Nietzsche, Nazis, and Now

“A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.”
―Henry A. Wallace

"Moon Chest," from Ai Weiwei's exhibition "According To What," | Photographer: CarrieLu (aijoskobi) | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Moon Chest,” from Ai Weiwei’s exhibition “According To What” | Photographer: CarrieLu | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I ride the subway, I often take out my kindle and open up Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. It transports me immediately from the hustle, bustle, and grime of the NY underground into a world of delightful surprises, brilliant humor, and profound ideas. I arrive at my destination with a whole new perspective to contemplate.

What I concluded in these underground adventures was that Nietzsche stitched together a description of the human race in the 19th century that became unraveled in the 20th century and is still unraveling today. While most of his contemporaries looked on the late 19th century with unbridled optimism, confident in the progress of science and the rise of the German state, Nietzsche saw his age facing a fundamental crisis in values. With the rise of science, the Christian worldview no longer played such a prominent role in people’s lives. The problem, however, as Nietzsche saw it, was that science did not introduce a new set of values to replace the Christian values it displaced. Nietzsche foresaw that people need to identify some source of meaning and value in their lives, and if they could not find it in science, they would turn to aggressive nationalism and other such salves. Even though the last thing Nietzsche would have wanted was a return to traditional Christianity, he sought to find a way out of nihilism through the creative and willful affirmation of life.

The central idea of Nietzsche’s philosophy was that the individual has the freedom to shape his own character and destiny. He abhorred mass culture and strove to cultivate a special kind of human being with exceptional spiritual and mental qualities. Nietzsche believed that our fundamental drive is for power as realized in independence and dominance. He suggested that this will is stronger than the will to survive, as evidenced by martyrs willfully dying for a cause, if they feel that associating themselves with that cause gives them greater power. While the will to power can manifest itself through violence and physical dominance, Nietzsche implored us to direct the will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others. He saw it as a more refined form of power than the power gained by a conquering barbarian.
According to Nietzsche, everything is in flux—there is no such thing as fixed being. Matter and energy are always moving and changing, as are ideas, knowledge, and truth. The will to power is the fundamental engine of this change. Nietzsche considers any point of view that sees reality as fixed and objective to be life denying, whether that reality is religious, scientific, or philosophical. A life-affirming philosophy embraces change and recognizes that change is the only constant in the world. Thus, Nietzsche believed that intellectual inflexibility is a symptom of saying “no” to life, a condition he rejected. A healthy mind is flexible and recognizes that there are many different ways of considering a matter.

What struck me as I was reading Beyond Good and Evil while the subway was rattling its way under the streets of Manhattan, was Nietzsche’s belief that maturity is accomplished by reacquiring the seriousness that one had as a child at play. He declared that insanity in individuals is rare—but in groups, parties, and nations it is the rule. What jarred me out of my seat, more than the constant bumps in the train, was his statement that every system of morals teaches its adherents to hate freedom and implants the need for limited horizons and the narrowing of perspectives—thus making stupidity a condition of life and development. This rejection of freedom and broad perspectives, in combination with expediency, has produced World Wars I and II and other random acts of violence. So, with that dark insight, I climbed out of the subway and faced the bright lights of the city.

Ironically, after I was plowing through Nietzsche’s dense expositions in the human density of the subway, I came across Hans Fallada’s book, Alone in Berlin, which describes the acts of individual resistance in the face of Nazi brutality during World War II, and I made a connection between the two books. Hmm, you might ask: Nietzsche and fascism? What can Nietzsche have in common with this murderous ideology? What can such a thinker have in common with National Socialism’s manipulation of the masses for chauvinistic goals that swallowed up the personalities, concerns, and life of the individual? After all, Nazism is the ideology and practice associated with the Nazi party formed in 1919 as well as other far right groups. Nazism is usually characterized as a form of fascism. Nietzsche’s is a life-affirming approach to freedom.

Erol Ahmed
Photo by Erol Ahmed

Yes, it seems strange that in 1934, Adolf Hitler paid a much publicized visit to the Nietzsche archives at Weimar. He had gone at the insistent request of its director, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (sister of the long-deceased German philosopher), and he was accompanied by his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. The main purpose of the visit was to enable Hoffmann to take a picture of Hitler contemplating the bust of Nietzsche, which stood in the reception room. The picture duly appeared in the German press with a caption that read, “The Führer before the bust of the German philosopher whose ideas have fertilized two great popular movements: the National Socialism of Germany and the Fascist movement of Italy.”

If the Nazi party had been in existence when he was alive, Nietzsche would have hated it. It stood for everything he opposed. But in this sick manipulation, Hitler was trying to associate himself with a highly regarded German philosopher to give more credence to his perspective. Is there a pattern here with the Christian Crusades in the 11th century and ISIS in the 21st century, a time span of 1,000 years? Does history keep repeating itself in ever more nefarious ways?

Alone in Berlin illuminates the battle between decency and brutality through the individual stories of ordinary people who had the courage to fight back against the tyranny of the collective even though their efforts not only cost them their lives but also had no tangible impact. Their personal integrity and commitment, however, gave meaning to their lives in the most heinous regime in history and may have inspired others to find purpose in their lives. That was the connection I discovered. Beyond Good and Evil argued theoretically that the will to power should be more about self-mastery than mastery of others. Alone in Berlin demonstrated the gross realities of the Nazi’s determination to impose their will on the world.

Yes, the picture of Hitler gazing at Nietzsche’s bust had more to do with a carefully orchestrated plot, one aspect of which was to connect National Socialism with the philosopher’s legacy, at least by association. On October 1944, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Nietzsche, Alfred Rosenberg, the leading Nazi party ideologist, delivered an official speech in Weimar, seeking to reinforce this impression: “In a truly historical sense, the National Socialist movement eclipses the rest of the world, much as Nietzsche, the individual, eclipsed the powers of his times.” Of course, Nietzsche was not the only German philosopher invoked as a spiritual guide and forerunner of the Nazi revolution, but his “Nazification” in the course of the Third Reich is an historical fact that cannot be denied. Does this not sound familiar to the “Islamification” of ISIS, i.e. pretending that acts of violence are based on Islamic teaching?

So what do Nietzsche and Nazis have to do with our reality today? Now that I have emerged from the noisy underground and the crowded streets of NYC, I can sit in my comfortable garden apartment and ponder the frightening ills and possible cures of the world in which we live. It seems to me we are struggling with the same wars that Nietzsche described 140 years ago and that we saw manifested in all their ugliness under Nazism and now with ISIS:

Unfortunately, ISIS has no intellectual commitment to any of the ideas that Nietzsche expressed so long ago. Like the Nazis, they are only committed to the wrong side of each of the struggles above: oppression, cruelty, dominance, rigidity, life-denying philosophies, and limited horizons. And emotionally, they are pure hate. They have a strong will to power but only as conquering barbarians.

Even in light of the real and present danger that ISIS presents, now is not the time for loose language and reckless remarks. Now is the time for reasonable responses and responsible restraint. Now is not the time for small, reactionary rages; it is time for big, inclusive ideas and thoughtful strategies. Now is not the time for independent interventions; it is the time for multi-dimensional thinking and collaborative action designed to restore some level of harmony and peace in the world.

To me, in the safety of my home, the only way I see out of this dangerous spiral is through our efforts at self-mastery instead of our obsession with imposing values and beliefs on others. And we don’t have another 1,000 years to figure it out. It’s going to take a few more subway trips for me to come up with any reasonable solutions. Any ideas?

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