Friedrich W. Nietzsche

With a name tricky both to spell and to pronounce, this German philosopher was born in 1844, son of a sheep herder in Saxony. He was brought up a true Protestant, and became Professor of Classical Studies at Basle when he was only twenty-five. There he stayed for ten years, before a possibly syphilitic condition spoiled his health and his vocation as a teacher. Then he started writing, chasing sunshine in both France and Italy.

Of the several philosophical works he composed between 1873 and 1888 the best known are Thus Spake Zarathustra and Good and Evil. In 1889 he lost his reason and was cared for by his sister until his death. He had lost all faith in Christianity, despite his strong Christian upbringing, believing only in ‘The Will to Power’ (Schopenhaur) as the Source and Meaning of Life.

It was this man who thought that the best Man could do was to produce a ‘Superman’, a strong blond creature who would ignore sentiment and inhibition and employ violence to provide a better world for all. But he did not identify this beast with Germans or Germany, as he despised both: “The Germany of my days represents the stupidest, most depraved and most mendacious form of the German spirit,” said Nietzsche, and went on: “you say a good cause justifies any war; I say a good war justifies any cause.”

Christian compassion for the poor or weak aroused his ire: “War and courage have done greater things than love for one’s neighbour!” He was irritated beyond good sense by those ambitions that make people seek power. For this he loathed von Bismarck (q.v.): “Power makes people stupid,” he said. A contradictory man, he drew racialist tendencies in his ‘Superman’ but disliked persecution of the Jews: “There are a whole range of monstrosities including the anti-Semitic,” he said.

Hitler cannot have read much Nietzsche because the latter proclaimed: “The idea of an Aryan race is a mendacious swindle”. Of all the great philosophers, he suffered most, intellectually, after his death, because his aphorisms were plundered and manipulated by radicals and nationalists without thought of context or concept. Mussolini, a good example, was a great fan: “To understand Nietzsche we must envisage a new race of ‘free spirits’ strengthened in war, in solitude, in danger,” said he in 1908.

The murderer of the Heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne (along with his morganatic wife) in Sarajevo in 1914, which lead indirectly to the Great War, was another fan. Gavilo Princips’ favourite verse was Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo – “’Insatiable as flame, I burn and consume myself’”. Those radicals who could not bear the bourgeoisie were attracted by his attack on it: ”Become what you are!” Typical of the way these things happen, his sister Elizabeth Nietzsche became his literary executor: but her husband was a notorious anti-Semite; they worked together on Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (published 1908) producing a tract much used by the Nazis (q.v.). The philosopher’s writings affected an entire generation, for the good reason that they could be interpreted in many different and convenient ways.

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