Lest We Forget:
   World War II













The Nazi Perversion of Nietzsche
by Stephen Payne

The racist and fascist ideals of Nazism have long claimed to be based on and supported by the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In actuality however, Nietzsche's ideas could not be more opposed to those of the Nazis. The blatant racism, oppression, and mass mentality of the National Socialists in no way fits with Nietzsche's writings or ideals. Knowing this, it is difficult to fathom how Adolf Hitler managed to warp Nietzsche's individualistic, anti-racist, and anti-German ideas to fit his own intolerant totalitarian agenda. Though Nietzsche's writings did influence Hitler, it was only through misinterpretation that Hitler came to believe that Nietzsche held pro-Nazi beliefs. In fact, it was only the sarcastic, complicated, and foggy nature of Nietzsche's writings, combined with the extensive "editing" of Nietzsche's sister that reinforced and "legitimized" Hitler's ideas.

The most obvious and controversial of Hitler's ideas are those that deal with race. His conception of a "master race," often depicted through the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic Aryan, was the cornerstone of his entire policy and agenda. According to Hitler, the Germanic people were this race, the "highest race, [a] master people," destined for world dominance (Hitler). This idea of a master race is drawn directly, albeit incorrectly, from Nietzsche. Nietzsche speaks extensively of "noble races" and their superiority in fields such as science, art, and war. Nietzsche's admiration of the ingenuity, intelligence, and skill of certain races is translated into racist doctrine in the ideas and writings of Hitler. Nature, according to Hitler, "by no means believes in an equality of the races, but . . . recognizes their higher or lesser value" (Hitler). The Nietzschean idea of noble and ignoble races is highly prevalent in Hitler's writings, in the form of the Nordic master race and the other, "lesser" races.

There are two major differences between noble and ignoble races, the first and most important of which is power. A master race is inherently powerful and domineering, a "conqueror . . . which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a[n] [ignoble] populace" (Nietzsche, 86). Hitler clearly bought into this idea of noble and master races, and made it the cornerstone of his entire doctrine. The Nazi racist ideology, including such policies as the Final Solution, embraced "the better and stronger [race], and demand[ed] the subordination of the inferior and weaker [races] in accordance with the eternal will that dominates this universe" (Hitler). Viewing Hitler's admiration of and lust for conquest, his promotion of the German race, and his repression and attempted annihilation of "lesser" races such as Jews, Gypsies, and Poles, it is clear that Hitler believed in the supremacy of the German race, and in fact sought to shape the Third Reich into a Nietzschean master race.

Furthering this concept of the Nordic master race is Nietzsche's explanation of the power of the noble races. Nietzsche believes that at the core of every noble race lies an animalistic core, and it is this core that brings nobility to the noble races.

One can not fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness. (Nietzsche, 40)

Nietzsche uses the example of a lion, the king of the jungle, to illustrate the animalistic core of the noble races, the kings of the Earth. Hitler, however, whether through misinterpretation or deliberate manipulation, used the words "blond beast" to illustrate his ideal of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic human.

Though wholly incorrect, it is very easy to see how the Nazis were able to use Nietzsche's words to validate their ideas. The discussion of the "nobleness" of the "blond beast" could be twisted by any halfwit and made into racist ideology, even though Nietzsche had not the slightest penchant for such ideals. Walter Kaufmann, in his book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, states that "the Nazis were able to cite Nietzsche on racial questions only because . . . the complete sentences Nietzsche wrote down are masks of ideas that appear only in parentheses, subordinate sentences, and fragmentary quotations" (Kaufmann, 289).

The second great influence of Nietzsche on Hitler was the idea of the superman. Nietzsche believed that certain people of the noble morality could rise above the pettiness of existence and live as a race of supermen. This idea of the superman fed Hitler's idea of the master race, and the influence is clearly visible in Hitler's writings. The supermen, Nietzsche said, would live above the rest of the ignoble populace, and fulfill the "birthright" of their master moralities. Hitler, while believing Nietzsche's idea of the superiority of some races, warped the idea into the "proven" superiority of the German race.

During those war years, the "superman" began to be associated with the German nation; and militarism and imperialism were read into Nietzsche's conception of power, although nothing could have been further from his mind. (Kaufmann, 8)

Instead of calling the Germans "supermen," however, Hitler lowered the scale created by Nietzsche, in order to further degrade the non-Germanic races.

Hitler referred to the Germans as "human," and all non-Aryan races as "sub-human." While this still clearly conveys the message of racial superiority, it also implies that non-Germanic races are more than inferior, but hardly classify as human at all. Indeed, for Hitler, this was the case. He viewed the Germanic race as the epitome of humanity, whereas all other races were inferior, some even to the point where they were worthy of extermination. Other races clearly did not take kindly to this degradation, and accordingly spoke and fought against Hitler. This ties in directly with Nietzsche's idea of master and slave morality.

The master morality, possessed by noble persons, is a "triumphant affirmation of oneself," or a belief in the greatness of oneself (Nietzsche, 36). Clearly, Hitler and the Nazis "triumphantly affirmed" their greatness, and held a stern belief in their superiority. They also patronized and persecuted the "lesser races," but only to prove and reaffirm the greatness of their race. The Jew was not considered evil for being Jewish, but for being non-German. This fits precisely with Nietzsche's ideas, who states that the noble morality "seeks its opposite only so as to affirm itself more gratefully and triumphantly" (Nietzsche, 37).

As far as the "lesser races" are concerned, they, for obvious reasons, did not take kindly to Nazi racism and bigotry, and viewed it as one of the greater evils ever seen on Earth. This too fits with Nietzsche's ideas, which Hitler realized and exploited. The "lesser races," or those of slave morality, view the outside world as evil. The slave morality develops out of ressentiment, a resentment towards the outside world. "In order to exist, slave morality first needs a hostile external world," and the Nazis provided that hostility (Nietzsche, 37).

Subsequently, the "lesser races" developed the view that the Nazis were evil, even though they actually were not (or so Hitler would lead you to believe, citing Nietzsche as evidence). In Hitler's words, "the stronger [race] must dominate and not blend with the weaker [race] . . . only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man" (Hitler). This passage bears great similarity to the writing of Nietzsche, but it is horribly misconstrued, for Nietzsche never intended his moralities to be used as ammunition for racial superiority arguments. In fact, Nietzsche rather despised racists, and frequently said so in his writings.

The final area in which Hitler drew (incorrectly) from Nietzsche is the fascist despotic system that Hitler used to govern. Drawing from Nietzsche's discussion of the nobles and the masses, Hitler deduced that the German people needed strong leadership, for just as there are noble and ignoble races, the peoples of the German race were divided as well. The Germanic masses were of the slave morality (though, of course, this was a sort of master-slave morality, for they were the master race, but Nietzsche's moralities applied to them as well, to justify Hitler's dictatorial rule), while Hitler and members of the Nazi party were master moralities.

Nietzsche believed that the masses possessed a sort of herd mentality that controlled their actions. Left alone without leadership, Nietzsche believed that the masses would decay and wither. The master moralities, however, would prevent this from happening by keeping government in place and in control. This, when applied to Hitler, was clearly in his favor. Though Hitler took Nietzsche's idea to an absurd degree, he could nonetheless cite Nietzsche to support his "strong central authority in the State, the unconditional authority by the political central parliament of the whole State and all its programs" (Hitler). Aside from Nietzsche's cloudy and sarcastic writing style, another factor contributed to the Nazi misinterpretation of Nietzsche--his sister Elisabeth.

A member of the Nazi party, and an ardent anti-Semite, Elisabeth inherited the rights to Nietzsche's works after his death in 1900. Before publishing any of his works, she carefully purged his writing of any material that she felt would offend the Nazis, as well as material that did not agree with Nazi doctrine. Because of this, material that was in reality opposed to their view was labeled as pro-Nazi and used by the Nazis accordingly. Apparently, the Nazis knew nothing of Elisabeth's actions, and believed that Nietzsche was genuinely pro-Nazi. Therefore, the supposed link between Nietzsche and the Nazis was a mere illusion created by his scheming sister. Though an illusion, it was an illusion that allowed the Nazis to assemble various passages of Nietzsche's writings that appeared to justify war, aggression and domination for the sake of racist nationalism.

Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany often cited the work of Nietzsche in an effort to "legitimatize" their racist and fascist ideology. Nietzsche's ideas, however, are actually often diametrically opposed to those of the Nazis. Nietzsche hated racism, oppression, and mass mentality, which the Nazis embraced, and believed in anti-Nazi ideals such as tolerance, individuality, and self-determination. Through misinterpretation, aided by Elisabeth Nietzsche's pro-Nazi editing, Hitler managed to warp Nietzsche's individualistic, anti-racist, and anti-German ideas to fit his own racist and totalitarian view of the world.

Works Cited

Hitler, Adolf, Chamberlain, Sidney B. ed., Mein Kampf, New York, New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941

Kaufmann, Walter, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, New York, New York: Random House, Inc., 1967

Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne