequent and numerous pro-Jewish comments and his obvious contempt for anti-Semitism. According to Bäumler, “his [Nietzsche’s] philo-Semitic comments were an attention-gaining device – playing the Jews against the Germans was part of his strategy to get the Germans to listen to him” (Aschheim, 1992, pp.250-251). Various Nazi commentators even claimed that “Nietzsche had only opposed nineteenth-century forms of conventional and Christian anti-Semitism because he stood for a newer and far more radical form” (Aschheim, 1992, p.251).

Nietzsche does not have a unified perspective on the Jews. He clearly distinguishes among Old Testament Judaism, ‘priestly’ Judaism of the Second Temple, and the post- Christian Jews in the Diaspora and modern times. He has great respect for Old Testament Judaism because within it he found many great human beings; that period represents a very strong and heroic cultural sphere. Nietzsche adores such an attitude toward life. His critical remarks are always about the ‘priestly’ Judaism of the Second Temple because “he profoundly despised and condemned [it] as the parent of Christian culture” (Schacht, ed., 1994, p.214). Yet, he did not condemn it due to certain racial characteristics, for he does not attribute a certain essence to the Jews. Lastly, there are the post-Christian Jews in the Diaspora and modern times, “whom he defended, admired, and saw as a healing ingredient for his ‘new Europe’” (Schacht, ed., 1994, p.215). This should have made it obvious that he was not an anti-Semite. At various places, he even refers to himself as an “anti-anti- Semite”. Furthermore, one should not forget that by 1870 Nietzsche was a Swiss citizen, that in most of his remarks about Germans he is full of contempt for them, and that he saw himself as a ‘good European’. He even put forward that one should work at the mixture of the European nations (Human, All-too-Human 1, 475). So, it would be far more legitimate to regard him as the father of the European community, than to see him as a proto-Fascist (which he clearly was not).

Nietzsche in Contemporary Germany

This year is the 100th anniversary of Nietzsche’s death, and in August the news magazine Der Spiegel devoted a large part of one issue (No.34, 2000) to the man and his legacy. The previous time the educated public became aware of Nietzsche was during the Sloterdijk/Habermas debate in September 1999. This debate started off with an article by Thomas Assheuer, a pupil of Habermas, with the title ‘The Zarathustra Project’ (my translation) in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit (September 2, 1999). It was a reply to a speech given by Sloterdijk at a Heidegger conference at Schloss Elmau (July 16-20, 1999). Assheuser compared Sloterdijk to Nietzsche. In this article, it becomes clear that he wanted to stress that Sloterdijk has something similar in mind to Nietzsche in terms of the overman (Übermensch), and that Sloterdijk’s latest ideas lead very much toward a totalitarian system.

In Der Spiegel (No.36, 1999) Reinhard Mohr even claimed that Sloterdijk was using a fascist-like rhetoric for his arguments. Here I have to remark that Sloterdijk’s speech was about the importance of finding a codex for the anthropotechniques, among which is genetic engineering. Among the reasons for being accused of a fascist-like rhetoric and having totalitarian tendencies within his philosophy, was that Sloterdijk was mainly referring to Heidegger, Plato, and especially Nietzsche in his speech.

In his reply to these accusations, Sloterdijk blamed Habermas for initiating the campaign against him. This is why the dispute was called the Sloterdijk/Habermas debate. However, there were also many leading philosophers who do not belong to the Frankfurt School and who were nevertheless very critical of Sloterdijk’s speech.

In Die Zeit (September 23, 1999), Manfred Frank criticized Sloterdijk for his allusions to Plato’s and Nietzsche’s ‘fantasies for breeding’. In fact, Frank goes so far as to claim that by using Nietzsche’s vocabulary, Sloterdijk did nothing to avoid the comparison of his rhetoric to Nazi jargon.

In a very clear article also in Die Zeit on the same day, Ernst Tugendhat pointed out that Sloterdijk’s speech was politically problematic because, in his conception, only power is supposed to be significant for the determination of the codex. Yet, this premise was supposed to be only implicitly contained in Sloterdijk’s speech, whereas it was explicitly stated in Nietzsche’s and Hitler’s thought.

What is important and relevant, for my current purpose, is the observation that by using some of Nietzsche’s vocabulary, and alluding to Nietzsche’s and Plato’s political conception, many of the leading German philosophers made the direct connection to Hitler’s thought, fascist rhetoric, Nazi jargon, and the idea of a totalitarian state. I think that this reveals a lot about the current dominating attitude toward Nietzsche in Germany, which is still that one connects the person Friedrich Nietzsche with the Third Reich. But, I wish to stress that Nietzsche was pro-Jewish, an anti-anti-Semite, an anti-nationalist and a good European.

© Stefan Lorenz Sorgner 2000

Aschheim, Steven E. The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890-1990. University of California Press, 1993.
Guignon, Charles, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. CUP, 1993.
Heidegger, Martin Nietzsche, (trans. David Farrell Krell) San Francisco, Harper & Row, Vol. 1 1979 and Vol.2 1984.
Jaspers, Karl (1936) Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity. (trans. C.F. Wallraff and F.J. Schmitz) Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Schacht, Richard, ed. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. University of California Press, 1994.
Simmel, Georg (1907) Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. (ed. and trans. by H. Loiskandl, D. Weinstein and M. Weinstein) Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Univ of Minnesota Press, 1987
Sloterdijk, Peter. Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism. (trans. from the German by J.O. Daniel) Univ of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Sorgner, Stefan Lorenz. Metaphysics without Truth: On the Importance of Consistency within Nietzsche’s Philosophy. Munich, Utz Verlag, 1999.

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