"With All Winds Straight Ahead:” The Influence of the World Wars on the Understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche

Grayson Alexander Bodenheimer

Abstract


Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch was interpreted by America and Germany in two notably different ways during the early 20th century, bringing about the question of which understanding is more faithful to Nietzsche’s meaning. The advent of World War I in 1914 presented America with a depiction of Nietzsche as “the apostle of German ruthlessness and barbarism,” offering a negative view of Nietzsche and the Germans as narcissistic warmongers. This outbreak of war led to these warped interpretations of Nietzsche and his philosophy, prompting the world to see only the facade of his aphorisms for many years. Germany’s view of Nietzsche focuses on the notion that the government knows what the ubermensch is: a selfless person ready to give his life for a “greater good” of the state, making himself a god. The American Nietzsche is similar, but believes the philosophy of the ubermensch to be one of atheism and pure unadulterated power, positing man as the new god, a rugged state-defined individualism that brings out the worst in man - George Santayana argued that Nietzsche’s philosophy failed to acknowledge “immense forces beyond ourselves” which endow man with will and power. This led to an American understanding of Nietzsche implying that the Germans believed themselves to be ubermenschen and gods among men; my research leads me to believe that this is only one possible interpretation of Nietzsche. Germany’s concept of the ubermensch is remarkably close to Nietzsche’s philosophy except that the ubermensch is not a god among men, but rather god of his own life and not of the state. World War II only worsened matters as Nietzsche’s ubermenschen were often associated with the Nazi conception of an Aryan superiority. The Nazi party viewed the ubermenschen as this Aryan race: a perfect race of men who must give their all to the state. However, there were more qualities to their ubermenschen than race, as it also took patriotism to Germany – total sacrifice of self to the state, though Nietzsche expressed his anti-nationalism in “Why I am So Wise” as being “the last anti-political German.” The Americans then saw this Aryan Übermensch and decried Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi, despite his distaste for anti-Semites and nationalism. In this paper, I will analyze the two interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy through his works “The Gay Science” and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “American Nietzsche,” and writings from German thinkers during the wars, such as Heidegger, to support my argument that the Germans were closer to understanding Nietzsche’s ubermensch than Americans at the time.


Keywords


Nietzsche; World War II; Nazi

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