The Magazine

Thus Spake Elisabeth

The will to power of Friedrich Nietzsche's sister.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By CHRISTIAN D. BROSE
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Nietzsche's Sister and the Will to Power

A Biography of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche

by Carol Diethe

Univ. of Illinois Press, 214 pp., $34.95

IN HIS WRITINGS, Friedrich Nietzsche dreamed of deporting and, in one instance, shooting all of Germany's "anti-Semitic screamers." One can only imagine how vitriolic his hatred of Adolf Hitler would have been. But Nietzsche's philosophy was shoehorned into the Nazi jackboot nonetheless--the credit for which belongs in large part to Nietzsche's younger sister, Elisabeth. Upon her brother's mental and physical collapse in 1889, she appointed herself sole executor of his literary estate and seized his extensive unpublished writings (as well as his pension and royalties).

Though Nietzsche died in 1900, Elisabeth worked tirelessly to create the myth that he was the intellectual godfather of National Socialism. She doctored his writings, created phony letters, and published them in her numerous books about Nietzsche's life and ideas. She cobbled together several hundred disparate notes and aphorisms into The Will to Power, a book she claimed represented her brother's true philosophic system. In 1914, Elisabeth wrote that the most vigorous supporter of the fatherland would have been her brother (the same brother who wrote that even hearing Germany's national anthem made him feel ill). When Elisabeth began hobnobbing with Hitler in the early 1930s, her brother's legacy became guilty by association.

Because she hoarded Nietzsche's writings, however, no one could authoritatively challenge Elisabeth until years after her death in 1935. Much scholarly elbow grease was needed to debunk "the Nietzsche legend," and one wonders what can be contributed by Carol Diethe's revisionist study, Nietzsche's Sister and the Will to Power: A Biography of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche.

The answer is not much. A former lecturer at Middlesex University in London, Diethe does not pardon Elisabeth's actions, but rather attempts to explain why a girl she believes was "bright and talented" went so far off course. Diethe argues that a "faulty education" left the intelligent Elisabeth disadvantaged and was ultimately to blame for her scholarly atrocities. After all, Diethe writes, Elisabeth did not set out with "deliberate malice." In fact, "her overt intentions always appear to have been good." If this were not inane enough, Diethe adds that Elisabeth "worked very, very hard."

TO PROVE HER CASE, Diethe documents her subject's life chronologically and unearths a wealth of primary material: diaries, grammar workbooks, and correspondence. She even translates and offers as an appendix an untitled novella Elisabeth wrote in her late thirties. Provisionally titled by Diethe "Coffee-Party Gossip about Nora," it is about as dull as it sounds. The author's archival spelunking is ambitious, but the results are such facts as Elisabeth's grade-school award "for immaculate conduct." And when this fails to convince, Diethe editorializes bitterly: "From today's perspective, the restricted syllabus fed to girls under the name of education during the nineteenth century was little short of a scandal." Elsewhere her editorializing is unintentionally humorous. Of Elisabeth's anti-Semitic husband, who attempted to colonize a sliver of Paraguay as Neu-Germania, Diethe declares, "Though [Bernhard] Förster was authoritarian, humorless, and eccentric, this does not detract from his passionate campaign against cruelty to animals." Equally funny is Diethe's constant psychoanalytic speculation about Elisabeth's more-than-sisterly affection for her brother: "Perhaps the severe hairstyle with center parting and side bun . . . was a visible expression of her inhibited emotions."

Diethe's efforts to revise scholarly opinion are desperate and unconvincing. Lest we forget, Elisabeth had to take private lessons in her brother's ideas before she could molest them. Diethe mentions this--but not the tutor's assessment of Elisabeth: "Frau Förster-Nietzsche is a complete laywoman in all that concerns her brother's doctrine. . . . [She] lacks any sense for fine, and even for crude, logical distinctions; her thinking is void of even the least logical consistency; and she lacks any sense of objectivity."

BUT THE FACT IS, even if Diethe could prove her case, she would still be wrong--for Elisabeth's crimes resulted more from her own moral failings than from intellectual neglect or vague "personality factors." After all, many Nazis were well-educated. Better schooling would not necessarily have eliminated anti-Semitism. Diethe grudgingly admits this halfway through the book and undermines her own thesis. Slinking back to the scholarly status quo, concluding, "my chief accusation against Elisabeth is that she tarnished her brother's name."