"Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of the ‘Völkischer Beobachter’’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism."
High culture played an important political role in Hitler’s Germany. References to music, history, philosophy, and art formed a key part of the Nazi strategy to reverse the symptoms of decline perceived after World War I. Allusions to great creators and their works were used as propaganda to remind the Volk to love and worship their nation. In the words of the French scholar Eric Michaud, author of The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, the Nazis used culture “to make the genius of the race visible to that race.” And to cap off these images of a great national culture, the Nazis heralded Adolf Hitler, the Führer, as an artistic leader.
As Michaud put it: “Hitler presented himself not only as a ‘man of the people’ and a soldier with frontline experience (Fronterlebnis), but also and above all as a man whose artistic experience constituted the best guarantee of his ability to mediate the Volksgeist and turn it into the ‘perfect Third Reich.’”
The revival of a culturally rich Germany as the so-called Third Reich, however, would be achieved only once those whom the Nazis considered its enemies were all destroyed. So war and culture went together in the National Socialist agenda. Art, said Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, “is no mere peacetime amusement, but a sharp spiritual weapon for war.”
To understand how Nazis employed culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions, I looked to German mass media, in particular the main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, whose cultural pages I examined for the years 1920 to 1945. While the Nazi co-optation of many great figures in the Western intellectual tradition during these eventful years proves revealing, one need look no further than the party’s claim on Friedrich Nietzsche to see how culture became entwined in the discourse of politics and war in the pages of Hitler’s foremost propaganda outlet.
Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of theVölkischer Beobachter’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism. Looking into the shifting terms with which the daily newspaper presented Nietzsche helps us toward understanding how the Nazi party attempted to place his biography and writings—along with the tradition of Kultur as a whole—at the service of the Nazi outlook.
In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.
As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”
But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.
This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”
Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”
Nietzsche was, however, rather ambivalent about politics, having called himself the “last anti-political German of them all.” But Nazi propaganda rigorously promoted the view that the primary creative impulse was as much political as it was artistic. The picture of Nietzsche thus had to be corrected to bring out his political side.
The Völkischer Beobachter admitted that “we find here at first view a sharp contrast with today’s [National Socialist] thinking”—but only at first glance. According to the paper, what Nietzsche understood by the term “state” was completely different from “our idea of the state today.” For him, politicization meant democratization, i.e., the greatest good for the greatest number. This Nietzsche hated, the paper said, because “general prosperity would make mankind too lazy to invest powerful energy in a great individual— in a genius.” That is why Nietzsche wanted “as little state as possible.” A volkish state, directed according to Nazi ideology, however, would revive the genius of the nation, and therefore earn Nietzsche’s support.
The paper acknowledged that Nietzsche had other views that seemed “the complete opposite of our views today.” For instance, he viewed culture and the state as antagonists. This, perhaps, should have made him the oddest of conscripts to the Nazi campaign to subordinate culture to politics and war, but that was not the party line. Such ideas of Nietzsche’s, the Völkischer Beobachter insisted, were likewise conditioned by his own times:
The German Reich had had the misfortune to achieve its external form when there was no longer any inner content. The classical heights of German education had sunk, the song of German Romanticism sounded only from afar. On the other hand, Realism was on the rise, leading more and more toward materialism. Money and business had become the gods of the age.
A state as the “guardian and defender of culture; a state as the means of achieving the true goal of existence, not as a goal in itself; a state that is built on the Volk—that, Nietzsche would have accepted,” the newspaper claimed. Therefore, the philosopher “would have agreed with today’s [National Socialist] German idea of the state with all of his heart.”
Under the Weimar Republic, the Völkischer Beobachter complained, Nietzsche had been invoked far too frequently by “international-democratic literati” as a “star-witness” for their worldview. But, the paper countered, Nietzsche “hated and fought every form of democracy, both political and spiritual,” and he said so in the sharpest possible terms. The notions that “all are the same” and that at base we are all just selfish brutes and riffraff—were symbolic of the democratic age that believed in the equality of men and that established “the weak, fat, and cowardly as standards for this equality.”
In Nietzsche’s opinion, said the Völkischer Beobachter, this rule of the humble amounted to a blow against life itself. Against the democratic and supposedly feeble outlook of the Weimar era, the newspaper argued, Nietzsche set forth a way of thinking that sets laws for the future—an outlook which “handled contemporary things harshly and tyrannically” in the interest of the future.
Thus did the cultural-historical material that appeared in the Völkischer Beobachter resound with the Führer/Artist–Artist/Führer theme that typified Nazi cultural politics. Hitler was the primary manifestation of this creative leadership, but he came, according to this view, after a long line of notable predecessors, including Luther, Beethoven, Wagner, and, yes, Nietzsche.
Cultural renewal in accordance with such perceptions of intellectual history was a central premise of the larger project of the Third Reich, fundamental to Hitler’s aims. But this agenda also contributed to the most destructive impulses of the movement. Indeed, German cultural identity as shaped by the Nazi regime did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler’s racist standards of judgment were grounded in cultural terms, as he stated in Mein Kampf: “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” According to the Völkischer Beobachter, Jewish creators such as Heine, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—among many others—supposedly belonged in the latter, so they and their kind had to be eradicated.
Demonstrating that great cultural figures of the past would have agreed with these premises was a priority in the Nazi newspaper. One contributor put it in these stark terms: “to win over to our movement spiritual leaders who think they see something distasteful in anti-Semitism, it is extremely important to present more and more evidence that great, recognized spirits shared our hatred of Jewry.”
In the case of Nietzsche, however, this process required a little more “spin” than the “selective scavenging” for biographical and textual evidence that scholar Steven Aschheim identified as the usual mode of such politicization. Some Völkischer Beobachter contributors recognized that Nietzsche had not been a committed anti-Semite, and had even criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, his own sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. One editor, for instance, said about Nietzsche: “His work contains other crass contradictions and obscurities, especially in his treatment of the Jewish Question, where he sometimes confesses himself as an Anti-Semite, and then as a philo-Semite. Equally obscure is what he understood as race and nation. This may be a result of the eruptive nature of his creativity and the shortness of his life, which didn’t allow him enough time to go into these issues deeply.”