Hugo Drochon on Nietzsche’s Politics

DrochonWhen Hugo Drochon first encountered Nietzsche’s intoxicating Beyond Good and Evil, he was struck by the realization that “many things in life didn’t rise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith.” But what exactly did Nietzsche think and how did he engage with the main political events and transformations of his time? While Nietzsche’s impact on the world of culture, philosophy, and the arts is uncontested, his political thought has long been mired in controversy and remains, according to Drochon, seriously under-explored. In his new book, Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon places Nietzsche’s politics back in the nineteenth century from which they arose, asking what politics meant for the famous thinker as well as how his ideas speak to contemporary debates. Recently, Drochon took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

When did you first encounter Nietzsche?

I first encountered Nietzsche during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I took two different courses that year that were to be quite significant for me: ‘History of Political Thought’ and ‘Theories of International Relations’. The latter focused on different theories of IR, from classic realism, liberalism, neo-realism and neo-liberalism, to more critical approaches including critical theory, green theory, feminism and postmodernism. Theory was new to me, but I was an instant convert. I think I bombarded the lecturer with questions until she finally said to me: ‘go read Nietzsche’. Happily we had an anthology for the History of Political Thought course – one I also really enjoyed, and which set me upon my future career path – which had as its final text Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I read it over the summer.


It was an epiphany. Nietzsche just spoke to so many themes that resonated with me, and he opened up my eyes to the fact that many things in life didn’t arise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith. Moreover, all readers of Nietzsche will bear witness to the intoxicating nature of his writing.

Did you decide there and then you would work on Nietzsche’s politics?

Not quite, that would come a little later. In the last year of my undergraduate I studied Marxism, democratic theory and the French Revolution, which all combined very nicely in a certain way. And whilst I was impressed by the analytical tools Marxism provided, I always felt the picture it offered was incomplete. It was up to Nietzsche to fill it out.

So you came back to Nietzsche’s politics.

Yes. Beyond Good and Evil had struck me as being obviously interested in politics in different ways, but when I turned to the secondary literature to get a firmer grasp of what Nietzsche’s politics were meant to be, I was left feeling quite dissatisfied. Not least because half the literature denied Nietzsche was interested in politics!

A legacy of his use by the Nazis during WWII?

Undoubtedly. After his misappropriation by the Nazis it was natural to depict Nietzsche as a thinker who was not interested in politics as a way of saving him from the philosophical abyss he had fallen into after the war, which Bertrand Russell had branded ‘Nietzsche’s War’. And we are undeniably indebted to Walter Kaufmann and others for having done that. Since then there has been a renewal of interest in Nietzsche and politics, but that has mainly been through the various ways Nietzsche is thought to contribute to the renewal of ‘agonistic’ democracy. What exactly politics meant for him, however, is still something that remains, in my view, mostly under-explored.

How did you go about exploring Nietzsche’s politics?

I think the main move was to place Nietzsche back into his own context of late nineteenth century Germany and Europe – our current debates are still too stuck, to my mind, in the twentieth century. Nietzsche was writing during Bismarck’s era, not Hitler’s. And Bismarck’s era was fascinating. It saw a number of tremendous transformations, not least the unification of Germany through Bismarck’s infamous politics of ‘blood and iron’, and the power politics between the great European nations. It was an era full of tensions and contradictions, with the simultaneous rise of nationalism and colonization – the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – socialism and democracy.

Bismarck’s ‘Great Politics’ inspired the title of your book?

Indeed. The idea was to see whether Nietzsche thought and engaged with the main political events and transformations of his time, and if he did then whether that might open the door to understanding what Nietzsche’s own politics might amount to. Nietzsche, in fact, actively participated in many of the major events of his time: he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which sealed Prussia’s dominance over the newly-founded German Empire. And he thought hard about them too. Drawing from his own experience of the war, Nietzsche was at first very critical of Bismarck’s ‘great politics’. But with Beyond Good and Evil he was able to develop his own theory of what great politics should truly be about. Instead of a politics of nationalism and self-aggrandizement, Nietzsche wanted to unify Europe through a trans-European ‘Good European’ cultural elite. This united Europe could then play on a level playing field with the British and Russian Empires in the ‘Great Game’ of international politics, but it would also have a more exalted calling of fostering the emergence of a new high European culture, reminiscent of the Greeks of old.

By placing Nietzsche back in his nineteenth century context, does that mean he has nothing to say to us today?

I hope not. But if we are to understand what we might still learn from him today, we must first get a good handle on what politics meant for him, instead of just seeing how he might contribute to our contemporary debates. In the book I argue that Nietzsche’s greatest legacy is the conceptual tools he affords us in understanding the world we live in. Of course the late nineteenth century is quite different to our own time, but it also saw the development of certain aspects of politics – democratization, not least – which are still relevant to us today. The notions Nietzsche developed to theorize his world can help us better understand the world we live in today. Therein lies, in my view, his greatest teaching.

And guide us too?

Hopefully, yes. Coming up to the EU referendum in the UK on the 23 June I wrote a piece for Project Syndicate about how Nietzsche can help us think about the European question. Much of what Nietzsche says about Europe is of course dated, but there is at least one way in which I think Nietzsche can help. That is in his distinction between a ‘great’ – as he understood it – and ‘petty’ politics of European unification, which is how he recast Bismarck’s power politics in light of his own. So do we want a ‘great’ politics of European unification or a ‘petty’ politics of European fragmentation? Unfortunately the vote didn’t really go in the direction I was advocating, but I hope to have at least shown how Nietzsche can be made to address our present concerns.

Final question: who do you want to reach with this book, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Nietzsche scholars of course, but I’d like to think historians of political thought, political theorists/philosophers, intellectual historians, and a larger discerning public might be interested in it too. Nietzsche has a broad appeal, and I hope to offer here a slightly different dimension. I’ve suggested some of the things I hope to achieve above – relocating Nietzsche’s politics to his own time; how the intellectual tools he fashioned for himself can help us better understand the world we live in today – but let me finish with one last thought. I said I first came across Nietzsche in an anthology of political thought, where I read Beyond Good and Evil. That anthology, in its revised version, has replaced Beyond Good and Evil with On the Genealogy of Morality, which is in line with how Nietzsche is being taught across universities today. That, to me, is a shame. I do not mean in the least to deny the importance of the Genealogy – which is a fantastic book, and I can understand how it is easier to teach given its more focused material – but Beyond Good and Evil strikes me as a more complete text (the Genealogy was meant to serve as its appendix), which applies Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas directly to his political context. If we are serious about studying Nietzsche’s political thought in its own right, then we must try to understand how Nietzsche’s politics is related to his philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil is the best place to do just that.

Hugo Drochon is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, at the University of Cambridge.

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.