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By Barry Rubin
No serious thinker has done more harm to the Jewish people than Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings were an important inspiration for Adolph Hitler and Nazism. Yet far from being an antisemite, Nietzsche was one of the most pro-Jewish German writers of his time. How can this paradox be explained and does it have any lessons for the present day?
Nietzsche was friendly to the Jews but when he got caught up in his theories he said things which because of the way they were expressed inspired antisemitism, something Nietzsche never expected to happen. Like Voltaire he criticized the Jews for creating Christianity but made it sound as if they were a cabal responsible for everything evil in the world over which they were supposedly trying to seek control.
Nietzsche was the son and grandson of Protestant ministers. He became an academic expert on ancient Greece yet his poor health forced him to resign his professorship at a young age. He spent most of the rest of his life on a pension, traveling from spa to resort town trying to avoid the extremes of weather that gave him such physical discomfort.
A massively productive and self-consciously iconoclastic writer, Nietzsche never attained a large readership in his lifetime though his fame did grow. His life and works are too complex to summarize here but one constant feature of his worldview was his friendliness, even admiration, toward Jews.
There is no doubt that if he had lived to see Nazism he would have been appalled and been outspoken in his enmity, though his sister became an enthusiastic Nazi, whose funeral in 1934 was attended by Hitler himself. Nietzsche's works became official Nazi doctrine and the dictator ordered that a monument be built to him.
How then did this pro-Jewish philosopher become an inspiration for the murderers of 86 percent of Europe's Jews?
The immediate answer is his hatred of Christianity and belief that a post-Christian, secular morality must be developed. In this regard, he was part of the post-Darwin reaction to the cracking of religious certainty. As a believer in what Brandes called “aristocratic radicalism” and having a horror of democracy, Nietzsche, in the words of Cate, contrasted “the positive `breeding’ of aristocracies to the negative `taming,’ `castration,’ and emasculation of the strong by insidious `underdogs.’” Or in Nietzsche’s own words:
“Christianity, growing from Jewish roots and comprehensible only as a product of this soil, represents a reaction against the morality of breeding, of race, of privilege—it is the anti-Aryan religion par excellence.”
He dissociated the existing Jews from the harm he perceived arising from those of them—especially Paul—who had created Christianity two millennia earlier. Nietzsche used these terms interchangeably when he said the “Western world was now suffering from `blood poisoning’” through being Jewified, Christianized, or “mobified.”
So how did Nietzsche become, in effect, the unintentional intellectual executioner of European Jewry and in what ways do all too many modern intellectuals resemble him? There are three interrelated answers.
The first is that he dragged the Jews into his broader program of tearing down Christianity, making them props for his current agenda. In Nietzsche’s time, most antisemites hated Jews as symbols of modernity, socialism, and opposition to nationalism.
They are prepared, too, to admire Jews, on condition that they become--in the phrase of Isaac Deutscher--"non-Jewish Jews" who put the cause of revolution first and their own people's interests last. On the previous occasion this happened, it led young Jewish Bolsheviks to work enthusiastically to destroy the Jewish religion, culture, and identity in the USSR, until the dictatorship they built up dispensed with them as well.
Second, like Nietzsche, they don’t realize how their “sophisticated” arguments can affect the unsophisticated. These journalists and professors rationalize their lectures, theatrical plays, and newspaper articles while refusing to recognize how their nuances become sledgehammers in the hands of militant activists.
Third, they play with ideas and ideological systems without comprehending how these intellectual, career-promoting, attention-getting games have poisonous consequences. Already the small remnant of Jews in Europe is feeling the pressure from Islamists, leftist ideologues, and more traditional right-wing haters. The departure of many or most of them from that continent is a real possibility.
Thus, our modern Nietzsches, some “Jewish” themselves, are repeating this sad history which might—though we hope not—also end in rivers of blood. Already, the small remnant of Jews in Europe is feeling the pressure and the departure of that remnant which survived the Nazis is no longer beyond possibility.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.