Nietzsche and his Nazi sister

Two gravestones stand side by side in the churchyard of the little village of Röcken, south of Leipzig: one belongs to Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the greatest and most misunderstood philosophers; the other marks the grave of his sister Elisabeth, a lifelong anti-Semite who hijacked her brother's writings after his death and used them to serve the cause of Nazism, leaving a stain on his philosophy that has never been fully erased.

Today, bulldozers belonging to a power company are preparing to dig up the town where Nietzsche and his sister were born and buried, to get at the seam of coal that runs beneath. Nietzsche and his sister may have to move. His followers are enraged; villagers say exhuming their famous son would be sacrilege; environmentalists, quoting Nietzsche's epithet “Be true to the soil”, wonder why yet more coal is being excavated to poison the world's atmosphere. I would be delighted to see Nietzsche dug up, if only for the symbolic opportunity to rescue him from the clutches of his appalling sister.

Before insanity struck him down in 1889, at the age of 44, Nietzsche lived in fear of being misunderstood. “Above all,” he wrote in Ecce Homo, “do not mistake me for someone else.” He was a conservative elitist, an aphorist of brilliance championing individual greatness in the midst of mediocrity. His writing is explosive and apocalyptic, dense and complex, and often shocking in its violence.

But Nietzsche was no Nazi. He vigorously opposed German nationalism, as he rejected all mass movements; he had no time for ideologues, mocked the notion of a Teutonic master race and loathed anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Elisabeth, by contrast, was an enthusiastic Fascist. An early acolyte of Richard Wagner, she and her furiously anti-Semitic husband Bernhard Förster (this newspaper described him as “the most representative Jew-baiter in all of Germany”) picked up on one of the composer's barmier ideas, and set off for Paraguay in 1886 to establish an Aryan, vegetarian republic in the middle of the jungle, which they called New Germany.

Nietzsche was bitterly opposed to the racist project from the start, declaring he wanted “nothing whatever to do with this anti-Semitic undertaking... if it fails, I shall rejoice”. Elisabeth was “morally bloated”, he said, “a vengeful anti-Semitic goose”. In an angry letter he told his sister that all of Germany's racists should be packed off to the Paraguayan jungle, where they could rot harmlessly away.

When the colony inevitably failed, Elisabeth returned to Old Germany and set about transforming her brother, now irretrievably insane, into a symbol of her own twisted philosophy. She edited his works, wrote her own prejudiced versions of his life, and gathered his rejected jottings and published them as if they were real books, most notably Will to Power, which would be adopted as a sort of totalitarian textbook. When Nietzsche died, the man who had declared “God is dead” was buried in Röcken churchyard by his pious sister with full Lutheran rites.

Elisabeth avidly offered up her brother's writings in support of militarism and Nazi world domination. Mussolini, she declared, was “the genius who rediscovered the values of the Nietzsche spirit... Nietzsche would have regarded him as the splendid disciple”. Nietzsche, I am certain, would have regarded Mussolini as a dangerous buffoon.

Hitler's will to power sent Elisabeth into paroxysms of delight. Nietzsche's warnings against nationalism and the dangers of anti-Semitism were conveniently ignored. “The link between National Socialism and Nietzsche is the heroism in both their souls,” she declared. The Nazis eagerly embraced Nietzsche, or rather his sister's mangled version: Hitler, who probably never read a word of his writings, was photographed gazing contemplatively at a bust of the great man.

The kidnapping of Nietzsche's thinking was complete when a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra, a poetic work of anti-dogmatism, was laid in the Tannenberg Memorial (commemorating a victory over Russia in the First World War), alongside a copy of Mein Kampf.

When Elisabeth died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral, and storm troopers lined the road to Röcken graveyard, where the church was draped in swastikas. It was said that Elisabeth had arranged to have Nietzsche's headstone moved four feet to the right, in order to make room for her own, in pride of place between father and brother. Even in death, she manipulated him.

Nietzsche's reputation has never recovered from Elisabeth's pernicious meddling. Bertrand Russell considered Nietzsche “merely megalomaniac”. Others went farther, claiming that the Nazi programme of genocide had been directly inspired by his writings. His books were held up in British schools during the war as evidence of the Devil's teachings.

The Nazis, with the willing complicity of Elisabeth, draped Nietzsche in swaths of Nazi symbolism. But now that he is likely to be evicted from his grave to make way for a coal mine, there is an opportunity for symbolic revenge.

“Let me descend into my tomb an honest pagan” was one of Nietzsche's last sane requests, and one which Elisabeth, typically, ignored. His reburial, shorn of the dogmas of religion and Nazism that he rejected, would mark the final rehabilitation of one of the world's most important and most abused thinkers.

Elisabeth Nietzsche, on the other hand, should be exhumed and reburied somewhere far, far away from the brother whose philosophy she put to such ignoble ends. The jungle of Paraguay would be a suitable spot.

Ben Macintyre