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