Twentieth century Germany has provided an exceptional stage for the most difficult questions in intellectual history. Do ideas have an integrity thatTwentieth century Germany has provided an exceptional stage for the most difficult questions in intellectual history. Do ideas have an integrity that remains intact wherever they travel, and can thus be said to be “responsible” for effects their authors never envisioned? Or are they just raw materials that get shaped and deployed by whatever interpreter happens upon them? Does it make sense to look for the origins of barbaric and tragic events in the world of ideas? These questions are continually being addressed with regard to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, but have been raised about a slew of other German intellectuals, including G.W.F. Hegel and, perhaps most prominently, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like other aspects of the historiography of twentieth century Germany, German intellectual history has been perhaps centrally consumed with the question of how Nazism could have come about, who should be held responsible, and to what degree.
In the U.S., Nietzsche was widely assumed to have been a Nazi philosopher long before he was the subject of any serious historiography, a situation that opened the way for the enormous influence of the German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann. Kaufmann, who has remained the godfather of American Nietzsche scholarship despite an avalanche of criticism, not only translated nearly all of the philosopher’s books, but put his stamp on the historiography with his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, first published in 1950. Kaufmann insisted on a rigid separation between the true, philosophical Nietzsche and the “Nietzsche myth” created by the Nazis, the blame for which Kaufmann laid at the feet of Nietzsche’s supposedly virulently anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche. While Kaufmann is widely praised for making Nietzsche an object of serious inquiry in the U.S., he has also been accused of sanitizing and domesticating Nietzsche in
In his history of Nietzsche’s reception in Germany, Steven E. Aschheim claims to approach this polarized field without an agenda. Nietzsche will be treated neither as hopelessly compromised by Nazism nor expunged of all complicity; in fact, Aschheim immediately brackets the question of a “real” Nietzsche. “There should be no set portrait of the ‘authentic’ Nietzsche, nor dogmatic certainty as to his original intent” (3). Instead, Anchheim aims for a “Rezeptiongeschichte sensitive to the open-ended, transformational nature of Nietzsche’s legacy” (3-4). This methodological presumption has enormous implications for Aschheim’s story: while Nietzsche is quoted liberally, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany contains no close or philosophically informed reading of texts or reconstruction ideas. Instead, Aschheim narrates nearly a century of reception that winds its way along the shifting vectors of left and right in German cultural and political life, pulling in appropriators, opportunists, and opponents alike.
When it was published, Anschheim’s book was surely the most systematic overview of Nietzsche’s reception. It follows Nietzsche’s ideas among the literary and artistic avant-garde in the late 19th century, into the trenches of World War I, through the endless varieties of Nietzschean völkisch, socialist and religious movements, and finally, in the last third of the book, into the Third Reich. In his earlier years, Nietzsche gave avant-garde intellectuals the tools to express their “alienation from the establishment’s high culture and their desire to overcome the nineteenth century” (51). By the beginning of the first World War, Nietzsche had been “institutionalized” in Germany; Aschheim argues that he led “countless intellectuals” in Europe to look positively on the prospect of war, which Nietzsche had taught them to view as a “regenerative” cure for their civilizational decadence (132). As for the classic cliché of the German soldier driven to new heights of barbarism by his nightly reading from Thus Spake Zarathustra in the camp, Aschheim puts it to rest. Not only was the Nietzsche presented to soldiers shorn of any radical implications—he was basically reduced to a prophet of exceptionalism and heroism. In any case, it is unclear that many soldiers actually read him, and if they did, they were unlikely to identify with Zarathustra. “If there was a superman, most soldiers did not regard themselves as such; he was displaced onto more remote figures” (137).
As Aschheim enters his concluding chapters on the Third Reich and Nazism, he reiterates his determination not to measure Nietzsche’s reception against a “real” or “accurate” version. “Recognition and analysis of Nietzsche’s role within the realm of Nazi culture, ideology and indeed policy must proceed independently of whether or not we believe that this usage distorts Nietzsche’s thought or faithfully reflects it” (233). Even though it’s clear the book has finally reached its central concern, Aschheim ostensibly remains committed to his guiding principle. He argues that the Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche was precisely that: a heavily massaged, revised, and re-organized version of the philosopher. The Nazi impetus for exalting Nietzsche even above Goethe and the other German heroes they adopted had much to do with his already-existing cultural capital: “The particular Nazi emphasis on Nietzsche derived from his peculiar capacity to legitimate them” (235). Nazi interpreters had to go to hilarious lengths to explain away Nietzsche’s anti-German diatribes and apparent philo-Semitism; they argued that “playing the Jews against the Germans” was part of Nietzsche’s strategy for getting his own backward country’s attention (250-1).
While Aschheim never strays from asserting that the Nazi Nietzsche was “sifted,” “transfigured,” and “mythologized,” his analysis of that entanglement gradually reveals that the effort to trace Nietzsche’s reception without a working conception of Nietzsche’s ideas to be unsustainable. It becomes clear that Aschheim does indeed have a view about which themes and tendencies are truly Nietzschean, and remain so despite being appropriated and reinterpreted in countless and diametrically opposed ways, for both progressive and reactionary ends. For Aschheim, the core of Nietzscheanism lies in the promise of novelty, of cultural regeneration, of “transvaluation” or “reevaluation” of values, a theme recapitulated in nearly every chapter and mentioned with increasing frequency toward the end of the book. It returns once again in the book’s closing paragraph, where Aschheim summarizes Nietzsche in terms he has derived from the Nazi appropriation, and then convicts Nietzsche on the basis of being describable in those terms. Worst of all, the essential relations between the two are declared to “represent themselves” (330).
The unexpectedly essentialist note on which Aschheim concludes reveals what his agenda has been all along—an agenda that, despite my disagreement with it, would have made a better book had it been aired and argued more explicitly. Aschheim’s meandering through the discursive wonderland of twentieth-century Germany, where interpretations are recounted but rarely seriously evaluated, suggests the limits of intellectual-cultural history that altogether eschews a) close reading and philosophical analysis, and b) considerations of broader cultural, political, and economic contexts. Because Aschheim both proceeds without a sophisticated grasp of Nietzsche as a philosopher and fails to go into enough detail about how his ideas moved from philosophical texts to popular culture, the analysis seems batted back and forth, unable to find a clear course. That is, until the final chapters, when Aschheim quietly draws out the themes he considers essential Nietzscheanism, and concludes that they will “continue to be regarded by many” as inescapably intertwined with Nazism. Perhaps if he had taken ownership of this view from the beginning, he would have spared readers detours through relatively minor moments in Nietzsche reception, and been able to build a stronger, more detailed case that Nietzsche’s radical-right ideas laid the cultural groundwork Germany’s dark future....more
This is hardly the first book that aims to question the borders of an entrenched field, pushing it to draw “global” connections that cast shadows on pThis is hardly the first book that aims to question the borders of an entrenched field, pushing it to draw “global” connections that cast shadows on previously-respected regional and conceptual boundaries. In Burton and Ballantyne’s case it is the history of empire, which has long focused on politics and trade, and remained relatively attached to the nation-state and at least some notion that imperialism was the invention of Europeans. Empires and the Reach of the Global declares a new paradigm in which empires should be seen as open-ended, overlapping, and “uneven” systems that both drew on older traditions of empire-building, learned from each other, and remained in dialogue with their “subject peoples.”
The result is a rejection of some of the staples of older imperial history: its European exceptionalism, its periodization, and its conceptualizations. Traditional narratives, Burton and Ballantyne argue, enable a dramatically simplified temporal and geographical story of empire, one centered on the European nations that founded the first “modern” empires in the late nineteen century. They miss that these empires were built on the ruins, as well as the capital, of older ones, and leave out the ways in which empires in the Middle East and Asia were part of a global “feedback loop” between imperial nations. Burton and Ballantyne place a particularly strong emphasis on the fact that imperial power was “never total or uncontested” (12). European capitals were not only centers of innovation that beamed modernization out to their colonies; they were also “sites that also received a range of economic, policy, and social innovations and were, in turn, made and remade by them” (15).
To a large extent, the methodological correctives Burton and Ballantyne offer in their introduction seem obviously useful. It is easy to see how an approach rigidly or artificially tied to particular nations, especially one that presumed their exceptionalism, would fail to account for the full complexity of global interactions that shaped the dominant modern empires. Overly strong attachment to national borders has often allowed historians to ignore obvious and substantial parts of their stories that happened to lie outside them. On the other hand, Burton and Ballantyne’s book suggests that going to the opposite extreme—attempting to assimilate every imaginable angle of analysis into a single story or conceptual model—can lead to similar blindness. Not only do the authors seem overly conscious of their participation in a trendy approach; their effort often unwittingly illustrates the value of subfields able to provide more rigorous analysis within delimited spheres.
The clearest weakness of Burton and Ballantyne’s “global” approach is the extent to which, in widening the lens so much, they lose the ability to describe, much less explain, the facts they marshal into their narrative. Partly due to the book’s in-between length—it pushes beyond the obvious limits of a programmatic essay, but stops short of taking the space it needs for a full argumentative demonstration—they are forced to operate at a high level of abstraction. The conceptual jargon, often detached from anything more concrete than a laundry-list of facts plucked from far-flung international contexts, frequently becomes so knotted with qualifications that it ends in sentences that say, in essence, “This could mean X or non-X, regardless of what happened.”
The first chapter, for example, proposes that it is useful to reconceive empire in terms of “space.” It proceeds to examine a number of spaces ranging from land (borders and frontiers) to military barracks to mission stations to workplaces. With a little imagination, virtually anything can be conceived in spatial metaphors: plantations have “cartographies” (53); the Indian Ocean is a “space” (54); “professionalism” has “spatial parameters” (59). But Burton and Ballantyne never explain what analytical work spatiality is supposed to be doing, and thus end up appearing to make banal observations about a series of disjointed anecdotes. We are told in one sentence, for example, that Japan systematically deforested Manchuria to further (unspecified) imperial interests. “Stories of this kind of decimation and depletion … need to be understood as exemplars of the uneven geography of capitalist development that identified lands at the edge of imperial formations as spaces ripe for exploitation and extraction” (38). But why? Does anyone assume development was complete or “even” everywhere capitalism took root? Does noting that lands at the edge of empire looked ripe for exploitation add anything to the traditional Marxist understanding that voracious expansion is a requirement of capitalist modes of production?
The historical and analytical import of Burton and Ballantyne’s efforts to see space as “raced” and “gendered” are often equally puzzling. The authors desperately want to demonstrate that race and gender have been constitutive of empire, and that the “lifeways” of subject peoples formed a “feedback loop” with imperial oppressors. In one sense this is obvious; soldiers and colonial officials encountered real human beings and local customs, and of course based their coercive actions on what they experienced in on-the-ground interactions. But the authors’ almost dogmatic insistence on the dialogical relationship, especially with regard to gender, is difficult to understand. Imperial missionaries arrived with preconceptions about “savages,” but then “beamed a host of ideals—about work, domesticity, conjugality, and virtue—modified by the messy entanglements of the mission station and classroom back ‘home’” (49). The only thing Burton and Ballantyne identifiy as having been beamed back, however, is “images of converted natives,” which became tools for reinforcing with “renewed vigor” the bourgeois moral ideals of the metropole. This may be a kind of dialogue, but that fact hardly seems as relevant as the dialogue’s radical inequality. Slightly more illuminating is the story of “elite Indian Men” like W.C. Bonnerjee, the first president of the Indian National Congress, who rejected traditional family arrangements and promoted “companionate” marriage, which in their own lives gave them a badge of political prestige. While this is a clear example of colonized subjects giving their own flavor to the implementation of imperial ideals, it remains ambiguous whether—or how—it illustrates that domesticity played a “constitutive role” in “reterritorializing the Raj” (64).
It is revealing that Burton and Ballantyne are at their most readable when their feet touch the ground of real events—that is, when they address material realities of technological and economic change. Communication and transportation networks obviously had an enormous—and quite concrete—role in reconfiguring time and space in the imperial imagination. Here, it makes clear sense to speak of the “global” as central factor in shaping British self understanding: “The growth of the telegraph, steamer routes, and railways as arteries that fed an aggressively expansionist imperial system meant that by the 1880s the globe had emerged as an obvious level for British political analysis” (98). Maps and globes took on a new cultural popularity in Britain, and were reinforced in primary education (34). These concrete examples, however, tend to be more one-sided than Burton and Ballantyne would like to insist; the “global” helps to trace shifts in the British imagination in connection to its imperial system and technological developments, but has less to say about the agency of its subjects.
While bearing all the stylistic marks of over-interpretation, the central failing of Burton and Ballantyne’s book is what seems to be their refusal to interpret. To speak of their method in terms of its “spatial logic,” it flattens both horizontally and vertically; all geographical regions are held to be of equal importance in the history of empires, and all levels of analysis are collapsed into a single plane. Causal explanation is rejected, as is meaningful description, which can hardly be conducted at such a level of generality. History’s infinite regress is honed to high art; any cause, examined closely enough, can be said to be in a “feedback loop” with every other cause. And thus the globe become formless and void, undifferentiated and indescribable. ...more