No serious thinker has done more harm to the Jewish people than Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings were an important inspiration for Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Yet far from being an anti-Semite, Nietzsche was one of the most pro-Jewish German writers of his time. How can this paradox be explained, and does it have any lessons for the present day?
Nietzsche was the son and grandson of Protestant ministers. He became an academic expert on ancient Greece, yet his poor health forced him to resign his professorship at a young age. He spent most of the rest of his life on a pension, traveling from spa to resort town trying to avoid the extremes of weather that gave him such physical discomfort.
A massively productive and self-consciously iconoclastic writer, Nietzsche never attained a large readership in his lifetime, though his fame did grow. His life and works are too complex to summarize here, but one constant feature of his worldview was his friendliness — even admiration — towards Jews.
The growing anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1870s and 1880s disgusted him. He derided the hatred of Jews by his friend, the composer Richard Wagner, with whom he eventually broke. He ridiculed it on the part of his publisher. He tried to block his sister’s marriage to an anti-Semitic agitator. Nietzsche had several Jewish friends, including one of his greatest admirers, the famous Danish literary critic Georg Brandes. After a stimulating conversation with another Jewish friend, Helen Zimmern, he noted:
It is fantastic to what extent this race now has the “intellectuality” of Europe in its hands.
Moreover, though he is mainly remembered for his concept of the “superman” and the “blond beast,” Nietzsche was an anti-militarist. He hated the German monarchy and loved France (at that time Germany’s main enemy), Switzerland, and Italy, where he spent most of his adult life. Far from believing in the superiority of the “Aryans,” he liked to imagine he had Polish ancestry.
To give a sense of Nietzsche’s world view — though these extreme expressions came from 1888 as he began to descend into madness — Nietzsche urged all of the other countries in Europe to unite against Germany, called on Jews to help him in his campaign against Christianity, and said he would like to kill all the German anti-Semites.
There is no doubt that if he had lived to see Nazism he would have been appalled and been outspoken in his enmity, though his sister became an enthusiastic Nazi.
How then did this pro-Jewish philosopher become an inspiration for the murderers of 86 percent of all the Jews in Europe?
The immediate answer is his hatred of Christianity and belief that a post-Christian, secular morality must be developed.
In this regard, he was part of the post-Darwin reaction to the cracking of religious certainty. As a believer in what Brandes called “aristocratic radicalism” and having a horror of democracy, Nietzsche, in the words of his biographer Curtis Cate, contrasted “the positive ‘breeding’ of aristocracies to the negative ‘taming,’ ‘castration,’ and emasculation of the strong by insidious ‘underdogs.’” Or in Nietzsche’s own words:
Christianity, growing from Jewish roots and comprehensible only as a product of this soil, represents a reaction against the morality of breeding, of race, of privilege — it is the anti-Aryan religion par excellence.
In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche penned what became the core of Nazi philosophy and the death knell for European Jewry:
All that has been done on earth against “the nobles,” the “mighty,” the “overlords,” … is as nothing compared to what the Jews did against them: the Jews, that priestly people who were only able to obtain satisfaction against their enemies and conquerors through a radical revaluation of the latter’s values, that is, by an act of the most spiritual revenge. … It was the Jews who … dared to invert the aristocratic value-equation … saying “the wretched alone are the good ones, the poor, the helpless, the lowly … and you who are powerful and noble are to all eternity the evil ones.”
This was, however, in contrast to what the Nazis made out of it then and the Islamists have done today, nothing that they did on their own, no conspiracy of the elders of Zion, but the “invention” of Christianity. Nietzsche used these terms interchangeably when he said the “Western world was now suffering from `blood poisoning’” through being Jewified, Christianized, or “mobified.”
What should be stressed here is that this diatribe against Jews was a small, isolated part of his writing that did not carry over into his life or thinking otherwise. He totally dissociated the existing Jews from the harm he perceived arising from those of them — especially Paul — who had created Christianity two millennia earlier.
Earlier, he had written admiringly in explaining his opposition to anti-Semitism: “The Jews, however, are beyond all doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe.” Indeed, they fit his aristocratic prescription since they survived “thanks above all to a resolute faith that does not need to feel ashamed in the presence of ‘modern ideas.’”
Germany, he continued, would do better to deport the anti-Semites than the Jews who would provide many good qualities.