Christian Niemeyer, Nietzsche verstehen. Eine Gebrauchsanweisung.
Darmstadt: Lambert-Schneider-Verlag, 2011. 240 pp. ISBN 978-3-650-23823-8. € 24.90 (cloth).
Reviewed by Hans-Peter Anschütz
In Nietzsche verstehen, Christian Niemeyer aims at “correcting mistaken readings of Nietzsche” (p. 10), by which he means clichéd misunderstandings of Nietzsche as a racist eugenicist, an advocate of a superiority of “German nature,” an anti-Semite, a warmonger, and a nihilistic negator of any ethics. In other words, the book addresses those aspects that portray Nietzsche as a kind of proto-Nazi. In doing so, Niemeyer also exposes the “genealogies” of such misreadings, in good Nietzschean style. He discusses these issues in seven chapters dedicated to seven “commandments,” each of which concerns a particular set of problems in the interpretation of Nietzsche and how to avoid the usual misunderstandings that they invite.
In the first chapter, Niemeyer argues for factoring Nietzsche’s biography thoroughly into the interpretation of his works. While Nietzsche’s works certainly mirror many personal experiences, such that bearing his biography in mind is often illuminating, Niemeyer’s fixation on the biographical aspect does not seem fully justified, and leads him to interpretations that appear rather forced. For instance, he claims that the “Grablied” (KSA 4, pp. 142-145) and “Der Wahrsager” (KSA 4, pp. 172-176) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra can be understood only with reference to the unhappy ending of Nietzsche’s relationship with Lou Salomé. But Niemeyer’s evidence for this—a combination of Zarathustra passages, letters, notes from the Nachlaß, and anecdotes (pp. 15f., 19-22)—is highly selective and speculative. And more generally, there is the old problem of biographical fallacy: even with the help of an author’s numerous self-assessments, our knowledge of his inner life and how it is reflected in his works can never be as certain as Niemeyer suggests. Still, these broad doubts aside, Niemeyer’s reading of Nietzsche’s statements concerning breeding, heredity, and euthanasia is interesting: in contrast to the cliché of Nietzsche as an eugenicist, he points out that these statements are less related to peoples or ethnicities than to the person of Nietzsche himself and his own difficulties and development. In this regard, Niemeyer refers particularly to Nietzsche’s anamnesis and how he perceived himself as having inherited a pathological constitution (pp. 26-34).
In the second chapter, Niemeyer shows how the appropriation of Nietzsche for eugenicist ideology was made possible by the immense falsification and abuse of his life and work undertaken by his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Niemeyer points out many passages in Nietzsche’s works and letters in which he expresses his nausea for racism, German nationalism, and especially anti-Semitism (pp. 37-43, 58-62), and he also demonstrates that, as administrator and editor of Nietzsche’s work after his mental collapse, Elisabeth eliminated such statements and purposefully and skillfully created the exact counter-image of her brother. She thus very effectively curried favor with anti-Semites, fascists, and the Nazis, out of what Niemeyer calls “greed [and] craving for recognition” (p. 45). What Niemeyer narrates and explains here is a sort of a criminal case: he provides insight not only into Förster-Nietzsche’s elaborate network of lies and intrigues, but also into her procedures of falsifying and distorting Nietzsche’s works and letters, ranging from various manipulations of published texts to the invention of a supposed magnum opus, The Will to Power, by cleverly arranging notes from Nietzsche’s Nachlaß. This “nazification” (p. 63) of Nietzsche has of course been gradually corrected since the publication of Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari’s critical edition (begun in 1967). But Niemeyer complains that it continues to be spread by some Nietzsche scholars—Bernhard Taureck and Domenico Losurdo are the most frequent targets of his attacks.
However, as Niemeyer concedes in the third chapter, German nationalistic and anti-Semitic statements can nonetheless be found in Nietzsche’s early writings, along with affirmations of an anti-egalitarian elite ideal. Niemeyer argues that this can be explained by Wagner’s immense influence on Nietzsche between 1868 and 1876. In particular, he demonstrates that in the writings of these years the frequency of such statements decreases as Nietzsche gradually emancipates himself from Wagner, and that they disappear entirely with Nietzsche’s final detachment from him, such that Nietzsche himself later banishes them “under the sign of immaturity and chatter” (p. 76, cf. KSA 2, p. 369). However, Niemeyer perhaps dismisses the early work too easily. He surely does not do justice to The Birth of Tragedy by describing it as merely confused Wagnerian propaganda (pp. 84, 88f.), for instance, even if he is not alone in doing so. But his demonstration that the ideological opinions of the early Nietzsche derived mainly from Wagner and that they were overcome when he broke from Wagner is convincing, albeit not particularly novel.
The most obnoxious of these ideologies, anti-Semitism, is given separate attention in the fourth chapter. Here Niemeyer explains how Nietzsche was infected by Wagner’s hatred of Jews. But he also draws attention to evidence that even at this time Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic statements were merely rhetorical and “essentially had the purpose of signaling unconditional loyalty to Wagner” (p. 123), and he shows that after his turning away from Wagner, Nietzsche repeatedly and openly expressed his contempt for anti-Semitism and its exponents (although his sister, of course, eliminated most of these passages from his works and letters). Particularly interesting in this regard is Niemeyer’s discussion of Nietzsche’s different attempts to trivialize his early anti-Semitic statements (pp. 131-135), which allow Niemeyer to infer that Nietzsche was ashamed of them. In general, Niemeyer plausibly shows that Nietzsche’s self-designation as an “anti-anti-Semite” (KGB III:3, p. 147) is on the whole correct.
The fifth chapter is dedicated to the old image of Nietzsche as a warmonger. Discussing primary texts, Niemeyer tries to demonstrate the opposite: approvals of war appear many times in Nietzsche’s texts, but, Niemeyer claims, mostly “as a metaphor for mental struggle” (p. 138) and for ruthlessness and unwillingness to compromise in thinking (p. 138f.), whereas the non-metaphorical remarks about war are usually very critical, if not pacifistic (pp. 139-141). According to Niemeyer, there is much ignorance of this point, and he once again attributes this to Förster-Nietzsche, who by means of her manipulations of both Nietzsche’s texts and their reception stylized her brother into a Nazism-compatible warmonger. Niemeyer plausibly argues that as a result this image had been established as a topos in Nietzsche reception and has persisted despite all the textual corrections made in the Colli-Montinari edition.
In the sixth chapter, Niemeyer attempts to show that Nietzsche’s slogan-like sentences provoke misunderstandings by encouraging readers to interpret them too literally and ignore their context, thus resulting in empty platitudes. By way of an example, Niemeyer refers to the sentence “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (KSA 4, p. 340), a sentence which, he points out, has been consistently understood as a plea for nihilistic-anarchistic arbitrariness, by both supporters and critics. In contrast, Niemeyer develops his own detailed interpretation by examining the sentence’s textual and biographical contexts. As a result, he understands the sentence as a “formula for encouragement” (p. 157) with which, having discarded old dogma, Nietzsche expresses his concern for keeping all possibilities of thinking open—possibilities that are nevertheless not arbitrary, but have to be scrutinized conscientiously. However, besides the disproportionate importance that Niemeyer again attaches to Nietzsche’s biography in support of his interpretation, his refusal to accept Nietzsche’s perspectivistic relativization of truth (e.g. p. 159) also makes his interpretation rather forced.
The last chapter deals with Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch. Concerning this, Niemeyer first emphasizes that the idea does not express a destructive concept of superiority (he therefore prefers “overman” to “superman” as a translation), but rather an “educational-philosophical construct” (p. 168). He claims that this construct is directed against conformist herd-following, enabling the individual to call into question and overcome dogma in order to finally give him- or herself values and laws. Niemeyer points out that Nietzsche sets this task for all humans (pp. 172, 174f.). But he also emphasizes that by manipulating Nietzsche’s texts his sister again eliminated this general anthropological concept in favor of a racist connotation, such that, ironically, the idea of the Übermensch contributed decisively to Nietzsche’s nazification. Niemeyer concludes by giving a more concrete characterization of the concept of the Übermensch. He first underlines one main difference from previous (Christian-moral) educational concepts: the psychological inclusion of the bodily and animal nature of man, no longer understood as a purely rational being. Niemeyer then discusses the opposition that the concept of the Übermensch expresses to occidental-Christian morality, which not only has an inadequate conception of man, but also does not tolerate any deviation from its dogma. In contrast, Niemeyer claims, the Übermensch distinguishes himself by a basic honest openness in the face of the unknown and the other, also in himself. For Niemeyer, the Übermensch is thus man’s recuperation of his nature and of the potential of world- and self-framing which lies therein, something especially desirable in the twenty-first century (p. 189).
With this discussion of the Übermensch, Niemeyer completes his series of “corrections” to negative readings of Nietzsche. His claims are accurately, even meticulously, supported, and the book is quite readable and unpretentiously written. The almost criminological exposure of Förster-Nietzsche’s forgery and her influence on the genealogy of the reception of Nietzsche’s philosophy is a particularly thrilling read. However, like his strictly biographical approach, Niemeyer’s underlying claim that an image of Nietzsche as a kind of proto-Nazi dominates among scholars is rather implausible—such interpretations are clearly in the minority today. It rather seems that personal reasons lead Niemeyer to this claim, and consequently to his rather rigid and polemical explanations—he even admits that his “starting point was anger” (p. 191). Furthermore, the various thematic complexes that he deals with are only loosely connected with each other, giving the impression more of a compilation of essays than a coherent monograph. This means that the title of the book, which suggests an introduction, is rather misleading, as is the blurb stating that the seven “commandments” treated in the book “lead to the core of Nietzsche’s thinking.” Indeed, in correcting misreadings, the book presupposes that the reader is already familiar with them. Nevertheless, the book’s basic concern is honorable, as it fights against stereotypical platitudes and against simplistic, convenient assumptions about Nietzsche’s thought. In short, it fights the fight against ignorance, which is always worth doing.