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Emil Walter-Busch, Burckhardt und Nietzsche im Revolutionszeitalter

Munich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2012, 263 pp., ISBN 978-3-7705-5333-4, €39,90.

Reviewed by Carlotta Santini

Emil Walter-Busch’s study is the latest in a long series of scholarly works focused on Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche and the relationship between them. Works of primary importance, such as Karl Löwith’s Jakob Burckhardt. Der Mensch inmitten der Geschichte (Luzern: Vita nova Verlag, 1936), Edgar Salin’s Vom deutschen Verhängnis. Gespräch an der Zeitenwende: Burckhardt – Nietzsche (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1959) and Alfred von Martin’s Nietzsche und Burckhardt. Zwei geistige Welten im Dialog (Munich: Erasmus Verlag, 1947), have for a long time set the framework for conceiving the relations between these authors, both from a biographical point of view and when it comes to their reciprocal intellectual debts. More recently, the Nietzsche-Burckhardt relation was at the centre of Enrico Müller’s Die Griechen im Denken Nietzsches (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2005) relating Nietzsche to history and Greek Antiquity. After these first contributions, unmatched in terms of exhaustiveness and depth of analysis, the question of the relationship between Nietzsche and Burckhardt seemed to offer no further opportunities for scholarly exploration. It is to Emil Walter-Busch’s credit that his book succeeds in demonstrating that this field is still fertile and can be investigated from new, alternative perspectives. Instead of seeking to compete with these specialists by proposing a new and definitive account of the Nietzsche-Burckhardt relation, he endeavors to deal with their works (in particular that of Salin) and then to offer a new perspective that lacks systematic pretensions but certainly not scholarly interest. 

The first part of the book immediately makes clear what Walter-Busch’s approach will be: not ‘Nietzsche and Burckhardt’, but ‘Burckhardt and Nietzsche’. The order given to these names reflects not only the chronological order of the two philosophers but also reveals Walter-Busch’s preference. His book is clearly skewed towards Burckhardt, even though the sections dedicated to the two authors are quite equal in terms of the number of pages. The part dedicated to Burckhardt (pp. 10-132) is the more original and meticulous one, and the one with which the author seems to feel most at ease. Burckhardt also receives a great deal of attention in the second part, when the comparison with Nietzsche is made. This part (pp. 133-214) appears to be treated less painstakingly and the topics discussed seem less cohesive, but it too offers interesting elements, such as the chapter on the cult of Renaissance in the literature of the turn of the century (pp. 194-214). And, in Walter-Busch’s defense, the challenging task of presenting two authors and their reciprocal relationship and of revealing their different approaches to common themes, on the basis of their different historical and social backgrounds, perhaps makes a dualistic and comparative approach inevitable.
Before approaching the Burckhardt-Nietzsche relationship on the basis of their biographies and works, Walter-Busch considers it necessary to first consider each philosopher separately, focusing particularly on the dependency of their works on the age in which they lived. Burckhardt and Nietzsche were indeed, as Walter-Busch says, “Zeitzeugen typischer, gelegentlich auch lokal, national oder international bedeutsamer Entwicklungen und Ereignisse des 19. Jahrhunderts” (p. 57), and that can be seen in their works.

When it comes to Jacob Burckhardt, Werner Kaegi’s colossal work in seven volumes, Jakob Burckhardt. Eine Biographie (Basel-Stuttgart: Schwabe, 1947-1982) remains a vital reference work, and offers Walter-Busch a mine of materials on the first years of Burckhardt’s activity in Basel. One of the most original and interesting sections of the book (even for specialists) is the analysis of the so-called Politische Reportagen (pp. 61-76), the numerous newspaper reports Burckhardt wrote between 1843 and 1848 in the wake of the political events that upset Europe and, on a small scale, even Switzerland. In contrast with the universalism of Burckhardt’s historical thesis, Walter-Busch points out the local, cantonal rather than national dynamics Burckhardt chose to be involved in. This first part is followed by an overview of historical-cultural considerations through all Burckhardt’s works. This is less coherent with the core aims of the book, but nonetheless has the merit of recalling the many elements that constitute Burckhardt’s cultural and humanistic experience. Both the ‘private’ Burckhardt emerging in the letters and the ‘public’ Burckhardt of the lectures on history and the engaged journalism reflect a deep consciousness of his age. The so-called Revolutionszeitalter, to which the title of Walter-Busch’s book already calls attention, is an age of disturbing forces, of deep indecisiveness. With an admirable balance between his restricted personal experience in the Cantons of Switzerland and the lucidity of his historical vision, Burckhardt was able to give us one of the most objective analyses of his age.

Nietzsche’s approach to his time is different, as Walter-Busch clearly highlights. If it is true that Burckhardt and Nietzsche generally had different approaches to history, albeit agreeing on some common points, they lived in two different ages. The thirty-six years that separate Burckhardt and Nietzsche are more than the simple length of a generation. It therefore seems difficult, if Walter-Busch is right in his understanding of the social and political circumstances of the times, to establish stark affinities between Burckhardt’s experience of the Revolutionszeitalter, particularly in the 1840s, and that of Nietzsche in the 1860s and 1870s. But thanks to his careful analysis of Burckhardt and Nietzsche’s different approaches to politics, to their own nations and to the society of their time, Walter-Busch succeeds in making the comparison coherent.

As previously mentioned, one of the most interesting chapters of the book is that in the part dedicated to Nietzsche concerning the cult of Renaissance in both philosophers and in the literature of the turn of the century (pp. 194-214). According to what Walter-Busch himself says in the preface, the core of the book had originally indeed been an essay on “Nietzsche’s Renaissance”. Renaissance is certainly a point of contact between Nietzsche and Burckhardt, and the chapter is also very interesting for its intelligent treatment of the secondary literature on these themes and its convincing account of the posthumous encounter of twentieth-century authors, in particular Thomas Mann, with Burckhardt and Nietzsche on these themes.

Walter-Busch’s thesis, clearly revealed at the end of the book (p. 227), is that Nietzsche and Burckhardt were very different thinkers, and indeed representatives of two opposed visions of life: Burckhardt was the passive conservative, Nietzsche the innovator able to make good use of the confused forces of his age. This thesis might seem banal or at least reductive, if it were not immediately put in question and attenuated by Walter-Busch himself. If Nietzsche aspired to a Werterevolution and Burckhardt to a Werterestauration, they were nonetheless both, in their own ways, prophetic thinkers, able to see beyond their own time. In this sense we can accept the ‘wide’ definition of Revolutionszeitalter given by Walter-Busch, as an age that begins with the Napoleonic Wars and reaches to the First World War, of which Nietzsche and Burckhardt were not only acute witnesses, but also far-sighted prophets.

Walter-Busch’s book therefore succeeds in carving out an original space within a very crowded field. Its merits lie in the originality of Walter-Busch’s points of view and his capacity to concentrate on details without losing sight of the general comprehension of the experience and work of both philosophers. The flaws of the book are those that often found in this type of comparison of two authors: at times the argumentation is not sufficiently coherent and the analysis not sufficiently thorough, leaving the reader simply with uncritical juxtapositions of themes. Overall, I would not recommend this book to non-specialists, those without the necessary historical and philosophical training and familiarity with Burckhardt’s and Nietzsche’s lives and works. However, I would recommend it to specialists, who I am sure will find it offers a rich crop of material and stimulating cues to further investigation.

Università del Salento (Centro Studi Colli-Montinari)