Nietzsche and the Nazis

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler's 'Heroic Realism'" by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April 2008.

DURING WORLD WAR II, Hitler's soldiers marched off to battle with field-gray editions of Friedrich Nietzsche's works in their packs, and ordinary Germans were occasionally urged on with the philosopher's words. After the defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared, "We shall once more justify the words of the philosopher: 'That which does not kill me makes me stronger.'" Yet today Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the guiding lights of modern and postmodern thought, his exploitation by the Nazis dismissed as a travesty based on ignorance and willful distortion.

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Not so fast, says Max Whyte, who recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. Nazi thinkers picked selectively from Nietzsche's vast and ambiguous corpus, but we must still reckon with the fact that many of the philosopher's ideas did lend themselves to the Nazi cause. Liberal bourgeois existence--the very ideas of Christian morality, democracy, and rationality--filled Nietzsche with contempt. God is dead, he declared, and mankind must reinvent itself in a new image of greatness. The door was open.

Among the Nazi thinkers who seized on Nietzsche was Alfred Baeumler (1887-1968). A professor at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat Berlin, Baeumler embraced the Nazi cause around 1930 and was granted an hour-long audience with Hitler himself in 1931, the same year he published his influential Nietzsche: The Philosopher and Politician. Baeumler also edited Nietzsche's works and wrote for the general public; Whyte adds that he was "a close personal and professional ally of Alfred Rosenberg--the self-proclaimed 'chief ideologist of National Socialism. …