The philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche have been used to justify some of the twentieth century’s most barbaric atrocities. These justifications, however, are based on a fraudulent interpretation of his works. For Nietzsche was no proponent of mindless violence, nor an “apostle of military power and empire” – he was a prophet of joy and life, preaching a self-overcoming of life-denying Christian values and ethics. The roots of these misinterpretations lie in Nietzsche’s metaphorical antisystemic style, and in the editing pen of his politically-motivated sister. But the misinterpretation of his work did not end with World War II: revisionist Nietzsche scholars have enforced a symmetry on his writings which have served to dismiss his innate multiplicity. It is in this context that the modern scholar must begin their search for meaning within Nietzsche’s work, which is endlessly “overgrown … by rank fiction” and complicated by a legacy of misappropriation.
It is perhaps inevitable that Nietzsche’s ideas have been misappropriated, for distinguishing the overall import of his work is often confusing – at times, deliberately so. What makes the novice scholar of Nietzsche feel confident in his/her analysis of his works is that his writing is oftentimes clear and easily understood – lone aphorisms can leap out and grab the reader, imparting them with a sense of grand understanding. However, this understanding is often deceptive, for the overall pattern of Nietzsche’s work is generally puzzling, even to the most well-versed scholar; his writing is easily misconstrued and misunderstood.
This makes analysis of his work difficult, for there is no systemic approach to understanding – and it has also made it easy for his ideas to be taken out of context. A further complication is his tendency to write through metaphor and myth, and his frequent use of humor; Nietzsche often utilized multiple levels of meaning within the same work. Similarly, few of his ideas maintain an overall sense of consistency throughout his writings -- his work is singularly difficult to understand. In short, Nietzsche’s writings “cannot be reduced to an essence, nor can [they] be said to possess a single and clear authoritative meaning.” But despite this essential multiplicity, his writings have indeed been proclaimed to be reduced to an essence and unified – first by his sister Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche , and later by other Nietzsche scholars.
Elizabeth had first attempted to “make a national hero” out of her anti-Semitic husband, Bernhard Forster; but failing in that, she employed her “considerable propaganda talents” towards her brother Friedrich Nietzsche’s rising fame. After Nietzsche fell ill, she purchased the rights to Nietzsche's writings and took on the task of publishing and editing them herself. Her interpretations of Nietzsche’s work “were immediately accepted everywhere”; and despite her poor understanding of these works, few dared to question the authenticity of these interpretations. Indeed, she received great acclaim for her interpretations and was nominated to win the Nobel Prize for Literature three times.
Elizabeth’s success as a propagandist is a testament to her “tactical genius” and “winning personality”, with which she was able to dominate Nietzsche’s legacy:
Elizabeth conducted her campaign to win Nietzsche – and herself – literary immortality with tactical genius: she raged, she cajoled, she flattered, she bargained. Above all, she played her trump card: her unique, privileged status as Nietzsche’s sister.
Because of this campaign of ceaseless repetition, her “privileged status as Nietzsche’s sister” was never in question. This allowed her the opportunity to rule over the Nietzsche Archive, selectively interpreting her brother’s works to suit her own political needs.
Elizabeth’s politics, however, were distinctly her own. She and her husband Bernhard Forster were early supporters of the National Socialist party in Germany, and attempted to found an Aryan colony in South America – much to the dismay of Nietzsche, who cared neither for her ideology nor her association with Forster. After her husband died, Elizabeth returned to Germany to “[continue] some associations with his colleagues”. She became “absorbed by much of the nationalistic and anti-Semitic thinking of the era,” and “embraced fascism”. She then began to use her position as the head of the Nietzsche Archives as a forum to promote the views of fascist leaders Fransisco Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
The primary means by which Elizabeth used her position at the Archives to misappropriate Nietzsche’s works was by selectively releasing his works: holding back the bulk of some writings, while compiling others together in a single volume. Thus, while she held back the full publication of Nietzsche’s autobiography she was able to create an entirely new work -- “The Will to Power” -- based on a series of unpublished notes left by her brother:
[Elizabeth] prided herself as becoming the steward of Nietzsche's message and struggled to bring his greatest work, The Will to Power, to fruition … she misunderstood most of his thought and corrupted it with her own Nazi sentiments. Thus, even though The Will to Power had been outlined during Nietzsche's life and even though he wrote notes for extensive portions of it, it remains difficult to place its real significance in his life.
The Will to Power, which consisted of a series of strung-together aphorisms, was wrongly purported by Elizabeth to be Nietzsche’s final and greatest work. The work itself glorified militarism and conflict, and promoted anti-semitism -- its publication “prepared the way for the belief that Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi”,  forever distorting his philosophical legacy.
Besides distorting the import of his writings, Nietzsche’s sister also took it upon herself to rehabilitate his image. Instead of portraying him as an angst-filled isolationist, Elizabeth’s “grandiose conceptions of the heroic” transformed her brother into a hero: visionary, insightful and infused with the spirit of the modern age -- a man before his time. Similarly, Elizabeth attributed Nietzsche’s eventual insanity and death to “medical quackery” instead of syphilis.
It is in large part due to the influence of his sister that Nietzsche was seen not as an enlightenment philosopher, but as a German apologist; not as a self-overcoming free-thinker, but as a militarist proto-Nazi. The legacy of this misinterpretation led to the creation of a fiery and combative Nietzsche: a proponent of militarism, a defender of revolutionary fascism, and fervent anti-Semite. It was this Nietzsche who became a voice for the new age of supermen.
This mood of this Nietzschiean fiery militarism was evident on the eve of the first World War, when a patriotic fervor for victory and glory pushed Europe to the brink of madness. The enthusiasm which many Europeans felt at the beginning of the war was influenced by the bastardized philosophies of Nietzsche, in whose conception of a “will to power” they found a justification for their violence. Desiring to “realize [their] personal importance … by overbearing the will and dominating the lives of other people,” they embraced the dream of militarism and conquest. Later referred to as “the mood of 1914,” this destructive philosophy spread through much of the continent. For many men, young and old, war became both a realistic and a joyful alternative. War was not feared – it was embraced as, “an experience which would bring both personal and national well-being.”
Unfortunately, the staggering scale of death in the first World War did not deter the Europeans for long -- “the mood of 1914” returned again a half a generation later, more forcefully than before. Its most violent form arose in Germany, where the desire to reclaim lost pride and territory and “restore the natural order of things” was very strongly felt.
Aided by Nietzsche’s sister, The Nazis appropriated his works and used them to justify their policies -- “The Will to Power” became one of the primary symbols of National Socialism:
A ragbag of Nietzsche's wastepaper jottings, collected and posthumously published by his sister Elizabeth under the title The Will to Power, were given cheap paperback distribution by the Nazis. Alfred Baumler, one of the leading Nazi philosophical ideologues, wrote in 1937 that "when we see German youth marching today under the sign of the swastika . . . and when we call out to them 'Heil Hitler!' we greet at the same time, with the same cry, Friedrich Nietzsche!"
Based largely on the successful reception of “The Will to Power”, Nietzsche became one of the foremost symbols of German militarism; he was later proclaimed to be the “`state philosopher’ of the Third Reich”. To the Nazis, Nietzsche represented a form of militarism and German nationalism which promoted their expansionist policies; and by glorifying him, they were glorifying their innate German superiority.
Nietzsche’s writings were also used to justify the Nazi policy towards Jews, which was powered by a particularly vile form of anti-Semitism: the Nazis sought the total elimination of the world’s Jews, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Western Russia. In short, the Nazis believed that the Jews were "ultimately fit only to suffer and die.”
This vile strain, which "resided ultimately in the heart of German political culture", eventually led to the Holocaust – an event which would not have been likely to surprise Nietzsche:
The holocaust, an historical oddity so unintelligible to us as the rationales behind, was inevitable in a Germany thus described and enucleated to us by Nietzsche, for he wrote, "I have never met a German who was favorably inclined towards the Jews...That Germany has an ample sufficiency of Jews, that the German stomach, German blood has difficulty (and will continue to have difficulty for a long time to come) in absorbing even this quantum of 'Jew' - as the Italians, the French, the English have absorbed them through possessing a stronger digestion."
The German policy towards the Jews devolved through the years, beginning in 1914 at the dawn of the first world war. At that time, the primary drive was one towards conflict and war; the trend was to dehumanize and bring down the enemy. The brutal urgency of the second world war brought the with it the need for total mobilization. In so mobilizing vast sectors of the economy, the state gained great power -- and in many ways, the state became its own justification. The Holocaust was a continuation of this trend; the creation of a self-destructive totalitarian German state. In order to promote this all-powerful German state, Nietzsche was portrayed both a prophet of German militarism and an anti-Semite. His writings were selectively edited and interpreted, and then used to justify Nazi atrocities during the war.
Nazi glorification of Nietzsche as their “state philosopher” and their use of his works to justify their militarism, German nationalism, and eliminationist anti-Semitism, was a bold misappropriation of his writings. Their interpretation of his works bears little resemblance to reality, for “he never subscribed to German anti-Semitism” – and “did not consider the Germans a master race”. Furthermore, by the end of his life Nietzsche’s early admiration for the German people had developed into a “contempt for Germany and German nationalism.” Nietzsche’s contempt stopped neither Elizabeth nor the Nazis from misinterpreting his writings, however.
The legacy of this misappropriation was felt long after the war, as mistruths about Nietzsche and his works were repeated and retold by a thousand different tongues:
Nietzsche’s voice was drowned out as misinterpretations that he had explicitly repudiated with much wit and malice were accepted and repeated, and repeated and accepted, until most readers knew what to expect before they read Nietzsche, and so read nothing but what they had long expected.
This misinterpretation had a disastrous affect on the study of Nietzsche’s works, for by the time his works were all released in the early 20th century most scholars did not have to read far into Nietzsche’s writings – they already knew what to expect from them.
In an effort to combat these false beliefs, a rehabilitation of Nietzsche’s legacy began during the 1950s. Primary among these revisionist scholars was Walter Kauffman, who undertook an effort to remedy the “inadequacies of the early translations:”
Nietzsche's return to favour … started in 1950, with a book by Walter Kaufmann. He was a German Jew who attempted to rehabilitate Nietzsche, portraying him as the heir to the Enlightenment. This started a very slow rehabilitation [of his works].
The picture of Nietzsche painted by Kauffman was a severe contrast to earlier interpretations; his analysis of Nietzsche and his works served as a total repudiation of Nazi propaganda.
Kauffman felt that one of Nietzsche’s most maligned concepts was that of the will to power, which he believed was “clearly power over self” -- and not power over others:
These “high demands and expectations” were to be directed at one’s self and not at others, for Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power was an internal battle -- a “self overcoming” -- and not an external battle.
[The will to power] is always used in connection with the idea of self overcoming and … it always occurs within the life of the mind … When we look deeply into ourselves, we must be hard and we must be demanding; furthermore, we should look for that in which we are weak (in which we take the easy paths) and overcome those by demanding more. Life is not merely to be "survived”; we cannot survive life anyway. Hence, life is to be lived with high demands and expectations!
Closely related to “the will to power” is the Overman, which was used to justify German militarism and racial eugenics. Kauffman also deconstructed this idea, tracing it back to its original Nietzschean meaning:
Nietzsche himself remarked that "scholarly oxen" had misconstrued the notion of the overman as if it referred to a species that might come into being as the next step of evolution. In fact, Nietzsche urges humankind to "remain faithful to the earth" … we should conceive of a higher type of humanity … that we may exert ourselves to realize.
The “higher type of humanity” represented by the Overman is a critical part of Nietzsche’s theories, which preach a self-overcoming of traditional Christian values – which he felt only served to stifle and subdue the self-reaching individual.
Aside from criticizing the misrepresentation of Nietzsche’s ideas, Kauffman also accused past translators of masking Nietzsche’s writings in a cloak of seriousness. Kauffman accused them of missing the “lightness of mind” and “prankish exuberance” which Nietzsche associated with the Overman.
In deconstructing these myths, Kauffman did much to reclaim Nietzsche’s philosophy from decades of abuse and misappropriation. His translations and re-interpretations of Nietzsche’s works served as a direct contradiction to the view of the will to power provided by Elizabeth and other Nazi propagandists. But his translations, as revolutionary as they were, also had their flaws.
Kauffman displayed a tendency to see Nietzsche’s theories as a unified whole; he believed that there was a single coherent philosophy to be found. Kauffman attributed any discrepancies or contradictions in the text to Nietzsche’s evolving development of ideas – an interpretation that did little justice to Nietzsche’s innate sense of multiplicity. Similarly, for those who sought within Nietzsche’s writings a deeper metaphorical meaning Kauffman’s “traditional interpretations” were often found “lacking” To his credit, however, he was not immune to this sort of criticism. Kauffman admitted that he had not done justice to “Nietzsche as a poet and a writer,” for his goal was to salvage Nietzsche’s reputation as a “great thinker” and to resurrect his ideas from the dustbin of history.
A more damning criticism of Kauffman has been aimed at his writing style, which tended towards the monolithic:
Kauffman’s Nietzsche is decidedly Kauffman’s Nietzsche, what ever his authoritative, objective-sounding style. Kauffman’s “take” on Nietzsche is replete with “the preoccupations of a particular age and writer.” It is not the “Gods-eye view” that … it may appear to be.
Kauffman was, no doubt, influenced by the “age” in which he was writing. However, there is a deeper problem implied in this “Gods-eye view” – an “authoritative” dismissal of ideas which did not conform to his model of interpretation.
At times, Kauffman’s analysis of Nietzsche’s work could become somewhat condescending; he displayed an arrogant tendency to dismiss that which did not conform to his interpretations. This was evident in his introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he described parts of the work as falling prey to “histrionics” and “melodrama”. Kauffman pined for a Nietzsche who could spare the reader his “painfully adolescent emotions” and get on with presenting his ideas.
Kauffman also underplayed the importance of Nietzsche’s first few books, writing that, “There are those who like Nietzsche’s early works best … but they are few by now and are no longer a force to reckon with.” He dismissed the importance of these works because he believed them to be mere foreshadowings of Nietzsche’s later works. Kauffman supported the view that Nietzsche’s writings and ideas steadily evolved, culminating in the creation of Nietzsche’s final works in 1888.
This dismissal of Nietzsche’s early works, coupled with Kauffman’s monolithic interpretation, still lingers on in the scholarship of today. Among those pieces missed was Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which was long passed over in favor of Nietzsche’s other works. Similarly, while most scholars generally acknowledge a dithered view of Nietzsche’s work, few seem to fully take this into account in their writings – preferring, like Kauffman, to find a sense of unity in Nietzsche’s works. This is further complicated by the past misappropriation of Elizabeth and the Nazis, whose flawed interpretations still flavor the Nietzsche legacy to this day with a humorless embrace of militarism and struggle.
It is within this maelstrom of interpretation that today’s scholars must begin their search for meaning in Nietzsche’s works. Fortunately many authors have succeeded quite well in restoring Nietzsche’s legacy, and in exploring ideas which had been dismissed by earlier Nietzsche scholars. In this reevaluation of ideas there has been a renewed interest in Nietzsche’s earlier writings, his aesthetic theories,  as well as an exploration of his use of myth and metaphor. These explorations, however, have not been as successful in tracing the affect of Nietzsche’s pain-filled life on his writings – and why he chose to pursue the path that he did with such relentlessness.
An understanding of the motives of Nietzsche – of what drove him to the heights he achieved, and what he was searching for – can perhaps best be found in his earliest book, The Birth of Tragedy, which has generally been overlooked by Nietzsche scholars. It was here that Nietzsche the “artistic philosopher” began his search for meaning – or more particularly, a questioning of what gives meaning to life. He found a solution in the culture of the ancient Greeks, who had the brutal truth revealed to them through myth and metaphor:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: `Oh wretched and ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.’
In quoting this passage from the Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus, Nietzsche reveals an understanding of “the horror of existence”: mankind’s essential lack of meaning, in a world overrun by the overpowering, ineffable forces of nature. Nietzsche felt that Greeks “were grappling with pessimism”, and that they recognized the brutal truth -- that life was filled with angst and discomfort. In order to survive this knowledge he believed that the ancient Greeks had to create their own Gods and myths, in which humans were shown as being “capable of greatness, always of significance”.
Nietzsche asserted that the ancient Greeks had achieved a balance: they recognized “the horror of existence”, but crafted illusions of “greatness” and significance” about themselves in order to make life palatable. The Greeks, he believed had achieved this balance through the duality of the Dionysian and Apollinian. Nietzsche saw the Dionysian spirit as being passionate and communal, but ultimately destructive. Staring too long into the truth – the Dionysian – would drive one insane. He felt that the Apollinian, by contrast, was orderly and individualistic. But it was also an illusion, for it ignored the base truth of existence. Over-reliance on either was destructive. Nietzsche asserted that a balance between the two was the basis of fine art, which the early Greek tragedies has achieved. It was in these tragedies that the Greeks were able to glimpse the Dionysian nature of existence – in a controlled setting:
The chanting of the chorus was the first form of Athenian tragedy… Captivated by music, audience members abandoned their usual sense of themselves as isolated individuals and felt themselves to be part of a larger, frenzied whole.
It was in these tragedies that the audience could peek into the abyss and pull back, getting a glimmer of the truth of mankind’s communal existence. They could walk away with a clearer understanding of the truth, but without the pain that came with a too-complete understanding. Nietzsche believed that tragedy served an important role for the Athenians, for it provided a solution to a problem which plagued all humans – the internal battle against angst and pessimism. These tragedies, as a perfectly balanced form of art, justified mankind’s very existence.
It was the influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle that shifted this balance towards the Apollinian – a shift which would eventually lead to the excesses of Christianity and scientific rationalism. Breaking this balance was a foul deed, for Nietzsche believed deeply that it was not healthy for a society to become entirely absorbed by the light of either the Apollinian or the Dionysian. By breaking away from the Dionysian, Nietzsche believed that Socrates began denying vital parts of existence. Socrates’ Apollinian illusion was that the mind alone might find the true nature of being -- and even “correct reality’s flaws”.
In destroying the balance, and in placing the power of the mind over all else, Socrates eliminated the need for myth. This, Nietzsche argues, was to ultimately prove itself to be self- destructive:
Without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity: only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement. Myth alone saves all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollinian dream from their aimless wanderings . . . Even the state knows no more powerful unwritten laws than the mythical foundation . . . 
Myth, to Nietzsche, is the powerful force which binds society together. By discarding it, the Greeks lost an essential part of their community; in their embrace of illusion, they became “sick”.
This sickness was co-opted by the early Christians, who had as their illusion the belief that their “will to knowledge” was based on a solid foundation. This will to truth was to prove Christianity’s downfall, for it could not stand on the basis of the pure rationality which it had unleashed. Nietzsche added that, "Christianity as a dogma was destroyed by its own morality; in the same way, Christianity as morality must now perish, too: we stand on the threshold of this event." The Christian co-option of this Apollinian morality of truth would prove to be its downfall.
In order to show this downfall in a more direct and visceral way, Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of god” by giving voice to “the madman”:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him … What was most holiest and powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe the blood off us?
The madman, shouting out these words in a crowded marketplace, was greeted by astonishment and silence. The madman, unperturbed, continued:
I come too early … my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way … it has not yet reached the ears of man … this deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars … and yet they have done it to themselves.
The myth of the madman predicts the death of god, who has been killed by humankind. When mankind discovers that they have “destroyed their own faith in God”, “universal madness will break out”.
This proclamation is not a matter of metaphysics of theology; it is a “diagnosis of contemporary civilization”. It is a critical analysis of Christian society, a “revolt against … the state of mind and the moral attitude that seem to him inseparably connected with the Christian faith.” It is a condemnation of a society who built their faith on a foundation of ash and rotted wood; a condemnation of a society that has severed its links to the Dionysian, methodically and purposefully destroying its cultural myths. When the last myth dies, so will the culture – for “universal madness will break out”.
Nietzsche understood the death of God and the resulting tragedy that would ensue all too well – and it is in this context that he began his search for meaning, in a world bereft of myth – where “any `meaning’ of life in the sense of a supernatural purpose [was] gone.” Much like the ancient Greeks, he began this search for meaning – his “frantic attempt to find personal survival” -- with the knowledge that life was without any purpose. Like the ancient Greeks, he began creating in order to justify his existence; and thus, he began walking the fine line between illusion and insanity. That he himself would eventually go insane is, perhaps, instructive – for like the artists and angst-filled tragedies he delighted in, Nietzsche “[made] his sufferings and torments the occasion for new insights.” In the end, it was the Dionysian -- “the symbol of the affirmation of life with all its suffering and terror” – which he embraced:
Dionysus is … the god of intoxication, decay, and dismemberment. Life, afterall, is always just at the edge of death and destruction. For Nietzsche, Dionysus is the symbol of delight and danger, the fundamental elements of personal liberation, a richness of living that is Yes-saying and refuses to compromise life to mediocrity and conformity. 
Nietzsche’s embrace of “delight and danger” became more pronounced as his condition progressed – “he showed a growing lack of inhibition” in his final months of writing. After his final collapse in Christmas of 1888 he penned a few final letters, in some of which he signed his name “Dionysus”. One such letter read, in its entirety: “To my maestro Pietro. Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens rejoice. The Crucified.”
Though Nietzsche fell off the “edge” and fell prey to insanity, it was not something which he feared. For he did not assault madness, but instead professed the belief that insanity was a "rest position" -- the final state of a person who has given into the joy of unreason and irrationality. He saw it as a state of divine wisdom, and a state of madness; the state of a man giving in to the dark allure of the Dionysian, and the state of a man giving “style” to his character. It was, in Nietzschean terms, the path of an artist who had stood too long at the canvass peering into the abyss.
To create things upon which time tries its teeth in vain; in form and in substance to strive after a little immortality – I have never been modest enough to demand less from myself.
Unapologetic to the end, he found his path to meaning and immortality in creation. It was this form of self-overcoming which remains, perhaps, his greatest unexplored legacy.
Nietzsche was a man of many facets, a man whose ideas have been masked by corruption and vice. Many scholars have set their minds to the task of reconstructing his work, and have increasingly unbound themselves from the misconceptions of the past. But in the reconstruction of Nietzsche’s work, something compelling has been lost – the import of his lonely, angst-filled life and its affect on his writings. Nietzsche’s search for meaning may not be his most important philosophical contribution, nor his most profound insight into the collective soul of mankind. But it is, perhaps, the most human. For in this search for meaning, he came to understand ways in which we could “save ourselves from living lives that we [would] come to view with regret rather than with pride” – by striving to overcome our inbound limitations and create magnificence, rather than wallowing in shame and self-loathing.
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