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Friedrich Nietzsche on Germany’s Victory over France and the "Cultural Philistine": Untimely Meditations (1873-76)

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) had a tremendous impact on German philosophy in the nineteenth century and was one of its most original, provocative thinkers. After studying theology and philology, he was offered a professorship in Basel in 1869, at the mere age of 24. He briefly participated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 as a military medic. In 1879, he was forced to give up his professorship in Basel because of health problems (he suffered from poor eyesight and frequent migraines). In 1889, he had a mental breakdown (brought on by syphilis) from which he never fully recovered. The excerpt below is from Untimely Meditations [Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen], a series of essays that Nietzsche wrote shortly after German unification. This 1873 essay is entitled “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer” [“David Strauss. Der Bekenner und Schriftsteller”]. Strauss (1808-1874) was a Protestant theologian and philosopher; in 1872, he had published the book The Old Faith and the New [Der alte und der neue Glaube]. Nietzsche mocked Strauss, grouping him with the many cultural Philistines [Bildungsphilister] who celebrated the recent war for what they perceived as its positive impact on German art and morals. What irked Nietzsche most of all was Strauss’s smugness. In this essay, Nietzsche combines irony and outrage, arguing that Germany’s military victory had nothing to do with culture and that a unified German culture simply did not exist, despite protestations to the contrary by writers of German prose, verse, and song. German culture, he declares below, was nothing more than a “chaotic jumble of all styles.” Nietzsche also strives, from the very first line of this essay, to identify the “evil and perilous” consequences of the war, particularly as they were understood – or, rather, not understood – by philistine Germans.

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“David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer”

Public opinion in Germany seems almost to forbid discussion of the evil and perilous consequences of a war, and especially of one that has ended victoriously: there is thus all the more ready an ear for those writers who know no weightier authority than this public opinion and who therefore vie with one another in lauding a war and in seeking out the mighty influence it has exerted on morality, culture and art. This notwithstanding, it has to be said that a great victory is a great danger. Human nature finds it harder to endure a victory than a defeat; indeed, it seems to be easier to achieve a victory than to endure it in such a way that it does not in fact turn into a defeat. Of all the evil consequences, however, which have followed the recent war with France* perhaps the worst is a widespread, indeed universal, error: the error, committed by public opinion and by all who express their opinions publicly, that German culture too was victorious in that struggle and must therefore now be loaded with garlands appropriate to such an extraordinary achievement. This delusion is in the highest degree destructive: not because it is a delusion – for there exist very salutary and productive errors – but because it is capable of turning our victory into a defeat: into the defeat, if not the extirpation, of the German spirit for the benefit of the ‘German Reich’.

Even supposing that a war of this kind were in fact a war between two cultures, the value of the victor would still be a very relative one and could certainly not justify choruses of victory or acts of self-glorification. For one would have to know what the defeated culture had been worth: perhaps it was worth very little: in which case the victory of the victorious culture, even if attended by the most magnificent success in arms, would constitute no invitation to ecstatic triumphs. On the other hand, in the present case there can be no question of a victory of German culture, for the simple reason that French culture continues to exist as heretofore, and we are dependent upon it as heretofore. Our culture played no part even in our success in arms. Stern discipline, natural bravery and endurance, superior generalship, unity and obedience in the ranks, in short, elements that have nothing to do with culture, procured for us the victory over opponents in whom the most important of these elements were lacking: the wonder is that that which at present calls itself ‘culture’ in Germany proved so small an obstacle to the military demands which had to be met for the achievement of a great success – perhaps it was only because that which calls itself culture foresaw a greater advantage in subordinating itself this time. But if it is now allowed to grow and luxuriate, if it is pampered with the flattering delusion that the victory belonged to it, then it will, as I have said, have the power to extirpate the German spirit – and who knows whether the German body remaining will be of any use whatever!

* The ‘recent war with France’ is the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. [All footnotes from Friedrich Nietzsche, “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer,” in Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale, translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 3-6.]

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