Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Was Friedrich Nietzsche Anti-Semitic?

Given that most of his fans are Jewish Ivy-League philosophy professors in America, was Friedrich Nietzsche really anti-Semitic even by today’s standards?

By: Vanessa Uy

Many Jewish Ivy-League philosophy professors – especially in America – very much admired the late, great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Especially when it comes to his insights on the true essence of morality. Anti-Semite or not, this haven’t prevented Nietzsche from having a Jewish fanbase. But is it really the fault of his contemporaries – as opposed to himself – that made Nietzsche harbor anti-Semitic thoughts?

Anti-Semitism was very much in the air during 19th Century Western Europe. The great German Classical Music composer Richard Wagner was very much influenced by the preexisting culture of anti-Semitism at that time. Wagner has probably little choice in avoiding it to influence much of his operatic works, which then became as an artistic recreation for much of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life. Even though Richard Wagner passed away before the height of the Dreyfus Affair engulfed much of Western Europe, Wagner’s anti-Semitic views nonetheless influenced Nietzsche’s.

But Western European anti-Semitism that lasted for almost half of the 20th Century can trace its origins on the Dreyfus Affair. The Dreyfus Affair was a scandal that stirred French political, social, and intellectual life during the 1890’s with repercussions felt long into the 20th Century. September 24, 1894 marked the beginning of the affair. On that date a list of military documents known as the bordereau was obtained from the office of the German service. The nature behind the transfer of the list indicated that a French officer – Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer – was named after a brief and hurried investigation. Captain Dreyfus was a member of The General Staff, was arrested and charged with treason. Captain Dreyfus was accused of supplying the Germans with important military information. The affair probably renewed and reinforced the preexisting endemic anti-Semitic culture of Western Europe. The anti-Semitic aspects of the Dreyfus Affair also very much shaped the personal, creative, and artistic outlook of the great French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro toward the rest of his life.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as seen from the politically correct and egalitarian 21st Century perspective really passes muster as anti-Semitic. But when compared to the genocidal level of anti-Semitism being practiced by Adolph Hitler, Nietzsche like his contemporary Wagner, would seem “cartooned” in comparison. To me, the anti-Semitic conversation between the late, former US President Richard M. Nixon and Tele-Evangelist Billy Graham about the “Jewish stranglehold of the American economy” easily trumps the anti-Semitism expressed by both Nietzsche and Wagner. Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism probably originates from his frequent critiques over “organized religion”. Especially on the Jewish Orthodoxy placing undue emphasis on the “letter of the law” rather than the spirit of the law. As an ironic twist, Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism hasn’t deterred him from having a Jewish fanbase.