19 July 2012

Twisted sister

Forgotten Fatherland : The True Story of Nietzsche's Sister and Her Lost Aryan Colony (1992) by Ben Macintyre

I first heard about this book, and this odd little cranny of history, via this TYWKIWDBI post.  Macintyre did indeed track down the lost colony in 1991, though there wasn't much left of it -- but its founding in the late 19th century is the more interesting part of the story.

Elisabeth Nietzsche (1846-1935) exemplified the type of person her brilliant brother despised -- a thud-and-blunder über-nationalist and anti-Semite, obsessed with "racial purity" and collective identity, and something of a Victorian prig as well.  With her husband, the like-minded (but gloomier and less energetic) Bernhard Förster, she dreamed of founding a "pure" German colony in some remote location, where the true German spirit could continue -- she disdained Germany itself as irredeemably poisoned by Jewish influences.  Unfortunately for all concerned, she had enough determination to actually make her dream a reality.  A piece of land in the deep interior of Paraguay was found, 14 suitably-Aryan families were recruited to settle there, and in 1886 Nueva Germania was born.

The effort was a fiasco from the start.  German temperate-zone agriculture proved grotesquely unsuited to the tropics; pounding rains, tropical diseases, and dangerous animals tormented the settlers (during his own 1991 trip upriver to find the colony, Macintyre passed the time partly by reading a book about the various poisonous snakes that infest the area); isolation and depression took their toll.  Eventually some of the colonists took to denouncing the project as a fraud in the German media, hampering Elisabeth's efforts to recruit more settlers.  In 1889 the perennially-gloomy Förster expressed his despair over the colony's deepening money woes by committing suicide.  Four years later Elisabeth abandoned her colony and returned to Germany.

It's jarring to the modern reader to see how, in the late 19th century, anti-Semitism was considered a perfectly respectable stance on an equal footing with tolerance of Jews (paralleling, perhaps, the way homophobia is still seen as a respectable stance in some circles today).  At one point Elisabeth said that her colony would show the great things that anti-Semites could accomplish.  Her brother brushed her off by saying he wished all the anti-Semites would get out of Germany and go to Paraguay.

I've known for a long time that Nietzsche's philosophy has been grossly distorted and over-simplified in the popular imagination, making him a precursor and inspiration to the Nazis.  What I learned from this book is that it was his sister who was mainly responsible for this corruption of his views.  Nietzsche suffered a psychological collapse in 1889 and became essentially insane, no longer able to speak for himself, and died in 1900.  Elisabeth edited his unpublished writings and took over guiding public perception of him.

Nietzsche was an elitist to be sure, but he was fascinated by superior individuals, not a "master race".  He despised Judaism as a religion (largely for the crime of having brought Christianity into the world), not Jewish people; he attacked anti-Semitism at a time when anti-Semitism was popular and respectable.  A German through and through, he was nevertheless exasperated with the crude nationalism of the time, and intrigued rather than disappointed by the fact that the name "Nietzsche" is probably of Polish origin.  But Elisabeth's paint-roller covered all his subtle and clashing hues with a monochrome, making his ghost an ally of her own views which he had rejected in life.

Elisabeth lived long enough to see the rise of the Nazis, whom she of course fervently supported.  Hitler respected her and visited her several times, and sent a container of German soil to be scattered on Förster's grave in Paraguay.  Hitler enthusiastically embraced the endorsement provided by Elisabeth's warped re-write of Nietzsche, but there is no evidence that he ever actually read a word Nietzsche wrote.  A famous photo, reproduced in the book, shows Hitler gazing "thoughtfully" at a bust of Nietzsche.  The great thinker, captured in stone, looks even gloomier than usual, as if his shade were despairing over the ignorant and bigoted pygmy who had risen to power over his country, even claiming his philosophy as inspiration.

Macintyre in 1991 did find a few families and physical relics left over from Nueva Germania.  Some descendants of the settlers have intermarried with local people, while others stayed true to their founders' ideals of racial purity, and are beginning to show effects of inbreeding.  It won't be long before the last remnants of Elisabeth's dream merge into the tropical jungle and disappear.  But "decadent" Germany itself, despite the catastrophe brought by the Nazis she came to admire so much, is doing just fine.  Perhaps in time even her brother's reputation will recover from the butchery she wrought on it.


Blogger LadyAtheist said...

Wow an amazing story and really well written review.

I hope the originals of his unpublished papers survived. He deserves to be remembered correctly.

19 July, 2012 13:30  
Blogger B.R. said...

Why is it always the relatives? The most dishonest of creationists attempt to paint Darwin as a racist proponent of eugenics, not because he ever wrote or uttered a word condoning either, but because his cousin, Francis Galton, embraced the idea that weaker humans should be culled. Still, the only comfort we can get from this, is that in the cases of both men, only the ignorant and weak-minded will accept the stereotype without researching the person. BTW, I've been interested in Nietzsche for some time, but haven't picked up any of his work yet. Is there any particular place I should start?

19 July, 2012 13:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

LA: Thanks! I think most of it survives, and scholars of philosophy have a more accurate view of Nietzsche. It's more people with only a superficial acquaintance with him that continue to have these misperceptions.

BR: Nietzsche was a great thinker, but his philosophy is quite difficult to get a handle on, unfortunately. I'm far from deeply-read on it myself -- most of what I know I picked up in bits and pieces from a range of sources. The Antichrist and Thus Spoke Zarathustra are probably among the more "accessible" of his works.

20 July, 2012 01:58  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Read this yesterday Infodell, but didnt get to comment, it was interesting though, being different than what I been reading. When I first saw the title I thought it was a band review. I have a couple Nietzsche book's that I read back probably 30 year's ago : ), as a matter of fact, my grandson wanted to borrow them recently, something for school. I never knew there was a "false" story about his sister ... just kiddin. Incredible how folk's are so concerned with racial purity.

Later Infodell ....

20 July, 2012 05:33  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

I studied Nietzsche a thousand years ago and don't really remember much of anything except for vague connections to the Nazis. Needless to say, I don't know one thing about his "twisted" sister. I find this totally fascinating, especially the possibility that she "edited" her brother's writings, perhaps twisting his philosophy beyond recognition. Interesting read.

20 July, 2012 12:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: To make it even weirder, in those days they didn't just mean "race" in the more current sense, they thought of ethnic / cultural groups like Germans, Jews, Anglo-Saxons, etc. as "races", It wasn't just Germans who thought this way, either. I've read some mid-19th-century racist English writings about the Celts that would make a modern reader's hair stand on end.

LP: At least one whole book attributed to Nietzsche, The Will to Power (published after his death) was actually cobbled together by Elisabeth out of odds and ends of his writings that he himself had thought not worth publishing, and is slanted to represent her views, not his. The works published in his lifetime are reliable.

21 July, 2012 03:03  

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