East Europe Reads Nietzsche
edited by Alice Freifeld,
Peter Bergmann,
and Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

East European Monographs
Boulder, Colorado; 1998

distributed by —
Columbia University Press: New York

246 pages June 2004

In Friedrich Nietzsche's childhood, one could still hear sung in the streets of the German hometowns the song, "Noch ist Polen nicht verloren" (Poland is still not lost). In certain localities opposing factions were still known at mid-century as "Russians" and "Poles," with radicals identifying with the Polish rising of 1831 and conservatives with the counterrevolutionary "Holy Alliance of Peoples." The "Poles" took heart from the July Revolution of 1830 and cultivated a martyrology of the failed rising, while the "Russians" worried that nationalism would tear Europe apart and feared a revival of romantic revolutionism. Nietzsche acted out his youthful political independence by exchanging the stance of a "Russian" for that of a "Pole." He abandoned the family ideology of altar and throne for the rebellious nationalism of the awakening peoples, making his first, perhaps most fundamental, political reversal.

Peter Bergmann
"Nietzsche and the Christ Among Nations"
East Europe Reads Nietzsche

Wonderful cultural history

East Europe Reads Nietzsche is an anthology of ten essays edited by Alice Freifeld, Peter Bergmann, and Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal. This is intellectual history that mostly was lost, disavowed, or suppressed until recently — itself a very Nietzschean theme.

For decades the Nietzsche taboo was so stringent in East Europe that turn-of-the-century [circa 1900] writers whose canonical status was beyond reproach were routinely de-Nietzschefied. Concomitantly, western literary critics during the Cold War seemed to forget Friedrich Nietzsche's importance as a prime catalyst of early modernism in East Europe and discounted the significance of Nietzschean literature spawned by East Europeans. Since the collapse of Communism in 1989, Nietzsche's impact upon the national literatures has been acknowledged, and reintegrating Nietzsche into East European cultural history has become the task at hand.

from the Introduction

As it must, intellectual history intertwines with cultural and political history. This is strikingly apparent in the Eastern lands of Europe, the laboratory of nationalities before World War I. And later, these East European nations under Soviet Communist domination were strange cloisters of the human spirit for several generations. There is a sense of returning circulation in East Europe Reads Nietzsche, "as breathing and consciousness return" in Solzhenitsyn's phrase, light shining again into a great vital stretch of Europe that was forcibly shrouded for so long.

So in this light, what do we have here? The contents:

  • Introduction — by the editors
  • Nietzscheanism and Anti-Nietzscheanism in East Europe — by Alice Freifeld
  • Nietzsche and the Christ Among Nations — by Peter Bergmann
  • Nietzsche in Poland (before 1918) — by Andrzej Walicki
  • Nietzsche's Early Reception in Hungary — by Bela Egyed
  • The Early Czech Nietzsche Reception: T.G. Masaryk, O. Brezina, F.X. Salda — by Urs Heftrich
  • Early Modernism in Bulgaria: Pencho Slaveikov and Nietzsche — by Keith Hitchins
  • Lucian Blaga and the Nietzsche Reception in Romania — by Keith Hitchins
  • Nietzsche, Nationality, Nationalism — by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal
  • Lukacs vs. Nietzsche, or The Most Significant Stalinist Trial in Philosophy — by Endre Kiss
  • Philosophia Non Grata. Friedrich Nietzsche in the German Democratic Republic (1982-1989) — by Renate Reschke

There isn't much overlap, although inevitably there is frequent referencing back to Nietzsche and to Germany. I'll say just a few words about some of the essays individually, although they all are thoughtful and worthwhile. (As usual, we slight diacritical marks to avoid garbled names in Web browsers without extended fonts.)

Alice Freifeld leads off with "Nietzscheanism and Anti-Nietzscheanism in East Europe", extending the overview given in the editors' Introduction. She touches on Victorianism, feminism, modernism; and suggests we shift our point of view itself into East Europe:

The brilliant Austrian fin-de-siecle has overshadowed the distinctive East European aspect of the Nietzsche reception. The temptation to see modernism flowing through the "Vienna gate" to the rest of East Europe is seductive. However, a Vienna focus posits continuity where discontinuity was the order of the day and down-plays the degree to which the Austrian-German cultural hold on the monarchy was in crisis and the German-language hegemony was being challenged. Not only was Austrian influence being siphoned out of the other provinces of the monarchy, but Vienna had to share its role as a German cultural center with the exuberant upstart Berlin, as well as other German provincial cities. The Viennese Nietzsche reception reflected the political decline of Vienna. In contrast, Nietzsche's impact on East European intellectuals encouraged the artist-poet-philosopher to reassert himself at the center stage of national self-consciousness.

There are two fascinating essays on Poland, which during Nietzsche's lifetime and up through the end of the First World War, was divided among the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires. Poland had the lion's share of Nietzschean-inspired ferment as well as translations of Nietzsche into an East European language. A reproduction of the cover of Beyond Good and Evil from Dziela Fryderyka Nietzschego, Warsaw 1907, may be seen on the Iconografia page, photo 23, at Centro Interdipartimentale "Colli-Montinari" di studi su Nietzsche e la cultura europea.

Peter Bergmann's "Nietzsche and the Christ Among Nations" has the most discussion of Nietzsche himself, in terms of his own perceived relation with the cause of Polish independence and a culture not entirely captured by the Reich's political gravity.

Nietzsche became part of a cosmopolitan remnant outside the new Reich. ... a man of the German cultural periphery.

The cause of Polish freedom was a cause of martyred failure; yet beyond the suffering could there be resurrection for Poland?

It was still possible (for the last time) to identify German nationalism with the cause of the submerged nationalities throughout East Europe, so it was still consistent for Nietzsche to embrace nationalism, German nationalism, and enthusiasm for the submerged peoples of East Europe.

This is wonderful cultural history. Mining a similar vein of deep historical ironies, Bergmann is the author of a fine study of Nietzsche's provocative political heritage, Nietzsche, "the Last Antipolitical German".

Andrzej Walicki's "Nietzsche in Poland (before 1918)" shifts to the Polish side, as it were, with a wealth of cultural detail. The "first popular monographs of Nietzsche in Poland" were by women:

Maria Przewoska, whose short book appeared in 1894, tried to interpret Nietzsche's vision of a superman as an exaggerated expression of a striving for moral autonomy; hence, not as a rejection of moral norms as such but as a legitimate protest against heteronomous, externally imposed morality. In his defense of the ethical autonomy of the individual, Nietzsche was essentially, although unknowingly, in full agreement with the authentic, uncontaminated Christianity. Nietzsche's supermen would liberate themselves from all dogmas without becoming moral monsters; they would create a new, higher morality, rooted in their strong feeling of personal dignity. ...

Przewoska's views were quite representative of the young female writers who wanted to emancipate themselves from the repressive traditionalism of their social environment.

From a different slant, we have in 1896:

Zofia Daszynska, a left-wing economist and social activist close to the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), was also quite resolute in defending Nietzsche. She began by radically distancing herself from Kozlowski's book [attacking Nietzsche as decadent and unoriginal], which she defined as intellectually dishonest. She willingly conceded that Nietzsche's Herrenmoral was socially reactionary and simply impracticable, because of the large size of contemporary states and the high level of awareness of human rights among the workers. She stressed also the reactionary nature of Nietzsche's antifeminism. She analyzed the intellectual sources of Nietzsche's ideas (stressing the importance of Stirner) but did not try to define his place in philosophy.

In her view, Nietzscheanism was not a scientific or an ethical problem. Its true significance was psychological: Nietzsche's oeuvre was an invaluable psychological document, shedding new light on the problem of a strong and unusually sensitive individual in contemporary society.

Well, I'd call Nietzsche's work not an exemplary psychological document, but a psychological challenge. But — especially for as early as 1896 — right or wrong, Daszynska displays impressive engagement with Nietzschean ideas.

Walicki goes into a fascinating skein of poetic influences and national culture, with the Polish romantic poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki:

Broadly speaking, Mickiewicz's and Slowacki's general vision of the world may be classified as a spiritualistic universal perfectionism combined with romantic antirationalism and hero worship. It included also the belief in progressive reincarnation ...

the leading force in the universal progress towards the terrestrial Kingdom of God were the great individuals, owing their spiritual superiority to the inner labor, sufferings and ordeals in their present and former incarnations. They were leaders of humanity ... This idea of spiritual hierarchy applied to nations as well. ...

And where spirituality and practical politics meet? Nietzsche wrote fondly of the traditional right of the liberum veto in earlier times. Walicki explains that

Another influential part of Slowacki's teaching was his view of the "noble republicanism" of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, especially the liberum veto, which gave every member of the Polish parliament the right of veto against majority decisions. In contrast to ... thinkers who emphasized the democratic aspect of this Polish legacy, Slowacki's interpretation stressed the aristocratic principle of "spiritual hierarchy." In his view, noble republicanism was a close approximation to "republicanism from the spirit," that is, a system in which the inferior spirits, despite constituting a majority, could not impose their will on the superior ones and had to accept their leadership. The instrument of preventing the majority rule was, of course, the liberum veto.

Here is a challenge, sure enough — to us. For are we not a little carefree in calling any government among men which restrains other men by voting the use of force to put them down, a democracy? The greatest good of the greatest number of ... voters? Is this not also a prescription for slavery and a justification of the Slave Power over men?

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

Henry David Thoreau
"Civil Disobedience" (1849)

Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal's "Nietzsche, Nationality, Nationalism" discusses the slippery difference between nationality and nationalism. It is no accident that the great German philosopher never became a citizen of the German Empire. Her section on the reception of Nietzschean ideas in Tsarist Russia, with glances at the Soviet and Chinese receptions, anchors East Europe on the "further" side, and serves as a teaser to her book Nietzsche in Russia and its Soviet-era sequels.

Nietzsche criticized Bismarck's Germany — the Second Reich, that glorious new-forged Great Power in Central Europe — as a damper upon the German spirit. As Rosenthal summarizes,

Nietzsche complained that "Germany, rich in clever and well-informed scholars, has lacked great souls, mighty spirits, to such an extent that it seems to have forgotten what a great soul, a mighty spirit is." And yet, he fully expected the "reversal of values," the end of herd dominance, the rediscovery of the world of antiquity and its lordly morality, to be "the work of the new Columbus, the German spirit (for we still stand at the beginning of this conquest)." He considered the Socratic-Alexandrian culture of his time a pan-European blight.

Rosenthal touches on a great wealth of material here, and it is not a complaint to say that there's way too much to cover in a single book, let alone an essay. Another tantalizing summary:

Liberation requires power and will. What Nietzsche meant by the "will to power" is still disputed, but we can say that to the writers and artists who were his first admirers it meant the will to create new art forms and power over materials, not people. Indeed, based on the section titled "On the New Idol" in Zarathustra, Nietzsche was widely regarded as an anarchist. As nationality shaded into nationalism the will to power was interpreted politically. At that point Nietzsche's misogyny, his apotheosis of war, and his call for "new barbarians" also came into play. And that is precisely what happened in fin de siecle Russia.

Endre Kiss' "Lukacs vs. Nietzsche, or The Most Significant Stalinist Trial in Philosophy" deliberately calls to mind Stalin's "show trials" of Communists in 1937-1938, most notably of the leading Bolshevik intellectual, Nikolai Bukharin. In the post-World War II era, the Communist intellectual

[Georg] Lukacs wanted not only to prove what he did not believe himself — that Friedrich Nietzsche was a precursor of National Socialism — but he also employed the whole weight of The Destruction of Reason to argue that late bourgeois culture itself, in toto, in its most beautiful manifestations, was essentially identical with Adolf Hitler's German National Socialism.

It is necessary to take Lukacs's' extreme criminalization of Nietzsche seriously and at face value. Today one could wonder how people could possibly have seen in this excessive intellectual criminalization a "normal" philosophical interpretation, much less have deemed it worthy of serious academic discussion. ...

This is a striking essay. Earlier, Kiss states that

The situation becomes all the more regrettable when we consider that Lukacs's interpretation was and is probably the most differentiated work of philosophical Stalinism or of Stalinism as philosophy that we have, and this is because its subject matter abandons the sphere of superficial dialectical and historical Marxism more unequivocally than all other works. In our eyes, however, it also means that, precisely because of its singularity, this is the work that contains the most relevant information about Stalinism in philosophy.

Kiss' indictment is powerful and goes well beyond Lukacs to his intellectual fellow travelers:

By 1968 the Destruction of Reason had so established itself as an authentic document in a Marxism struggling to maintain its position that, although the judgment of Nietzsche was generally acknowledged to be false, this in no way detracted from the generally positive assessment of the work. Today, however, the question arises as to what intellectual dimensions the year 1968 might have assumed had the contemporary Left shown the intellectual courage to turn against Stalinism in the case of Nietzsche.

Renate Reschke's "Philosophia Non Grata. Friedrich Nietzsche in the German Democratic Republic (1982-1989)" is the final topic, dealing with East German intellectuals in the waning years of the Communist dictatorship, yet still struggling to obliterate Nietzsche: "Into the Void with Him!" Anti-philosophizing with a sledge, becoming hammer-and-sickly in the twilit Communist decline. Only just before the end of Communist rule was there an eleventh-hour softening of official hostility.

Reschke points out that

The degeneration of any given contemporary culture can be blamed to a great extent on its failure to measure itself intellectually against the most significant figures of history. Decades of intellectual petrifaction led to the inability and unwillingness on the part of the G.D.R. leadership to deal with uncomfortable thoughts and to look upon them as a provocation from which all might profit. This, in turn, has led to an intellectual and philosophical state of emergency, of which the association with Nietzsche was only the tip of an iceberg.

The German philosopher to Europe

Quite a spectrum on the Eastern marches! Political fusion, cultural splintering, the nationalities question, Nietzschean Christianity, Nietzschean Marxism, philosophy in the crucible; Chopin's music, poetry, vision, spiritual self-creation. It seems quite Nietzschean that challenging ideas may be appreciated with creative individuality and subtlety on such intellectual, cultural, or even linguistic peripheries. East Europe Reads Nietzsche is surprisingly illuminating, as we see brilliant ideas reflected and colored by lesser-known mirrors and prisms.

On the Eastern marches of the Second Reich ... If the Kaiser could be styled with political restraint as only the German Emperor instead of the Emperor of Germany as he wished, perhaps we should see Friedrich Nietzsche as the German philosopher to Europe rather than the Philosopher of Germany as many have painted him. Indeed, if Germany had allowed Nietzsche to become the latter as well, all could have been different.

Altogether East Europe Reads Nietzsche is a fine set of essays that is rich and dense, argumentatively diverse, sometimes sad and even occasionally funny — there are touches of wit throughout — but ultimately heartening. I very much enjoy reading of suppressed and neglected regions of the history of ideas. It is refreshing to learn the cultural history of diverted tributaries which finally have rejoined the mainstream, and bracing to learn as well of the attempts to poison and suppress them.

Nietzschean tension - archer, city, trainyard (mini)

... the fight against Plato ... has created in Europe a magnificent tension of the spirit the like of which had never yet existed on earth: with so tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals. ...

But we who are neither Jesuits nor democrats, nor even German enough, we good Europeans and free, very free spirits — we still feel it, the whole need of the spirit and the whole tension of its bow. And perhaps also the arrow, the task, and — who knows? — the goal —

Friedrich Nietzsche
Beyond Good and Evil, Preface
translated by Walter Kaufmann

© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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