Part of the What We Are Reading Now collection of Book Reviews by friends of Essex Book Festival
A Book Review by Ken Smith (Red Lion Books Customer)
Dictators and demagogues have a long history of misappropriating the works of others, in order to support their deranged projects – often putting aside the fact that the original creations say something clearly in contradiction to their aims. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has been one such victim of this practice. Having witnessed the continuing decline of Christianity, he boldly and most famously proclaimed that God is dead and invites us to consider how to construct a morality outside the Christian tradition, and indeed whether any morality is capable of general application. Flowing from this was his idea of the Übermensch, concerned with the individual’s need to question received values and attain new freedom. The Nazis later corrupted this idea, to fit it to their ideology of racial superiority and eugenics.
In reality, Nietzsche was anything but a German supremacist and indeed came to loath war. The villain of the piece is his sister Elizabeth who exploited her brother’s emerging fame and late success, parading herself in the glamourous salon she created for the great and good; while Nietzsche prowled and howled alone in an upstairs room, his mind disintegrating. It was her selective editing of his works and biography, in line with her own antisemitism and triumphalist nationalism, that resulted in the false picture many have of Nietzsche and his works and in his posthumous adoption to their cause by the Nazis.
Sue Prideaux’s energetic and wonderfully accessible book sets the record straight. She takes us through Nietzsche’s early years of academic success, his complicated relationship with Wagner (another victim of misappropriation), the years of wandering, and the desperate tragedy of his descent into madness. The latter saw him transition from a quiet and unassuming man, tormented by ill health, who charmed those he met, into a crazed and deluded phantom. Prideaux focuses on the story of the life rather than on an exposition of Nietzsche’s thinking, though there is enough of the latter to give a flavour of the challenges he sets us and to whet the appetite for learning more. She gives us an enlightening and compassionate account of a man driven to challenge radically the prevailing values of his time and who anticipated many the controversies of our own.