This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
The claim that Nietzsche tolerated and even favored anti-Semitism as evidenced by his lack of vigorous partisanship on the issue flies in the teeth of two facts. First, Nietzsche’s explicit commitment to being “antipolitical” means that there were all sorts of things that he might have approved of or disapproved of that he chose not to get embroiled in. One can take exception to the concept of being antipolitical (I certainly do), but one cannot fairly attribute views to someone on the grounds that they didn’t oppose the converse views, if one of their views is that they ought not to get embroiled in contemporary political discussion.
The second fact that undermines the anti-Semitic account based on alleged passivity is that in fact the break with Wagner, which came very early in Nietzsche’s career and transpired very publicly in the publication of Human, All-Too-Human, was very clearly understood by all participants to have a subtext of engagement with anti-Semitism. It was common talk in Wagner’s circle that Nietzsche had been “seduced by that Jew Paul Ree” and had thus betrayed his authentic Wagnerian core. For his own part, Nietzsche went out of his way to emphasize this aspect of the break which was far from a merely personal issue, parading his new friendship with Ree, his Francophilic style and content, his thinly disguised attacks on “the artist” and recurrent praise for the Enlightenment, and several (taken in their cultural context) *astonishingly* pro-Jewish remarks in print in HAH. Any adequate account of Nietzsche’s complex and evolving attitudes toward Judaism must involve a close examination of this episode and this text. If there is anything objectionable about Nietzsche’s comments in the late 1870s, it is their strangely irrelevant and sometimes inappropriately enthusiastic remarks about Jews. I recall in particular a letter in which after an invitation to a social gathering, he says “will there be Jews there? I hope so; some of my very best experiences have been with people of that race.” Here any reader with any sensitivity will detect the clear traces of one who doth protest too much, out of a concerted effort to overcome something within himself with which he is disgusted. This partly explains the belligerence, rather than calm contempt, toward Wagner: he saw a bit of himself and didn’t like what he saw.
In the late 1870s, Nietzsche makes strangely irrelevant and sometimes inappropriately enthusiastic remarks about Jews.
At the risk of sounding reductive, I also note that after falling out with Ree over a romantic conflict, Nietzsche’s remarks become somewhat more negative, though a proper analysis of everything he has to say, and what’s right and what’s wrong with it, in the 1880s, is too daunting for me here. I can recommend Kaufmann, who comes to a fairly balanced view in his Nietzsche book. Kaufmann emphasizes that Nietzsche loved to be an equal opportunity offender, and took an especially malicious delight in tweaking Christian anti-Semites by characterizing them in terms anti-Semites had used to characterize Jews, sometimes going overboard and sounding anti-Semitic himself. By contrast, his remarks in the 1880s when directly addressing Judaism are much more mixed than in the 1870s. If one wishes not to be reductive, one might say that he was trying to right a balance from his one-sidedly enthusiastic view of the 1870s. Kaufmann, if this has any relevance to anyone, was himself Jewish. He works over with particular care the flaws in the Baumler book that Michal Fram Cohen cites (quick example: Baumler says, “Nietzsche said, ‘the stock exchange Jew is the most repugnant creature.’” Kaufmann dredges up the quote, and the larger context reveals Nietzsche saying something not quite as horrendous. Paraphrasing HAH from memory, “if it is true that the stock exchange Jew, etc., we must ask ourselves whether we are not ourselves to blame by virtue of our treatment of the Jewish community over the centuries--and anyway one can forgive much of a people who have suffered so much at our hands, and yet produced the purest sage (Spinoza) and the most effective moral law in human history”--and then the thing takes off into a poetic encomium of all things Jewish. In short, the icky comment is there, sure enough, but the overall sense is so different that the idea that “the Nazis didn’t have to ban Nietzsche” takes on a whole new meaning--with these sort of textual manipulations, they wouldn’t *needed* to have banned *anyone.*)
There is a great deal to say in detail about Michal’s interesting post ; I think much of it wrong and painted with too broad a brush, but I don’t want to waste bandwidth repeating arguments that are Kaufmann’s and not mine--I would refer those interested to him. I find much to object to in Nietzsche and will therefore be unlikely to do scholarship on him in the future, but I do not recognize him in her portrait.
Michal Fram Cohen wrote:
I would like to thank Kevin Hill for his informative post. I am not very familiar with Nietzsche, which is why I am taking this course. Any input that I am getting is highly appreciated.
Let me respond briefly to each point:
1. On Nietzsche’s preference not to get embroiled in contemporary political discussion: The problem is that Nietzsche *did* get involved with the political discussion about the Jews, but did it in a half-hearted fashion. He spoke against “anti-Semites” without naming anybody or referring to a specific incident. His style was so sly and roundabout that his arguments could easily be manipulated later by the National Socialists. See the section “With Friends Like That” in my summary . Even the section where Nietzsche writes that Jewish scholars support logic because logic “makes no distinction between crooked and straight noses” (TGS 348), is intended to be a pro-Jewish section that goes awry.
2. On Nietzsche’s break with Wagner and friendship with Paul Ree: The sources I read did not mention Nietzsche’s disgust with Wagner’s anti-Semitism or his friendship with Paul Ree, but I can accept the possibility that Kevin Hill is right on both accounts.
Perhaps I can point out an interesting angle that may explain why Nietzsche’s disgust with Wagner’s anti-Semitism or his friendship with Paul Ree are not that well-known. Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth was also very friendly with Wagner and his wife Cosima. She remained a close friend of Cosima Wagner after the break between Wagner and Nietzsche and after Wagner’s death. As everybody probably knows, Nietzsche went insane in 1889 and remained so until his death in 1900. His sister was the one who took care of him and his affairs. She and Cosima Wagner had a vested interest in keeping alive the legend about the great bond between Wagner and Nietzsche. For that purpose, Nietzsche’s personal papers, journals, and letters were probably reorganized as far as what was made public and what was made available to biographers. Unfortunately, it was also very helpful for the National Socialists.
3. On the fact that the National Socialists could manipulate anybody’s ideas: The fact remains that they selected Nietzsche above all other philosophers. There was nothing that could be manipulated in the writings of Leibnitz or, for that matter, Aristotle.
To sum up: I agree that Nietzsche’s writings are very mixed as far as Judaism and the Jews are concerned. However, I could not find any statement in his later writings in which he admitted that he was wrong about the Jews in the past. The pro and con statements about the Jews are not neatly divided into later and earlier statements.
Back to Michal Fram Cohen, "Nietzsche and the Jews, Judaism, and Anti-Semitism"