Review: Nietszche's Jewish Problem

Nietzsche as he really was


By Robert C Holub
Princeton University Press, £24.95

After the Second World War, a campaign successfully restored Nietzsche's reputation by repudiating any suggestion that he harboured genuine antisemitic sentiments. The numerous, seemingly anti-Jewish remarks that festoon his writings were either subject to sanitised reinterpretation or attributed to the malign influence of his "wicked" sister Elizabeth who gained editorial control of his oeuvre after her brother descended into madness in his final years.

So rehabilitated has the once almost vilified thinker become that Nietzsche's writing now figures alongside that by Plato, Descartes, Hume and Mill as a set text in the country's most popular A-level philosophy syllabus.

Those who buy in to this rehabilitation will have to revise their opinion in the light of the overwhelming evidence scrupulously assembled by American academic Robert Holub in his meticulously researched and well-documented book. As Holub explains, "antisemitism" now means something different from what it did when Nietzsche could faithfully call himself an anti-antisemite:

"Normally, if we speak of… 'anti-semitism', we simply mean… hatred of, or bias against, Jewry. But there is a particular sense attached to antisemitism for Nietzsche… that does not exactly match our current understanding of the term… opposition to antisemitism for Nietzsche did not necessarily entail the elimination of bias against Jewry."

While opposed to the racist political movement that arose in Germany in the 1880s under the name "Antisemitism", throughout his adult life, Nietzsche harboured, and intermittently expressed, strongly hostile sentiments towards Jews, despite occasional expressions of admiration for their unique capacity to survive the severest adversity.

Although raised in an apparently Jew-free environment, a notebook of the adolescent Nietzsche contains a poem with the line: "Throw the Jew Itzig out, out of the temple, the raven-black cantor house."

More astonishingly, despite at the start of his university studies in Bonn reading two works about Lessing's play Nathan the Wise sympathetic to its favourable depiction of its Jewish hero, within a year of moving to Leipzig to continue his studies, the 22-year-old Nietzsche was echoing in a letter home the contemptuous attitude of his fellow students to the Jewish merchants who frequented the city's annual fair: "Everywhere is teeming with revolting, insipid apes and other merchants. Finally… I found a tavern where we didn't have to countenance oily butter and Jewish mugs… Everywhere you look there are Jews and associates of Jews."

Nietzsche's low opinion of Jews was not improved by his subsequent fateful encounter with the pair of virulent Jew-haters Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner. His low estimate of the cultural capabilities of Jews, especially in religion and the larger one they had bequeathed to gentiles in the form of Christianity, survived to the very end his break with the thought of these two.

This illuminating book makes it all too clear why Nietzsche is so venerated today as to be thought worthy of inclusion in the school curriculum. It is precisely his vehement detestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition that so appeals to the bien pensants who determine and reinforce today's decadent, secular, deracinated culture. Nietzsche's rehabilitation marks a true rebirth of tragedy in a sense wholly unintended by him.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive