Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Following Nietzsche’s spots in East Germany

During the times of restricted travel you have no choice but to take a more thorough look at the map of places around: is there perhaps anything interesting that was unfairly overlooked in the past? East Germany doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting place to visit. Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia don’t promise to contain many riveting spots. Unless your world is big enough to include some controversial philosophers from the 19th century. This summer, I read a 500-page book about Friedrich Nietzsche written by Walter Kaufmann, which was surprisingly relatable in many ways. Even though I never researched the theories of Nietzsche before, many ideas weren’t new at all – I guess this is what happens when you rely on the same original sources (Aristotle, for instance). So what could be better than researching something and then visiting the places described in the book in person – like on a school trip! Seems like an appropriate type of entertainment during the times of pandemic.

So, in the end of September I took a road-trip through several places in East Germany that were significant in the biography of Nietzsche: his home village of Röcken, the town of Naumburg where he lived, Jena – where he went insane, and finally Weimar – the place where Nietzsche died. Let’s go through these locations, and contemplate some of Nietzsche’s ideas relevant to each spot.

Stop 1. The village of Röcken. Small town morality and the critique of Protestantism

Teichstraße 8, Lützen, Saxony-Anhalt

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken – which is now a part of a slightly bigger village of Lützen. Lützen looks like the most boring place in the world: its main landmarks include a pond with one sad swan, and a villagy church. Right next to the church stands the house that used to belong to Nietzsche’s family – Nietzsche’s father was a Protestant pastor.

Later in life, Nietzsche would criticize both the hypocrisy of a small town’s morality and the ethics of Protestantism in general. Apparently, the residents of Röcken put a lot of effort into maintaining a facade of proper Christians, while ignoring the essence of Christian faith – which for Nietzsche was primarily constituted in good deeds. The Protestant principle of Sola fide (faith alone) implied that only faith matters for salvation of the soul, regardless of actual good works and earthly deeds. According to Nietzsche, it was a direct perversion of original preachings that Jesus gave in Sermon on the Mount.

To begin with, Nietzsche didn’t particularly like Jesus. Borrowing terminology from Dostoevsky, he called Jesus… an idiot. ‘This queer and sick world into which the Gospels introduce us – a world out of a Russian novel in which the scum of society, nervous diseases and ‘childlike’ idiocy seem to give each other a rendezvous’. Fair enough! Nietzsche also criticized Jesus for lacking any passions whatsoever – which created an impression of his total indifference to the world. Obviously, such attitude is far from Nietzsche’s definition of the Ubermensch – who is supposed to take advantage of his passions and channel them into creative pursuits.

But whom Nietzsche criticized even more than Jesus were his followers – in particular, Paul. He blamed Paul for being incapable of living a Christian life – and therefore substituting Christian practice (good deeds, etc) by an effortless faith.

Indeed, if you look at the history of religion through this lens, the entire development of Christianity was a path of gradual simplification in order to appeal to broader masses of people. Judaism, with its strict laws, rules, and an emphasis on Jews as selected people, was too strict for the majority of commoners. To make it more appealing, Jesus redefined Judaism by shifting emphasis from the following of rules to the making of good deeds, practicing kindness and self-denial. However, according to Nietzsche, even the preachings of Jesus were way too demanding for most people. ‘The legacy of Jesus was essentially a practice’ – but Paul removed even that. What was left was a mere faith, which didn’t require any extra effort. Luther took it even further in his doctrine of Sola Fide, or justification by faith alone, which resulted in a crowd of religious people who called themselves Christians but didn’t bother to abstain from sins, or do anything Christian whatsoever. Indeed, what can be more tempting than salvation guaranteed at no cost! This attitude was apparently common among the residents of Nietzsche’s home village, which annoyed him to a great degree.

Anyway, the house of Nietzsche in Röcken has a courtyard with goats chewing on grass and a small museum dedicated to the philosopher. It’s named Nietzsche-Gedenkstätte. The museum consists of two rooms, and the only physical exhibit it features is an old shoe that might have been worn by Nietzsche in the childhood (which is not proven though), as well as a few old editions of his books. All information is presented in German only. A stand about the connection of Nietzsche to Nazis is shamefully covered by a heavy wooden door.

Next to the church entrance, you can also see a rather untasteful statue composition that apparently refers to Nietzsche’s influence on the subsequent development of psychoanalysis: Freud, Jung and their universalist assumption that all men are latent perverts. It’s sad that this has become the lens that Nietzsche’s works are now being interpreted through. You say one’s neurotic actions are driven by the covert jealousy towards his mother, while nightmares about rats allude to hidden thoughts about anal intercourse. I would counter-argue, and claim that one’s neuroticism is driven by jealousy towards his household cat, and dreams of rats clearly imply a desperate psychological need for a cat to come and protect you. Whose interpretation is more valid? The truth is that they’re both equally random and thus hold a similar explanatory value.

On the other side of the church, you can see a rather unassuming grave of Nietzsche made out of red granite stone and situated next to the graves of his mother and sister. Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, was quite a remarkable character on her own, so we’ll discuss her later in more detail.

Stop 2. Nietzsche’s house in Naumburg. Mysoginy, human vs animal nature

Nietzsche Haus & Dokumentationszentrum (NDZ)
Weingarten 18, Naumburg, Saxony-Anhalt

Nietzsche’s father died at the age of 35 from a head injury – which caused a condition diagnosed by 19th century doctors as… brain liquification. Nietzsche was afraid that he might repeat the same fate – which indeed he did: at the age of 44 Nietzsche himself became insane.

After the death of his father, Nietzsche and his family moved to the nearby town of Naumburg. Their house at Weingarten Strasse now hosts a small museum dedicated to the philosopher. It features claustrophobically low ceilings and squeaky wooden floors painted in a terrifying red colour. The exhibition is quite informative and covers the entire life of the philosopher. As a big upgrade from the previous spot, the museum even offers English translation of all informational boards (printed separately on large laminated sheets of paper, but… still better than nothing). From here, you can also go to the courtyard, and proceed to the new building of the museum – called Nietzsche Dokumentationszentrum. The remarkably well-designed building was opened in 2010, and now serves as a venue for lectures and seminars related to Nietzsche’s heritage, and hosts a library commemorating the legacy of the philosopher.

The second floor of the old museum hosts a separate exhibition dedicated to… women in life of Nietzsche. On the one hand, the choice of topic might seem weirdly specific. On the other – Naumburg is a good place to contemplate Nietzsche’s general attitude to women. After the death of his father, young Nietzsche was left alone in the house with five women: his mother, sister, grandmother and two unmarried aunts. Perhaps, it had a profound impact on his subsequent attitude towards women, which is often labeled as misogynistic. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche’s most respected biographer, rejects such labeling though. He argues that in reality Nietzsche disliked only one type of women that all belonged to a specific social group… ‘Stupidity in a woman is unfeminine’ – says a quote from ‘Human, All Too Human’. Perhaps, living among five villagy women with their small-townish habits and narrow-minded views was inducing certain misogyny on the philosopher. For example, as we know form official sources, the sister of Nietzsche, Elisabeth, was reportedly not gifted with any outstanding intellectual capacities. When Elisabeth inherited rights to manage the literary legacy of her brother, she invited Rudolf Steiner to educate her on the Nietzsche’s philosophy. After two lessons, Steiner completely gave up – saying that Elisabeth is absolutely hopeless. Well, I guess the misogyny of Nietzsche was somewhat justified!

On the other hand, Nietzsche was well-known for adoring another type of women: educated and well-mannered ones, often belonging to a higher social class. One of them was Cosima Wagner, the wife of Richard Wagner – whom Nietzsche adored for her sophistication, spotless manners and intellectual curiosity.

I can understand Nietzsche here. As I’ve already written in one of the previous posts, while many women have a potential to become genius authors and philosophers, a vast majority is for some reason satisfied with subsisting below the average level of intellectual aspirations. It’s hard to understand why women so persistently refuse to consider themselves human. As we know, humans are distinguished by their uniquely human features – the ability to think, speak and write. Satisfaction with one’s biological functions (such as reproduction and parenthood) equates one’s life to the life of an animal – but not a human.

This is exactly what Nietzsche later asserted in his philosophy. ‘Most men are essentially animals, not basically different from chimpanzees – distinguished only by a potentiality that few of the realize: they can, but rarely do, rise above the beasts. Man can transcend his animal nature and become a ‘no-longer-animal’ and a ‘truly human being’; but only some of ‘the philosophers, artists, and saints’ rise to that point’.

He would later remove saints from the list.

Stop 3. Psychiatric hospital in Jena. Life of danger, sickness and insanity

Klinik für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie am Universitätsklinikum Jena
Philosophenweg 3, Jena, Thuringia

One of the famous phrases of Nietzsche is that we ought to ‘live dangerously’. Obviously, living dangerously doesn’t refer here to some stupid activities like bungee jumping (or whatever extreme sports were popular in the 18th century – high-speed horse riding?). Living dangerously is to be born in a family of a Lutheran pastor and become the biggest adversary of the Christian church in history. Get a title of a University professor at the age of 24, and then publish your first book in a manner so brave and controversial that it would instantly spot your academic reputation right form the start. Befriend the most famous composer of your time, then break the friendship, and become his main hater. Question all assumptions, reevaluate all values, vivisect conventional morals, and treat the most venerable dogmas as questionable hypotheses. Never let ‘concepts, opinions, things past, and books’ to step between you and things. That’s what Nietzsche meant by living dangerously. But how much danger can one endure before going out of mind?

Undoubtedly, the most exciting stop of the road trip was the psychiatric hospital in Jena. Surprisingly, Jena turned out to be quite a pleasant place on its own: an academic town, with a University campus spread all over the districts. Unlike other cities in East Germany, where an average citizen has an age of perhaps 70, Jena is full of young people.

Jena is the town that Nietzsche was taken to after having a mental breakdown in Turin. Here, he was treated by the famous doctor Otto Binswanger. Despite utilizing many experimental methods, nothing helped in the end. As a result of neglected diphtheria, dysentery, and a supposedly progressing syphilis, Nietzsche stayed insane and partially paralyzed for more than 10 years, until his death at the age of 55.

We approached the main corpus of the psychiatric clinic by dusk, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect: a new patient was being delivered to the clinic by an ambulance car. Tied to the stretcher, he was screaming and shouting – which attracted a significant curiosity of other hospital patients, all getting congregated at the garden gazebo. It’s likely that 130 years ago insane Nietzsche made a similar impression on the residents of Jena – everyone is aware of some gore details of his madness.

It’s interesting to contemplate the important role that Nietzsche ascribes to sickness in his philosophy. After all, what a paradox – a person sick, partially bed-ridden, and suffering from constant migraines, has constructed a philosophy based on the will to power and the praise of strength (which is interpreted here in intellectual terms – as the strongest men, according to Nietzsche, are philosophers and artists). This is because, according to Nietzsche, ‘artistic creation is prompted by something which the artist lacks’. Each great artist or philosopher must have ‘experienced a profound defect. Keats was consumptive, Byron had a clubfoot, Homer was blind and Beethoven deaf. Homer would have created no Achilles, Goethe – no Faust, had Homer been an Achilles, and had Goethe been a Faust.’ So, according to Nietzsche, the beauty is created ‘out of the most profound need’, and ugliness is a ‘necessary prerequisite for creating something truly beautiful’.

I tend to agree with this view. Let’s take a simple example, and look at the destinies of our classmates from high school. In my experience, the most beautiful girls tend to settle for very low standards in life, as their beauty didn’t leave them in need of developing any other virtues, receiving good education or building a career. The most popular boys didn’t have urge for any creative or intellectual development either, as they were already generously granted with all possible attention they wished for, right from the beginning. Unfortunately, this early popularity, unsupported by other merits, had no other destiny but to gradually diminish over time. How ironic: being socially impaired and visually mediocre at least provides some stimuli for a further personal growth, and brings more benefits in the long run! This is how a defect becomes an advantage.

This acceptance of sickness and defect is also linked to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘amor fati’ – an unconditional love for one’s fate. ‘In totality of one’s nature, ‘nothing may be subtracted, nothing is dispensable’. If Nietzsche wasn’t sick and bed-ridden, would he have produced his great philosophy? He learnt to love his sickness! I’m wondering whether this can be the definition of ultimate happiness in life?

Nietzsche definitely assigned a crucial role to suffering in one’s development, and he didn’t limit it to himself only. He wished the worst suffering to his dearest friends. ‘To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.’

As we see, Nietzsche was definitely not soft on people (at least the ones he liked). How different is this attitude from the modern-day obsession with fragility, safe spaces and the praise of victimhood? According to Nietzsche, only the Last Man strives for ‘comfort, well-being and security’ (a middle-class bourgeois complacency – to interpret it in more common terms). So let us be strong enough to condemn the lifestyle of safety and comfort.

Stop 4. Weimar: the final destination. German Reich, state and the will to power

Humboldtstraße 36, Weimar, Thuringia

Perhaps the most pleasant museum dedicated to Nietzsche is located in the German city of Weimar – it’s the house, where Nietzsche lived until the day of his death, being taken care of by his sister Elisabeth. The house now hosts the Nietzsche Archive, which features a few small rooms with a remarkably well-thought exhibition. The only few physical exhibits on display include a porcelain cup with a ledge for keeping moustaches dry while sipping, and a Danish-made ‘Malling-Hansen Writing Ball’ – a typewriter of a spherical shape used by Nietzsche in Italy. Apart form that, the museum has a lot of digital screens with thoughtfully selected information, interesting facts and illustrations, as well as some interactive quizzes related to ideas of the philosopher.

I must admit that the Weimar house looks like a perfect place to spend last years of one’s life. Huge library, cosy furniture upholstered with pink velvet, large wooden windows with a view of a quiet garden. The house also exhibits a dozen portraits of insane Nietzsche – quite a creepy decoration, but what else can you draw in absence of better references? It also has a very impressive reading room with a collection of philosophy books in various languages (including a comic book about Nietzsche’s endeavours!).

So that’s the final destination of the trip, the place where Nietzsche died. After death of the philosopher, his sister Elisabeth took control of the brother’s heritage, and thoughtfully rearranged it to make it look especially appealing to Nazis. Elisabeth had quite an exciting life of her own: after getting married, she went to Paraguay to found an Aryan colony under the name Nueva Germania. Alas, she had to return quite soon: the colony turned out to be a failure – which forced her co-founder / husband to commit suicide. Later in life, Elisabeth found solace in forging Nazi propaganda out of her brother’s work. The Nietzsche Archive displays a picture of her being greeted by Hitler (right at the entrance of the Weimar house).

What was the attitude of Nietzsche towards the ideology of German Reich? Despite the fact that anti-Semitic views were popular in Germany of his time, Nietzsche was far from being anti-Semitic. As Walter Kaufmann writes, ‘he was cursed with the same heritage that came to full flower in her (Elisabeth), but his philosophy was a triumph of integrity’. Nietzsche didn’t succumb to ideas popular across his social circles, but chose to repress them. Why? Because the cornerstone of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of self-overcoming: ‘My strongest characteristic is self-overcoming. But I also need it most’ – he wrote, meaning perhaps the political sentiments spreading around. ‘Nothing alive is sufficient unto itself. Everything needs to strive for perfecting and transcending oneself’. So he managed to overcome these defective inclinations that the society could possibly induce on him.

I understand Nietzsche here. Being a product of one’s background, a person often considers whatever is natural to his background as good and right. However, conventions and opinions prevailing in one’s social context are often arbitrary, specific to particular time and location. Therefore they should be carefully examined, and if needed – rightfully rejected. This ranges from local traditions (like cooking disgusting food in Russia just because it’s traditional) to more fundamental views spread through the local culture (like the obsession with display of one’s social status in Eastern Europe).

As for politics, Nietzsche condemned the idea of state in general, and German Reich in particular. The power of Reich for him was merely military and barbarian, not rational or intellectually powerful. Even though German Reich definitely had a strong will for power (a fundamental force in the philosophy on Nietzsche), it was an inferior type of power, according to the philosopher. For Nietzsche, the highest manifestation of power was rationality (once again – he considered artists and philosophers more powerful than kings and warriors). According to Nietzsche, the state simply encourages conformity and doesn’t let an individual refine his virtues. That’s why, contrary to Ancient Greeks, Nietzsche considered art and philosophy the most noble spheres of human activity, but didn’t include politics in the list.

‘Even as Alexander and Napoleon went out to conquer the world with their armed might, Aristotle and Hegel tried to subdue the entire cosmos, without cavalry and cannon, by sheer force of mind. Philosophy is this tyrannical urge itself, the most spiritual will to power.’

Well, according to this perspective, Nietzsche himself was one of the most powerful men in history – even after 120 years, his ideas resonate with the new generations. Through establishing powerful literary and philosophical legacy, he ensured his own immortality. Who needs a physical strength when the intellectual heritage can live forever?

Bonus content

University of Basel (Peterspaltz 1, Basel, Switzerland)
Nietzsche’s House (Via Carlo Alberto 6, Turin, Italy)

This was the end of the 3-day road trip through East Germany. However, it was not the end of stumbling upon Nietzsche’s spots across the broader geography of Europe. Apart from going to Germany, last year I also managed to visit Basel (where Nietzsche taught at the university), the Swiss Alps (where he liked to spend summers), as well as Genova and Turin, where he went insane. But I swear – the route was not even planned intentionally!

What’s next? Perhaps… Freiburg and the Heidegger’s grave? Hegel’s house in Stuttgart? Random places become surprisingly exciting when your world is big enough.

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