Nietzsche’s Hatred of “Jew Hatred”


Review of Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, by Robert C. Holub

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015

Robert Holub’s topic arises from an historical accident: the triumph of the Nazis in the early 1930s meant all competing German readings of Nietzsche (then the preeminent figure in German culture) were suppressed and he was enlisted in the service of National Socialism, which has tainted him ever since with anti-semitism. In one respect, Holub is admirably clear: “[T]here is no question that [Nietzsche] was unequivocally antagnostic toward what he understood as anti-Semitism and anti-Semites” (125; cf. xiv, 208). Yet, Holub argues, Nietzsche is still guilty of “Judeophobia,” that is, of displaying a “negative bias towards Jews and Judaism” (xiv; cf. 209). Curiously, the book tries to make the case largely through letters and unpublished material—as well as a good deal of innuendo and speculation—rather than systematic engagement with Nietzsche’s actual philosophical work, until the final chapter. We consider, below, the evidence adduced and the sometimes astonishing inferences Holub draws from it.

In an illuminating first chapter, Holub documents the different receptions of Nietzsche prior to the Nazi era, noting that leftists were attracted to Nietzsche because of his “rather vivid expressions of contempt toward the institutions of middle-class society, which they also rejected” (3). As Nietzsche’s fame grew, those on the German right faced the dilemma that “his many deprecatory statements about Germans and Germany” made it “problematic” to appropriate his stature for their cause (8). Early German commentators, like Adolf Bartles, even acknowledge “that Nietzsche is no anti-semite” (8). The crucial interpreter for Nazi purposes, however, was Alfred Baeumler, who argued in the 1930s that “Nietzsche’s anti-German remarks must be understood in the context of Bismarck’s rule” (13) and that the praise Nietzsche lavishes on the Jews must be understood “rhetorically…as a foil to the Germans in order to goad them to greatness” (13). In other words, even though Nietzsche hated German militarism and nationalism, it was only Bismarck’s version; and even though he lavished praise on Jews, it was only to inspire good Germans to do better. Backed by the Nazi state, in which Baeumler served as principal Nazi liason to the universities, these tortured hermeneutics prevailed and sullied Nietzsche’s reputation.

Holub criticizes earlier scholars like Karl Schlecta and Walter Kaufmann, who claimed that Nietzsche’s reputation as an anti-semite was due to the editorial meddling of his proto-Nazi sister Elizabeth. There is little doubt she did selectively edit her brother’s writings for publication, but Holub argues that “her motivation in doctoring the correspondence was primarily personal, not ideological; simply stated, she falsified letters to make it appear that she was as close to her brother in the 1880s, as she was during the previous decade” (20). And when Elizabeth excluded passages from her editions of Nietzsche’s books, “almost all of the passages…excluded…could plausibly have served, in her mind at least, to damage Nietzsche’s reputation because they contain direct assaults on Jesus and the Christian religion, or on the Prussian monarchy” (26). Holub is persuasive in his exoneration of Elizabeth: Baeumler and the Nazis did far more damage to Nietzsche’s reputation than she.

Chapter Two begins Holub’s quest for evidence of Nietzsche’s Judeophobia. We learn that growing up in Saxony (Nietzsche was born in 1844), Nietzsche would have had little or no exposure to Jews or Jewish culture prior to transferring for university to Leipzig. We learn that as a young man Nietzsche had thought of going to Breslau to study with the Jewish classical scholar, Jacob Bernays (36); that in 1864 he took a favorable “interest in Lessing’s play about religious tolerance [Nathan the Wise] and two liberal commentaries [on it] suggest[ing] that he was fairly open-minded toward the Jewish Question” at this stage (39); that his revered mentor, the classical philologist Friedrich Ritschl, was married to a Jewish woman, whom “Nietzsche felt great respect and admiration for” (41); that “[n]one of Nietzsche’s friends [in Leipzig] was engaged in Judeophobic activities” (41); and that “there is no evidence that Nietzsche read or pursued authors who exhibited Judeophobia or texts that contained Judeophobic themes” during his time at university (44).

Yet Holub takes other evidence adduced in this chapter to show that it is “simply false” that Richard Wagner—the composer and notorious anti-semite whom Nietzsche met in 1868—was “principally responsible for infecting Nietzsche with a disdain for Jews and Judaism” (44). What does this pre-Wagner evidence consist in? First, during 1865-1867, Nietzsche occasionally visited a friend’s family in Berlin, in which the father “exhibits an open antipathy toward the Jews and associates them with adverse aspects of urban existence” (40). Holub adduces no evidence that Nietzsche endorsed or repeated those views, only that he did not criticize the father in his correspondence. Second, Nietzsche’s two closest friends at Leipzig, Carl von Gersdorff and Erwin Rohde, “freely produce anti-Jewish utterances” in their letters, though as Holub concedes “their racist comments are made in passing and are part of a general cultural climate in which” disparaging remarks about Jews were accepted (41; Holub quotes examples at 42). Third, Holub quotes brief excerpts from three letters actually written by Nietzsche in his early 20s in which he makes disparaging remarks about Jews (e.g., “I found a tavern where we didn’t have to countenance oily butter and Jewish mugs”), though Holub concedes that these “are more thoughtless decoration than the expression of a deep-seated conviction” (43). Fourth, Holub points to work in which Schopenhauer takes up the Jewish question, and recommends that Jews convert. Although Holub admits there is no evidence Nietzsche ever read this material (or ever wrote anything about it), he comments that it “could very well have had an impact on Nietszche” (48).

Chapter Three takes up the question of the influence of Wagner’s virulent anti-semitism on Nietzsche. Wagner’s most notorious anti-semitic diatribe, the originally pseudonymous essay “Judaism in Music,” was republished under his own name in 1869, right around the time Nietzsche was becoming a devouted Wagnerian. As Holub correctly acknowledges, “Nietzsche himself never commented” on the essay (52), though Holub points to an 1870 letter in which Nietzsche seems to view the essay favorably (52-53) (the letter is more ambiguous than Holub allows, but is consistent with the conventional view that Nietzsche was uncritical of Wagner’s anti-semitism for a time). What is most striking on the evidence adduced is how mild Nietzsche’s rhetoric is by comparison to Wagner’s anti-semitic vitriol. That Nietzsche in 1873, for example, disparages the composer Meyerbeer (a frequent target of Wagner’s anti-semitic polemics) by comparison to Beethoven is no doubt partly a consequence of Wagner’s influence, but it is also a sound aesthetic judgment: Meyerbeer was an inferior composer. A handful of Nietzsche’s letters from 1869 to 1871 once again reveal Nietzsche indulging in the casual anti-semitism of his milieu (e.g., describing someone being dressed “fantastically tasteless like a theatrical Jew” [64]), but nothing like the systematic anti-semitic paranoia one finds in Wagner. Holub finally admits that Nietzsche, unlike Wagner, is “not obsessed with Jewish influence over Germany” (66). Indeed, as his later published works reveal, Nietzsche’s systematic view was the exact opposite of Wagner’s, a point to which we will return.

So far, it appears Nietzsche in his 20s and early 30s had adopted some thoughtless anti-semitic rhetoric of his period, but his Judeophobic attitudes were mild and not central to his thinking. (Holub admits in the following chapter that Nietzsche in the 1870s was “not virulently anti-Semitic as were some of his contemporaries, and he did not reject association with Jews” [103].) In trying to show the influence of Wagner’s “Judaism in Music” on Nietzsche, Holub can only adduce the draft of a lecture anticipating themes from The Birth of Tragedy in which Nietzsche explicitly smears “the Jewish press” (68). Yet Holub acknowledges that we do not even know if Nietzsche delivered the draft smear in public (68); we certainly know that nothing similar appears in The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. Indeed, as Holub has to concede, “In his published writings of the Wagnerian period, from The Birth of Tragedy until the last Untimely Meditation, there is not one direct mention of Jews, Judiasm or Jewish activity in the contemporary world” (70).

This latter fact might have given a scholar less intent on prosecuting a case against Nietzsche pause, but according to Holub every criticism in these works of the press, or modernity, or urban life, is really a “coded” criticism of the Jews (71). Why did Nietzsche allegedly adopt this code? According to Holub, it was because Cosima Wagner, the composer’s equally anti-semitic wife, wrote Nietzsche a letter advising him not to directly attack the Jews (70). Holub adduces no evidence of Nietzsche’s response to this advice; we learn only that he visited with the Wagners shortly after the letter was sent (and according to Cosima’s diary, discussed the draft “lecture”), and that Gersdoff also wrote to him about Jewish protests against Wagner performances around the same time. A few pages later, however, Holub asserts that “Nietzsche became convinced that Jewry in Germany possessed considerable power and would not hesitate to exercise it against enemies” (73), even though no evidence of Nietzsche’s having been convinced of any such thing has been provided.

Of course, Holub thinks the fact that Nietzsche’s published writings from this period are free of anti-semitic invective supports his case (rather than the opposite), but that would only be true if the reader already finds plausible Holub’s claim that the writings during this period are, in fact, full of “coded” references to Jews. (The code was sufficiently difficult to crack that, as Holub reveals in the following chapter, Nietzsche attracted shortly thereafter “an ardent group of Jewish followers in Vienna” [104]!) Holub adduces, by my lights, only one plausible case of a coded anti-semitic reference in Nietzsche’s insulting remarks about “those who traffic in money” in his 1876 Wagner in Bayreuth. An anti-semitic remark in an “encomium” to Wagner (as Holub rightly calls it at 87) is hardly surprising, but it is slender evidence for Holub’s ambitious thesis, as he clearly recognizes.

Holub tries to show that Nietzsche’s major work of this period, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), promotes Wagner’s “racist proclivities, without direct recourse to Judeophobic phrasing” (74), but ends up revealing only that he does not understand Nietzsche’s philosophical claims. Holub insinuates that Schopenhauer’s criticism of Judaism as an “optimistic” religion influenced Nietzsche’s critique of what he calls “Socratic optimism” (75). But Schopenhauer thinks Judaism is “optimistic” (in comparison to his own pessimism) because it does not endorse the verdict that life is not worth living. Socratic optimism, by contrast, is distinguished by a “new and unprecedented value set on knowledge” (sec. 13 of The Birth of Tragedy), which “ascribes to knowledge and insight the power of a panacea” (sec. 15). The Socratic overvaluation of knowledge and truth—the mistaken pursuit, as Nietzsche writes in the 1886 Preface to The Gay Science of “truth at any price”—is a target of criticism by Nietzsche throughout his career, from his early lectures on Thales through the works of his final productive years. Against this Socratic optimism, Nietzsche emphasizes repeatedly that “the truth is terrible,” and that illusion and false belief are necessary conditions of existence. The opposite of Schopenhauerian pessimism is not Socratic optimism (since the latter has nothing to do with the Jewish optimism Schopenhauer critiques); indeed, Nietzsche sees Socratic optimism as contributing to a pessimisstic outlook precisely because of its overvaluation of truth. Nietzsche, by contrast, understands himself to be an opponent of both Schopenhauer’s pessimism and Socratic optimism, which in Holub’s simplistic picture would seem to align him with Jewish optimism!

In Chapter Four, Holub turns to the question of how Nietzsche’s views evolved after his break with Wagner. Holub argues, plausibly, that Wagner’s anti-semitism was not the main reason for the break, but his shallow grasp of Nietzsche’s philosophical development again hampers the account. It was clear to the Wagners, as Holub reports, that Nietzsche’s 1878 Human, All-too-Human was an anti-Wagnerian book, valorizing science over art, and even dedicated to Voltaire, “both French and an enlightened rationalist, neither…particularly pleasing” to the Wagners (89). Holub finds this mystifying given that “Wagner had been Nietzsche’s world for the better part of the decade” from 1868 to 1878 (90). But this claim is demonstrably false, as we now know quite a lot about Nietzsche’s readings in the sciences of his day during this decade, an interest stimulated originally by Friedrich Lange’s History of Materialism, which Nietzsche read in 1866, the work Nietszche himself ranked with his discovery of Schopenhauer as central to his philosophical evolution. (Lange is mentioned but once in Holub’s book, and not on this point.) Holub even drops a footnote to some of the relevant historical scholarship on Nietszche’s growing interest in the sciences and a “naturalistic” understanding of human beings (e.g., 215 n. 6), but apparently did not digest its import. Nietzsche’s break with Wagner may have been overdetermined by personal factors, as Holub suggests, but the resolutely naturalistic worldview of Human, All Too Human had recognizable antecedents dating back to Nietzsche’s engagement with Schopenhauer and Lange in the 1860s.

Holub then descends into gossipy innuendo about Nietzsche’s relationship in the 1870s with “a trio of Jewish friends and admirers” (96 ff.). Consider only the most prominent case: Nietzsche’s close friendship with Paul Rée, a Jew who converted to Protestantism. Nietzsche, famously, began his critique of “English psychologists” of morality in 1887’s On the Genealogy of Morality by discussing Rée’s work, even though he was not English! As Holub acknowledges, there is no published reference to Rée being Jewish in Nietzsche (100-101). Yet after Lou Salomé, the one woman with whom Nietzsche had fallen in love, broke off relations with him in favor of Rée, we find in Nietzsche’s letters and notebooks a handful of disparaging references to Rée’s Jewishness. This is pathetic, but not very interesting: the wounded suitor—being human, all-too-human—availed himself of some au courant cultural categories to exact his vengeance.

At this point, the fair-minded reader will begin to wonder, “What about Nietzsche’s actual philosophical work?” In the remainder of Chapter Four, Holub finally does examine passages in the published work of the early and mid-1880s, and is forced to acknowledge that Nietzsche’s comments about Jews “represent[] an enormous modification of Wagnerian ideology” (118) and “evidence a good deal of high praise for Jews” (124). Ever the prosecutor, however, Holub worries that the material Nietzsche actually published about Jews “is difficult to reconcile” with some remarks in unpublished material from his notebooks from the same time that sound Judeophobic (121). Holub never explains why any reconciliation is required: Nietzsche kept voluminous notebooks, and culled his published works from them; the material he discarded and did not publish is reasonably interpreted as jottings he deemed unworthy of seeing the light of day.

Even with Nietzsche’s published work, Holub again proves himself an unreliable reader. Consider sec. 251 of Beyond Good and Evil, which Holub purports to discuss (114-115, 121-123, 161-162). Nietzsche here denounces various “stupidities” of the Germans, including “the anti-Jewish stupidity,” which he acknowledges being “infected” with at one time (a reference to his Wagnerian period). He notes that the Germans have “difficulty…coping with” the number of Jews they have, which reflects the,

instinct of a people [the Germans] whose type is still weak and indeterminate enough…to be easily obliterated by a stronger race. But the Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today. They know how to thrive in even the worst conditions….

The fact that the Jews, if they wanted (or if they were forced, as the anti-Semites seem to want), could already be dominant, or indeed could literally have control over present-day Europe—this is established. The fact that they are not working and making plans to this end is likewise established….[W]hat they wish and want instead…is to be absorbed and assimilated into Europe…in which case it might be practical and appropriate to throw the anti-Semitic hooligans out of the country….

This passage exemplifies Nietzsche’s typical contempt for Germans, and it stands all the standard anti-semitic tropes of the day on their head. Of course the Jews could control Europe, since they are a “stronger race,” but it is “established” that they have no interest in doing so! And precisely because they are superior to Germans, they should be allowed to assimilate, contrary to anti-semites, who are the ones who should really be thrown out of the country. Holub, remarkably, obscures all this through selective quotation and flat-footed paraphrase (e.g., Holub seems to think Nietzsche’s mockery of German antipathy towards Jews really “validate[s] the German need to exclude Jews as crucial for the health of the nation” [122]). When Holub returns to the same passage in Chapter Five, he suggests that it endorses a distinction between “anti-Semitism and a more acceptable, less virulent Jewish attitude” (161), when it does nothing of the kind. Nietzsche’s point is that he has “yet to meet a German who was well disposed towards Jews,” a fact only obscured by the fact that some Germans advertise their rejection of extreme anti-semitism. But since Germans as a whole (unlike other Europeans) are “a people whose type is still weak and indeterminate,” Nietzsche suggests even those who reject extreme anti-semitism still maintain an anti-Jewish attitude. Holub’s misrepresentation of Nietzsche’s text here is revealing.

Chapter Five grudgingly documents Nietzsche’s extraordinary hostility towards anti-semites throughout the 1880s, though Holub’s main concerns are clearly to distinguish the “political” anti-semitism of this time from Judeophobic attitudes (though the two are rather obviously related) and to suggest, again through lots of innuendo, that Nietzsche’s hostility towards anti-semites was motivated by personal concerns, not “a belief in tolerance or equal civil rights for all people” (131; cf. 158, 209). It certainly was not motivated by the latter, but that kind of liberalism was obviously no part of Nietzsche’s view, which was illiberal and anti-egalitarian, but in no way specific to Jews. What is clear, and what even Holub cannot deny, is that Nietzsche “was violently antagonistic to anti-Semitism” (208).

This brings us to Chapter Six in which, at last, attention is turned to two of Nietzsche’s actual works, On the Genealogy of Morality and The Antichrist. Holub describes the first of the three essays of the Genealogy (the only one he notices) as concerned with “Jewish Slave Morality” (167), though Nietzsche always calls it only “slave morality.” Nietzsche thinks, obviously correctly, that “there existed a strong continuity between Jewish values in the centuries prior to the birth of Jesus and the teachings that were ultimately incorporated into Christianity” (166) and that such a claim “contradicts the Christian anti-Semitism of his era, which was based on a strict distinction between Christianity and Judiasm” (171). Despite this crucial admission, Holub insists that for Nietzsche “Christianity is a mere vehicle for this vengeful, decadent, Jewish activity” (170), although he can produce no evidence that would support his repeated use of the word “mere,” with its implied absolution of Christianity. One does not need to be a subtle reader of Nietzsche to be surprised by Holub’s framing. Take just two of Nietzsche’s books from his last productive year. The Antichrist concludes with proposed “Laws against Christianity” including observations like, “One should be harsher with Protestants than with Catholics, harsher with liberal Protestants than with orthodox ones. The criminality of being Christian increases with your proximity to science” and the proposal that, “The execrable locations where Christianity brooded over its basilisk eggs should be razed to the ground…and [p]oisonous snakes should be bred on top of it.” In the second to last section of his autobiography Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes that, “What sets me apart, what singles me out over and above the rest of humanity is the fact that I uncovered Christian morality….Blindness when it comes to Christianity is criminality par excellence—the crime against life.” Nietzsche never published anything comparably vitriolic about Judaism or synagogues. Holub, finally, admits that “Nietzche’s primary target… is undoubtedly Christianity” (190).        

Unfortunately for Nietzsche, “anti-Christian” is not a category of significant interest to contemporary scholars, while anti-semitism is. In both cases, Nietzsche’s target is obviously not the religion or the adherents, but the values they embrace—the “ascetic” moralities (as he calls them in the Third Essay of the Genealogy) that denounce lust for sex, wealth, cruelty, and power, moralities characteristic of all the world’s major religions, but which were unfamiliar in the ancient Greek and Roman world with which Nietzsche was deeply familiar. Holub nowhere notices this. Nietzsche, in fact, uses Judaism and Christianity interchangeably throughout the Genealogy: “everything is being made appreciably Jewish, Christian, or plebian (never mind the words!)” (sec. 9). He equates the “slave revolt” in morality—the overturning of the values of Greek and Roman antiquity with the values we now associate with “Judeo-Christian” morality—with the New Testament, with the Reformation, and with the triumph of the Catholic Pope in Rome. The obvious explanation for these equivalences, as Nietzsche says early on in the First Essay (again, nowhere noticed by Holub), is that he wants nothing to do with “free thinkers” whose slogan is “We loathe the Church, not its poison…Apart from the Church, we too love the poison” (sec. 9). The “poison” is the morality, shared by ascetic religions (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic), which is Nietzsche’s actual target.

Holub claims that the “master morality” overthrown in the “slave revolt” is associated with an “aristocratic caste…defined in vaguely racial terms as Aryan and fair-haired” (168; cf. 177). He cites no text, but must be thinking of sec. 5 of the First Essay, where Nietzsche argues that the evaluative distinction between “good” and “bad” originated in distinctions of social class, citing linguistic evidence from German, Persian, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Gaelic (sec. 5). (Only the Latin and Gaelic linguistic evidence suggests any association with Aryan attributes.) Later (sec. 11), Nietzsche associates “master morality” with “Roman, Arab, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandivanian Vikings” (this is also the famous “blond beast” passage, an obvious reference to metaphorical lions, whether Japanese or Arab or German). What he wants to explain is how ascetic values triumphed in the ancient world. Nietzsche’s actual topic is nowhere noticed by Holub, who appears to think that the Genealogy and The Antichrist are mainly about “the history of religion” (166), and instead of reading the full texts carefully, spends most of the chapter speculating about historical sources for some of Nietzsche’s claims about religious minutiae.

In his concluding chapter, Holub acknowledges that the real question is whether Nietzsche’s alleged Judeophobic comments are “concerned with issues of philosophical import” (211) and thus should affect how we understand his philosophy. To answer this question, though, we need to be clearer than Holub is about what counts as objectionable Judeophobia. Surely it is wrongful to attack certain people based on negative stereotypes related to the religion they practice. But on Holub’s evidence, this kind of Judeophobia plays no role in Nietzsche’s philosophical work (once we correct for his misreadings). But is it similarly objectionable to be critical of a morality associated with Judaism (and Christianity, Islam etc.)? If so, then Nietzsche is not only a Judeophobe, but a Christophobe, an Islamophobe, and so on. His entire corpus is an attack on values endorsed by the world’s major religions that he argues have pernicious psychological effects. Holub is silent on whether Nietzsche is right or wrong regarding his actual subject, but that he argues against moralities endorsed by Christians, Muslims, and Jews is not a case of wrongful anti-Jewish prejudice.

Holub complains that previous accounts of this topic were “partisan” and that the authors “came to the material with something they wanted to prove and then sought evidence in Nietzsche’s writings.” One has precisely the same impression of Holub’s book. Despite some interesting historical erudition and detail, the book is a partisan tract full of innuendo, dubious inferences, and philosophical misunderstandings. If one really reads Nietzsche in context, what is striking is that the genuinely anti-semitic vitriol with which he was surrounded (and which Holub powerfully documents) made no systematic impact on his work and, indeed, came in for much mockery. Holub, ironically, misses the real import of his own evidence.

Posted on 21 December 2015

BRIAN LEITER is Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Nietzsche on Morality, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2015) and co-editor of Nietzsche's Daybreak (Cambridge University Press, 1997), Nietzsche (Oxford Readings in Philosophy) (Oxford University Press, 2001), and Nietzsche and Morality (Oxford University Press, 2007).