- Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism by Robert C. Holub
Robert Holub’s book, Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, fundamentally concerns two topics: Was Nietzsche the man anti-Jewish? Was he somehow responsible for inspiring anti-Semites and particularly fascists and Nazis? These are different issues—one of biography, the other of reception—and Holub would have been advised not to link them in a single volume.
Nonetheless, one reason for the connection is immediately evident. Holub distinguishes between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, separating them before discussing their interplay. He conceives the first as a nationalist political movement opposed to Jews, and the second as prejudices against Jews at a personal level. He then uses this distinction to undermine a standard ploy used to exonerate Nietzsche of an anti-Judaic outlook. Political anti-Semites contemporary with Nietzsche did think he shared their views and attempted to enlist him, only to find themselves rebuffed. This gave rise to the impression that Nietzsche viewed Jews favorably. Holub disagrees and in five chapters argues that Nietzsche held anti-Judaic views from at least the age of twenty-one to the close of his productive life. These cannot be attributed to his friendship with Richard Wagner, nor did his sister accentuate them unduly. If they are regrettable, the fault is Nietzsche’s. Holub summarizes these and associated points in a list of seventeen theses at the close of his book (204–7).
Holub’s arguments are not so airtight as he suggests, and Nietzsche scholars will detect omissions and exaggerations. To mention just one, he cites critical remarks the philosopher made about his Jewish friends, Paul Rée and Siegfried Lepiner, but does not feature the philosopher’s favorable remarks on Helen Zimmern or his defense of Georg Brandes against his sister’s anti-Semitic slurs. Many similar caveats and corrections could be made.
More damaging, the book inevitably enlists anachronism in its cause. This is not Holub’s fault. He recognizes the danger and musters evidence in an attempt to circumvent this accusation. Nonetheless, given the sensitivity of our century and the comparative insensitivity of the nineteenth, it is inevitable that almost anyone in the German states of the time will, at least occasionally, sound anti-Jewish today, some because they made negative statements and others because their positive statements now sound patronizing.
Despite these problems, Holub is thoughtful, inventive, and tries to be balanced. His seventeen points cannot be sustained in their entirety. However, a later and simpler summation does hold true: Nietzsche “was more anti-Jewish in his early adulthood than has commonly been understood, and . . . he never completely relinquished anti-Jewish attitudes even when he opposed anti-Semitism” (209). These are controversial statements, but Holub presents evidence in their support, and a reading of Nietzsche’s entire correspondence will confirm their validity.
Holub is not content, however, to limit himself to observations on Nietzsche the man. Instead, he wants to connect Nietzsche’s personal views to themes in his philosophy, a linkage of the biographical to the conceptual that many philosophers would question. Further, he wants to explore Nietzsche’s relationship to various right-wing thinkers and particularly to the Third Reich.
This final ambition is particularly unfortunate. Most of Holub’s serious research deals with Nietzsche’s personal attitudes and, to a lesser extent, how these may have been reflected in his publications. By contrast, the framing chapters (and therefore those that define the book’s intentions) focus on Nietzsche’s reception and especially the uses made of him during the Nazi era. This different topic forces Holub to change methodologies. His investigations of Nietzsche the man were scholarly and presented with admirable sobriety, although perhaps with some appeal to confirmation bias. However, as Holub honestly acknowledges, “Movements . . . create their own precursors” (213), and it is impossible to prove that policies enacted in a later century reflected Nietzsche’s own intentions. Unable to establish his more ambitious thesis in a scholarly...