The Pink Swastika and Friedrich Nietzsche

Throughout The Pink Swastika, Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams claim there was a necessary relationship between homosexuality and the rise of Nazi Germany. They chronicle a long line of people who they claim influenced National Socialism and assert with great confidence that most of those figures were homosexuals. However, a closer examination of their claims and the record reveal that the authors’ confidence is most likely based on wishful thinking and confirmation bias. To illustrate, I am going to review information on several key figures. This post focuses on Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche and National Socialism

I discussed Nietzsche earlier in this series but want to follow up on several claims made in The Pink Swastika. First, Lively and Abrams take for granted those Nazis who see in Nietzsche the philosophical foundation of National Socialism when they write on page 133:

Friedrich Nietzsche

Among the several men who have been dubbed “the Father of National Socialism” (including Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels), Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) is probably most deserving of this distinction, being so labeled by Nazi luminaries Dr. Alfred Rosenberg and Dr. Franck (Peters:221). Others have called him the “Father of Fascism” (ibid.:ix). Rabidly anti-Christian and a homosexual, Nietzsche founded the “God is dead” movement and contributed to the development of existentialist philosophy.

While it is true that prominent Nazis admired Nietzsche, it is unthinkable that Nietzsche would have approved of National Socialism. One Nietzsche scholar, Stephen Holgate at Warwick University, believes Nietzsche would have been critical of how the Nazi’s applied his writing, saying, “Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic or a nationalist, and hated the herd mentality.” However, Nietzsche’s sister was quite enamored with the Nazis and promoted her brother’s works in that context. Writer Ben Macintyre, who Lively and Abrams quote to support their views, dismissed the notion that Nietzsche was sympathetic to National Socialism. Writing in the London Times, Macintyre says,

But Nietzsche was no Nazi. He vigorously opposed German nationalism, as he rejected all mass movements; he had no time for ideologues, mocked the notion of a Teutonic master race and loathed anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Elisabeth, by contrast, was an enthusiastic Fascist. An early acolyte of Richard Wagner, she and her furiously anti-Semitic husband Bernhard Förster (this newspaper described him as “the most representative Jew-baiter in all of Germany”) picked up on one of the composer’s barmier ideas, and set off for Paraguay in 1886 to establish an Aryan, vegetarian republic in the middle of the jungle, which they called New Germany.

Nietzsche was bitterly opposed to the racist project from the start, declaring he wanted “nothing whatever to do with this anti-Semitic undertaking… if it fails, I shall rejoice”. Elisabeth was “morally bloated”, he said, “a vengeful anti-Semitic goose”. In an angry letter he told his sister that all of Germany’s racists should be packed off to the Paraguayan jungle, where they could rot harmlessly away.

Without hint of the obvious problem for their thesis, Lively and Abrams admit that Nietzsche condemned anti-Semitism and nationalism. In passing, they note:

Had he lived in that era, Nietzsche might not have become a Nazi. His works include numerous condemnations of anti-Semitism and nationalism (and thus were selectively censored by Elizabeth). But the best measure of Nietzsche’s contribution and importance to Nazism is not in conjectures about what Nietzsche might have thought about Nazism, but in the actual reverence of the Nazis for him.

Nietzsche’s views about the ideas later embraced by the Nazis is not conjecture. Clearly, what the Nazis embraced was the edited version of his work packaged by his racist heterosexual sister. Nietzsche’s sexuality — whatever it might have been — cannot be held to have anything to do with the selective use of his philosophy by his sister and the Nazis. Again, Macintyre provides a fuller picture of how his sister misrepresented Niezsche’s views:

When the [Paraguayan] colony inevitably failed, Elisabeth returned to Old Germany and set about transforming her brother, now irretrievably insane, into a symbol of her own twisted philosophy. She edited his works, wrote her own prejudiced versions of his life, and gathered his rejected jottings and published them as if they were real books, most notably Will to Power, which would be adopted as a sort of totalitarian textbook. When Nietzsche died, the man who had declared “God is dead” was buried in Röcken churchyard by his pious sister with full Lutheran rites.

Elisabeth avidly offered up her brother’s writings in support of militarism and Nazi world domination. Mussolini, she declared, was “the genius who rediscovered the values of the Nietzsche spirit…Nietzsche would have regarded him as the splendid disciple”. Nietzsche, I am certain, would have regarded Mussolini as a dangerous buffoon.

Reading The Pink Swastika, one would not get the big picture. A more apt summary of the situation might be this: A heterosexual couple misrepresented the writings of a man with unknown sexuality to promote racist and nationalist ideas the man abhorred.

Nietzsche and homosexuality

Having seriously questioned the influence of Nietzsche actual views on National Socialism, ruminations over Nietzsche’s sexuality may not seem as relevant. Even so, I want to point out how Lively and Abrams reduce significant questions about Nietzsche’s sexuality — what Freud called “an enigma” — to a given.

Given the presumed influence on the Nazis, Lively and Abrams need to prove Nietzsche was homosexual for their argument to seem plausible. However, the evidence that Nietzche was a homosexual is quite sparse and speculative. Let’s review what Lively and Abram offer us:

According to Macintyre in Forgotten Fatherland: The Search For Elisabeth Nietzsche, Frederich (sic) Nietzsche never married and had no known female sex partners, but went insane at age 44 and eventually died of syphilis. According to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Nietzsche had caught the disease at a homosexual brothel in Genoa, Italy (McIntyre:91f).

Although I am not able to directly link to Macintyre’s book, there is a quote from Macintyre’s book provided by the authors of an online rebuttal to The Pink Swastika. In a point by point refutation of the book, the Citizens Allied for Civic Action says Lively and Abrams have misquoted the Macintyre reference. About Lively and Abrams use of Macintyre, the CAFCA write:

The material allegedly cited from MacIntyre is outright fabrication. MacIntyre says nothing about Nietzsche having no known female sex partners. He does speak on page 108, of Nietzsche’s desire for a woman. As for marriage, it must be remembered that Nietzsche contracted syphilis when he was only 22, and was thereafter hardly a good candidate for husband. The mention of Freud and Jung is really deceptive. What MacIntyre actually says is, “He had certainly visited a [female] brothel in cologne in 1865, but had been embarrassed and played the piano to cover his shame before fleeing into the night. Thomas Mann believed he later went back to the brothel; Freud and Jung helped to spread a rumour that he had caught the disease in a Genoese male brothel, for which there is no evidence.”

Regarding female love interests, it is clear that Nietzsche was quite infatuated with free-spirit Lou Salome’ and proposed marriage to her – which she refused. However, the main point to make here is that Lively and Abrams have assumed the homosexuality of Nietzsche based upon a rumor circulated after his death. Another more ambitious effort to make this link comes from Joachim Kohler in his book, Zarathustra’s Secret. Kohler notes his proof:

For their meetings in April and October, 1908 Freud’s Wednesday Circle had chosen Nietzsche as their subject for discussion. Freud himself categorically stated that ‘Nietzsche’s ideas had had not the slightest influence on his own work.” Then after a number of aspects of Nietzsche had been discussed, including his latent sadism, his repressed homosexuality and his father-complex, a certain Paul Federn suddenly lept to his feet. He said that, ‘from a trustworthy source he could report that Nietzsche lived, periodically, the life of a homosexual and that he had contracted syphilis in a homosexual brothel in Genoa’. (p. 210).

The evidence for Lively and Abrams’ confident assertion comes from a rumor. Kohler later acknowledges that Freud dismissed the rumor. Apparently Arnold Zweig enlisted Freud’s aid to write a psychoanalytic book about Nietzsche. Freud declined, writing to Zweig (quoted by Kohler):

‘In front of the entrance to the Nietzsche problem,’ wrote Freud to Zweig, ‘there stands two sentries barring the way. Firstly, one cannot investigate a person unless one is aware of his sexual constitution, and Nietzsche’s is a complete enigma. There is even a legend that he was a passive homosexual and contract syphilis in a homosexual brothel in Genoa. Is that true? Quien sabe? [sic].’ (p. 212).

About Nietzsche’s sexuality, Freud asks, ‘Who knows?’ calling the subject a “complete enigma.” However, in the hands of Lively and Abrams, no enigma is too difficult for them to unravel in favor of their thesis.

Kohler’s book seems to be in the same speculative genre as The Pink Swastika. I noted previously a skeptical review of Kohler’s book, especially regarding any perceived relationship between purported homosexuality and Nietzsche’s philosophy. Furthermore, historian Noel Malcolm dismissed the book as a fixation. Malcolm’s words could also describe The Pink Swastika’s effort to find homosexuality behind every Nazi.

Nietzsche was fascinated by the mechanisms of repressed desire and sublimated sexuality; one of his aphorisms stated that “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reaches up into the topmost summit of his spirit.” Given the fact that his own writings represented the “topmost summit” of his own spirit, such comments, scattered through his works, might well have been regarded as hostages to fortune.

In Zarathustra’s Secret every one of those hostages is taken out of its cell and led away to be shot at dawn. For Joachim Köhler is a writer in the grip of an idée fixe: his entire study of Nietzsche is devoted to proving that the philosopher was gay, and that coded references, not only to homosexual desires but also to actual homosexual experiences, are to be found in his works.

Let us distinguish, in philosophical style, between three different claims here. Claim 1: Nietzsche was not very interested in women and, like some other Victorian classicists, had aesthetic-emotional feelings about young men that we would nowadays call homoerotic. Claim 2: he had sex with other men. And Claim 3: his homosexuality is not just alluded to in his writings; it is actually the basis on which his whole philosophy was built.

Most modern students of Nietzsche would probably accept the drift of Claim 1, although they might disagree about how much eros there was in the eroticism. Yes, he formed sentimental attachments to younger male friends, and there are tones of endearment in their correspondence with him that sound strangely high-flown to modern ears; but there is precious little evidence that either he or they thought they were having any sort of erotic relationship.

For Köhler that is not a problem, however, as he has an almost magical ability to conjure up evidence out of nothing at all. He quotes one of these friends, Erwin Rohde, saying in later life that “If in the last analysis I was unable to assimilate much of Nietzsche’s nature, then it was because of the peculiar impermeability of the integument of my character.” Ludicrously, Köhler insists that this was a “sexually suggestive allusion”: what Rohde actually meant, he claims, was that he had refused to let Nietzsche penetrate him.

This is a method of interpreting evidence guaranteed to find whatever it is looking for. When Nietzsche talks of the pleasure of lying on an Italian beach, and compares the experience to that of a lizard in the sun, Köhler hastens to inform us that “Sardes, author of a third-century Greek anthology of pederastic literature, calls the penis of his young lover a lizard.”

When, on the other hand, Nietzsche finds a toad in a hotel garden, brings it to an artistic lady-friend and suggests that she draw it, Köhler is quick to find the hidden significance: “the slimy toad was a symbol of her own repulsiveness”, he explains, “her womanhood, representing everything that makes a woman what she is”.

Whatever elements of truth there may be in Claim 1, they are buried by Köhler under a mountain of fantastic over-interpretation. But what about Claim 2? Here the evidence is extremely flimsy: just a rumour, recorded years after Nietzsche’s death by someone who never knew him, that the syphilis from which he eventually died was caught in Genoa in a homosexual brothel. Even Köhler has to admit that the whole pattern of symptoms of incipient brain disease – intense migraines, “fits”, and erratic and paranoid behaviour – started many years before Nietzsche’s visit to Genoa.

But no mere facts can stand in the way of an all-conquering idée fixe. Just as Köhler is ingenious in interpreting simple statements as elaborate symbols so, too, when it suits him, he can interpret symbolic statements as if they were simple records of experience.

One of Nietzsche’s lyric poems uses the image of a still night spent asleep in a fishing boat. “Morning came. On the dark depths/ Lay a barque, resting, resting . . ./ Nothing was happening! We were asleep, all asleep.” For Köhler, this is all the proof he needs: Nietzsche had sex with a Genoese fisherman in a boat, quod erat demonstrandum.

As noted above, Nietzsche had a breakdown at age 44 with psychosis and other neuropsychiatric manifestations. At this point, I doubt it is necessary to deal much with Nietzsche’s demise — was it due to syphilis? or brain cancer? or a form of dementia? Some have speculated that Nietzsche may have contracted the syphilis while a medical orderly with the Prussian army; others believe it happened via a trip to a heterosexual brothel (cf. Kaufmann for theories). Whatever the case, if we are to remain objective, the actual status of Nietzsche’s sexual preferences is indeed an enigma. Stated simply, the Lively/Abrams’ assumption of homosexuality is a speculation based on a rumor. The actual influence on the Nazi movement is Nietzsche’s heterosexual sister, Elisabeth.

In the next post, I discuss another “Father of National Socialism” offered by Lively and Abrams – Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels. As I will demonstrate, Lively and Abrams engage in the same kind of idée fixe with von Liebenfels as they do with Nietzsche and others.

Prior posts in this series:

May 28 – Scott Lively wants off SPLC hate group list

May 31 – Eliminating homosexuality: Modern Uganda and Nazi Germany

June 3 – Before The Pink Swastika

June 4 – Kevin Abrams: The side of The Pink Swastika

June 8 – A historian’s analysis of The Pink Swastika, part 1

June 9 – A historian’s analysis of The Pink Swastika, part 2

June 11 – American Nazi movement and homosexuality: How pink is their swastika?

June 15 – Nazi movement rallies against gays in Springfield, MO

June 17 – Does homosexuality lead to fascism?

June 23 – The Pink Swastika and Friedrich Nietzsche

List of posts on Uganda and The Pink Swastika