Nietzschen Self-Hatred in Context
Reading the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche conveys the impression that the man is filled with hatred. Hatred for religion, for weakness, for civilization, for philosophy… and just as clearly as one sees what Nietzsche hates, one sees what he loves. Nietzsche seems to worship savagery, to exult the might of the strong and derides anything that would keep humanity’s barbarian impulses in check. All of this might make sense, if Nietzsche himself one of the blonde beasts of which he writes. One can imagine a broad-shouldered Prussian officer sneering as he shoves lesser beings aside and arrogantly proclaims that “might makes right,” even if such an officer seems more a Hollywood stereotype than an actual person.
But the only thing which Nietzsche would seem to have in common with such a mustache-twirling advocate of the moral right of the strong to rule would seem to have been… the mustache.
Nietzsche was never “strong,” was never anything like the hulking broadsword-swinging barbarian he seemed to worship. Quite the opposite – he was a spindly, syphilitic intellectual, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers. Despite the derision he had for the “priestly” type, it was in that class that he had his origins. The man may have been a barbarian by temperament, but in his origins and upbringing, he was clearly a creature of the civilization he despised.
Why did he despise it? That question comes up repeatedly, when reading Nietzsche’s works. While he gives his reasons in what he wrote, one wonders whether we should take his arguments at face value. Indeed, in my opinion the question of why he held such views must be considered independently of his works, in the context of his life. Perhaps there exist some deeper underlying motivations that can be uncovered. What follows is my own attempt to understand Nietzsche from this perspective.
To begin with, Nietzsche was a German. Although he denounced nationalism, he was shaped by his country as much as by the positions held by his father and grandfather, though he denounced their work. Nietzsche lived from 1844 to 1900 – the era of Germany’s unification and rise to power. Although he considered himself to be a “very bad German,” this event was so significant for all those who lived through it that it must have captured his attention. German unification did not come into being by way of a popular revolution, nor through either philosophy or religion, nor even through a political union of the existing states. Rather, it came into being through conquest, through the strength and military skill of Prussia and the Prussian military elite. It was the triumph of Blood and Iron.
Before the Prussian unification of Germany under Prussian leadership, there existed many versions of the German national character, united by language but divided by much else. It was a collection of countries that had a variety of national characters and diverse cultural heroes – for some, the industrious merchant, for some the scholar, for the Prussians the officer… there were little states that based their national pride on the quality of their court musicians… there was the Germany that was called the land of “Dichter und Gedichte,” and there were other Germanies. During the First World War, while German troops burned Belgium, a German professor was asked, “Are you the people of Goethe, or of Attila the Hun?” The fact that the Germans came to be known as “the Huns” showed how the world answered that question, but before unification, the militaristic Germany of Prussia was only one of many German national characters, though it would come to be the dominant character. In Prussia, the Germany of Attila the Hun, the barbaric Germany, had its source.
It was in that context that Nietzsche lived. It was against that backdrop that he wrote. German unification was, for Germans, the most significant event of an era, the most significant event of Nietzsche’s lifetime. It was an event received with enthusiasm by the German people, and even if Nietzsche mocked the concept of German nationalism as he mocked so much else, he could not have escaped being affected by the conclusion that the German people made: Those Prussians, they got things done. From the perspective of the Germans during Nietzsche’s lifetime, the hero of the hour was the Prussian officer (indeed, even decades later with two world wars behind them, there were old men who sang a song the beginning of which translates as “We want to have our old Kaiser Wilhelm again…”). In Nietzsche’s lifetime, it seemed clear that the model for the age to come was the Prussian model, efficient, industrious and ruthless. The Germany of Goethe, the Germany of the Universities, the poets and the philosophers and the theologians… all was subservient to the Prussian Germany, the strong Germany. Indeed, when it came to “The Marriage of Rye and Iron,” to German unification, a German of my acquaintance joked “It was clear who wore the dress.”
That was the context in which Nietzsche wrote, and to quote a Spanish proverb: “Contexto es todo,” that is: context is everything. He was an intellectual, a scholar and a philosopher. He was born into a Germany that valued the intellectual life… but the central event of his life was the rise of Prussia. One is reminded of descriptions of Stockholm Syndrome, in which a powerless prisoner comes to identify with the one who holds power over him – both in how the Germans viewed Prussia and in how Nietzsche came to view strength, and those who have it. The weak man, finding that he lives in a world where glory belongs to the strong, writes in praise of strength. The syphilitic intellectual, so like his own mocking descriptions of the priestly caste for all that he denies that he has anything in common with that caste, writes in praise not just of the warriors, but of barbarism – in praise of Attila the Hun. In the years after Nietzsche’s death, when barbarism had reached its height during the two World Wars, would he have approved? It’s impossible to say, but perhaps not. Despite his almost desperate desire to identify with ruthless strength, he was an intelligent, cultured, man. Perhaps when the Prussian-led hordes were trampling Europe, his ironic mockery would have shifted targets.