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Nietzschen Self-Hatred in Context

March 7, 2011

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.

A Prussian

Our Pal Nietzsche


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.

  1. lernerm permalink
    March 7, 2011 3:29 PM

    Your analysis of the context of Nietzsche’s writings is very strong, and I agree with a large part of it. However, I believe that you do not give enough attention to events in Nietzsche’s personal life that influenced his views equally, or perhaps even more than, the larger trends at work during his life.

    You correctly characterize his writings as characteristic of a man “filled with hatred.” But why should he feel that way? It doesn’t seem right to claim that he writes with both Stockholm Syndrome and with hatred. A prisoner, (it would be fair to call Nietzsche a prisoner in his dying body), can either feel hate or affection for his jailer, but not both.

    On the other hand, it is entirely believable for the prisoner to hate one of his jailers and feel affection for the other. Nietzsche’s two “jailers” are the societal trends, such as the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany, and the other is the host of personal tragedies that dominated his life.

    Your post described his affection for the Prussians, a people who seem to be the closest to fulfilling Nietzsche’s vision of the overman. While this is true, he is most often defined as the negative image of his many hatreds. Nietzsche holds up the overman as the pinnacle of existence and compares all other modes of existence with this ideal. The hatred that is so evident is the product of his comparison of the herd and the overman.

    In Nietzsche’s eyes, the weakest of the weak are fatalists. Fatalists passively let nature rule over them while the overman asserts himself, even in the face of impossible odds. The overman never says, “This happened to me,” but rather, “I willed this to happen.” In short, nothing happens to the overman unless he wills it to be so.

    However, Nietzsche recognizes that he has not lived his life in this way, creating an intense feeling of self-hatred. What is the principal view-forming event in Nietzsche’s life? It is, in fact, a terrific story.

    Nietzsche fell in love with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a fiercely indendant psychoanalyst and author. Unfortunately, Nietzsche suffered from crippling shyness and could only work up the courage to ask his best friend, Paul Rée, to ask for her hand in marriage for him. Rée agreed, only to elope with Salomé. It is easy to then draw a parallel between this event and Nietzsche’s diatribes warning against friends and women.

    It is clear that Nietzsche writes about the relevant events in his life, both at the societal and at the personal level. He harbors incredible anger against the events in his life that he was powerless to control. At some level, he may have believed that a stronger man would never have let such events happen. It is from these feelings the characteristics of the overman come from. It may be true that larger events colored the particulars, but the impetus for the concept of the overman comes from Nietzsche’s personal life, not Prussian society.

  2. Anthony Sinishtaj permalink
    March 7, 2011 6:18 PM

    I wouldn’t call Nietzsche’s liking of barbarism Stockholm Syndrome as much as noticing the world around him. Nietzsche noticed that with his cultured and philosophical way of treating the world, he didn’t change a thing. What shaped Germany to the power it was and is was barbarism. Whether it was Prussia’s, Nazi’s, or even Allied Power’s barbarism in Germany, it did more to change Germany than any intellectual did.

  3. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    March 9, 2011 10:08 AM

    Hi Lenerm, out of curiosity, why do you suppose that one cannot feel both affection and love for a jailor? I’m interested in the logic behind the reason why you say that they cannot mutually exist.

    • lernerm permalink
      March 9, 2011 4:00 PM

      Well, I do think you can have affection and love for the same jailer. However, I do not believe that one can feel hatred and love for the same person. Of course, this depends upon your definition of love, but in this case, I am using “love” to describe Nietzsche’s admiration for the strong and heroic overman. It would be impossible to say describe Nietzsche as someone suffering from Stockholm Syndrome while simultaneously holding feelings of hatred towards that jailer. Hatred of the jailer is in direct contradiction of the definition of the Stockholm Syndrome. My above comment agrees with Prof. Inglehart’s claim that Nietzsche’s love of Prussian culture is a product of that syndrome, but I also introduce Nietzsche’s other jailer: his personal life.

  4. Ronald Inglehart permalink
    March 13, 2011 6:08 PM

    It’s nice to see that this post attracted some attention. I would agree that I did not give sufficient attention to Nietzsche’s private life, although in my defense, the focus of the piece was the broader background events. The comment, that there were really two jailers, is a good one.

    As for the conjunction of hatred and of Stockholm Syndrome, well, it seemed to me that Nietzsche’s hatred was directed mostly against things that weren’t Prussian/barbaric. Because he finds appeal in barbarism, he hates things defined in opposition to that concept… and, because he falls so short of his ideal, those other things include himself. It was said that we know the man as a negative image of his hatred, and I would say that that was a good point.

    A last detail – while I share Professor Inglehart’s name, I am another individual, so my opinions should not be attributed to him.


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