How Nietzsche became the fascists' favourite philosopher
Jayan Luharia - Dec. 20, 2022 - 5 min read - #Politics
When considering the world's most profound thinkers, one often comes to think of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes and, inevitably, Friedrich Nietzsche. While perhaps not a household name, Nietzsche's influence in the realms of philosophy and politics is prodigious. Through the notable works of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", "Beyond Good and Evil" and "On the Genealogy of Morals", Nietzsche has immensely affected and redefined political and philosophical thinking with one fell swoop. Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche, through his scathing critiques of decadent European societies and his importunate deconstructions of weak modern ideologies, has found himself to be placed upon a pedestal - the pedestal that the fascist revolutionaries of the 20th century gazed at longingly, when seeking inspiration and moral guidance.
So, the question is: how did Nietzsche become the fascists' favourite philosopher? How did Nietzsche spur the likes of Mussolini and Hitler on in their reigns of terror?
To begin with, we shall observe Nietzsche as a political thinker. In Chapter 4 of "Beyond Good and Evil", Nietzsche states, in aphorism 165, that (about all political parties), "a shepherd always needs to have a bell-wether, too - or else upon occasion he himself will be the sheep." In this aphorism, we get a small glimpse of his politically-sceptical and, perhaps, apolitical nature. The metaphor of 'the herd' is something that is recurrent in Nietzsche's political criticisms. Nietzsche disliked liberal democracy as a whole, viewing it as a tool of the masses to oppose a minority. The reason for his disliking of the democratic conception is that he feared the idea and threat inherent when the majority hold power.
Additionally, Nietzsche disliked socialism, anarchism and egalitarianism (the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities). Nietzsche described socialism to be the "degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal". So, with his open criticisms of left-leaning political movements such as socialism, anarchism and egalitarianism, Nietzsche, perhaps unknowingly, lent his hand to the likes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, who had similar criticisms of society.
On to Mussolini. Named after the socialist Mexican President Benito Juarez, he grew up in an ardent socialist household and carried hard socialist thinking throughout much of his early life. In fact, Mussolini used to carry the Marx medallion, a communist a symbol, in his pocket around the time of his Swiss stint as a socialist writer. How did an Italian man, loyal to the socialist way of thinking, transform into a vicious and hardened fascist? Sarfatti, a girlfriend of Mussolini at the time, described Nietzsche as the transforming factor in his conversion from his rigid socialist belief to his fascistic ideology.
Throughout his reign of terror, Mussolini oppressed Jews and Gentiles alike, in a stance that leans more to the Nietzschean interpretation rather than the result of a genocidal ambition, which was the case with Hitler. Two of Nietzsche's most notable concepts that sparked the inspiration of Mussolini and Hitler were the concepts of 'the will to power' and of 'the superman'. Mussolini interpreted the will to power through his relentless desire to dominate others, which inevitably led to his seizure of power. In essence, Mussolini is the epitome of the dangerous, autocratic personification of 'the superman'.
Similarly to Mussolini, the Nietzschean way of thinking was also often interpreted by Hitler in the Nazi regime. In fact, on one occasion, Hitler gifted Mussolini the complete works of Nietzsche as a birthday gift. Despite Nietzsche's anti-nationalistic nature, and despite the fact that he wasn't anti-Semitic nor was he in favour of mass movements, the Nazis selectively interpreted his works to work in their favour. The idea of 'the superman' was frequently interpreted by Hitler in the form of the 'Aryan race'. To justify the Nazi regime, Nietzsche was a notable German thinker that the Nazis utilised. In fact, Nietzsche became embedded into the regime - references to soldiers being 'the superman' were common, particularly in propaganda. The 'will to power' was a key concept that the Nazis employed.
So how did Nietzsche's works become so deeply misunderstood? From 1889, when he went mad, his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, took over his estate. She, described as an illogical thinker, manipulated his works to fit with her extreme political ideology - she created The Will to Power, for example, from Nietzsche's unused notes, yet, in Nietzsche's absence, she was able to twist his works to suit her, and to impress the rising political figures. This false image of Nietzsche began to impress people of political power as, in the 1930's, Elizabeth met Hitler when he attended the Nietzsche museum - ran by her. What's more, Hitler attended Elizabeth's funeral in 1935.
In reflection, with modern considerations taken into account, it is, quite frankly, terrifying how any philosophical or political thought can be hijacked and presented in convenient ways to the hijacker. As citizens of the digital era - an era in which news is becoming increasingly more ideologically motivated - cases and incidents of careful selectivity and intentional framing are becoming the norm. This is the power of language. The threat inherent in the act of interpretation of language. A threat that will not subside for as long as humanity lives.