An interview with Robert Holub on “Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem”

Nietzsche’s views about Jews and Judaism have been subject to considerable debate over the last century, though an increasingly popular view today holds that he was a principled adversary of antisemitism. In Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, Robert Holub argues that evidence from Nietzsche’s published and unpublished writings and letters reveals that he in fact harbored anti-Jewish prejudices throughout his life. Recently, Professor Holub took the time to discuss his findings:

How did you become interested in the topic of Nietzsche’s relationship to Jews and Judaism?

Holub jacketRH: Philosophical accounts of Nietzsche have traditionally ignored his connections to discourses and movements in the late nineteenth century. In the early 1990s I embarked on a project that considered Nietzsche a “timely meditator,” someone who was participating in discussions of issues of his era. The book I hoped to produce would focus on his views on various social and scientific matters, among them the working class and socialism, women and feminism, German nationalism, colonialism, evolution, eugenics, and thermodynamics. One of the issues that interested me most was his relationship to Jews, Judaism, and anti-Semitism. The discourse about Jews and the place of Jews in German society underwent a dramatic change in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, and I wrote an article in 1995 placing Nietzsche’s views on the “Jewish Question” within this context. But when I went into academic administration – first as a dean, then as a provost and finally a chancellor – I put the entire book project on the back burner. Returning to these issues in 2012 when I came to the faculty of Ohio State, I found that my essay from 1995 was an inadequate account of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism, and that to deal with these matters in an appropriate fashion would require a book-length monograph. So I took a break from my larger project to present a fuller account of Nietzsche’s relationship to the Jewish Question. The result was Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem.

Why has this topic been so contentious over the years?

RH: There was controversy over Nietzsche’s views on Jewry from the very beginning. Some anti-Semites of his time believed he was sympathetic to their cause because his publisher was a noted anti-Semite and his sister had married a leader of the anti-Semitic movement. Moreover, Nietzsche was associated with Wagnerian ideology, which had obvious anti-Jewish dimensions, and remarks in many of Nietzsche’s writings could easily be understood as Judeophobic. But Nietzsche also rejected in the most categorical fashion what he understood as anti-Semitism, and many aphorisms, especially during his middle period, could easily be regarded as philo-Semitic. If not for the Holocaust, however, which forced a reevaluation of all German intellectual history, the topic might have remained a footnote to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Postwar treatments of his writings have generally taken his remarks on anti-Semitism to be Nietzsche’s definitive view on Jews and Judaism, and blamed any association of Nietzsche with Judeophobia on his sister or on the distortions of Nazi interpretations. The controversy over this topic is thus the result of the peculiarities of German history combined with Nietzsche’s apparently contradictory positions on the Jewish Question.

Why have previous treatments of this issue been unsatisfactory? Why did you feel that there was a need for your book?

RH: Most previous accounts were partisan and selective in their methodology. Reading them, one has the impression that they came to the material with something they wanted to prove and then sought evidence in Nietzsche’s writings. When Nietzsche became associated with National Socialism in the Third Reich, for example, you can detect a canonical interpretation of his views on Jews supported by the identical citations from his writings. In the postwar period, his condemnation of anti-Semitism was thrust into the foreground, and other, more questionable, comments on Jewry were ignored. Previous accounts were therefore partial in both senses of this word, and I felt that a new study was needed that would examine all the material, and, above all, that would situate Nietzsche’s remarks in the context of the nineteenth-century discourse on Jews and Judaism.

What role did the Nietzsche-Wagner relationship play in Nietzsche’s views on Jewry?

RH: Wagner was a decisive influence on Nietzsche in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and Nietzsche’s admiration for the composer extended into ideological realms. It appears that Nietzsche wanted to adopt and reinforce various views Wagner held on political and social issues, and we find Nietzsche in one of his early talks on Socrates and tragedy identifying Socratism with the Jewish press. Wagner, we should recall, had republished his Judeophobic essay “Judaism in Music” in 1869 at a time when Nietzsche and Wagner were very close. So it is perhaps not surprising that Nietzsche chose to emulate Wagner’s views on the pernicious affect of Jews on German culture. Nietzsche had begun to develop anti-Jewish attitudes prior to his acquaintance with Wagner, but these sentiments intensified and were reinforced as their friendship grew. And it is likely that Nietzsche’s break with Wagner, which was generally not recognized in the larger German public until the late 1880s, accounts for some of Nietzsche’s altered public, and largely favorable, pronouncements about Jews in the years from 1878-1885. Wagner is a key to understanding Nietzsche, whether the philosopher was adopting the Meister’s views of purposively opposing them.

You maintain that Nietzsche was against anti-Semitism, but at the same time you claim that he harbored anti-Jewish sentiments. How is this possible?

RH: I think the status of anti-Semitism in Nietzsche’s thought and writings has been a major source of confusion. Anti-Semitism for Nietzsche was a political movement that arose in the early 1880s. It was associated in his mind with crude and rancorous sentiments. It was also a movement that placed Nietzsche in an uncomfortable position with regard to his publisher and his sister. So Nietzsche was over-determined to disdain anti-Semitism. This categorical rejection of anti-Semitism, however, did not stop him from harboring views we would consider anti-Jewish, since Nietzsche, as well as contemporaries, like his friend Franz Overbeck, continued to identify Jews with unfavorable character traits, and saw the necessity of finding a solution to the Jewish Question. Nietzsche’s rejection of anti-Semitism and his anti-Jewish sentiments were not in contradiction for him. Indeed, they define his attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

Should Nietzsche be regarded as a forerunner of National Socialism and its racist ideology?

RH: There are strong arguments against considering Nietzsche as a precursor of National Socialism. Perhaps the two ideological pillars of Nazism were ardent nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, and Nietzsche evidences neither of them. He was nationalistic and Judeophobic during his Wagnerian period, but he never embraced these tenets passionately and without reservation. On the other hand, Nietzsche did admire strong and dictatorial leaders, such as Napoleon; he detested democracy, parliamentary rule, and equal rights. And he flirted with eugenics in his later years, although it was never a racially based eugenics. So arguments can be made for and against this proposition. Of course Nietzsche was established as a precursor of National Socialism by Nazi philosophers and ideologues, but we should remember that some party members found it difficult to integrate him into their outlook. We should also recall that Nietzsche in his own time was vehemently opposed to any collective undertaking, whether it was on the right or the left of the political spectrum. It is difficult to know how he would have reacted to the rise of fascism in Germany several decades after his death. One of the main points of my book is that speculation of this sort is useless, and that the lens of National Socialism has contributed to a less than optimal scholarly record of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism. We can only determine with some degree of certainty where Nietzsche stood with regard to political manifestations he actually confronted in the nineteenth century.

How does your book change our views of Nietzsche as a philosopher?

RH: This question is difficult to answer. Many of Nietzsche’s most important contributions to philosophy have scant connection to his views on Jews and Judaism. So there is the temptation to regard these issues as secondary in considering Nietzsche’s philosophy and unimportant for any evaluation of his thought. Indeed, many of the most prominent philosophers in the German tradition expressed views on Jewry that were as bad as, or worse, than anything Nietzsche had to say about the subject. But we should also consider that philosophers possess a way of thinking about the world, and that part of Nietzsche’s way of thinking about the world contained stereotypes about race, gender, and ethnicity that he was unable to overcome. It would be foolish to regard everything Nietzsche wrote as contaminated by racism; but it would also be foolish to consider that his reflections on matters both historical and abstract were completely unaffected by the manner in which he approached the Jewish Question.

Robert C. Holub is Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of German at Ohio State University and former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The author of several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German literary, cultural, and intellectual history, he is also the editor of editions of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil.

Read chapter one here.