Nietzsche and the Jews
Published work and anti-Semitism
This framework also provides us with the possibility of thinking of Nietzsche without a contradictory tenet of being both: a vehement critic of genealogical priestly Judaism that stands at the foundation of Protestantism, while at the same time being able to maintain a defence of the Jewish emancipation. Such emancipation does not rest on any specific political programme (as it does for Marx, for instance), instead it addresses the Jewish question precisely at the core: “The German Jews desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation” (Marx, On the Jewish Question). This attitude in Nietzsche is clear as early as Human All-too-Human, where in §475 he notes:
Incidentally: the entire problem of the Jews exists only within national states, inasmuch as it is here that their energy and higher intelligence, their capital in will and spirit accumulated from generation to generation in a long school of suffering, must come to preponderate to a degree calculated to arouse envy and hatred, so that in almost every nation – and the more so the more nationalist a posture the nation is again adopting – there is gaining ground the literary indecency of leading the Jews to the sacrificial slaughter as scapegoats for every possible public or private misfortune. As soon as it is no longer a question of the conserving of nations but of the production of the strongest possible European mixed race, the Jew will be just as usable and desirable as an ingredient of it as any other national residue (Human All-too-Human, §475, Hollingdale translation).
Or, in the later Beyond Good and Evil §251:
The fact that the Jews, if they wanted (or if they were forced, as the anti-Semites seem to want), could already be dominant, or indeed could quite literally have control over present-day Europe – this is established. The fact that they are not working and making plans to this end is likewise established. Meanwhile, what they wish and want instead, with a unified assertiveness even, is to be absorbed and assimilated into Europe; they thirst for some place where they can be settled, permitted, respected at last and where they can put an end to the nomadic life, the “wandering Jew” -; and this urge and impulse (which in itself perhaps already reveals a slackening of the Jewish instincts) should be carefully noted and accommodated – in which case it might be practical and appropriate to throw the anti-Semitic hooligans out of the country (Beyond Good and Evil, §251, Norman translation).
These passages show us what is at stake for Nietzsche with the Jewish question. It should not only become unequivocally clear that he is not an anti-Semite, but a much bolder claim could be made that is missing if only biographical sketches and personal life are taken into account. What is fundamentally at stake for Nietzsche is emancipation in the Marxist sense. The Jewish question is central, not only in the sense of critique towards anti-Semitism, but also in the sense of admiration of what it is to be part of the Jewish culture – namely, the ability to withstand. Of course, not simply withstand for the sake of withstanding, but precisely in the sense of endurance through permutation. What Nietzsche addresses is the emancipation of the Jews on a political and social level. He may not go as far as Marx in proposing concrete measures of emancipation, but he recognises the need and desire for emancipation.
Nietzsche, the Anti-Anti-SemiteNietzsche was an anti-anti-Semite. Click To Tweet
Furthermore, anti-Semitism and the movement that was embraced in the latter half of the 19th century is antithetical to Nietzsche’s wider philosophical project. It represented (and still represents, just as rampant anti-Islamic movement of contemporary West) the most vile and decadent aspect of German culture. Let me briefly point some core points of divergence.
Because anti-Semitism was a mass movement and not simply an individual position, it was akin to slave morality in its principles. It relied on herd mentality, and the correspondence with Fritsch could be seen precisely as exemplary of this. Fritsch aimed to appropriate Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to further advance the propaganda machine affecting those who sought an outlet for their misfortunes – “the sacrificial slaughter as scapegoats for every possible public or private misfortune”.
In Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe1, anti-Semitism was used to mobilise the nationalist sympathies. The external threat, as I have written before, always mends the internal fragmentation (for instance, here and here). Nietzsche was in no uncertain terms against the state under Bismarck (and indeed often referred to his Polish descent).
The European context also emphasises Nietzsche’s occasional remarks towards mixing of cultures and races2 – “There is a master morality and a slave morality; – I will immediately add that in all higher and more mixed cultures, attempts to negotiate between these moralities also appear, although more frequently the two are confused and there are mutual misunderstandings. In fact, you sometimes find them sharply juxtaposed – inside the same person even, within a single soul” (BGE §260). Mixing with Jews was and is a complete anathema for anti-Semites.
The philosophical framework is thus fundamental if we are to understand Nietzsche as more than espousing incoherent views about the Jews. Instead, by drawing a distinction between a genealogy of the priestly tradition that happens to be Jewish, and the actuality of the plight of the Jewish people in the latter half of 19th century Germany, it should become clear that Nietzsche’s concern with the Jewish question is central to understanding and misunderstanding of his views on Jews.
A little fun before we end
Golomb, J. (ed.) (1996). Nietzsche and Jewish Culture, Routledge.
Kaufmann, W. (2013). Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Princeton University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2001). Beyond Good and Evil, Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2001). Gay Science, Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1996). Human All-too-Human, Cambridge University Press/
Nietzsche, F. (2011). Towards the Genealogy of Morality, Cambridge University Press.
Schacht, R. (1996). Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, University of California Press.
- A closer inspection would be necessary, but Nietzsche often refers to Jews and Europe in the same passages, as if to show his distance from Germany, while at the same time embracing the more cosmopolitan approach.
- Mixing of race is not as unequivocally favoured by Nietzsche as that of culture, cf. BGE 200.