The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet

"The philosophy of Nietzsche gave coherence and significance to the new German spirit, and the new Germany gave a royal setting and splendor to Nietzsche"

Of all the public critics of the Germans in modern times, not even excepting H. G. Wells, Napoleon III, and the ravished burghers of Louvain, there has been none who belabored the Tedesco skull with harder blows, or got fiercer joy out of the delivery of them, than Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, heretic, rhapsodist, and prophet of the superman.

The business, with Nietzsche, took on the virulence and dignity of a grande passion. It was at once his vocation, his vice, and his substitute and apology for a religion. In the first book of his philosophical canon, written amid the Hochs and band-brayings of the year following Wörth and Sedan, he made his formal entry into the arena with a sort of blanket challenge to the whole of German culture, denouncing it out of hand as a pseudo-scientific sentimentalism, a Philistine yielding to the slippered and brummagem, a wholesale begging of questions. And in his last book of all, dashed off at feverish speed as the darkness closed in upon him, he returned once more to the attack, and in full fuming and fury.

No epithet was too outrageous, no charge was too far-fetched, no manipulation or interpretation of evidence was too daring, to enter into his ferocious indictment. He accused the Germans of stupidity, superstitiousness, and silliness; of a chronic weakness for dodging issues, a fatuous 'barnyard 'and 'green-grazing' contentment; of yielding supinely to the commands and exactions of a clumsy and unintelligent government; of degrading education to the low level of mere cramming and examination-passing: of a congenital inability to understand and absorb the culture of other peoples and particularly the culture of the French; of a boorish bumptiousness and an ignorant, ostrich-like complacency; of a systematic hostility to men of genius, whether in art, science, or philosophy (so that Schopenhauer, dead in 1860, remained 'the last German who was a European event'); of a slavish devotion to 'the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity'; of a profound beeriness, aspiritual dyspepsia, a puerile mysticism, an old-womanish pettiness, an ineradicable liking for 'the obscure, evolving, crepuscular, damp, and shrouded.'

The German soul, he argued, was full of 'caves, hiding-places, and dungeons.' German taste was the negation, the antithesis, the torture and death of taste. German music was at once intoxicating and stupefying, 'a first-rate nerve-destroyer, doubly dangerous to a people given to drinking.' German wit had no existence. German cookery was 'a return to nature, that is, to cannibalism.' Germany itself was 'the flatland of Europe.'

And having made all these charges Nietzsche by no means tried to evade their implications, however embarrassing. Did his denunciation of German music collide with the massive fact of Wagner? Then he was far from dismayed. Wagner, on the one hand, was a mountebank, a sentimentalist in disguise, a secret Christian; and on the other hand, he was not a German at all, but a Jew! (His true name was Geyer, that is, vulture. It was but a step from Geyer to Adler,—that is, eagle, —and where is there a more thoroughly Jewish patronymic? I do not burlesque: somewhere in Nietzsche you will find the actual passage.) And Bismarck? Wasn't he, at least, a German? By no means! He was an East German, which is to say, a Slav. (And so was Luther!)

As for Nietzsche himself, the one firm faith of his life was his belief in his Polish origin. He cultivated a disorderly, truculent, and what he conceived to be Polish façade, wearing an enormous and bristling mustache. He wrote a book, which was privately printed, to prove that the true form of his name was Nietzschy, and that it was Polish and noble. It delighted him when the people at some obscure watering-place, deceived by his looks, nicknamed him 'The Polack.' The one unforgivable insult was to call him a German.

It goes without saying that all this heaping of scorn upon everything German won few readers for Nietzsche among the yeomen of the Germany that he attacked, and even fewer admirers. His charges were too strident, too extravagant, too offensive, to win any serious attention. The Germans of the seventies, in point of fact, were quite as close to his caricature as the English of the fifties had been to the caricature of Thackeray, but, still dizzy with success, they were anything but ready to hear or acknowledge the truth. And so the earlier of his books, say down to 1876 or thereabout, were sent into that Coventry which is as crushing to books as to men.

The stray reviews that survive were all printed in papers of limited circulation, and their authors, so far as I can make out, were all college professors of no importance. These gentlemen treated Nietzsche with that smothering courtesy which is proper between one professor and another. (He himself, remember, still held the chair of classical philology at Basel.) That is to say, they laboriously rectified his references and quotations, they sniffed at his heterodox notions as to the origin and inner content of Greek civilization, and they passed over, as too journalistic and undignified for formal controversion, his applications of those notions to the patriotism, the religion, and the ethical theory of the new Empire.

One or two of them chided him for his terrific assault on David Strauss, the fashionable German theologian of the day, but even here there seems to have been no suspicion that he had done any actual damage. The thing was simply a matter of taste—it was not nice for a conceited young professor, with the ink scarcely dry upon his degree, to make faces at so eminent a thinker as Strauss. As for the Germans in general, they knew no more about Nietzsche and his challenges, in those days of thirty-five years ago, than they knew about sanitary plumbing or the theory of least squares. His most vociferous shouts and accusations were as inaudible whispers in that din of mutual back-slapping, that homeric rattling of seidel-lids, that deafening chorus of 'Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!' The young Empire was beginning to feel its oats. What was one fly?

Even in 1878, when the first part of Human, All-too-Human flung out its bold questioning, not only of German culture, but also of most of the fundamental assumptions of Christian civilization, the response was confined to a relatively small circle, with the author's personal friends at its centre. Wagner, to whom the book was sent (crossing Parsifal in the mails!), looked through it, found it unpleasant and incomprehensible (the real Wagner-Nietzsche war was to come later on), and quietly washed his hands of Nietzsche. Frau Cosima and Papa Liszt wrote him polite, patronizing letters. The orthodox philosophers, putting on their black caps, formally read him out of their society. A few radical critics, while denouncing the contents of the book and protesting against its chaotic form, gave praise to its frenchified and gorgeous style. A few readers sprang up with commendations here and there, and some of them were destined to become disciples in the years to come. But the sensation that the book made was, after all, very short-lived, and the great body of Germans remained comfortably unaware of it. When the second volume appeared, in 1879, it fell flat. The third, published in 1880, followed it into the shadows. The publisher found himself with an unsold stock on his hands; Nietzsche himself, it is probable, had to pay the printer's bill. It was not until 1886, when the book was reprinted as a whole, that its ideas began to fall into the stream of German thinking, and its phrases to impress themselves upon the champions of the new national ideal.


Even so, the genuine turn of the tide toward Nietzsche was to be delayed for six years more. It came at last in 1892, with the publication of the four parts of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Here, after six trials and six failures, he struck twelve with a resounding thwack. Here was success indubitable: a book almost perfectly adapted to arrest, arouse, stimulate, antagonize, inflame, and conquer. Here, at one stroke, was a profound and revolutionary treatise upon human conduct, and a glowing and magnificent work of art. The thing that Nietzsche accomplished in it was something that had been scarcely accomplished by anyone else since the day of the Hebrew prophets: he had put a whole system of morals into dithyrambs, and the dithyrambs were sonorous, beautiful, eloquent, thrilling.

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