Nietzsche and Arendt’s Warnings Against Totalitarianism

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By Gabriel Cameron

 (UBC Arts One, Dr. Sylvia Berryman Seminar)


Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt have both been misinterpreted with regard to their attitude toward the Nazis, but in fact they both hold very strong and uncompromising anti-Nazi views. I believe Nazism is a version of the ascetic ideal, an ideal which Nietzsche abhors. The methods employed by the Nazis are the same as the methods used by priests of the ascetic ideal. The account of Eichmann’s trial given by Hannah Arendt makes Nietzche’s warnings in his On the Genealogy of Morality starkly clear in their accuracy and relevance. There is a new kind of evil of which we must be aware. Arendt’s work confronts the same problem as Nietzsche’s. There are potent ideologies which can tempt us away from what we know is right and invert what is good and what is bad. Eichmann in Jerusalemgives a solution to the philosophical problem of how to make meaning of life without falling prey to the ascetic ideal—a solutionwhich Nietzsche never explicitly states in his work. In this respect, Arendt is not merely an impartial observer stating facts, but rather is using history to make a larger philosophical claim: one which builds on Nietzsche’s ideas. Her claim is also one which restores the importance of community, and in doing so serves as a defense against totalitarianism.

The ascetic ideal is a concept which Nietzsche developed to show how morals could be transformed in hazardous ways under the wrong conditions. It is born from slave morality and resentment, and evolves into something self-hating and contradictory. Slave morality is the belief that the “masters” or higher status people are evil, and that anything opposite to them must therefore be good. What is high status becomes low status in slave morality, and Nietzsche warns that this transformation of values can lead to horrific outcomes. We typically associate the masters of slaves with evil, but in Nietzsche’s thinking, what they represent is nobility, passion, and determination: traits that are good. An active and healthy spirit is something which Nietzsche praises highly, and is the opposite of the ascetic ideal. The ascetic ideal preaches self-denial, delusion, and reactivity. However, the ascetic ideal can be attractive because it gives meaning to human suffering. It is preferable to suffer in a meaningful way than simply suffer. Nonetheless, any meaning derived from the ascetic ideal is built on lies, because the inversion of values inverts some values that ought to remain preserved. When discussing the ascetic ideal, Nietzsche takes the example of Christianity in On The Genealogy of Morality, and that is why priesthood—among other Christian terms—is used to describe the ascetic ideal. Nonetheless, the ascetic ideal can be expressed in other places as well, and I believe that totalitarianism is an excellent fit. The ascetic ideal is something seductive and poisonous, and Nietzsche believed it to be on the rise (On the Genealogy of Morality, 24).

Nazism, born out of anger against the treaty of Versailles, certainly begins with ressentiment. It is this anger that fuels the popularity of the Nazis. “Living space” is among the first of the Nazi demands, which would take back the space that has been thought to have been unjustly removed by many Germans. Nazism, similar to the ascetic ideal, also gives a place to those who need meaning in their life to compensate for their suffering (On the Genealogy of Morality, 117). Eichmann’s need to follow authority stems from a strong desire for meaning in his life, something Nazism provides him with in his career (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 33). It is worth noting that, similar to other people in his time, it is likely that Nietzsche did not think the ascetic ideal would flourish in Germany. In fact, Germany had the reputation of a very “civilized” nation, and for them to fall prey to any misguided ideology would be unexpected to most people at the time. Nietzsche describes Jewish people as “that priestly people ofressentimentpar excellence” (On the Genealogy of Morality, 31), which may seem to run contrary to the thesis of this essay since Jews were the targets of the Nazis, and Nietzsche seems to be speaking out against Jews in that passage. The ascetic ideal, however, is something that any group of people can succumb to, and Nazism has more parallels to the ascetic ideal than almost any other ideology. Nietzsche’s comment was specifically targeted against Judeo-Christian ideology and not people who are Jewish in general. Nietzsche’s critique is less concerned with Jewish history than it is with the consequences of ideologies that follow the same pattern as the ascetic ideal.

As the Nazi party changed its platform, conquest and reactively motivated fighting (the war was fought to “protect the homeland”) was pursued alongside a reactive spirit in its social program. The Nazi program had to be commonly accepted to be effective, and as such its escalation was gradual. The Nazi party reacted to the strength of the opposition (verbal or otherwise) to their escalatingly anti-semitic policies. There are examples where Nazi policies were unsuccessful in transforming and escalating due to vocal resistance: when the Danes simply said “no” to anti-semitic policies, many bureaucratic prerequisites for the mistreatment of Jews could not be put in place (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 172). Where there was less resistance, Nazis took advantage to implement whatever they could, but where resistance was present Nazism could not transform into something violent nearly as rapidly. Their changing social program works subtly and is most effective when its ultimate goal is obscured from those who would not be convinced by it, or otherwise hurt by it, which is certainly a conniving and underhanded tactic. Those are attributes that fit particularly well with the ascetic ideal. Many people who identified as Nazis early on during their regime may have believed in something very different than what Nazism was to become. For example, when Eichmann was responsible for the deportation of Jews, he considered himself an intermediary between Jews and Nazis, trying to do “justice to both parties” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 48). On his own account, Eichmann was not aware that Nazism would require something much more brutal from him until he was ordered as such by Himmler. In this way, Nazism was a constantly transforming concept; political regimes need not adhere to a specific program consistently across time. Similarly, the ascetic ideal requires a constant transformation of values to change and redirect the direction of the ressentiment(On the Genealogy of Morality, 92). It also must be constantly changing to be most effective.

It is worth confronting the fact that the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche. An example of this is the publication ofThe Will to Power, a collection of Nietzsche’s notes which were misconstrued to suit an anti-semitic agenda, and then published without Nietzsche’s consent by his sister, Elizabeth. As a result, some wrongly attribute an anti-semitic attitude to Nietzsche, although he never espoused these views himself. Nonetheless, Nietzsche can be easily misread as a Nazi, and the fact that it is so tempting to see Nietzsche not as warning against totalitarianism, but as rooting for totalitarianism, could be taken by some to be an indicator that Nietzsche has some views which overlap with the Nazis. J.P. Stern goes so far as to say that “no one came closer to embodying Nietzsche’s model of personal authenticity, which consists in creating one’s values for oneself, than Adolf Hitler” (A Study of Nietzsche, 117). Additionally, much of what Nietzsche says about health, nobility, and the superiority of the Ubermensch fits closely with Nazi rhetoric. Regardless of these concerns, on a number of occasions Nietzsche explicitly makes his own opinions about anti-semitism clear. He suggests that those who would like to study ressentimentup close should observe anarchists and anti-semites (On the Genealogy of Morality, 48). Furthermore, when Nietzsche is speaking out against disingenuous idealists, and those who would venerate principles like “Germany, Germany, above all else” he states “I do not like them either, these newest speculators in idealism, the anti-semites” (On the Genealogy of Morality, 114-115). In a different work, Nietzsche also referred to anti-semites as “screamers” (Beyond Good and Evil, 8.251), showing his contempt for their unnecessary hatred and fear. That hatred and fear is characteristic of slave morality. It is a reactive and overblown sentiment, something which Nietzsche disapproves of strongly. Nietzsche has many explicitly stated opinions in his works which would preclude him from ever being a Nazi. I believe a Nietzschean analysis would show that Hitler was, as Keith Ansell Pearson states, “a man whose whole being was pervaded by feelings of deep-seated resentment and poisonous revenge, and he can hardly be held up as an example of Nietzsche’s model of the noble individual” (An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker, 33). If Hitler embodies slave morality, then he certainly cannot also embody Nietzsche’s model of personal authenticity. In order to believe that a Nietzschean analysis of Hitler would condone his actions, it must be shown that white supremacists are truly superior, and that they do deserve to be called more noble than others and should be shown deference as a result. However, most would not entertain this view—especially Nietzsche.He would not view membership to a certain race as a mark of superiority. Rather, a strong (active) will would be the mark of an admirable or superior person.

Nonetheless, that there can be “superior” people is a view that may lead to conclusions similar to Nazism, depending on what it is that makes a person truly deserving of being called noble. However, I would argue that, for Nietzsche, the people who are most noble, who affirm life the most, are those people who are most resistant to ideology, and who have morals which are robust and consistent, as would be the case in conscience’s highest form (On the Genealogy of Morality, 37). Therefore, to say that Nietzsche’s writing leads to pro-totalitarian conclusions would be to misconstrue his opinions.

Nietzsche’s analysis of the ascetic ideal relies on a linguistic genealogy (On the Genealogy of Morality, 13). He claims that language is the means to transform a group’s moral compass. Similarly, Arendt sees it necessary to emphasize the way that “language rules” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 85) are standard practice in the Nazi party. A language rule is a softened code word which replaces another word used in a sensitive topic (“extermination of Jews” would become “final solution”). No wrong act is explicitly referred to by name, but rather is given an easily palatable euphemism. These code words are not meant to mislead when used between bearers of secrets (as is mandatory); all parties fully understand the meaning of each term. Not only does the method of language rules work very well to convince people like Eichmann that their conscience should be at rest, but Nazi language even seeps into the general populace—affecting everyone and not just higher up officers. Disconcertingly, even defendant Dr. Servatius spoke of killings as “medical matters” during Eichmann’s trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 69). The nature of totalitarianism, and of the ascetic ideal is to frame the way that “questions” are asked which presupposes a certain “solution”. It makes difficult conclusions more palatable, and to live life by the Nazi’s lies provides a narrative by which to situate yourself in any context. When Eichmann is confronted on his nonsensical views, he finds “euphoria” in justifying (or as Nietzsche would put it: making meaning out of) his actions by resorting to rhetoric supplied to him by his ideology. Language is instrumental in transforming a conscience of a person to be in line with the goals of the party.

To take a specific example of language being twisted in the service of Nazism “Judenrein” is a word which refers to Germany being “cleansed” of Jews (The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany, 279). For the Nazis to therefore even talk about deporting or slaughtering Jews they must use terms loaded with the assumption that Jews are dirty or otherwise undesirable. To even use such a word is to validate the assumptions that come with it. In Nazi language there is an emphasis on purity. To clean something that is difficult to clean is best thought of as a kind of catharsis. It is to remove something bad. This is very similar to how the will to nothing is expressed through pain, and that pain is transformed into meaning by virtue of it being in service of a “good” which is fabricated. The ascetic ideal promotes the ultimate sort of cleansing possible, and to be a shepherd is to cleanse as many as possible. The objective of the ascetic ideal and the Nazis is the same in this regard, and the language follows the same kind of rationalization. The need for purity is the need to eliminate and kill. Purity only takes away, and defines what is bad first, then states what is good as an afterthought. Consequently, ideologies centered on purity can only be thought of as reactive in nature.

Another example, “special treatment” is a code word that would refer to execution (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 85). Using terms which are medical, cold, and detached, it serves to reinforce the idea that Nazi members are all cogs in one great machine. It can provide reassurance that to follow orders is rational, normal, and adding to a great and well-organized plan. The Third Reich is emphasized as an eternal empire to add to this illusion—the illusion that there is no room to doubt the Nazi plan. The cold sterility of the terms shows that to follow orders is no different from working an everyday occupation. Killing can be rationalized as a medical matter, and once it is considered as medical it is not considered morally, which eases the cognitive dissonance in every Nazi member who would rationalize that what they are doing is right. Nietzsche sees language in the ascetic ideal as following a similar pattern, especially when directed by the shepherd figure. The shepherd and the Nazis both use terms that would distance the agent from their act, and from the people who they are wronging (or place themselves above those who they are wronging), in order to make an artificial construct (what is good for the eternal empire) the only consideration. Other considerations are white noise, and ignoring them is a self-sacrifice that not only must be made, but as Nietzsche says must be relished, for that is where meaning would be found for followers of the ascetic ideal. As I will discuss later, according to Arendt this distance between killer and killed is also integral to the success of a totalitarian regime.

A shift in language of this manner not only removes guilt, but also inspires glory. “How heavily the task weighed on my shoulders!” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 106) says the Nazi who considers himself to be self-sacrificing for the sake of a greater good, another behaviour foreshadowed by Nietzsche. The turning inward of suffering, as in being willing to sacrifice yourself to carry out these unpleasant tasks, is essential to the ascetic ideal. In this respect, Nazis are encouraged to turn against their own consciences, and against themselves. Doing things which you know to be wrong is a sacrifice for a new kind of good, fabricated as a lie. It is important to note that the bearers of secrets take a kind of pride in how far they are willing to go. The person who is willing to do the most cruel and horrible tasks is the person who is therefore most committed to this new and inverted notion of what is “good”. Eichmann describes his own idealism as being “prepared to sacrifice for his idea everything and, especially, everybody” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 42). Note that Nietzsche criticizes exactly those people who describe themselves as idealists (On the Genealogy of Morality, 99-100). Language plays a critical role here, because unless masked by language rules it becomes immediately obvious that inverting values in this way is a contradiction, and a dishonest lie. In order to do evil, the evil must be rationalized. Furthermore, the “bearers of secrets” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 85) consider themselves worthy arbiters of justice, similar to the way that the ascetic priest fulfills the role of a shepherd, guiding the masses to what the priest considers an ideal outcome, even without agreement of those masses. This is true of people who were aware of the final solution and chose to keep it a secret. There is a striking similarity between Nietzsche’s shepherd of the ascetic ideal and the bearers of secrets, as well as a similarity in how self-sacrifice is praised very highly.

Nietzsche makes a fantastic and, on the face of it, outrageous claim when he says that the ascetic ideal is “a will to nothingness” (On the Genealogy of Morality, 66) and is against reason and life. I initially had trouble grasping how such an extreme claim could be true, but in seeing the way that every traditional commandment is “inverted,” Nietzsche’s claim is certainly no exaggeration for Nazi Germany, and is precisely true of Nazism’s end goal. When a German woman says, “The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us,” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 111) she is to be taken literally. Typical values have been entirely turned upside down. Eichmann felt the temptation “to not kill” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 150) instead of the typical temptation to kill as the immoral action to be avoided. Nazism progresses further and further into what Nietzsche would call a “will to nothingness” over time.

Eichmann is certainly against reason as well. He will swear by oaths, then abandon them as required. The only constant is his devotion to the Fuhrer. This requires he contradict himself routinely so that the Fuhrer’s will remains law. Indeed, he does so, making completely incompatible claims on multiple occasions, seemingly without any problem in doing so (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 252). Coupled with an abysmal memory, Eichmann’s contradictions can be forgotten as soon as they give him a brief burst of “elation.” Reason is sacrificed in the lies of the language rules, in the fact that the Nazi program changes day by day, and in everyday rationalizations Nazis must make to remain faithful to the Fuhrer. This is also a trait found in the ascetic ideal: a denial of everything necessarily extends to reason as well. To be alive, yet say no to life at every opportunity, is to be living a contradiction. This is the lie that the ascetic ideal necessitates.

Nietzsche sees that the ascetic ideal provides meaning, but at too great a cost. He gives no explicit recommendation or prescriptive advice to overcome this dilemma. In this respect, Arendt differs. She says that justice is objective, and even if every Nazi in Germany is guilty of a horrible crime through their willingness to cooperate, they should all be considered unjust (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 278). We cannot hold back our judgement merely because a majority of people were infected with a toxic culture that would have us act against what is really our best conscience. Furthermore, even though the attitude of the Nazis was virtually all-encompassing, there do exist those people who will act contrary to Nazi ideology despite this. This possibility—which was open to every person who acted wrongly—gives everyone the opportunity to act justly. There were those who would not cooperate with Nazis, and while it did not happen everywhere, it did happen in some places and for Arendt, that is enough (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 233). This can be contrasted with Nietzsche’s tendency to speak of people as agents of an ideology which they will always fall victim to (or at least most people will). Nietzsche’s genealogy tends to omit talk about the importance of objective morals, and this is the thread that Arendt picks up and runs with.

In Nietzsche, there is an emphasis on the need for the strong and sovereign to be alone and separate from the pack. Concern for the community is a sign of weakness to him, and those who have the ability to carve a way for themselves stand above and are isolated (On the Genealogy of Morality, 98). This also presents a strong contrast with Arendt, who would believe in the value of community not as something of the weak, but something which if pursued with genuine consideration and dialogue will unite and fortify the sovereign and strong-willed (consider the example of the Danes mentioned earlier). I believe that in Nietzsche’s individualistic perspective something is lost. Nietzsche believes social forces like the ascetic ideal are too strong for all but a few to resist, and perhaps that is why his thinking results in giving only a few people apart from the crowd the distinction of sovereignty. However, in Arendt’s consensus-based society it is not the few but the many who can be sovereign, and they remain sovereign not through isolation (which would make them more susceptible to alienation from their peers), but through dialogue. I believe Arendt’s case is more compelling, and furthermore if we do want to live in any society in a meaningful way it is a very pessimistic and extreme view that would have us do the opposite and leave society to be on our own.

I believe that Nietzsche posed the problem which Arendt solved. Arendt herself sees it this way, and she writes that there is a void which various modern thinkers have been trying to address, but have not been able to articulate a solution. Arendt thinks this is why so many modern thinkers (Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche) speak in paradoxes, because they see that there is a contradiction and are trying to overcome it, although they must step outside of their own framework to do so and cannot (Between Past and Future, 25). If we are to understand Arendt’s solution, we must understand what is to be gained from stepping back from Nietzsche’s approach to philosophy. Arendt saw totalitarianism as a problem which the various modern thinkers tried to predict and explain but could not resolve within their frameworks. What is to be gained from Arendt’s perspective is the understanding that a “civilized” and highly rational place like Germany is certainly not immune from ideology; in fact, the very opposite is true. I would agree with Arendt that totalitarianism comes partly as a result of “progress” that moves us apart from each other, and the ties of smaller communities. “Progress” which would have us be more alone makes the pull of ideology more difficult to resist, and perhaps it can be argued that in Nietzsche’s ominous foreshadowing he saw hints of this. That is not to say that all large civilizations will fall prey to ideologies such as Nazism. Rather it is that we should be careful with what we allow our nationhood to mean, and be careful that belonging to a nation does not supersede belonging to an interconnected community of people who you would not sacrifice for an ideology.

In Nietzsche’s thinking, there is a need for free will, yet we are also subject to various ideals which essentially determine what we do. If Nietzsche would not have been surprised by the features of totalitarian government, it was because he saw how seductive their lies were. However, if we are really so susceptible to the grasp of ideology, if just anyone could be like Eichmann, then why is he on trial? Why is he deserving of blame, if everyday people would do the same thing in his position? Arendt’s reply does not assume that ideologies are as strong as Nietzsche makes them out to be, especially when we are in communities that are in dialogue. In this way, Arendt can show that Nietzsche’s generalizations regarding ideology, while uncannily accurate, are not so all encompassing as to constitute a permanent moral failure. However, that moral failure certainly was present and Arendt pinpoints the cause as not just the seductiveness of the ascetic ideal, but also the lack of measures a community would have to combat an ideology.

When it comes to propaganda, the best approach is divide and conquer. Nations have grown so large that community has been replaced by nationalism (ideology), and the lack of actual community with one’s neighbours makes it much easier to invert values which would have their strength exactly in serving the community. Again, Nietzsche’s genealogy reveals that values often have their roots in the preservation of the community, so I would argue that if the community is gone then it is difficult to preserve those values as they were. The weakening of the values of the community (which were eroded by the distancing of the community) allows a new kind of evil to exist in the form of totalitarianism to take the place of those weakened values.

That community values have been weakened at all also supports Arendt’s idea that there is a “void” which Nietzsche was grappling with, and what must be restored is an answer to the question “what are we fighting for?” (Between Past and Future, 27). To become immunized against ideologies like the ascetic ideal, I agree with Arendt that our identities should not be rooted in nationhood (which could turn into ideology), but rather in active community service with people who are actually cared about. An inversion of values can only happen when we have been alienated from each other, in the way that Eichmann was. What filled the void for him was totalitarianism.

The systematic slaughter of Jews across Europe is on a scale so large that we must ask ourselves, how can this have happened? One of Arendt’s most controversial statements that “without the cooperation of the victims, it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people, most of whom, moreover, worked in offices, to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of other people” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 117) is in my opinion exactly correct, and is explained fully by the ideology Nietzsche has outlined. If we organize ourselves according to an ideal which is a will to nothing, the logical conclusion could only be the creation of death camps. Hence we must take Nietzsche and Arendt’s warning seriously, so as not to confine our thinking only to the duties of an ideology which is not in accordance with what is objectively just. With lies and deception, we could convince ourselves to do anything. Only by preserving our sovereignty can we immunize ourselves against ideologies which are built only on lies. Doing so requires more than Nietzsche’s vague conception of an Übermensch, but instead an acknowledgement that evil on the scale of the Holocaust cannot be done when we are together in a meaningful way. Stopping Nazism takes a unified “no,” with no cracks or compromises. That means having values which are not susceptible to corrosion, and which therefore must be sustained in a meaningful way, between the people who would uphold them for each other. With values intact, and people sovereign, totalitarianism has no place to exist.



Works Cited

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Philosophy of the Future. Vintage Books, 2011.

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