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


Nietzsche and Wagner

Go to Part One

Was Nietzsche bold or stupid? As stated above, I don’t think he quite fully grasped the scale of the ethnic conflict subtly playing out in Germany at that time, or the sheer power already enjoyed by Jews. For someone of his (then lowly) position, his 1872 lecture appears to me as a step too soon. Wagner had of course taken even further steps against Jewish influence — but the older man possessed significantly more stature and legitimacy. Nietzsche sent his lecture notes to Wagner on February 4, and the composer replied cautiously. Wagner, who was fully aware of the damage that could be wrought by Jews on lone targets like himself, responded: “I say to you: that’s the way it is. … But I am concerned about you, and wish with my entire heart that you don’t ruin yourself.” Cosima, Wagner’s wife, also wrote to Nietzsche expressing concern. Starting by citing Goethe (‘Everything significant is uncomfortable’), she said that his ‘boldness’ and ‘bluntness’ surprised her. In a later letter she makes her concerns more explicit, stating that she wanted him to take some “maternal” advice so that he should “avoid stirring up a hornet’s nest” :

Do you really understand me? Don’t mention the Jews, and especially not en passant; later, when you want to take up this gruesome fight, in the name of God, but not at the very outset, so that on your path you won’t have all this confusion and upheaval. I hope you don’t misunderstand me: you know that in the depths of my soul I agree with your utterance. But not now and not in this way.

According to Cosima’s diaries, Nietzsche was summoned to a meeting with her and Wagner on February 12 to discuss the lecture. We can only speculate at what precisely was said, but Nietzsche dropped the Jewish reference from the published version of his lecture and nothing similar to it would ever again appear in his speeches or published writings. He would continue to attack the evils of the press, newspapers, financial affairs, the stock exchange, modernity, urban life, and cosmopolitanism but he would never again mention them in conjunction with Jews or Judaism. Holub argues that the episode taught Nietzsche that he should not mention the Jews by name and certainly not attack them in print. He would thereafter adopt the same ‘cultural code’ that many anti-Jewish intellectuals were forced to utilize as a means of fighting the culture war without being labelled ‘anti-Semitic.’

My reading of the cited material is divergent from Holub’s from this point on. I agree that Nietzsche was in some respects chastised by this incident, and by Wagner personally. But Nietzsche also possessed an ego and arrogance that led to antagonism towards his artistic mentor rather than appreciation for sage advice. Nor am I convinced that Nietzsche was a convinced crusader in the anti-Jewish fight. Nietzsche distanced himself from Wagner for the remainder of his life, beginning in the mid-1870s. In early drafts of Untimely Meditations (1876) probably dating to around 1874, Nietzsche searched for criticisms of the composer. Among them was the accusation that Wagner was a tyrant who could not appreciate the validity of anyone but those among his most trusted associates, causing him to be blind to “the validity of Brahms, etc. or the Jews.” He also accused Wagner, ironically in view of the latter’s crucial advice, of a grave political error in attacking the Jews “who now possess the most money and the press in Germany.”

Chapter Four, ‘An Ambivalent Course,’ deals with the fallout of the split from Wagner and his circle, and the manner in which Nietzsche gradually came to surround himself with Jewish associates. Nietzsche’s dedication to Voltaire of Human, All Too Human (1878–1880)  marked the final stage of his break from the Wagnerian cultural mission. The rationalist Frenchman was anathema to the German romantic. The Wagners read the book, only to find it “strangely perverse” and full of “pretentious ordinariness.” The reason behind the change in quality of Nietzsche’s writing was, in their opinion, his growing association with the Jewish philosophy student Paul Rée. The association dated back to 1873, and Rée had accompanied Nietzsche on visits to the Wagners on a couple of occasions during those years. However, in 1876 Cosima’s suspicions were raised by aspects of Rée’s personality. In October 1876 she wrote in her diary: “In the evening we are visited by Dr. Rée, whose cold and precise character does not appeal to us; on closer inspection we come to the conclusion that he must be an Israelite.”

Their conclusion was of course correct. Holub is dismissive of Wagner’s theory that Nietzsche was being intellectually corrupted by Rée, but Wagner was extremely insistent that the Jew had ensnared his young former friend. Cosima around this date wrote to her husband that Nietzsche was essentially just a mirror that reflected the ideas or thoughts of whoever surrounded him. Nietzsche’s writings, borrowing heavily from Schopenauer and indeed Wagner himself, were “just reflections of something else, they did not come from within.” Wagner replied magnificently: “And now they are Rée-flections.” Cosima would later write to a friend that Human, All Too Human bore an undeniable Jewish imprint:

The author has undergone a process that I saw coming for a long time, and that I struggled against with my meagre powers. Many things came together to produce that deplorable book! Finally Israel intervened in the form of a Dr. Rée, very sleek, very cool, at the same time being captivated by Nietzsche and dominated by him, though actually outwitting him: the relationship of Judea to Germania in miniature. … I know that here evil has been victorious. … Wagner himself asserts about Nietzsche that a flower could have come from this bulb. Now only the bulb remains, really a loathsome thing.

A key weakness of Nietzsche, the loathsome bulb who would never flower, appears to have been his incomplete understanding of the nature of Jewish influence in German culture and society, and his egotistic willingness to accept Jews as friends and associates if he perceived them to be useful in advancing his own personal fame and fortunes. Around 1877 he began receiving fan mail from the Pernerstorfer Circle, a group composed mostly of Jews studying at the University of Vienna. Eagerly absorbing their praise, Nietzsche entered into months and then years of correspondence and co-operation with its members. He would read their works, praising them effusively and incorporating their ideas into his own work in a kind of symbiosis. He was also well aware of the Jewish background of this group, described by Holub as Nietzsche’s first fan club.

Indeed, he sycophantically appealed to it. In 1877 he wrote to one member: “Tell me then with complete candor if with regard to your ancestry you have any connections to Jews. I have recently had so many experiences that arouse in me very great expectations, especially from young men of this ancestry.” Holub seems to indicate that Nietzsche had in some respects ‘sold out’ when he points to a

growing realization Nietzsche had about Jews as a group. From his experience with the Wagners he had learned that Jews should not be attacked in public documents, and that they allegedly have the power to affect negatively a Gentile’s success in German culture. Now he was also beginning to recognize that … there was a significant advantage he could garner from Jews.

Did Nietzsche really believe that Jews were an exceptional race that would push Europe to greatness? Holub does an excellent job of portraying a man keen to tell his Jewish listeners what they wanted to hear while retaining an instinctive dislike of Jews in general, even harboring a deep aversion to some of his ‘fans.’ One of these fans, Siegfried Lipiner, was initially indulged by Nietzsche, but after a number of meetings the philosopher found the Jew’s “pushiness and deficiencies in decorum and social grace” almost unbearable. In correspondence with another non-Jew, Nietzsche would write of Lipiner that “like all Semites, he kills tender things” and that the only talent he possessed was the sole Hebrew talent of “imitation.” In public and in private, Nietzsche would often express strong disapproval of political anti-Semitism, but Holub argues that this was always with a Jewish audience and Jewish supporters in mind, and that Nietzsche “was seeking to please and sometimes placate his interlocutor.” What emerges from this tangled web of correspondence is a man quite aware that Jews are powerful, and keen to protect his own reputation and position in German culture.

However, Nietzsche also strikes us as an amateur attempting to handle a deadly snake. Most of his writings on Jews from around this date are the stuff of awkward fantasy and clumsy eugenics. He advocated the intermarriage of Prussian officers and Jewish women in the belief that the putative infusion of Jewish blood would equip the German nation with improved intelligence, a greater sense of money, and an aptitude for world politics. In his private writings Nietzsche revealed that he believed Jewish bankers, as much as military officers, to represent the personification of the will to power. This is a man ultimately blind to the concepts of race and ethnicity, which is perhaps unsurprising for an individual who lived out his life in the delusion that he was of Polish ancestry. More damaging though was his woeful lack of awareness of the exclusive nature of Judaism and its negative historical trajectory in relation to the European peoples.

Reviewing some of Nietzsche’s writings from this point on, I am tempted to concur with Ernst Jünemann that his philosophical trajectory was one of steady descent into insanity and Judeophilia. In Human, All Too Human Nietzsche would claim that the Reformation was the result of something called “the Jewish-heroic impulse.” Nationalism was “artificial,” and he looked to a time that would witness “an abolition of nations” and the appearance of “a mixed race” of “good Europeans.” Jews would be indispensable to such a postnational vision given their status as the prototypical nomad. Despite some flaws, they possessed an array of virtues and had produced “the noblest human being (Christ), the purest sage (Spinoza), the mightiest book and the most efficacious moral code in the world.” The Jews “carried the banner of the Enlightenment,” and ensured that Europe’s “mission and history was a continuation of the Greek.” Because of their lofty place in world history, Europe “may fall into their hands like a ripe fruit.” Although such an eventuality was contemplated with horror by Nationalists, Nietzsche viewed such a prospect with delight, since it would represent “an eternal blessing for Europe.”

Is it any wonder that Nietzsche’s first fan club was a Jewish one?

Holub concludes this interesting chapter by remarking that Nietzsche’s attitudes remain difficult to pin down. Did Nietzsche really believe that Jews were more intellectually and culturally aware and thus more receptive to his “message”? Or was he firmly convinced of the need to appease Jewish interests in order to achieve personal success? The philosopher, to my eyes, appears no less reprehensible in either scenario.

Chapter Five, ‘Anti-Semitic Confrontations,’ deals with Nietzsche’s hatred for ‘anti-Semites’ and his regular conflicts with the anti-Jewish movement. Holub writes that, from the late 1870s, Nietzsche was “unequivocally antagonistic toward what he understood as anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.” Holub writes that much of this position was simply opportunistic. Nietzsche blamed his early association with (the ‘anti-Semitic’) Wagner for his perceived isolation and relative lack of celebrity. But Nietzsche was also highly critical of moralism of all kinds and he perceived ‘anti-Semitism’ to be a kind of moralism in its own right, since it designated Jewish influence in Europe as a moral as well as political wrong. Political ‘anti-Semitism,’ to Nietzsche, was also a kind of crusade for social justice in the same way that socialism was. The fact that leading figures in the movement like Eugen Dühring were also socialists seemed to corroborate his theory. Nietzsche thus founded his critique of ‘anti-Semitism’ not on his earlier effusive praise of Jewry, but more cleverly as part of a general assault on what he perceived as “Christian ethics, narrow-minded nationalism, and redemptive socialism.”

Nietzsche clashed with Ernst Schmeitzner (his publisher) for a combination of personal and ideological reasons. Schmeitzner was a keen participant in the political movement to curb Jewish influence, and published a number of key books and journals as part of the effort. When Schmeitzner placed a delay on printing and distributing an edition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1883, Nietzsche wrote in frustration to a friend: “Who will save me from a publisher who takes anti-Semitic agitation more seriously than my ideas?” When sales of his work disappointed him, he claimed that it was due less to the quality of his work than his publisher’s “antisemitica.” ‘Anti-Semitism’ thus continued, at least in his mind, to rob him of potential celebrity.

The association with Schmeitzner also provoked scathing comment from his Jewish fans. Josef Paneth wrote to Nietzsche asking how he could allow his poetry to be published in Schmeitzner’s International Monthly, “a journal for the struggle against Jewry.” Nietzsche dutifully responded that he hadn’t known Schmeitzner was an ‘anti-Semite’ when he published in it. When another Jewish fan wrote to him about Schmeitzner’s latest anti-Jewish publishing venture, Nietzsche responded that “Schmeitzner’s latest undertaking about which you wrote disgusts me.” Nietzsche was scathing towards anti-Jewish activism even to his own sister, who was heavily involved in the work of her husband, Bernhard Förster. When Elisabeth wrote to him in 1887 asking for a donation to her husband’s Nueva Germania project, involving the establishment of a völkisch colony in Paraguay, Nietzsche responded sarcastically that he hoped the authorities would assist the scheme by “deporting all anti-Semites.” He wrote that any German who believed himself better than a Jew belonged in “a comedy” if not “in an insane asylum.” In one draft letter to his sister, he wrote furiously that “Our name through your marriage is mixed together with this movement: what haven’t I already suffered from it!”

The final chapter, ‘Priests, Israelites, Chandalas,’ deals with the final two years of Nietzsche’s sane life, during which the philosopher appears to have had a series of epiphanies about Jews and Judaism. In 1887 and 1888 Nietzsche became increasingly occupied with the origins of morals (as he defined them) and the history of religion. In his meditation on these themes Nietzsche found himself gravitating towards a view of Judaism as a slave morality that contrasted with the more nature-orientated values of a noble stratum associated undeniably with Aryans and fair-haired peoples. The struggle between these value systems, and the victory of the Judaic spirit was apparent to Nietzsche, who must have noted that such conclusions had already been reached some time earlier by the very ‘anti-Semites’ he professed to despise. Nietzsche found himself also unable to avoid the conclusion that Judaism and Jewish values played a prominent role (“the single most important factor”) in the degeneration of the Roman world and the decadence of contemporary Europe.

To Nietzsche, the history of the Jews is the history of a priestly caste overturning aristocratic values in order to seize power. In The Genealogy of Morals (1887), he writes that

Nothing that anyone else has perpetrated against the ‘noble,’ the ‘powerful,’ the ‘masters,’ the ‘rulers’ merits discussion in comparison with the deeds of the Jews — the Jews, that priestly people who ultimately knew no other way of exacting satisfaction from their enemies and conquerors than through a radical transformation of their values, through an art of the most intelligent revenge.

Nietzsche would move still further forward in The Antichrist (1895) when he would describe Christianity as a vehicle that propagates Jewish values, and as an instrument for Jewish domination of a formerly aristocratic and noble continent. What fueled the Jewish ‘slave revolt’ was “Jewish hatred the deepest and most sublime hatred, that is, the kind of hatred that creates ideals and changes the meaning of values, a hatred the like of which has never been on earth.” Christ, earlier described by Nietzsche as the ‘most noble human being’ is described in The Genealogy of Morals as the continuation of a moral regime that remained inescapably Jewish the agent of Judaism in the Roman world. Faced with enemies, Israel pretended to deny the very instrument of their revenge, crucifying their ‘bait’ and waiting for all the world to bite on it.  The Cross, to Nietzsche, symbolized the defeat of all noble values.


While Nietzsche flirted heavily with ideas and interpretations that may have resonated, and still resonate, profoundly with nationalists, he never proceeded to re-evaluate his personal stance on Jewry. Incomprehensibly, he would never make a connection between his vision of Jewish history and the role of Jews in contemporary society. Enigmatic, equivocal, egotistical, opportunistic, selfish, rash — all of these terms and more could be applied to Friedrich Nietzsche. Robert Holub’s book is imperfect, as one would expect from mainstream academic scholarship and from an author who is quite likely to be Jewish. However, the mostly narrative quality of the text avoids the usual Talmudic abstractions and apologetics one normally finds in a Jewish book about ‘anti-Semitism,’ and its presentation of an impressive amount of primary material make it an interesting and informative read. My own opinion of Nietzsche wasn’t altered greatly by it, but I think that Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem may provide food for thought for many in our movement who still retain earlier, biased interpretations of his work.

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