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William L. Shirer's take on the Relationship Between Friedrich Nietzsche and the Nazis

From William L. Shirer (1959), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich


Nietzsche, like Goethe, held no high opinion of the German people, and in other ways, too, the outpourings of this megalomaniacal genius differ from those of the chauvinistic German thinkers of the nineteenth century.... The Germans, he wrote in Ecce Homo, "have no conception how vile they are," and he came to the conclusion that "wheresoever Germany penetrated, she ruins culture." He thought that Christians, as much as Jews, were responsible for the "slave morality" prevalent in the world. He was never an anti-semite. He was sometimes fearful of Prussian culture, and in his last years, before insanity closed his mind, he even toyed with the idea of European union and world government.

Yet I think no one who lived in the Third Reich could have failed to be impressed by Nietzsche's influence on it. His books might be full, as Santayana said, of "genial imbecility" and "boyish blasphemies." Yet Nazi scribblers never tired of extolling him. Hitler often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and publicized his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man.

There was some ground for this appropriation of Nietzsche as one of the originators of the Nazi Weltanschauung. Had not the philosopher thundered against democracy and parliaments, preached the will to power, praised war and proclaimed the coming of the master race and the superman--and in the most telling aphorisms? A Nazi could proudly quote him on almost every conceivable subject, and did. On Christianity: "the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion... I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.... This Christianity is no more than the typical teaching of the Socialists." On the State, power, and the jungle world of man: "Society has never regarded virtue as anything other than as a means to strength, power, and order. The State [is] unmorality organized... the will to war, to conquest and revenge... Society is not entitled to exist for its own sake but only as a substructure and scaffolding by means of which a select race of beings may elevate themselves to their higher duties... There is no such thing as the right to live, the right to work, or the right to be happy: in this respect man is no different from the meanest worm." (Women, whom Nietzsche never had, he consigned to a distinctly inferior status, as did the Nazis, who decreed that their place was in the kitchen and their chief role in life to beget children for German warriors. Nietzsche put the idea this way: "Man shall be trained for war and woman for the procreation of the warrior. All else is folly." He went further. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he exclaims: "Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip!"...) And he exalted the superman as the beast of prey, "the magnificent blond brute, avidly rampant for spoil and victory."

And war? Here Nietzsche took the view of most of the other nineteenth-century German thinkers. In the thundering Old Testament language in which Thus Spake Zarathustra is written, the philosopher cries out: "Ye shall love peace as a means to new war, and the short peace more than the long. You I advise not to work, but to fight. You I advise not to peace but to victory.... Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause. War and courage have done more great things than charity."

Finally there was Nietzsche's prophecy of the coming elite who would rule the world and from whom the superman would spring. In The Will to Power he exclaims: "A daring and ruler race is building itself up.... The aim should be to prepare a transvaluation of values for a particularly strong kind of man, most highly gifted in intellect and will. This man and the elite around him will become the 'lords of the earth'."

Such rantings from one of Germany's most original minds must have struck a responsive chord in Hitler's littered mind. At any rate he appropriated them for his own--not only the thoughts but the philosopher's penchant for grotesque exaggeration, and often his very words. "Lords of the Earth" is a familiar expression in Mein Kampf. That in the end Hitler considered himself the superman of Nietzsche's prophecy cannot be doubted....

In Hitler's utterances there runs the theme that the supreme leader is above the morals of ordinary men. Hegel and Nietzsche thought so too.... Nietzsche, with his grotesque exaggeration, goes much further:

The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of prey; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape, and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some student's rag.... When a man is capable of commanding, when he is by nature a "Master," when he is violent in act and gesture, of what importance are treaties to him?... To judge morality properly, it must be replaced by two concepts borrowed from zoology: the taming of a beast and the breeding of a specific species.


Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
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