Nietzsche and the Jews

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882; One of ...
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It was inevitable that we were going to have to talk about Nietzsche’s supposed anti-Semitism at some point, so I’m happy to get it out of the way relatively early on. In aphorism 475 of Human, All-Too-Human, the philosopher describes his vision for the future of all the different European ethnic groups, including the Jews. By 19th-century standards, I’d call it fairly progressive, but there is no getting around the fact that it is, by modern standards, pretty damn racist.

The problem for modern readers is that Nietzsche uncritically accepts the notion that racial bloodlines play some huge deterministic role in character, intelligence, and moral fortitude. So after predicting that “as a consequence of continual intermarriage there must develop a mixed race, that of the European man,” he concludes that the best way to deal with this is by doing everything to ensure that the right mixture of ingredients go into the stew.

That’s where the Jews come in. Nietzsche says “unpleasant, even dangerous qualities can be found in every nation and every individual,” and concedes to anti-Semites the possibility that “these qualities may even be dangerous and revolting to an unusual degree” in the European Jew, but nonetheless insists that “the Jew is just as useful and desirable an ingredient as any other national remnant.” After all: “One owes to them the noblest man (Christ), the purest sage (Spinoza), the most powerful book, and the most effective moral law in the world.”

It’s possible to condemn Nietzsche’s proto-eugenics while also acknowledging that he is far from the “prophet of Nazism” some of his modern detractors claim him to be. If anything, his views on Asia are far more troubling than his attitude towards the Jews—in his view, one of the great accomplishments of Judaism has been its defense of European values against eastern influence.

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