Review: Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem [Part One of Two]

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


‘Wagner himself asserts about Nietzsche that a flower could have come from this bulb. Now only the bulb remains, really a loathsome thing.’
Cosima Wagner, 1878.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s puzzling stance on Jews and Judaism has perplexed me for the better part of a decade, so I was intrigued and optimistic about Princeton University Press’s 2015 publication of Robert Holub’s Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism. Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to certain elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy, particularly its rejection of equality and the concept of the ‘will to power.’ However, I can’t say I ever came close to describing myself as a ‘Nietzschean’ in the same way that the late Jonathan Bowden was fond of doing. One of the reasons for my hesitation in claiming affinity with Nietzsche’s worldview was that I couldn’t escape the impression that its nihilism was often destructive ‘for the sake of it,’ a quality that has endeared it to the Left, past and present. Then there was Nietzsche’s, to my mind unforgivable, habit of lauding the Hebrew over the German. More importantly though, I couldn’t perceive any true coherence or solidity in Nietzsche’s writing beyond his celebrated aphorisms. Taken as a whole, the philosophy of Nietzsche was apt to strike me as too intentionally fluid; too deliberately open to interpretation. Nowhere was this non-committal stance more apparent than in Nietzsche’s sparse, vague, contradictory and often quite opportunistic references to Jews and Judaism.

As one might expect of a philosopher as enigmatic as Nietzsche, his work has been approached awkwardly and suspiciously by scholars and ideologues alike. His attitudes towards Jews, in particular, have been debated, discussed and fought over from the very beginning of his public career. Nowhere, and at no time, was a consensus ever reached. During the Third Reich he was both ‘recruited for the cause’ by some, and rejected outright by others. His foundational place in the National Socialist philosophical canon was thus never assured, primarily because of his nihilism, his hostility towards Nationalism, and his ambivalence regarding Jews. Confusion still reigns. Modern scholarship has been divided between those who condemn Nietzsche outright as a ‘racist’ reactionary and a proto-Fascist, and those who highlight his vocal opposition to political anti-Semitism as thus seek his social exoneration and academic rehabilitation. As noted above, elements of Nietzsche remain strongly attractive to the Left. Therefore, where total exoneration of anti-Semitism has been found difficult, blame for ‘corrupting’ Nietzsche and shaping him as an ‘anti-Semite’ has been attributed variously to his one-time guru, Richard Wagner, or his sister Elisabeth, who married Bernhard Förster, perhaps the leading figure in nineteenth-century political anti-Semitism. The result of these battles has not been a clarification of the historical record, but an ever-thickening web of biased interpretations, white-washing, and pseudo-history.

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Holub’s book postures as an attempt to disentangle Nietzsche from the tug-of-war waged on all sides by those who have wished to claim or condemn him, and who have represented his position on Jews and Judaism with biased motives. The book essentially claims to offer the clearerst picture yet on what exactly Nietzsche thought and felt about Jews and Judaism. The first chapter, ‘The Rise and Fall of Nietzschean anti-Semitism,’ returns to the primary problem facing such a project by dealing exclusively with how others, over historical time, have interpreted Nietzsche’s attitudes towards Jews. I found this one of the more interesting chapters of the book. The story begins in Nietzsche’s own lifetime when he was initially suspected of anti-Jewish leanings not because of the content of his writings but because of his brother-in-law and also his publisher, Ernst Schmeitzner, who published anti-Jewish content and was a well-known supporter of political anti-Semitism. More crucial however was the fact that Nietzsche was considered an acolyte of Richard Wagner’s cultural mission, at least until the early 1880s. Since Wagner’s circle was widely associated with anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment, and anti-Jewish tendencies, these naturally came to be associated with Nietzsche also. Quite apart from the fact Nietzsche’s public remarks on Jews “were infrequent and ambiguous,” based purely on such associational links, many of the leading political and social agitators against Jews in Germany prematurely assumed that Nietzsche was firmly among their number.

NietzscheNietzsche’s general reception during his lifetime was mixed to say the least. His oppositional attitude, his polemics against the status quo, and his vaguely defined (yet epic-sounding) vision of the future attracted praise from an assorted collection of writers. There was, it seemed, something for almost everyone in his philosophy. He drew commendation from Greek scholars for his treatment of tragedy; plaudits from those who agreed with his stance on morality; and admiration from those who delighted in his cutting critique of the hypocrisy of middle-class norms. Those who resented Christianity could find what they wanted in his “ruthless criticism of the Church and its oppressive restriction on human development.” Although he heaped scorn on anarchists and socialists, it is a telling feature of Nietzsche’s abstractions that his writing nevertheless appealed strongly to both. Germany’s conservative nature at that time made Nietzsche’s adversarial quality infinitely more attractive to the Left, and even in the United States he was received primarily as sympathetic to the ‘working-class struggle’ and a champion of individual liberties. Leftist intellectuals chose to ignore Nietzsche’s disparaging comments on socialism, anarchism and feminism because they were so enraptured with his critique of the institutions of middle-class society, which they also hated. Since Jews also hated the culture and institutions of Christian middle-class German society, it should come as no surprise that we also find Jews among his earliest supporters. Like the anarchists, socialists and feminists, some Jews simply chose to block out less appealing aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and it is interesting that most of the earliest Jewish comment on his work studiously avoided discussion of its alleged anti-Jewishness.

However, there were some murmurs from wary Jews. Max Nordau, cofounder with Theodor Herzl of the World Zionist Organization, was a searing critic of Nietzsche but tended to avoid directly confronting any anti-Jewish qualities he may have perceived in the philosopher’s work. Nordau instead labelled Nietzsche an “egomaniac” and specifically cited his condemnation of Jews, ‘Israel,’ and Christianity for overthrowing earlier moral systems with a ‘slave morality’ as “insane gibberish,” “delirious sallies,” and “fabulous stupidity.” The French Jewish intellectual Bernard Lazare more openly accused Nietzsche of anti-Semitism in his L’Antisemitisme: Son Histoire et ses causes (1894) for practically the same reason, writing:

After [Eugen] Dühring, Nietzsche, in his turn, combatted Jewish and Christian ethics, which according to him are the ethics of slaves as contrast with the ethics of masters. Through the prophets and Jesus, the Jews and Christians have set up low and noxious conceptions which consist in the deification of the weak, the humble, the wretched, and sacrificing it to the strong, the proud, the mighty.

Negative attention from Jews was rare however. More vocal contemporary opinion on Nietzsche’s attitudes towards Jews came from the anti-Jewish ideologists themselves. These opinions were often shaped as much by personal relationships as by considered philosophical or ideological evaluation. Theodor Fritsch, author of The Anti-Semitic Ten Commandments, made numerous failed attempts to solicit support from Nietzsche before publishing a series of frustrated criticisms of his philosophy. Similar treatment followed from Eugen Dühring and his disciple Ernst Jünemann. Jünemann was particularly worried by the fact that Nietzsche appeared to be enjoying Jewish promotion: a sure sign to the former that there was something rotten in the writings of the latter. He would write in 1897:

The writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, who several years ago fell into a state of deep derangement, are currently being purchased and read with great enthusiasm by the public since Hebrew advertisements in particular have propped him up, and Jewish opinion, as is well known, is unfortunately fashionable, which is evidence of how low the intellectual and moral level of today’s dominating social powers have sunken.

Jünemann represented Nietzsche’s philosophical trajectory as a “steady decline into insanity and Judeophilia.” Jünemann outlined “a promising beginning when [Nietzsche] engaged productively with Richard Wagner and Arthur Schopenauer, [but] he strayed from the nationalist and anti-Semitic path in his aphoristic period and descended into irrational argumentation and pandering to Jewish interests in his last writings.” Jünemann attacked Nietzsche for arguing that Jews “are the true bearers of culture and the creator of values,” and raised suspicion over the fact Nietzsche’s fame and financial fortunes improved significantly following his public repudiation of Wagner. Faced with a philosophy that amounted to a “Jewish junk shop” of ideas, the German public would have to decide whether Nietzsche was a master psychologist and Nature a “comedian,” or rather that Nature was true and honest and Nietzsche was “spiritually and morally defective.” Jünemann was clear in his opinion that Nietzsche had no place in the movement.

But Jünemann’s rejection was not entirely representative of contemporary nationalist opinion. There were substantial numbers of völkisch figures who found Nietzsche’s statements about Jews and race difficult to reconcile with their own worldview, but who nonetheless found value in the same oppositional aspect of his work that appealed to the Left. One of them, Adolf Bartels, argued in his 1902 essay “Friedrich Nietzsche and Germanness” that the latter’s attacks on German society were fundamentally different from similar pejorative statements by Jewish writers like Heinrich Heine whose arguments sprang from racial animus. Instead, argued Bartels, Nietzsche had gotten carried away in the heat of a “highly spiritual and ideal temperament.” The philosopher had become “ensnared” in Europeanism and the Enlightenment and had mistakenly turned away from nationalism. Although rejecting the anti-Semitic movement, Nietzsche was merely acting against his brother-in-law, and in truth he was well aware of the ability of Jews to “easily obtain power over Europe and its nations.”

But Bartels’ apologetics for Nietzsche’s work were weak and unconvincing for most nationalists, and Nietzsche’s first great adoption by völkisch elements only occurred during World War I. It was during this great European conflagration that his ruminations on war, battle, struggle and related notions found an urgent resonance. Again, quite apart from specific content, the context of the times allowed for the flexibility of his vague works to lend themselves to militaristic and ethnocentric interpretations. Seizing on the new trend, the Germany Army circulated 150,000 of the cryptic Thus Spoke Zarathustra to the troops, and forty thousand copies of the tome were sold in 1917 alone. Mussolini soon announced his enthusiasm for Nietzsche and asserted that the Fascist movement was the concretization of a national “will to power.” Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West (1918) declared Nietzsche, along with Goethe, one of his greatest inspirations. Nietzsche had been transformed, by context more than content, into a Nationalist.

During the Weimar period nationalists displayed a desire to ‘keep’ Nietzsche. Franz Haiser admitted in The Jewish Question from the Standpoint of Master Morality (1926) that Nietzsche was “culturally leftist and contradictory” but argued without further elucidation that he “is irreplaceable for us.” One of the most important texts incorporating Nietzsche into the Right was Alfred Baeumler’s Nietzsche the Philosopher and Politician (1931). Baeumler was a close associate of Third Reich intellectual Alfred Rosenberg, and his monograph was by some degree the most important National Socialist work on the philosopher, running into several editions. Baeumler lauded Nietzsche’s opposition to Wilhelmine Germany, but, in relation to the philosopher’s position on Jews, he was forced to “employ strained arguments that are never entirely convincing.” In the end Baeumler resorted to arguing that Nietzsche only praised the Jews in order to goad the Germans to greatness. The gulf between Jünemann and Baeumler starkly illustrates how literally anything could be read into Nietzsche’s work. Even more stark is the fact that while he was lauded by many in the Third Reich, Nietzsche continued to be admired by the Frankfurt School in exile in the United States.

The post-war period would witness yet another radical re-interpretation of Nietzsche’s work. Liberals had by this time started believing the awkward völkisch reading of Nietzsche and were now confronted with the task of either condemning or somehow absolving the newly discovered ‘racist’ philosopher. Many settled on blaming his sister, Elisabeth, who, as noted, had married a well-known anti-Jewish activist and had forged a relationship with Hitler himself. Writers like Henning Ottmann and R.J. Hollingdale hastened to argue that Elisabeth (a “virulent Christian anti-Semite”) had produced editions of Nietzsche’s work that emphasized themes “friendly to the ideas of National Socialism.”  Elisabeth’s ‘influence’ was of course a lie built on top of another lie — that Nietzsche was a bona fide ‘anti-Semite.’ In a post-war West obsessed with its ‘racist’ past, using Elisabeth as a scapegoat provided the means for Leftist Nietzsche enthusiasts to absolve the object of their admiration from the most grievous accusation that could possibly have become attached to him.

Holub’s analysis of these arguments is quite excellent. Using archival correspondence, he deconstructs entirely the notion that Elisabeth in any way doctored her brother’s work after his death, and throws significant doubt over the stereotype of Elisabeth as a violent, fulminating fanatic. Holub’s portrait of Elisabeth is balanced and often sympathetic. This interesting first chapter ends by pointing out that Nietzsche has been claimed by so many, so often, and with so many differing motives, that any sense of clarity on his position regarding Jews has been lost. The only way to regain this clarity, Holub argues, is to return to a close analysis of primary texts and contextual factors, and the rejection of all received wisdoms, including the conventional understanding of terms like ‘anti-Semitism.’ With the slate now ostensibly cleared, we move forward to Holub’s history of Nietzsche’s true view of Jews and Judaism.

Holub surveys an unprecedented amount of Nietzsche’s private and public correspondence as well as his published writings to write what amounts to a biography of Nietzsche’s attitudes towards Jews. Chapter Two, ‘Youthful Remarks and Encounters,’ is an enjoyable stroll through Nietzsche’s childhood and very earliest writings. A survey of his family tree debunks the accusation, made by Jünemann, that he had Jewish ancestry. His childhood town of Röcken had no Jewish inhabitants, and in the whole of Prussian Saxony Jews constituted just 0.3% of the population. It is perhaps not surprising then that Jews are entirely absent from Nietzsche’s writings and correspondence right up until he moved to Leipzig to enrol at the University, at the age of 25, having first completed a degree at the University in Bonn.

Leipzig was a city famous for its trade fairs, which attracted a large influx of Jewish traders and merchants. For the first time, Nietzsche was exposed to a significant number of Jews in one place. Coming from a ‘Jew-free’ environment, Nietzsche is actually the perfect case study for the rational development of negative attitudes towards Jews. A handful of letters to his mother and sister dating from this time reveal that he regularly emphasized the unsavory impact of the Jewish tradespeople on the city. Importantly, he does so without referencing ‘stereotypes’ or appealing to Christian traditions about Jews. Nietzsche’s commentary is much more journalistic. His attempts to finish a book are hindered by the disruption of the trade fair, and “everywhere you look there are Jews and associates of Jews.” Writing on the final day of the fair in October 1868 Nietzsche expresses relief that the city will soon be free of “the smell of fat and the numerous Jews.” Remarks like these are fairly self-explanatory. To Nietzsche, the crowds, the exchange of money, and the influx of a foreign people among the citizens of Leipzig were simply unhealthy and unwanted distortions of the city’s normal, healthier life.

Holub’s analysis, however, follows the standard Jewish-academic line. He can’t accept that anti-Jewish feeling can be this logical or natural, and so he argues instead that Nietzsche’s remarks “must have emanated from personal contact with friends and acquaintances.” No evidence is presented in support of this argument. Holub is left perplexed about where the remarks could have come from because “during his student years there is no evidence that Nietzsche read or pursued authors who exhibited Judeophobia or texts that contained Judeophobic themes.” The simple fact that Nietzsche, like many Leipzig citizens, found this mass orgy of Jewish trading distasteful is overlooked in favor of theoretical abstractions about ‘anti-Semitism.’ Disappointingly then, very early in the book Holub reveals that a primary thesis underpinning the study is that anti-Semitism is simply an ideological, psychological, and prejudicial virus that is contracted from others rather than a natural reaction to direct experience with Jews. My initial enthusiasm for the book began to evaporate at this point.

Chapter Three, ‘The Wagnerian Vanguard,’ covers Nietzsche’s early relationship with Richard Wagner. By the time Nietzsche had been introduced to Wagner, the latter had already become well known for his animus towards Jewish influence on German society. Many Leftist apologists for Nietzsche have found easy prey in Wagner. The maestro, more than anyone, is held responsible for an increase in Nietzsche’s alleged hostility towards Jews. Although Holub postures his book as a retort to scholars like these, he actually makes essentially the same argument. Referencing the innocent college letters from Leipzig, Holub writes that as a young man “Judeophobia was not well developed in [Nietzsche’s] writing or thought, but it formed an unstated background for his intellectual endeavors, ready to be activated by the right person. Wagner was that person.”

Nietzsche first met Wagner, via mutual friends, following an invitation from the composer in 1868. Wagner played from the Meistersinger and the small group discussed Schopenhauer until late evening. The pair instantly hit it off, and when Nietzsche received his professorship at Basel in 1869, he became a frequent visitor at Tribschen, where Wagner and his family lived until 1872. While 1869 was a pivotal year for Nietzsche’s career, it was also a memorable one for Wagner. In 1850 Wagner had published the essay Jewry in Music under the pseudonym K. Freigedank (K. Freethought). In 1869, despite advice from his friends and even his wife, Wagner re-published the piece as a pamphlet, divulging his authorship of the original and adding further thoughts and reflections. The move provoked a predictable storm, as influential Jews moved quickly to destroy the composer. His operas were disrupted, and the every organ of the Jewish media was used to annihilate his reputation.

Nietzsche never personally commented on ‘Jewry in Music,’ but his correspondence reveals that he did read it in its entirety and that he claimed to agree with its message. When a friend wrote to him admiringly of the pamphlet in 1870, Nietzsche replied: “That we are now also in agreement with regard to Richard Wagner is for me completely reliable evidence of how we belong together. Because it isn’t easy and demands a vigorous, manly courage not to be led astray by the alarming racket. … Our ‘Jews’ — and you know how widely this concept extends in particular despise Wagner’s idealistic manner.” Although overlooked by Holub, the last sentence prefigures an ambivalence in Nietzsche’s attitudes to Jews that would last throughout his life. True, Jews were an oppositional element of society, but they were difficult to define. A German, to Nietzsche, could be just as ‘Jewish’ as a Rothschild if he or she displayed enough ‘Jewish’ traits. This certainly opened the door to a justified critique of those non-Jews serving Jewish interests, but by blurring the boundaries and obfuscating the role of race and ethnicity, Nietzsche also moved dangerously close to an erroneous worldview.

Though perhaps ambivalent towards the Jewish Question, Nietzsche was undeniably in tune with Wagner when it came to animosity towards those aspects of modernity most closely linked with the rise of the Jews in Germany: the hegemony of journalists, the press, newspapers, new ‘trends’ in art, and the stock market. He was a critic of both Berthold Auerbach and Felix Mendelssohn, whom he argued produced works typified by foreignness, jargon, mawkishness and internationalism. Even if we accept that Wagner had some influence on Nietzsche in adopting certain positions in the ‘culture war,’ we can by no means place too much weight on the composer’s influence. At Basel one of Nietzsche’s closest colleagues was the historian Jacob Burckhardt, described in one dedication as “my honored friend.” Burckhardt was unequivocally opposed to Jewish emancipation, and believed that everything of worth in European culture was due to its Greek and Roman heritage rather than the Jewish tradition. He would have baulked at the idea of Europe as a ‘Judeo-Christian’ cultural entity, and he was firmly convinced that Jews were responsible for the worst manifestations of modernity. Early in his career Burckhardt wrote to a friend that the presence of Jews in a theatre would be sufficient to entirely destroy his enjoyment of the event.

Although Holub makes the argument that Nietzsche was awed by the likes of Wagner and Burckhardt and adopted their views out of star-struck mimicry, I read a quite different history in the evidence provided. I do not believe that Nietzsche ever became as fully versed in the Jewish Question as many of his contemporaries, but I do see a gradual learning process between 1868 and 1873 where he gains a grasp of the fundamentals. In addition to this, he continually articulates a natural and impulsive distaste for aspects of Jewish culture and behavior. His letters to his mother show that he associated Jews with unsavory business practices, tastelessness, and low cultural attributes. Writing to his mother about a tour around Switzerland in 1872, he describes his fellow travelers before commenting “unfortunately there was a Jew among them.”

In 1872 these feelings and ideas came closest to intellectual expression. In January and February of that year Nietzsche delivered two lectures, ‘The Greek Music Drama’ and ‘Socrates and Tragedy.’ Despite their fairly innocuous titles, the lectures dealt with key aspects of the Wagnerian cultural program: that modern opera had become greatly distanced from its ancient cultural roots, and that Jews were having a deleterious impact on contemporary art and culture. Nietzsche, taking his cue from Wagner, argued that genuine tragedy was mysterious, instinctive and profound. It was also able to be conceived and appreciated only by Europeans. By contrast, ‘Socratism,’ identified with rationalism and dialectic, eradicates instinct and with it art. ‘Socratism’ had also become a historical force in its own right, in the form of this-worldly Judaism. Nietzsche would conclude his second lecture by stating:

Should the Teuton have nothing else to place at the side of that vanished artwork of the past except the ‘grand opera,’ something akin to the ape appearing next to Hercules? This is the most serious question of our art: and anyone who, as a Teuton, does not understand the seriousness of this question, has fallen into the Socratism of our times, which, to be sure, is neither capable of producing martyrs, nor speaks the language of the wisest Hellene. This Socratism is the Jewish press: I’ll say no more.

Go to Part 2 of 2.

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