Monday, February 18, 2013

Nietzsche, Liberalism, and the Second Reich

In contrast to the common association of Nietzsche with the Third Reich, William Altman's book on Nietzsche makes a brilliant argument for seeing Nietzsche as the philosopher of the Second Reich.

Nietzsche's first book--The Birth of Tragedy--was written in 1871, and it was in January of 1871 that the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War led to the proclamation in Versailles of the Second German Reich, with Wilhelm I as the Emperor and Otto von Bismarck as the Chancellor.  Nietzsche's last books were written in 1888, before his collapse into insanity at the beginning of 1889.  In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died, his son Frederick III became emperor, but then Frederick died three months later, and his son Wilhelm II became emperor.  In 1890, Bismarck was forced to resign, leaving Wilhelm II as the dominant ruler until the defeat of Germany in the war in 1918 brought the end of the Second Reich.  Thus, Nietzsche's intellectual career coincided with the Bismarckian period of the Second Reich.

Altman shows how Nietzsche's thinking was shaped by the political events of his time, despite his pose of "untimeliness."  Moreover, by the time of the First World War, Nietzsche had become so influential that he was seen by many people inside and outside Germany as the philosopher of German culture.  Many German soldiers took copies of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into their trenches, and the daring courage of the "storm troopers" looked a lot like the military heroism that Nietzsche had foreseen as necessary for the future triumph of the "higher men."

Altman makes a persuasive argument that Nietzsche's thinking illuminates the history of the Second Reich, just as the history of the Second Reich illuminates Nietzsche's thinking.  That mutual illumination leads to the general conclusion that both Nietzsche and the Second Reich suffered from internal contradictions that led to their destruction--Nietzsche's mental breakdown in 1889 and the Second Reich's military and political breakdown in 1918.

Although I generally agree with Altman's reasoning, I disagree with him about two points.

The first point of disagreement is that I am not convinced that in showing Nietzsche's entanglement with the Second Reich, Altman has thereby shown that Nietzsche was not entangled with the Third Reich.  In fact, Altman admits in his Preface that Nietzsche provided all of the intellectual components of National Socialism as understood by Leo Strauss, although Altman insists that these Nietzschean components "did not even come close to being crystallized into the final form that Strauss eventually gave them" (xiv).

My second point of disagreement is that unlike Altman, I see Nietzsche in his middle period (Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of The Gay Science) as providing an alternative--based on his Darwinian liberalism--to the positions he took in his early and late writings.  Nietzsche's Darwinian writings do not suffer from the contradictions that Altman rightly sees in his other writings.  Nor do the Darwinian writings provide any encouragement to the Nazis who appropriated ideas from the other writings.

In his reading of those writings that began with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Altman sees continuity with the free-spirited science of Nietzsche's middle period--"there is little here that Nietzsche could not have said, and did not in fact say, in Human, All Too Human" (21).  But this ignores the fact that the writings of Nietzsche's middle period reject almost all of the fundamental teachings of his later writings--the celebration of "great politics," Dionysian intoxication, the eternalizing of becoming through Eternal Return, the scorn for democratic "herd-animalization" and equality of rights, the supernatural heroism of genius and the Ubermensch, atheistic religiosity, and the will to power.

Actually, Altman himself occasionally admits that the Darwinian science of the middle period really does look very different from the teachings in the early and late writings.  Altman sees this in the scorn for "great politics" when Nietzsche was "sailing under the flag of Darwinism" (35-36, 75-76, 134-36).

And yet Altman does not see the opening for liberal democracy in Nietzsche's middle period.  Particularly in Human, All Too Human (92-93, 438-482) and in The Wanderer and His Shadow (275-293), one can see a aristocratic liberalism that is very similar to the classical liberalism of someone like Eugen Richter, the leader of "Left Liberalism" in the Second Reich and a leading critic of Bismarck's policies.  Richter's arguments for constitutional democracy, liberal pluralism, and religious liberty and his arguments against socialism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and militarism all find support in Nietzsche's middle writings.

If the Second Reich had moved toward Richter's classical liberalism, which could have happened if Frederick III had lived long enough to promote his liberal ideas, then Germany might have avoided the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century.


Xenophon said...

What are "all of the intellectual components of National Socialism as understood by Leo Strauss"? Strauss wrote National Socialism had "no other clear principle except murderous hatred of the Jews". And that surely cannot be attributed to Nietzsche who repudiated anti-Semitism and the proto-Nazism of his sister and Wagner.

You are far too generous to Altman who is clearly a man obsessed and whose interpretation (of Strauss) is unbalanced and implausible, covered up by endless irrelevant footnotes searching down blind alleys and quotations torn from context to support an absurd interpretation.

Altman, like Shadia Drury and Laurence Lampert, makes the basic error of failing to distinguish when Strauss is speaking in his own voice and when he is expounding someone else's thought. When Strauss is discussing the views of e.g. Aristophanes, Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Schmitt, he frequently does so without prefacing each paragraph with "Aristophanes believes..., or "Nietzsche says.. Often he can make a very powerful case for a position he ultimately disagrees with e.g. in the German Nihilism lecture. Although Drury, Lampert and Altman all believe they are very sophisticated readers, catching hidden intentions and secret agendas that others are missing, their readings are in fact often simply naive and reductive.

Anonymous said...

I'll assume that Larry Arnhart has read Nietzsche's Anti Darwinism, Nietzsche's New Darwinism, and Nietzsche: Biology and Metaphor. If not, the author should exclude himself from discussions on Nietzsche's "darwinism" as those texts discuss the relations in full.

Larry Arnhart said...

I have written a series of posts on these books.