The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet

H. L. Mencken, a prominent German American journalist with reactionary racial views, was a frank admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche. Here he explained how Nietzsche heaped scorn upon Germans before they adopted him as a spokesman for their collective soul.

The philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s concept of a “superman” who rises beyond ordinary citizens’ considerations of good and evil inspired Germans in expanding their empire. (Bettmann/Corbis)

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 [German] 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 …

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 even”); of a slavish devotion to “the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity”; of a profound beeriness, a spiritual 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!) …

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 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 12 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.

It was as if a new Luther had begun to speak with the tongue of a new Goethe; as if a new David had been sent into Germany to kindle her against the false gods of the past … Bismarck was an old, old man by now, and had been lately forced from the helm by the headstrong young kaiser. The … heresies of Karl Marx were spreading like wildfire among the mob; the demands from below were growing more and more extravagant and more and more pressing. What was needed was a sharp counterblast to all this gabble and babble, a coherent and convincing defense of the besieged elders of the state, a theory that would account in terms of right and justice for the embattled facts, a new gospel to take the place of the old gospel of brotherhood which the Socialists were turning so plausibly to their uses, an evangel of the counter-reformation.

This is what Nietzsche offered in Thus Spake Zarathustra, and, as I have said, the medicine was fortunately without much bitterness, the sins and deficiencies of the Germans were temporarily overlooked, there was nothing to explain away. No wonder the book went through the country like wildfire! No wonder its impassioned justification of the Herrenmoral [master morality] was hailed by all the exponents of the new order as the voice of the true German spirit.