Adolf Hitler and the ‘Real’ Nietzsche
“No Hitler, no Holocaust.” Is it also true: “No Nietzsche, no Hitler”?
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 — the same year that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche descended into madness. During World War II, Nietzsche was glorified by the Nazis — and denounced by the Allies — with some eventually calling him a “godfather” of fascism and Hitler. But were they right?
Nietzsche was not an antisemite; in fact, he was an “anti-antisemite.”
He loathed anti-Jewish demagogues, including his early mentor, composer Richard Wagner. He had little use for nationalism — particularly German nationalism — but respected post-emancipation Jews, to whom he looked as potential saviors from the “decadence” of European civilization.
Paradoxically, Nietzsche, who damned the Enlightenment and French Revolution, praised their beneficiaries, the emancipated Jews. As Jacob Golumb shows, the founders of Zionism, from Herzl to Ahad Ha’am, once considered themselves Nietzscheans. How then could Nietzsche be a monster?
Hitler may have never read a word of Nietzsche, but he accepted an invitation from Nietzsche’s fanatical sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, to visit Weimar in 1934 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the philosophers birth. The visit was lavishly photographed by Hitler’s personal photographer.
Of course, the Nazis had no scruples about appropriating — and misappropriating — historical figures. They even made Jesus into an Aryan! In Nietzsche’s case, all they had to do was twist such Nietzschean buzzwords as Übermensch (“Superman”), “blond beast,” and “will to power.” Nietzsche criticized the Darwinian concept, “the struggle for existence,” but he did believe that life was a struggle testing superior people — whom Nietzsche believed should rule humanity.
Arguments that Nietzsche or his ideas nurtured the 20th century’s ugliest trends cannot be dismissed out-of-hand. Yes, he detested vulgar antisemites, but his view of the history of Jews and Judaism was ambivalent and potentially dangerous. Nietzsche admired modern Jews for having emerged with their self-respect intact and energized from medieval ghettos. He also admired the ancient Jews, including the Biblical patriarchs, Moses, and the great kings of Israel, because in his view they possessed the qualities of “natural aristocrats.”
But between ancient and modern Jews came the Jews and Judaism of Jesus’ time. In Nietzsche’s telling, those Jews refused to allow the Roman Empire to destroy them, although it crushed their revolts militarily. Rather than succumb, they devised an ingenious strategy — Christianity — which ultimately converted Rome and bequeathed to Europe what Nietzsche loathed as “a slave morality.” This inculcated the masses with the values of self-denial and other-worldliness. The real conspirator, in Nietzsche’s eyes, was not Jesus (a saintly fool) but Paul of Tarsus who — as St. Paul — “invented Christianity.”
After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jews and “Jewish Christians” planted the seeds for revenge against the Roman generals who had laid waste to the Holy Land. They did so by methods that — in the eyes of antisemites throughout the ages — reflected the unscrupulous Jewish drive for “world domination” by whatever means.
The Nazis had to make their peace with organized Christianity to consolidate power — although Hitler waged countless and aggressive battles against the Church. But Hitler’s inner circle wanted ultimately to replace it as much as possible with the reborn Aryan faith of the pagan Germans.
Nietzsche was always anti-Christian as well as hostile to rabbinic Judaism. He demanded “the improvement of mankind, including the ruthless destruction of all that is degenerate and parasitical.”
Nietzsche’s intent may have been rhetorical, but the Nazis put his genocidal incitement into practice — against tens of millions, including the Jews — whom Nietzsche respected. Mercifully, he was long dead.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).