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  • Nietzsche: American Idol or European Prophet?The "Death of God" in America and Nietzsche's Madman
  • Weaver Santaniello

One hundred years ago the expression "God is dead" was first used by Nietzsche. Now, Nietzsche was reared in a christian home, but at the university he decided there was no god.

Now, this philosophy began to pervade German thought. And I believe that history is going to say that this philosophy … contributed to a religious, moral and intellectual vacuum, and into that vacuum came Nazism and the concept of the super race that produced Hitler and the second World War.

Now, if we in America reject the idea of god and all that that means, we're going to have a vacuum in which either a fascist type or a communist type of ideology is going to come in … that could eventually lead, in my opinion, to anarchy and chaos.

—Reverend Billy Graham, U.S. News and World Report, 1966

I. American Idol

The quote above by Billy Graham represents a common perception in the minds of many Americans in the 1960s—and even today.1 Many thought that Friedrich Nietzsche's statement "God is dead" signified a rejection of God, that this rejection became a popular idea in German society, and that anti-Christian views and atheism eventually turned into Nazism. My position is radically different than Reverend Graham's: I view Nietzsche as foreseeing Nazism, especially through his sister's involvement with antisemitism and the Wagner Circle, and argue that his phrase "God is dead" was not an expression of atheism, but rather, an indictment of Christian antisemitism and the Christian church in nineteenth-century Germany. Historically, the mass media and Nazi propaganda surrounding Nietzsche's image in America, [End Page 201] I believe, is the cause for many misconceptions of his philosophy throughout the general population as well as within the academy.

In North America, the image of Nietzsche (1844-1900) was predominately linked to Social Darwinism at the turn of the century, Nazism in the '30s and '40s, and existentialism in the '50s. In the 1960s, the philosopher became entangled with the "death of God movement" led by a handful of radical Protestant theologians. This controversy received an abundance of press (particularly between the years 1965-67). Not only was the "Death of God" a front-page headline in the New York Times, it was widely discussed in a variety of popular magazines including U.S. News, Time, Reader's Digest, Playboy, and Nation. Since most articles mentioned Nietzsche as the first to proclaim God's death a century earlier, the philosopher became a household word in America almost overnight.

The death of God movement was not a random occurrence, or simply a product of American culture. It was the chronological outcome of a theological tradition that originated in Europe with Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century, continued through the theologies of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich during the Second World War, and appeared in the American theologies of Thomas J. J. Altizer; William Hamilton; Paul van Buren; and, most notably, Richard Rubenstein, whose theology specifically addressed National Socialism. Other prominent Jewish writers also used Nietzsche's phrase to describe their experiences of Nazi Germany and the traditional notion of God in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

While sensationalism bonded Nietzsche to the public sphere in the mid-'60s, the decade marked the splintering of his philosophy within the academy. The literature on Nietzsche and Nazism had disappeared; existentialism had reached its peak; scholars began focusing on specific aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy in relation to a variety of issues, including religion (especially Christianity and Buddhism) and traditional philosophical topics such as rhetoric, phenomenology, epistemology, and metaphysics. The point is that one aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy did not dominate the scholarly literature as existentialism had the previous decade; hence, even if unintentionally, the public scandal associating Nietzsche to God's death vicariously filled a void that resulted from the taming and humanizing of Nietzsche in the '50s. While Nietzsche was no longer directly linked to any controversial movement, particularly National Socialism, the death of God phase in the '60s not only put an end...


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