Germany, Nietzsche and the First World War

Written by Vladimir Moss



     The catastrophic period in world history that began in 1914 and has not really ended yet proves one thing beyond doubt: that ideas are the main propellors of history, that men go to war, not primarily for political or economic reasons, but for religious or ideological reasons. And no idea was more important in understanding Germany’s role in world history in the period of the two world wars than Nietzche’s ideas of the Superman and the Triumph of the Will. But Nietzschean ideas needed Nietzschean – or, at any rate, neurotic - characters in which the ideas could germinate and bring forth fruit. In the period leading up to the First World War such a personality was Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser was important not only in himself: he served as a symptom and symbol of the Nietzschean pathology of the whole German nation…  


     For, as Felix Ponsonby said, the Kaiser “was the creation of the Germans themselves. They wanted a sabre-rattling autocrat with theatrical ways, attempting to dominate Europe, sending telegrams and making bombastic speeches, and he did his best to supply them with the superman they required.”[1] Again, as Stuart Miller writes, "the real problem was that he was too typical of the new state which he was now called upon to rule. A very complex personality with a rather stunted body and a withered arm, he was very insecure and unsure of himself and over-compensated for these inadequacies with bumptious aggressiveness and flamboyant posing. 'Psychological' versions of history can be very dangerous, but it is not difficult to see the problems and responses of the Kaiser and the state as being identical."[2]


     Wilhelm had had a difficult birth that gave him a withered arm; and he developed a hatred for his English mother and all things English. Mary Greene writes: “By the time his father died of cancer in 1888 at their palace in Potsdam, Wilhelm was set in his anglophobia and loathing for his mother and her liberal ideas. An English doctor had crippled his arm, he declared, and an English doctor had killed his father after misdiagnosing his cancer as benign: ‘One cannot have enough hatred for England’…”[3] Unbalanced, aggressive and inconsistent to the point of illness (Tsar Nicholas II said he was "raving mad"), Wilhelm had much to do with dividing Europe into two armed camps and souring the relations between Germany and England, on the one hand, and between Germany and Russia, on the other. [4] He dismissed Bismarck and allowed the "reinsurance" treaty with Russia to lapse, thereby introducing a dangerous note of insecurity into German foreign policy. His relative, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, the sister of the Tsaritsa, blamed the outbreak of war partly his departure from the policies of Bismarck.


     "The monarch," writes W.H. Spellman, was moving Germany "into an aggressive and expansionist posture. In language reminiscent of eighteenth-century divine-right absolutism, he informed the Provincial Diet of Brandenburg in 1891, 'that I regard my whole position and my task as having been imposed on me from heaven, and that I am called to the service of a Higher Being, to Whom I shall have to give a reckoning later.' To Bismarck's successor William confided in 1892 that he was not interested in personal popularity (although his actions belied this), 'for, as the guiding principles of my actions, I have only the dictates of my duty and the responsibility of my clear conscience towards God'. In 1900 William told the future George V of England that as Kaiser he alone 'was master of German policy and my country must follow me wherever I go'. In the judgement of one recent observer the emperor personified the dynastic culture of later eighteenth-century Europe: 'He was a monarch by Divine Right yet always the parvenu; a medieval knight in shining armour and yet the inspiration behind that marvel of modern technology, the battle fleet; a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary yet also - for a time at least - the Socialist Emperor who supported basic accident and retirement insurance for the industrial worker.’”[5]


     Prussian militarism gradually penetrated most of the country. Only the more pacifist and internationalist tendency of the powerful Social Democratic party stood out as a significant exception to the general mood. But in Germany’s fractured political system the Social Democrats were not able to prevent the Kaiser and the Army from taking control of the general direction of German foreign policy. Nietzsche disliked the New Germany. But, paradoxically, as we shall see, no writer contributed more to the establishment of the German proto-fascism of the pre-1914 era…


     While the militarists were nationalist rather than internationalist, they had their own global ambitions. Thus in 1894 “radical nationalists set up the Pan-German League. The ambition of the bourgeois nationalist project, and its irritation with the restraint of government policy, was summed up by the rising German sociologist and economist Max Weber. ‘We must realize,’ he announced in his famous Freiburg Lecture of 1895, ‘that the unification of Germany was a youthful prank which the nation played in its dotage, and should have been avoided on account of its cost, if it was to have been the completion rather than the starting point of a bid for German global power.’…”[6]


     Archimandrite Cyril (Govorun) writes: “One of the most vivid commanders of the German empire and its co-founder was Field-Marshal Helmut von Moltke (1800-1891). Once he expressed himself as follows: ‘Eternal peace is a dream, and not the most beautiful of dreams. War is part of the Divine world-order. In it we find the development of the best human virtues: courage, self-abnegation, faithfulness to duty and the readiness to offer one’s own life in sacrifice. Without war the world would descend into the abyss of materialism.’ This expresses the quintessence of the development of one of the directions of German idealism and German theology, which turned out to be very much in demand in the circle of German actors to which von Moltke belonged. Two basic postulates of this direction were, first, that war has its justification and is even necessary, if it is undertaken for the sake of lofty goals. And secondly, the most lofty goal is the struggle against the errors of the neighbouring peoples in their insufficient ‘spirituality’ – faithfulness to the Spirit (der Geist).


     “For Germany, such a nation was first of all France, which had been infected, in the opinion of the Germans, by the virus of republicanism – ‘democratism’. The victory of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 became for her a sign of election – of God’s having predestined her to be ‘God’s hammer’ in history, placing her in the centre of ‘the history of the salvation’ of the European peoples. This victory allowed Germany to accomplish, in the expression of the German history Martin Greschat, ‘a quantum jump’ from the soulless ‘national industry of war’ (that was how Count Mirabeau put it about Prussia in the 18th century) to a messianic state. In this state the life of each citizen and his rights were subject to a higher goal, and the state was the incarnation of this goal and the fullest manifestation of what Hegel had called Zeitgeist.


     “In the state’s self-consciousness it was surrounded by enemies who could not understand it or accept its lofty mission because of their corruption. For that reason the given state had to count only on its army and fleet. At the slightest opportunity this state considered that it had the right to violate international agreements, insofar as it had a higher goal and higher authorization – God.


     “The Churches of Germany in every way supported this ‘self-consciousness’ of the German people. By 1914 what Karl Hammer called ‘the German theology of war’ (Deutsche Kriegstheologie) had been formed. In the opinion of the investigator John Moses, the majority of German theologians before 1914 supported the military messianism, including such authorities as Albrecht Richl and Adolf von Harnak. Several generations of theologians, beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who thought that in the war with Napoleon God had been on the side of Prussia, developed the thought that the German nation was chosen by God (Ausgewähltheit). From Schleiermacher’s idea that God was with the Germans at the loftiest moments of their history, the theologians passed to the conviction that the German state was itself a Divine institution.


     “Patriotism as an unconditional justification of the state became practically a religious postulate. In 1902 the Kiel theologian Otto Baumgarten published a sermon that immediately became exceptionally popular: Jesu Patriotismus. In it he tried to prove that the religious duty of every person should become higher than his individual interests and that he should be ready to give everything for the homeland. His colleagues in every way supported the Weltpolitik – the colonial and imperialist strivings – of Kaiser Wilhelm and the growth, for the sake of this, of the military and naval might of Germany. Some, for example Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919), tried to unite the ideas of German nationalism and socialism. Naumann supposed that Germany’s struggle to acquire a leading position in the world in the conditions of imperial competition had to have its value and justification, die Ethisierung der Machtkämpfe.


     “One other authoritative theologian of the time, Ferdinand Kattenbusch (1851-1935), in his pamphlet Das sittliche Recht des Kreiges (The Moral Right to go to War), suggested, for the sake of justifying German imperialism, an idiosyncratic interpretation of the words of Christ on love for one’s neighbour. In his words, individual people living in this world cannot fully carry out the commandment on love. Nevertheless, to the degree accessible to each the spirit of love for one’s neighbour could be realized by the Christian in his desire to correct his neighbour. And this it was possible to do through compulsion. If it was necessary to correct one’s neighbours in large numbers, then one could and should apply military force. Military force applied for the sake of correcting the infirmities and sins of one’s neighbour, according to Kattenbusch, is the fulfilment of Christ’s commandment on love. Kattenbusch believed that nations each have their soul. In some nations their soul is infected by vice, and so they need military intervention for the sake of their own correction. But the German soul was the purest and most radiant of all the European souls and for that reason had the right to judge who needed correction, including through military chastisement.


     “As Klaus Fondung concludes in his very interesting study, Deutsche Apokalypse 1914: ‘At the centre of the ‘German Apocalypse’ of the 1914 vintage lay a conception of war as the tribunal of the world (Weltgericht) – a tribunal at which God judged Germany’s enemies. How God judged we know from the following sequence of events. The world paid too high a price for the path to ‘the tribunal over Germany’s enemies’ until the ‘Nuremburg tribunal’…”[7]


     At this point Nietzscheanism made its contribution. Nietzsche had been opposed to the new post-1871 Germany. However, many of his nihilist ideas had penetrated deep into the German consciousness. Not for nothing have his views on the Superman and the Triumph of the Will been seen to foreshadow and influence the coming of Hitler, who paid a visit to his archive in 1934…


     What drove Nietzsche, writes Margaret Macmillan, “was a conviction that Western civilization had gone badly wrong, indeed had been going wrong for the past two millennia, and that most of the ideas and practices which dominated it were completely wrong. Humanity, in his view, was doomed unless it made a clear break and started to think clearly and allow itself to feel deeply. His targets included positivism, bourgeois conventions, Christianity (his father was a Protestant minister) and indeed all organized religion, perhaps all organization itself. He was against capitalism and modern industrial society, and ‘the herd people’ it produced. Humans, Nietzsche told his readers, had forgotten that life was not orderly and conventional, but vital and dangerous. To reach the heights of spiritual reawakening it was necessary to break out of the confines of conventional morality and religion. God, he famously said, is dead… Those who embraced the challenge Nietzsche was throwing down would become the Supermen. In the coming century, there would be a ‘new party of life’ which would take humanity to a higher level, ‘including the merciless destruction of everything that is degenerate and parasitical’. Life, he said, is ‘appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity…’ The young Serbian nationalists who carried out the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so precipitated the Great War were deeply impressed by Nietzsche’s views…”[8]


     Peter Watson writes: “Throughout the nineteenth century there had been endless arguments about what actually was and was not German (its borders did keep changing), and Nietzsche was press ganged into this debate. During the 1890s and thereafter more and more people began to adapt his Germanness and the Nietzsche-German relationship into an ideology. By this account, Germanness was an exclusive precondition for truly understanding him and what he was saying. Here, for example, is Oswald Spengler on Nietzsche:


     “’Goethe’s life was a full life, and that means it brought something to completion. Countless Germans will honour Goethe, live with him, and seek his support; but he can never transform them. Nietzsche’s effect is a transformation, for the melody of his vision did not end with his death… His work is not a part of our past to be enjoyed; it is a task that makes servants of us all… In an age that does not tolerate otherworldly idols… when the only thing of recognizable value is the kind of ruthless action that Nietzsche baptized with the name of Cesare Borgia – in such an age, unless we learn to act as real history wants us to act, we will cease to exist as a people. We cannot live without a form that does not merely console in difficult situations, but helps one get out of them. This kind of hard wisdom made its first appearance in German thought with Nietzsche.’


     “Carl Jung was no less impressed. He viewed Nietzsche as a development beyond Protestantism, just as Protestantism was itself an outgrowth beyond Catholicism. Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman was, he believed, ‘the thing in man that takes the place of the God.’


     “Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of these and other luminaries, it was the youth and avant-garde of the 1890s who made up the bulk of Nietzsche’s followers. This had a lot to do with the state of the Kaiserreich, which was perceived then to be both spiritually and politically mediocre. To these people, Nietzsche was seen as a pivotal, turn-of-the-century figure, ‘a man whose stature was comparable only to Buddha, Zarathustra or Jesus Christ.’ Even his madness was endowed by supporters with a spiritual quality. For here was Nietzsche like the madman in his own story, someone who had been driven crazy by his vision and the alienation of a society not yet able to comprehend him. The German Expressionists had a fascination with madness for its allegedly liberating qualities, as they did for all extreme forms of life, and they identified Nietzsche as both a spokesman and an exemplar. Opponents dismissed him, quite wrongly as it turned out, as a ‘degenerate’ who would ‘rave for a season, and then perish’.


     “Despite the divisions he aroused, his popularity grew. Novels and plays tried to capture and dramatize his already dramatic ideas. People all over Europe started to have ‘intoxicating’ Zarathustra experiences. Le Corbusier had a Zarathustra-Erlebnis (a Zarathustra ‘experience’ or ‘insight’) in 1908. Nietzschean concepts like the will to power and Übermensch entered the vocabulary. Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra was premiered in Frankfurt-am-Main in November 1896, the most famous but not the only major artwork stimulated by Nietzsche – Mahler’s Third Symphany was another, originally entitled The Gay Science.


     “The glossy illustrated magazine Pan featured Nietzschean poems in his honor but also printed drawings and sculptures of him, seemingly whenever they got the chance. Between 1890 and 1914 his portrait was everywhere, his bushy mustache becoming a widespread visual symbol, making his face as famous as his aphorisms. From the mid-1890s, encouraged by the Nietzsche archives (under the control of his sister), ‘Nietzsche-cult products’ were made available in generous amounts, a move that would certainly have maddened him had he been capable of such feelings. Hermann Hesse was just one well-known writer who had two images of Nietzsche on his study wall in Tübingen. His face was also a popular device on bookplates, one image showing him as a latter-day Christ, with a crown of thorns. The working-class press appropriated his image as a familiar and succinct way to mock the capitalist commercialization of culture.


     “Some even adopted what they called Nietzschean ‘lifestyles’, the most striking example being the designer/architect Peter Behrens. Behrens designed his own ‘Zarathustrian’ villa as a centrepiece of the experimental Darmstadt artists’ colony. The house was adorned with symbols such as the eagle, and Zarathustra’s diamond, which radiated ‘the virtues of a world that is not yet here’. Behrens surpassed even this in the German pavilion he designed for the Turin 1902 Exposition. In a surreal cavern, light flooded the interior in which the industrial might of the Second Reich was on display. Zarathustra, cited explicitly, progresses toward the light.


     “Bruno Taut (1880-1938), an Expressionist architect, became a prominent exponent of a cult of mountains that emerged and was associated with Nietzsche. Taut’s ‘Alpine Architecture’ attempted to envision an entire chain of mountains transformed into ‘landscapes of Grail-shrines and crystal-lined caves’, so that, in the end, whole continents would be covered with ‘glass and precious stones in the form of “ray-domes” and sparkling palaces.’


     “In a similar vein was the Zarathustrian cult of Bergeinsamkeit, ‘the longing to escape the crowded cities and to feel the pristine mountain air’. Giovanni Segantini, a painter and another enthusiastic Nietzschean, specialized in views of the Engadine, the mountain region that inspired Nietzsche when he was writing Also Sprach Zarathustra. So popular did his work prove that pilgrims and tourists flocked to these mountains: ‘The Einsamkeitserlebnis – the experience of being alone – was transferred into a mass business!’ The flourishing of a Nietzschean-kitsch industry, which would have horrified Nietzsche himself, was another ironic indication of his popularity among the ‘philistines’. Paul Friedrich’s play The Third Reich was one of several that put Zarathustra onstage, in this case clad in a silver-and-gold costume flung insouciantly over his shoulder. At times, people worried that the Nietzsche cult was outdoing Nietzsche himself. In 1893, Max Nordau wrote about the Nietzsche Jügend – the Nietzsche youth – as if they were an identifiable group.


     “As time went by it became increasingly clear that Germany, and to a lesser extent the rest of Europe, was now populated by Nietzsche generations – in the plural. Thomas Mann was one who recognized this:


     “’We who were born around 1870 are too close to Nietzsche, we participate too directly in his tragedy, his personal fate (perhaps the most terrible, most awe-inspiring fate in intellectual history). Our Nietzsche is Nietzsche militant. Nietzsche triumphant belongs to those born fifteen years after us. We have from him our psychological sensitivity, our lyrical criticism, the experience of Wagner, the experience of Christianity, the experience of ‘modernity’ – experiences from which we shall never completely break free… They are too precious for that, too profound, too fruitful.’


     “Nietzsche was in particular looked upon as a new type of challenge, paradoxically akin to the forces of socialism, a modern ‘seducer’, whose advocacy was even more persuasive than the ‘odious equalizing of social democracy’. Georg Tantzscher thought Nietzscheanism fitted neatly the needs of the free-floating intelligentsia, trapped as they were ‘between isolation and a sense of mission, the drive to withdraw from society and the drive to lead it.’ In his 1897 book on the Nietzsche cult, the sociologist Ferdinand Tõnnies accused Nietzscheanism of being ‘pseudo-liberational’. People, he said, ‘were captivated by the promise of the release of creative powers, the appeal to overcome narrow-minded authority and conventional opinions, and free self-expression.’ But he condemned Nietzscheanism as superficial, serving elitist, conservative and ‘laissez-faire functions’ that went quite against the social-democratic spirit of the age.


     “A little later, in 1908, in The Nietzsche Cult: A Chapter in the History of the Aberrations of the Human Spirit, the philosopher Wolfgang Becker also appeared puzzled that so many ‘cultured luminaries’ were attracted to the Nietzschean message, but he agreed with Mann that it meant different things to different people. To the young, Nietzsche’s analysis seemed ‘deep’; but the German colonial officials in Africa employed his Herrenmoral ideal practically every day, as they gelt it was suited perfectly to ‘the colonial mode of rule’.


     “The sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel also took his color from Nietzsche. His central concept, Vornehmheit, the ideal of ‘distinction’, owed everything to Nietzsche. Simmel looked upon Vornehmheit as the defining quality by which individuals ‘could be separated from the crowd and endowed with “nobility”. For Simmel, this was a new ideal stemming from the dilemma of how to create personal values in a money economy. Nietzsche had encouraged the pursuit of specific values – Vornehmheit, beauty, strength – each of which he said enhanced life and which, ‘far from encouraging egoism, demanded greater self-control’.


     “Marxists thought that Nietzscheanism nakedly served capitalism, imperialism and afterward fascism, and that Neitzscheans were no more than the ultimate in bourgeois pseudo-radicalism, never touching on the underlying exploitation, and leaving the socioeconomic class structure intact.


    “People liked to observe the irony that Nietzsche was dead long before God, but Aschheim maintains that he was simply ‘unburiable’. ‘Nietzsche was not a piece of learning,’ wrote Franz Servis in 1895, but a part of life, ‘the reddest blood of our time’. He has not died: ‘Oh, we shall all still have to drink of his blood! Not one of us will be spared that.’…


     “Even the choice of Weimar as the location of the Nietzsche archive was intended to emulate – if not surpass – the similar shrine of that other self-styled protector of Germany spirituality, at Bayreuth. Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, and her colleagues played a deliberate role in the monumentalization and mythologizing of the philosopher. For example, his sister sought to create an ‘authorized’ Nietzsche, her main object being to ‘depathologize’ her brother, and in so doing remove the subversive from his ideas, making him – as she thought – ‘respectable’.


     “The most grandiose and monumental of plans – much more so than the archive – came from the more enlightened and cosmopolitan adherents. In 1911, for instance, Harry Graf Kessler, the Anglo-German patron of the arts and author of Berlin in Lights, envisaged building a huge festival area as a memorial, comprising a temple, a large stadium and an enormous sculpture of Apollo. In this space, intended to hold thousands, art, dance, theatre and sports competitions would be combined into a ‘Nietzschean totality’. Aristide Maillol agreed to build the statue, using none other than Vaslav Nijinsky as the model. André Gide, Anatole France, Walther Rathenau, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Gilbert Murray and H.G. Wells joined the fund-raising committee. The project failed only when Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche withdrew her support in 1913.


     “Until the First World War, Nietzsche exerted a wide influence on the arts. However, the Great War… totally changed public attitudes toward Nietzsche and the impact of his ideas.


     “Probably, Nietzsche’s most explosive and enduring impact was on the intellectual, artistic and literary avant-garde – his invitation ‘to be something new, to signify something new, to represent new values’ was emblematic of what Steven Aschheim also calls the ‘Nietzschean generation’. Nietzsche gave point to the avant garde’s alienation from the high culture of the establishment. The two forces he favoured were radical, secular self-creation and the Dionysian imperative of self-submersion. This led to several attempts to fuse the individualist impulse within a search for new forms of ‘total’ community, the redemptive community...


     “While Nietzsche’s identification of the nihilist predicament was a starting point, people swiftly moved on. They sought a transformed civilization that encouraged and reflected a new übermenschlich type, creating excitement, authenticity, intensity, and in all ways superior to what had gone before. ‘What I was engaged in,’ recalled Ernst Blass, the Expressionist poet, referring to café life in imperial Berlin, was ‘a war on the gigantic philistinism of those days… What was in the air? Above all Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Freud too, and Wedeking. What was wanted was a post-rational Dionysos.’


     “Freud and Nietzsche had in common that both sought to remove the metaphysical explanation of experience, and both stressed ‘self-creation’ as the central meaningful activity of life. While Freud strained for respectability, Nietzscheanism reveled in notoriety; but in most ways they were compatible, being stridently… anti-rationalist; and, with its Dionysian rhetoric, the artistic production of the Nietzscheans sought to unlock the wild reaches of the unconscious. Übermensch strongmen feature prominently in the novels of Gabriele d’Annunzio and Hermann Conrad, where the characters are involved in often brutal searches for innocence and authenticity, as often as not destroying in order to create…”[9]


     In 1914, continues Watson, “a London bookseller denounced the war as ‘the Euro-Nietzschean war’. He was referring to the (for him) surprising fact that the outbreak of war saw a marked rise in the sale of works by Nietzsche. This was partly because many of Germany’s enemies thought that the German philosopher was the chief villain, the man most to blame for the war in the first place, and the individual responsible, as time wore on, for its brutalities.


     “In his book Nietzsche and the Ideals of Germany, H.I. Stewart, a Canadian professor of philosophy, describes the Great War as a battle between ‘an unscrupulous Nietzschean immoralism’ and ‘the cherished principles of Christian restraint’. Thomas Hardy was similarly incensed, complaining to several British newspapers: ‘I should think there is no instance since history began of a country being so demoralized by a single writer’. Germany was seen as a nation of would-be supermen who, in Romain Rolland’s words, had become a ‘scourge of God’. To many it seemed as if the abyss had been plumbed, that the death of God, so loudly advertised by Nietzsche, had finally brought about the apocalypse many had predicted.


     “In Germany, the theologian and historian Theodor Kappstein admitted that Nietzsche was the philosopher of the world war because he had educated a whole generation toward ‘a life-endangering honesty, towards a contempt for death… to a sacrifice on the altar of the whole, towards heroism and quiet, joyful greatness.’ Even Max Schuler, a better-known philosopher (and later a favourite of Pope John Paul II), in The Genius of War and the German War (1915) praised the ‘ennobling’ aspects of conflict. He welcomed the war as a return to ‘the organic roots of human existence… We were no longer what we had been – alone! The sundered living contact between the series individual-people-nation-world-God was restored in an instant.’ The communal ‘we’, Schuler said, ‘is in our consciousness before the individualized self’, the latter ‘an artificial product of cultured tradition and a historic process’.


     “Though the claims – both for and against Nietzsche’s influence – may have been overblown, they were not without foundation. In Germany, together with Goethe’s Faust and the New Testament, Thus Spake Zarathustra was the most popular work that literate soldiers took into battle, ‘for inspiration and consolation’. More than that, according to Steven Aschheim, 150,000 copies of a specially durable wartime edition were distributed to the troops. Even one or two literate non-German soldiers took the book with them, notably Robert Graves and Gabriele d’Annunzio. Nor should we forget that the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Gavrilo Princip, whose action precipitated the crisis of 1914, was fond of reciting Nietzsche’s poem Ecce Homo: ‘Insatiable as a flame, I burn and consume myself.’


     “Whatever we make of all that, the second point still takes some getting used to. This is the fact that in 1914 so many people welcomed the war. This, too, had certain Nietzschean overtones, in that war was seen as the ultimate test of one’s heroic qualities, a test of will and an unrivalled opportunity for ecstatic experience. But it was more than that – far more. For many, the war was seen as redemptive.


      “But redemption from what? One might ask. In fact, there was no shortage of candidates. Before 1914, the very appeal of Nietzsche lay in his widespread critique of the decadence people saw everywhere about them. Stefan George… argued in Der Stern des Bundes that a war would ‘purify’ a spiritually moribund society, while the German dramaturge Edwin Piscator agreed, claiming that the generation that went to war was ‘spiritually bankrupt’. Stefan Zweig saw the conflict as some kind of spiritual safety valve, referring to Freud’s argument that the release of ‘the instinctual’ could not be contained by reason alone. Typically, the Expressionists looke forward to the death of bourgeois society, ‘from whose ashes a nobler world would arise’.”[10]


     The paradox is that much was correct in this analysis. Western society was indeed spiritually moribund, and the war was indeed a watershed which did reduce the West to ashes. But out of those ashes there arose, not a nobler world, but an even more savage one. For the soldiers had to make a choice between the two books they took with them into battle: the New Testament or Also Sprach Zarathustra. And the tragedy was that, apart from some Orthodox soldiers on the Eastern front, it was the latter, antichristian work that triumphed in the minds of many, thereby making the age that followed truly that of the collective Antichrist…


     The vital importance of Nietszcheanism was emphasized by the famous Serbian Bishop Nicholas Velimirovich, who was sent by Serbia as an unofficial ambassador to England during the war, and became very popular there.


     The real struggle, said Velimirovich, was between the All-Man, Christ, and the Superman of Nietzsche, between the doctrine that Right is Might and the opposite one that might is right. For German Christianity with its all-devouring scientism and theological scepticism had already surrendered to Nietzscheanism: “I wonder… that Professor Harnack, one of the chief representatives of German Christianity, omitted to see how every hollow that he and his colleagues made in traditional Christianity in Germany was at once filled with the all-conquering Nietzscheanism. And I wonder… whether he is now aware that in the nineteen hundred and fourteenth year of our Lord, when he and other destroyers of the Bible, who proclaimed Christ a dreamy maniac [and] clothed Christianity in rags, Nietzscheanism arose [as] the real religion of the German race.”[11]


     In another place Bishop Nicholas spread the blame more widely on Europe as a whole: “The spirit was wrong, and everything became wrong. The spirit of any civilization is inspired by its religion, but the spirit of modern Europe was not inspired by Europe’s religion at all. A terrific effort was made in many quarters to liberate Europe from the spirit of her religion. The effort-makers forgot one thing, i.e. that no civilization ever was liberated from religion and still lived. Whenever this liberation seemed to be fulfilled, the respective civilization decayed and died out, leaving behind barbaric materialism in towns and superstitions in villages. Europe had to live with Christianity, or to die in barbaric materialism and superstitions without it. The way to death was chosen. From Continental Europe first the infection came to the whole white race. It was there that the dangerous formula [of Nietzsche] was pointed out: ‘Beyond good and evil’. Other parts of the white world followed slowly, taking first the path between Good and Evil. Good was changed for Power. Evil was explained away as Biological Necessity. The Christian religion, which inspired the greatest things that Europe ever possessed in every point of human activity, was degraded by means of new watchwords: individualism, liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, imperialism, secularism, which in essence meant nothing but the de-christianization of European society, or, in other words, the emptiness of European civilization. Europe abandoned the greatest things she possessed and clung to the lower and lowest ones. The greatest thing was – Christ.


     “As you cannot imagine Arabic civilization in Spain without Islam, or India’s civilization without Hinduism, or Rome without the Roman Pantheon, so you cannot imagine Europe’s civilization without Christ. Yet some people thought that Christ was not so essentially needed for Europe, and behaved accordingly without Him or against Him. Christ was Europe’s God. When this God was banished from politics, art, science, social life, business, education, everybody consequently asked for a God, and everybody thought himself to be a god… So godless Europe became full of gods!


     “Being de-christianized, Europe still thought to be civilized. In reality she was a poor valley full of dry bones. The only thing she had to boast of was her material power. By material power only she impressed and frightened the unchristian (but not antichristian) countries of Central and Eastern Asia, and depraved the rustic tribes in Africa and elsewhere. She went to conquer not by God or for God, but by material power and for material pleasure. Her spirituality did not astonish any of the peoples on earth. Her materialism astonished all of them… What an amazing poverty! She gained the whole world, and when she looked inside herself she could not find her soul. Where has Europe’s soul fled? The present war will give the answer. It is not a war to destroy the world but to show Europe’s poverty and to bring back her soul. It will last as long as Europe remains soulless, Godless, Christless. It will stop when Europe gets the vision of her soul, her only God, her only wealth.”[12]


July 2/15, 2018.

[1] Ponsonby, in Miranda Carter, The Three Emperors, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 365.

[2] Miller, Mastering Modern European History, London: Palgrave, 1997, p. 226.

[3] Greene, “Did Kaiser Bill’s mother spark the Great War?” Weekend, November 16, 2013, p. 9.


[5] Spellman, Monarchies, London: Reaktion Press, 2001, p. 218.

[6] Bernard Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, London: Allen Lane, 2013, p. 263.

[7] Govorun, “Zavtra byla Vojna” (Tomorrow there was War), Religia v Ukraine, March 10, 2014, in, March 12, 2014.

[8] Macmillan, The War that Ended the Peace, London: Profile, 2014,pp. 237-238.

[9] Watson, The Age of Atheists, London: Simon & Schuster, 2014, pp.34-39.

[10] Watson, op. cit., pp. 187-189.

[11] Velimirovich, “The Religious Spirit of the Slavs”, in Sabrana Dela (Collected Works), volume 3, Khimelstir, 1986, pp. 221-222.

[12] Velimirovich, “The Agony of the Church”, in Sabrana Dela (Collected Works), volume 3, Khimelstir, 1986, pp. 83-84.

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