Not nice – but not a Nazi

Nietzsche's racist sister gave him his bad reputation.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Not a Nazi

We Want the Light, a new film by the documentarist Christopher Nupen to appear this Sunday on BBC2, explores the cultural origins of the Holocaust, looking at how the Nazis draw inspiration from art. Two baddies are singled out: Johann Sebastian Bach and Wagner. This is familiar stuff. Bach’s Matthew Passion is famous for its central theme of the Jews murdering Christ, while Wagner was a ferocious anti-Semite and worshipped by Hitler.

The previews I have read don’t mention Nietzsche. Sorry to mention the man again. Readers familiar with this column may have garnered that I have a bit of an unhealthy fixation with this German philosopher. It’s hardly the kind of thing that endears you to people. Nietzsche is regarded as the thinker either for those who were bullied at school, or for Nazis.

But I feel compelled to bring him up again. It’s because when people talk about the cultural origins of National Socialism, they often unthinkingly cite Nietzsche, and it really gets on my nerves. If anyone out there thinks that Friedrich Nietzsche ‘invented Nazism’, they should know the following.

Yes, he’s the one who hated compassion and weakness. He’s the one who glorified the virtues of the Herren-Caste (‘master caste’), which emerged in the 1930s as Herren-Rasse (master race). Most notoriously of all, he is founder of the idea of the ubermensch, or ‘overman’, a concept from which the Nazis derived the notion of the untermensch – the ‘belowman’, the subhuman.

He also hated Christianity, democracy, humility, socialism, women, beggars, anarchists, the English and the politics of envy. But with this he ceaselessly coruscated nationalism as well. He became fanatically anti-German (‘To be a good German means to de-Germanise oneself’), seeing the emergent German nationalism of his time as bourgeois, petty stupidity – appealing to the worst aspects of a mob mentality, to those ‘speculators in idealism, the anti-Semites, who, rolling their eyes in a Christian-Aryan-Philistine way, seek to rouse all the bovine elements of the people through an exasperating abuse of the cheapest means of agitation and moral attitudes’. Nietzsche also, ahem, had little time for ‘the nonsense of vegetarians’.

He deplored worship of the state, the tyranny of demagogues and the tyranny of the crowd. He believed in self-autonomy and admired the Jews with something of a passion. Indeed his Semitophilia derived in part from the fact that he recognised anti-Semites for what they have always been: resentful failures. ‘The whole problem of the Jews exists only within national states, inasmuch as their energy and higher intelligence, their capital spirit and will…predominate to a degree that awakens only envy and hatred.’

Admittedly, passages such as the last can be open to misinterpretation. But it was Nietzsche’s wretched sister Elisabeth who was responsible for tarnishing his reputation. She posthumously put together a collection of his aphorisms that most suited her Wagnerian, racist agenda – maxims that included none of that which was antithetical to National Socialism, only all that stuff about glory, supermen and contempt for compassion.

  • Let’s get down to the facts

The latest ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ story emerges this week from Scotland. It transpires that Lothian and Borders Police have issued new guidelines in which officers have been warned not to ask people if they are married in case it causes offence to gays; not to call elderly people ‘old’ for fear of being ageist; not to refer to women as ‘pet’, ‘love’ or ‘dear’; and to refrain from saying ‘accident blackspot’ or ‘nitty gritty’.

I thought we had got over this in the 1980s, when we used to hear stores that some ‘loony-left’ Labour council had banned blackboards and black refuse bags. But it is not surprising that, like Duran Duran, one of the defining features of that decade remains as vigorous as ever. We live in hyper-sensitive times, where causing ‘offence’ or ‘hurt’ through words remains the biggest taboo, second only to being racist – a crime that, if not now quite seen as a mental illness, is certainly regarded as a contemporary kind of blasphemy.

I regard myself as a non-racist, but not a professional ‘anti-racist’, one of those paranoid bores who sees racism in much the same way that Jedi knights regard ‘The dark side of the Force’ – ie, the omnipresent incarnation of evil that dwells latent within our souls. But ‘anti-racists’ should at least get their facts right.

Folklore holds it that the term ‘nitty gritty’ stems from the days of slave ships, when the cargo were riddled with nits and grits, so that ‘let’s get down to the nitty gritty’ was a call to gang-rape by the crew. This is why Lothian and Borders Police believe that it should be banned. But this story is an urban myth. The term ‘nitty gritty’ only first appeared in the 1950s in American black popular music. It was first used in its present sense (as getting to the heart of a matter) by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The idea that it is a call to gang rape was invented only recently on a training course for social workers.

  • Bible-bashing

As the Church of England is to debate the possibility of blessing gay ‘marriages’ under a motion in next months’ General Synod, here’s a suggestion to those evangelicals who say that homosexuality is wrong because Leviticus Chapter 18 says: ‘It is abomination for man to lie with mankind as with womankind.’ The same book of the Bible says that it is forbidden to eat pork or shrimp, for a man to have sex with his wife when she is on her period and to wear clothes made of a compound of fabrics. If you are going to cite the Bible as an authority for morality, then one should at least do so consistently.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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