Part eight, “Peoples and Fatherlands,” begins with what sounds like a rousing tribute to Wagner and German music in general. And yet as Nietzsche’s reflection unfolds, it becomes clear that he thinks little of the state of modern German affairs:
This kind of music expresses best what I think of the Germans: they belong to the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow—as yet they have no today. (240)
In other words, the Germans live in tension between the past and the future—which taken by itself isn’t such a bad thing. (Don’t we always live in tension between the past and the future?) Yet the way they are choosing to do so has led to a denial of the reality of the present. The age of democratization has lead to the destruction of true greatness by replacing it with power and patriotism.
Suppose a statesman put his people in a position requiring them to go in for “great politics” from now on, though they were ill-disposed for that by nature and ill prepared as well, so that they would find it necessary to sacrifice their old and secure virtues for the sake of a novel and dubious mediocrity. (241)
Nietzsche isn’t really a conservative, but he is still concerned that in the rush toward the future the present has thrown off the genuinely good parts of the past in the name of something functionally worthless. This doesn’t mean that the modern world is completely without hope:
but I . . . considered how soon one stronger will become master over the strong; also that for the spiritual flattening of a people there is a compensation, namely the deepening of another people. (241)
The note puts some of this statement in context, but we can hopefully see the broader point as well—the survival of humanity as a whole is not contingent on the success or failure of a specific people. If the collective will of humanity is the will to survive, then that one people collapses or runs in the wrong direction is not the full catastrophe that the two patriots in this paragraph seem to think it is.
That the collapse of Germany may not be as bad as it appears is not to say that what is happening in Europe isn’t a terrible thing. In terms of “Europe’s democratic movement,”
behind all the moral and political foregrounds to which such formulas point, a tremendous physiological process is taking place and gaining momentum. The Europeans are becoming more similar to each other; they become more and more detached from the conditions under which races originate that are tied to some climate or class; they become increasingly independent of any determinate milieu that would like to inscribe itself for centuries in body and soul with the same demands. (242)
The equalization of all people on the continent is an equalization in mediocrity. This leaves a void that would in the past have been filled by aristocrats, artists, and other various sorts of leaders. Because these types have been eliminated by the democratization of Europe,
future Europeans will probably be . . . manifold garrulous workers who will be poor in will, extremely employable, and as much in need of a master and commander as of their daily bread. But while the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense, in single, exceptional cases the strong human being will have to turn out stronger and richer than perhaps ever before . . . I meant to say: the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants—taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual. (242)
The elimination of ranks in society does not lead to the elimination of ranks among men and instead merely dulls the abilities of the lower types and roughens the worst aspects of the higher types.
The problem, as I’m sure we are all aware having read this section and knowing the events of the twentieth century, is that Nietzsche here uses explicitly racial language. The idea of a degenerate race being crushed by a tyrant of course has echoes for us that are inescapable. And while I don’t think Nietzsche would have approved of the Third Reich, he would also not approve of us abstracting racial (or at least biological) language and removing it from his discussion. When we talk about the decline of a people and the rise of tyrants, our discussion must incorporate every aspect of human existence. We must not be Gnostics in our attempts to get around Godwin’s Law.
When we are considering the state of affairs in its totality, this must include self-knowledge. If the “German soul” is being lost in a wave of democratization, we’ve got to ask just what it is that’s being lost in the first place. Unfortunately, even Germans don’t understand the labyrinthine mysteries of Germanness (Germanity?):
The German soul has its passageways and inter-passageways; there are caves, hideouts, and dungeons in it; its disorder has a good deal of the attraction of the mysterious; the German is an expert on secret paths to chaos. . . . Foreigners stand amazed and fascinated before the riddles posed for them by the contradictory nature at the bottom of the German soul (brought into a system by Hegel and finally set to music by Richard Wagner). (244)
I don’t think Nietzsche means to say that Germans have more developed souls than other people; I think the idea is that they have developed in a unique way. And while I don’t know enough about music to comment on the details of his analysis in 245 (and I know even less about linguistics and philology, but 246 seems to be dealing with the same issue), it appears that Nietzsche’s concern is that the distinctive features of German music are being lost as they are replaced with an external imposition:
With him [Mozart] German music was threatened by its greatest danger: losing the voice for the soul of Europe and descending to mere fatherlandishness. (245)
German music had managed to reach a point where it was able to express something true about the German soul—an activity inherently appealing to all mankind. Yet now it is being replaced with nationalism and patriotism. Instead of revealing the soul, it is revealing an external fabrication designed to falsely bind people together. (There are some good biographical arguments to be made here on Nietzsche’s view of the formation of the German state, I’ll point you to Kaufmann’s work for more on that topic.)
All that to say, there are some disturbing claims wrapped up with what sound like some legitimate concerns (again, I’m no historian of nineteenth-century Europe). Nietzsche as always is a compelling and frustrating writer, not least because much of the first few passages in today’s reading on “Peoples and Fatherlands” is dedicated not to politics or ethnic identity (though there is some of that), but to music and writing. Which is not the way I would have gone were I writing on the topic—you’d think political institutions would make an appearance somewhere! But then again, Nietzsche is a great philosopher and I am not.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.