Academic journal article Shofar

"One Jew More or Less-What Does It Matter?" Nietzsche on the Jewish Question

Academic journal article Shofar

"One Jew More or Less-What Does It Matter?" Nietzsche on the Jewish Question

Article excerpt

Nietzsche1 had "a terrible fear that one day [he would] be pronounced holy." To obviate this end-"to prevent people from doing mischief to [him]"-he penned Ecce Homo, his final work before his flight from sanity.2 It was a beguiling effort, though ultimately it was for naught. The people could not be stopped; mischief would be done.

It is curious that a philosopher who avowedly wore masks,3 who invited the interpretation and hence misinterpretation of his writing,4 in short, who wanted to be misunderstood,5 should be concerned about being called something he was not. It suggests the degree of his disdain for holy men and the mendacity he beheld in them. But why did Nietzsche not use his final work to prevent further mischief, of a far more pernicious and irreparable kind, from being done? For while, in spite of a friend's eulogistic remark,6 his name has not exactly remained holy for generations to come, the antisemitic label attached to his name has yet to be effaced.7 There is no reason to doubt that Nietzsche found the prospect of being considered an antisemite at least as abhorrent as that of being called a holy man.8 Yet he did not use Ecce Homo to make plain that he was no antisemite. It is true that one does find scattered references to antisemitism and the Jews throughout the work: the former invariably critical, the latter almost unfailingly favorable. One reasonably could contend that Nietzsche saw no need to set the record straight regarding the Jewish Question, because throughout his writings, he had addressed the matter time and time again.9 The passing references in Ecce Homo were enough to substantiate what had been spelled out earlier. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid noting that for so perspicuous a thinker, Nietzsche was remarkably shortsighted on this score. If there was enough in his writings to encourage people to pronounce his name holy, there certainly was enough to support the charge of antisemitism.

Nietzsche may not have written for the people,10 but that has not prevented people from reading him as though he had. That individuals holding dissonant viewpoints on myriad issues can claim Nietzsche's favor is a testament to the breadth of his philosophy and his rhetorical prowess.11 In his oeuvre, there is, literally, something for everyone. As Kurt Tucholsky, the German satirist, remarked, "Who cannot claim [Nietzsche] for their own? Tell me what you need and I will supply you with a Nietzsche citation . . . for Germany and against Germany; for peace and against peace; for literature and against literature- whatever you want."12 In view of this, one is not shocked to unearth from Nietzsche's corpus stimuli for antisemites, notwithstanding that Nietzsche himself disdained antisemitism. One need only consider the following isolated, though particularly inflammatory example:

Every nation, every man, possesses unpleasant, indeed dangerous qualities: it is cruel to demand that the Jew should constitute an exception. In him these qualities may even be dangerous and repellent to an exceptional degree; and perhaps the youthful stock-exchange Jew is the most repulsive invention of the entire human race.13

A movement bent on marginalizing, to say nothing of annihilating, the Jews could find in Nietzsche's writings plenty of exploitative material. A movement, moreover, set on opposing parliamentary democracy, pacifism, and the comingling of races could employ Nietzsche as an effective, albeit posthumous and unwitting, mouthpiece.14 But Nietzsche despised German power almost as much as he despised antisemitism, as careful reading reveals.15 The virtue of Nietzsche's writing style is also its vice; or rather, by allowing and even encouraging readers to extrapolate ideas inattentively, it lends itself to all sorts of vices. Often Nietzsche says A and not-A in the same breath and it is easy enough to bowdlerize the text so that supporters of A can claim Nietzsche as their champion, even if what Nietzsche's own thinking-discernible to anyone who chose to consider it carefully-supports is not-A. …

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