It wasn’t him, it was her

Jenny Diski

  • Nietzsche’s Sister and the Will to Power: A Biography of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche by Carol Diethe
    Illinois, 214 pp, £26.00, July 2003, ISBN 0 252 02826 0

Any mentally idle, story-hungry novelist or scriptwriter would do well to attend to the entangled and twisted lives of Friedrich and Elisabeth Nietzsche, which present ready-made a nearly perfect narrative. Most real lives need a good deal of cutting and pasting to get them into story shape. Here no complicated restructuring is required: you have only to start at the beginning and go on to the end (Friedrich’s ending before he ended; Elisabeth’s continuing long after her demise) and you have as rich a tale of human relations and mental worlds as any reader or viewer could stomach.

We more or less know about Nietzsche, but Elisabeth, the little sister and living embodiment of everything the mad philosopher disdained, who took control of her brother’s thought, should not on any account be overlooked. Her life is a story of mediocrity triumphing over inspiration, meanness over excess, ressentiment over the Übermensch. Her transformation of her brother’s work into a Nazi cookbook bears an uncanny resemblance to the rise of National Socialism itself in a chaotic Germany. After a lifetime of failing to keep up with her brother, she finally appropriated him, body and what was left of his mind: not so much will to power as determined opportunism. Little beasts that lay their eggs in a larger creature and whose offspring use the living body of their host as a food store come to mind.

Since the late 1950s scholars have been busy releasing Nietzsche’s reputation from the grip of Nazification. Elisabeth’s role in creating Nietzsche-the-Nazi-Philosopher has been well attested, and his notebooks and published writings have been restored to something like the form they had before his sister cut, forged, destroyed and elided them. In fact, according to Michael Tanner, the work has been so extensive that Nietzsche has been reappropriated by just about everyone: ‘existentialists, phenomenologists, and then increasingly, during the 1960s and 1970s . . . critical theorists, post-structuralists and deconstructionists’. Not to mention anarchists, libertarians, hippies, yippies, radical psychiatrists, religious cultists . . .

Carol Diethe believes that Nietzsche’s name still needs clearing. As a founder of something called the British Friedrich Nietzsche Foundation (I couldn’t find it on the Web), she presents this biography of Elisabeth Nietzsche as a condemnation of the actions of the woman who brought the work of the great misunderstood philosopher into disrepute:

My chief accusation against Elisabeth is that she tarnished her brother’s name. I have spent a large part of my career trying to convince the recalcitrant British public that it was Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, and not Nietzsche himself – long dead – who stood at the door of the Nietzsche-Archiv to welcome Hitler. Few people apart from experts in the field have any inkling that Nietzsche predeceased his sister by some 35 years.

As a long-ago anarchist, libertarian, hippie (etc) I’d read a bit of Nietzsche, but it’s true that I knew nothing about the Nietzsche Archive and wasn’t even aware that he had a sister. Unfortunately, Diethe, though she has clearly spent a working life in the Nietzsche Archive, is unable to organise or present her case very satisfactorily to those of us who aren’t specialists but willing members of the British public. Too much prior information or not enough interest is assumed in the often limited detail of what she describes of Elisabeth and Friedrich’s lives. To fill out her omissions and even to make sense of the overall narrative I read Ronald Hayman, J.P. Stern, Michael Tanner, Rüdiger Bittner, Walter Kaufmann, Leslie Chamberlain and, yes, even Nietzsche on Nietzsche, Ben MacIntyre on Elisabeth’s Paraguayan adventure, and H.F. Peters on Lou Andreas-Salomé (some of the detail below is from these books rather than Diethe’s).

Diethe’s answer to the question of why Elisabeth so corrupted Nietzsche’s work teeters between a half-hearted feminist reading which suggests that an inadequate education was to blame for her crimes, and an assumption that hell has no fury like an incestuous sister scorned. On the one hand:

There is no guarantee that an excellent education would have prevented her from some of the excesses of her later life, such as her support for her husband’s anti-semitism, and, in her old age, her admiration for the Fascists Mussolini and Hitler . . . But what would she have been like if she, like her brother, had received an education that truly taught her to think for herself?

(Wouldn’t it be fine if an excellent education prevented people from coming to the wrong conclusions, and if such a thing as an education that truly taught people to think for themselves existed, then or now?) And on the other hand, there is Elisabeth’s ‘unconscious desire for her brother’, her ‘love for her brother that verged on incest’ so that ‘under cover of boundless sisterly love, she conducted a vendetta against Nietzsche for having once dared to love Lou by turning Zarathustra into a Fascist ideologue.’ In consequence, a steamy post-Freudian family saga pulses beneath the surface of what is intended to be a scholarly biography. There is an echo here of My Sister and I, a forgery purporting to be Nietzsche’s confession, in full soft porn Technicolor, of his frolics with his sister. ‘Suddenly I felt Elisabeth’s warm little hands in mine, her hissing voice in my ear, and I began feeling warm all over.’

Their father had died of what was called ‘softening of the brain’ when the two children were very small, and although Friedrich was just two years older than Elisabeth, he took on a paternal, not to say patronising role. He told her what to read and how to write (‘If only she could learn to write better! And when she narrates something, she must leave out all the “ahs” and “ohs” and “you won’t believe how lovely, how wonderful, how enchanting etc it was”’). He encouraged her to learn and to sit in on lectures at Leipzig University. He also encouraged her to keep house for him when he became a professor of philology at Basle at the age of 24. He called her ‘Llama’ after a book they had read as children, and she came when called to ease his life of nine-day migraines and what appears to have been a near autistic incapacity to deal socially with the world. Elisabeth behaved quite conventionally as an unmarried woman, living with her mother, Franziska, in Naumburg, and sometimes housekeeping for her bachelor brother. Her thinking was conventional too. In 1865 she had a brief flirtation with the possibility of free thinking and wrote to Friedrich: ‘Since I cannot forget my llama nature, I’m completely confused, and prefer not to think about it, because I just come up with nonsense.’ Nietzsche tells her how it is: ‘Here the ways of man part; if what you want is peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then seek.’ She very quickly made up her mind against being a disciple of truth. In 1878 she quarrelled fiercely with her brother because of the atheism in Human, All Too Human, though the rift that the book created between him and the Wagners was as much the cause of Elisabeth’s suffering, since she found being in their classy social aura very agreeable. Cosima blamed Nietzsche’s best friend Paul Rée, who was Jewish. ‘Finally Israel intervened in the form of a Dr Rée, very sleek, very cool, at the same time as being wrapped up in Nietzsche and dominated by him, though actually outwitting him – the relationship between Judaea and Germany in miniature.’ Friedrich and Elisabeth made it up, but Elisabeth managed to keep in with the Wagners by babysitting and running errands for them while they continued to shake their heads at Nietzsche’s apostasy.

It took Lou Salomé to cause an unbreachable gulf between the brother and sister. As if specially designed to be Elisabeth’s nemesis, Lou met Wagner when she was 21, sparklingly clever, bare-footed, free-spirited, free-thinking (though sexually abstinent) and instantly desirable to every man who came across her. She met Paul Rée and proposed that the two of them find a third and spend a winter chastely living and learning together in Paris or Vienna, attending lectures and studying in the company of interesting people. Nietzsche was invited to form the third side of the triangle and instantly fell gauchely in love. Freud said of Nietzsche that no one ever had or ever would understand themselves as well as he did, but understanding how to conduct human relationships was not his strong suit. Lou may have kissed Nietzsche when they were walking together, which was enough to cause him to propose a second time; the first proposal – made the day they met, when he greeted her with ‘What stars have sent us orbiting towards each other?’ – had been, he said, merely to regularise the situation when they lived together in the winter. And if further proof were needed of his inability to understand people, he asked the narrow-minded, provincial and possessive Elisabeth to meet up with wild and wilful Lou in Bayreuth and bring her to Tautenburg to spend time with him. There was a knock-down row in their hotel room in Bayreuth, with Elisabeth in her spinsterish mid-thirties giving Lou the benefit of her womanly wisdom. Lou had been flirting with Joukowsky, one of Wagner’s acolytes, and Elisabeth warned her that her reputation was at stake. When Lou, never very aware of other people’s sensitivities, broke into shrieks of laughter, Elisabeth berated her for betraying Friedrich, a virtuous and innocent pastor’s son, and tempting him with indecent, uncivilised proposals. H.F. Peters quotes Lou’s version of her reply:

Don’t get the idea that I am interested in your brother, or in love with him. I could spend a whole night with him in one room without getting excited. It was your brother who first soiled our study plan with the lowest intentions. He only started to talk about friendship when he realised he could not have anything else. It was your brother who first proposed ‘free love’.

At this point Elisabeth became hysterical and vomited.

The Tautenburg idyll was not a success. Lou and Rée went off together and left Nietzsche in a puddle of baffled and betrayed misery. His rage at Lou (‘a monkey with false breasts’; ‘Better to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the dreams of a woman on heat’) did nothing to improve his already epic misogyny, and he never forgave his sister for poisoning the image of his only love and preventing him from coming to terms with his loss. ‘For a year now,’ he wrote of her interference, ‘she has cheated me out of my greatest self-conquest by talking at the wrong time and being silent at the wrong time, so that in the end I am the victim of her merciless desire for vengeance.’ But if Nietzsche was capable of seeing himself as a pitiful victim, he was also able to see the larger, awful joke. ‘I have the Naumburg “Virtue” against me,’ he wrote. A couple of months before his collapse he declared in Ecce Homo (in a passage that only narrowly survived Elisabeth’s attempts to suppress it): ‘When I look for my profoundest opposite, the incalculable pettiness of my instincts, I always find my mother and my sister – to be related to such canaille would be blasphemy against my divinity . . . I confess that the deepest objection to the “eternal recurrence”, my real idea from the abyss, is always my mother and my sister.’

Elisabeth tried to make a life of her own when the life she tried to make with her brother failed. She married a proto-Nazi, Bernhard Förster, an anti-semite, nationalist boor whose big dream came true with the founding of Nueva Germania, an Aryan colony in Paraguay. Nietzsche railed against his brother-in-law for his anti-semitism and his pro-German beliefs. He wrote to Elisabeth as his ‘llama gone among the anti-semites’ and derided Nueva Germania. Elisabeth found herself with a straggle of colonists in a mosquito-ridden, uncleared jungle where sandflies bored into the skin of the feet and the clay soil was so intractable that nothing would grow. The sweet nothings Elisabeth and Bernhard wrote to each other (‘Dear, magnificent, great one,’ he writes to her; ‘My dear Bernhard of my heart’, ‘Your little Eli,’ she writes back) turned sour. The funding turned out to be chimerical; Förster panicked and took to drink. On hearing of Nietzsche’s collapse in Turin, Elisabeth wrote home to her mother:

Naturally I am an excellent wife when, as usual, I take every burden upon myself with pleasure, the only reward the success of our enterprise, never desiring anything for myself, but only ever caring about Bern and the colony . . . But now for the past six weeks I have thought about myself for once, first I had a painful eye infection and then this great trouble, and I am only now discovering that Bern is a terrible egoist.

When Bernhard poisoned himself in a hotel room in San Bernadino, Elisabeth was free to return home (she always insisted that he had died of a stroke, in spite of the vial of poison found beside the body) and take charge of her now hopelessly mad brother, whose work, all of a sudden, was engaging the interest of readers. She changed her name to Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and paid her mother off in return for her relinquishing all claims to Friedrich’s royalties. The Nietzsche-Archiv was born in her mother’s house in Naumburg, where, to Franziska’s distress, Elisabeth held soirées on the ground floor as Friedrich babbled upstairs. Sometimes she would allow guests a viewing of her brother, dressed by her in a white pleated robe like a Brahmin. Meta von Salis, who provided a free house in Weimar, the Villa Silberblick, for the Nietzsches and the archive (and to whom Elisabeth presented a bill for redecoration), was appalled when she read a newspaper article by a journalist who had been allowed to watch Nietzsche sleep and to observe him being fed bits of cake as he cowered on a chair. Rudolf Steiner tried to teach Elisabeth her brother’s philosophy but gave up in disgust at her lack of understanding. In time, Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland and Spengler all resigned their posts at the archive, unable to tolerate what Elisabeth was doing to her brother’s work and her cosying up to the Nazis. Walter Benjamin wrote that Nietzsche was worlds away from the ‘industrious and philistine spirit’ that dominated the Nietzsche-Archiv. The University of Jena refused an alliance with the archive, stating that ‘the scholarly reputation of the Nietzsche-Archiv is not the best.’ Astonishingly, Elisabeth was put forward for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911 and 1923 (probably on the basis of her biography of her brother), only to be pipped at the post by Maeterlinck and Yeats.

If you assume that Nietzsche mad was Nietzsche dead, then The Will to Power was published posthumously by Elisabeth, who raided the notebooks, took what she fancied entirely out of context and whether or not it had been crossed out, and knitted together a book that Heidegger helped make respectable. She turned the virulently anti-German, anti-anti-semite into a Jew-hating hyper-nationalist and suppressed everything inconvenient in his writings. Wishing to translate Nietzsche, Mazzino Montinari examined the archive and reported:

Our hair stood on end when we came to read, in the shorter Nietzsche biography by Förster-Nietzsche, such comments by Richard Oehler [Elisabeth’s nephew] as ‘apparently not printed in the works’ or ‘apparently not published in the posthumous works’ regarding decisive quotations from Nietzsche cited in the text . . . What was still slumbering away in the manuscripts after more than seventy years of which we – in Florence – would never have been able to learn?

Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil that the task of ‘free, very free spirits’ was to translate ‘man back into nature’ after tradition had scribbled and painted over the original text. The job of translating Nietzsche’s thought back into its original form after Elisabeth got her hands on it has been very similar. But it has to be said that concepts such as Übermensch and Herrenmoral lent themselves to becoming the bedrock of National Socialist philosophy. It wasn’t exactly a case of a liberal democrat being forced into bed with National Socialism, though Nietzsche clearly would have hated Hitler. The problem, J.P. Stern suggests, is that Nietzsche was too non-political to see how his thoughts about the way individuals should conduct themselves might be used by something very nasty indeed. Stern, at least, does not let Nietzsche off entirely; he must take some blame for failing to pursue the consequences of his ideas.

He cannot, however, be blamed for his sister’s girlish, giggling delight in Fascism, sending Mussolini a 50th-birthday telegram and welcoming Hitler and Albert Speer to the archive to plan the building of a Friedrich Nietzsche Memorial Hall. But Elisabeth was at least as interested in inflating herself as she was in perverting her brother’s ideas. Her biography of Nietzsche is a double hagiography, comic and almost sad in its reflection of her own will to power. ‘Never in our lives, indeed, did we say an unkind word to each other; and if we sometimes wrote unpleasant things, it is because, when apart, we came under the baneful influence of others.’

As a woman who had gained considerable power, she was about as useful to other women as that other great Nietzschean, Margaret Thatcher. Elisabeth claimed that the sewing machine was responsible for feminism: it made women’s real job of domestic sewing take too little time and so left their minds too free for foolish ideas. Women who spoke of freedom were inclined to smoke cigars and behave in a masculine fashion. She excuses her brother’s misogyny (he said, according to her, that intellectual women were ‘super-clever gabbling geese’) as a defence against the excesses of modern-day feminists.

Hitler attended Elisabeth’s funeral – she died in 1935 – at which she was eulogised as the ‘priestess of eternal Germany’. In order to be buried in the dead centre of the family plot she had arranged to have Friedrich’s well-rotted corpse shifted several feet to one side, though another story has it that only her brother’s gravestone was moved, in which case his body is marked with Elisabeth’s name, and hers is proclaimed to be the remains of Friedrich Nietzsche – as fine and final an instance of overcoming as might be found.