The old cathedral town of Naumburg, where Friedrich Nietzsche spent 12 of the first 18 and seven of the last ten years of his life, is located in the southeastern corner of the Land (province) of Sachsen-Anhalt, roughly halfway between Weimar and Leipzig. In late April and early May of 1945, this part of Germany was overrun by the fast-moving tanks of General Patton’s Third Army. But the relief that many Saxons and Thuringians may have felt at being “liberated” from the Hitlerian yoke was short-lived; for two months later this entire area was evacuated by U.S. Army forces (against the advice of Winston Churchill), in accordance with the demarcation lines that had been proposed in London in 1944 and agreed to at the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Stalin and his goateed lackey, Walter Ulbricht, were thus able to impose their own totalitarian tyranny: one the hapless inhabitants of Mitteldeutschland were forced to endure for the next 44 years— which is to say, more than three times as long as the duration of the Nazi nightmare.
This helps to explain the “disturbingly high” percentage of votes (varying from 15 percent to 37 percent in different constituencies) cast by the inhabitants of the former DDR for the neocommunist PDS during the 1994 parliamentary elections. This was not, in my opinion, so much a vote in favor of the former, far-from-loved regime, as it was a vote of protest against the luckier and more prosperous West Germans, guilty, like the West in general, of having over the past five years “neglected” a population that had previously been left to fend for itself for more than four decades.
In August 1994, at a time when those parliamentary elections were no more than a tiny cloud on my horizon, I happened to read in a Swiss newspaper that more than 100 philosophers and philologists from various countries were preparing to converge on Naumburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birth (October 15, 1844). That this was going to tax the tourist facilities of a small provincial town of 30,000 souls did not overly surprise me. But what I had not anticipated was how difficult it would be to reach Naumburg for a Parisian not affluent enough to travel by air or car. I would have to take a night train as far as Magdeburg (a mere 100 kilometers southwest of Berlin), then head south toward the university town of Halle, and finally climb into a third train bound for the valley of the Saale. All went well as far as Halle. But there, after a chilling 40-minute wait on the still-mistshrouded platform, we were informed over the loudspeaker that the “express” train we were waiting for had suffered an “accident.” I am grateful, nonetheless, for the inconvenience thus caused. For in the Bummelzug (local), which made a dozen stops along the way, I had ample time to notice the run-down sheds, the broken window panes, the scrofulous brick walls from which the yellow-grey stucco was peeling away in scabs, and even the weeds sprouting between rusting railway tracks in station after station—lamentable symptoms of the disrepair into which Erich Honecker and his communist comrades had allowed the East German railway system (like that of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union) to slide.
To the left, as we approached the old cathedral town, and clearly visible above the misty fields and the pale-green and yellow-leafed willows and poplars gently gilded by a vaporous sun, were the ruins of the Schonburg fortress, a robber baron’s keep which the irate inhabitants of Naumburg had finally stormed centuries ago in order to secure free passage for the barges plying up and down the sluggish Saale River. One of Nietzsche’s favorite haunts, it was here that in 1859 the young Friedrich founded a literary society (the “Germania”) with his two friends, Gustav Krug and Wilhelm Pinder.
The bravely named “Deutscher Hof,” to which I had been steered by a most cooperative Fremdenverkehrsamt (tourist office), turned out to be a partially reconverted cafe, which the owner, an already white-haired lady, was trying to turn into a hotel. The humble entrance was through a garage door, and the bedroom I was lucky to obtain (without a shower or toilet) was reached by a crude wooden staircase leading upward over the downfloor dining room tavern. Later Fran Schülke explained the gamble she had taken in 1982, when she and her family had decided to acquire this house. In Walter Ulbricht’s and Erich Honecker’s DDR, there was simply no room for small-scale tourism, which is why Naumburg, notwithstanding its world-famous cathedral, still boasts only four small hotels.
In 1850, when Nietzsche’s recently widowed mother moved to Naumburg with her son “Fritz” and her daughter Elisabeth, the old cathedral town was still solidly protected by medieval ramparts. The creaking portals of its five towered gates were closed at 10 P.M. and not reopened until five o’clock the next morning, so that those venturing out in the evening had to hurry back before the closing time for fear of being shut out for the night. Of those towered gates only one—the dark-stoned, red-tiled Marientor, on the city’s northern rim—has survived. The young Fritz could clearly see it from the upper-floor room he occupied in a nearby house, standing guard over a landscape that never ceased to delight him: an orchard full of fruit trees, with a poplar-lined highway stretching off across plowed lands or stubble toward the distant hillside vineyards, which make the Saale river-valley the northernmost wine-growing region in Germany.
Suburban houses now obstruct this once pleasant prospect—as they do the view one has from the wooden verandah of another, later Nietzsche-Haus, located at the southern end of the Weingartenstrasse (Vineyard Street), within yards of the dark-stoned remains of the medieval ramparts. This two-story corner house—Nietzsche’s official “home” from the early 1860’s until he left for Basel in 1869, and again, after his mental breakdown from 1890 to 1897—is for the time being little more than an empty shell. For shortly before their mother’s death in 1897, Nietzsche’s dreadful sister Elisabeth emptied the house of its furniture and, taking advantage of her brother’s crippled state, transported the family’s belongings, including all of Fritz’s precious manuscripts, to Weimar. Undaunted, the town fathers of Naumburg have decided to turn this Nietzsche-Haus into a library as well as a museum: one which already boasts a fine collection of framed photographs of family members and of close university friends.
Any visitor to Naumburg’s Altstadt is likely to be struck by the quantity of handsome doorways, with gracefully carved keystones, that are still to be seen, some dating from the 17th century. But I could not help noticing the ramshackle state of many inner courtyards, with broken windowpanes, rotting beam work, and sagging eaves attesting to decades of impecunious neglect. Yet those 40 years of neglect may turn out to be a saving grace. For, though here and there one comes upon parked cars—Opels, Volkswagens, Citroens, Fiats, Nissans, and even an expensive BMW, next to a few rusty East German Trabants—the “insolent chariots” (as Lewis Mumford used to call them) have yet to wreak the havoc and congestion they have brought to so many other German cities and to ruin the pedestrian tranquillity of Naumburg’s quaintly cobbled streets.
The old town’s two principal attractions are its spacious Marktplatz, which is still used as a marketplace on Saturdays, and (for art lovers) the world-famous statues of its cathedral. Flanked on one side by a Renaissance Rathaus (town hall), the market square is bordered on two others by a number of tall-roofed burgher houses, whose delicately painted facades run a chromatic gamut from pearl-grey and pistachio green, from caramel yellow to a warm maroon. At the local tourist office, situated on the remaining side of the square, I was greeted with bewilderment when I asked in which of those fine houses Nietzsche’s friends, Gustav Krug and Wilhelm Pinder, had once lived. Keine Ahnung! No idea! However, with the help of the “curator” of the Nietzsche-Haus, I finally located it in the northwest corner of the square: a handsome burgher house, with three superimposed tiers of dormer windows peeping out from the tall roof, whose ground floor now serves as a Modehaus Fischer (fashion-shop for women), next to the editorial offices of the Naumburger Tageblatt. First cousins, the meditative Wilhelm Pinder and the impetuous, violin-playing Gustav Krug were the grandsons of one of Naumburg’s leading ladies, who maintained a literary salon. Krug’s father, a jurist attached to the Royal Court of Appeals, was an accomplished musician and a personal friend of Mendelssohn, and so beautifully could he play on his magnificent grand piano that the young Friedrich Nietzsche, who from the age of two onward had displayed a precocious taste for music, would often stand outside in the street, rooted to the spot by the “sublime” sound of Beethoven chords pouring out from the open window.
The Domgymnasium (cathedral high school), to which the ten-year-old Fritz was admitted in 1854, along with his friends Wilhelm and Gustav, was then located in several gloomy classrooms overlooking the cloister, near the entrance to the cathedral. No one but a Nietzsche “fan” would want to waste a minute glancing up at the school’s narrow dormer-windows, jutting out from the cloistral roof, for the main attraction is elsewhere. Not, as I had fondly imagined, adorning the western facade—like the statues at Chartres, Notre Dame, or Reims—but inside the cathedral, in a curious chapel (regarded as a second “choir”), separated from the austere nave by an extraordinary rood-screen.
In all of my visits to chapels, churches, and cathedrals, 1 cannot offhand recall ever having been so struck, as here, by the extraordinary contrast presented by the two inherently contradictory aspects of Christianity. On the one hand, the naive faith and tribulations of the humble disciples, wonderfully portrayed by a master-craftsman in a series of dramatic scenes spread across the rood-screen—the Last Supper, Iscariot collecting his 30 talents of silver, the Judas kiss in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s rage in hacking off Malchus’s ear with a sword, and his subsequent, early-dawn (“Before the cock crow thrice”) repudiations of Christ. And then, once one has stepped through the sculpted rood-screen under one of the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ, the deliberate elevation (a dozen feet above the chapel floor) of Naumburg’s aristocratic founders represented by a sorrowing Countess Gerburg, a bashful Markgrave Hermann and his blooming Polish wife, Reglindis, a cringing Count Tyzzo of Thuringia, an angry Count Wilhelm, a masterful Markgrave Ekkehard and his lovely wife, Uta.
In The Story of Art, Ernst Gombrich added this comment below a reproduction of the determined Ekkehard (shown rolling up the sleeve of his sword-gripping arm) and of Uta (whose invisible right hand is shown raising the collar of her cloak, out of modesty or perhaps to shield her cheek from a cruel wind):
The sculptor who was given the task of representing the founders of Naumburg Cathedral in Germany, round about 1260, almost convinces us that he portrayed actual knights of his time. . . . It is not very likely that he really did—these founders had been dead many years, and were nothing but a name to him. But his statues of men and women seem to have come to life under his hands. They look immensely energetic and vigorous—the true contemporaries of Simon of Montfort.
What was here precociously emerging was the “realism” or “naturalism” that was to blossom forth several centuries later. This was something that Nietzsche, an admirer of the “glorious” Renaissance who regarded the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual aberration dominated by deceptive, otherworldly fantasies from which the European had to be rescued in order to become “adult,” should normally have recognized. But I cannot recall his ever having mentioned those 12 extraordinary statues in any of his letters or published works. Being extremely shortsighted and obliged to wear glasses, he may never have looked at them closely. Indeed, those statues do not seem to have attracted much attention until the 1920’s, when an enterprising photographer, Walter Hegger, using a stepladder and floodlights, for the first time “revealed” these masterpieces of “Expressionistic” art. Overnight these epic figures were transformed into models of Germanic virility, nobility (and also cowardice) in a wave of books, novels, and even plays, which became a flood during the “heroic” years of the Third Reich. (Needless to say, the same epic figures were even more rapidly “demoted” during the ensuing 44 years of the Ulbricht-Honecker tyranny.)
For the weak-sighted Nietzsche, Naumburg’s cathedral was much less a repository of splendid statuary than a temple of celestial sound. From his piano-playing father he had inherited a gift for music, and one of the first things his widowed mother did when they moved from the rural vicarage of Röcken to Naumburg was to entrust the young Fritz to the tutelage of the finest pianist in the city (a woman, as it happened). The director of the cathedral choir was a first-rate musician named Wettig, whose wife, a former opera singer, contributed greatly to the success of their recitals. From the somber classrooms of the Domgymnasium it was but a step to the cathedral nave, into whose echoing semidarkness the young Nietzsche would creep to listen to the soaring voices. The impression made on him by the Dies irae and the heavenly benediction of Mozart’s Requiem, during the autumn rehearsals leading up to All Saints’ Day, was so overpowering that it penetrated “to the very marrow of my bones,” as he later described it, and the same feeling of something ineffably sublime came over him again while listening to Handel’s Judas Makkaheus and Haydn’s Creation.
Of one thing the young Nietzsche was fully aware—his “Polish” ancestry. Naumburg’s founders—Ekkehard and other members of his family—were the Markgrafen (military commanders) of the Germanic border region of Jena. During the last decades of the 11th century, they were encouraged by two emperors—Otto I and Otto II—to advance the limits of the Germanic Empire eastward into territory then inhabited by Slavs. This they did by founding a “new town” (Neu-burg, later Naumburg) near the confluence of the Unstrut and Saale rivers. This phase of the Germanic Drang nach Osten probably explains the establishment of a rival church, the Wenzelskirche, dedicated to the memory of a Slavic saint—the “good King Wenzelaus” of Bohemia, whose wintry hospitality we used to celebrate in our Christmas carols. Here, as elsewhere in East Germany, the Slavic “underdogs” have survived to this day: one proof of it being the family name of the present-day owners of the Townhall’s Ratskeller, Chlebnicek (derived from khleb, the Slavic word for “bread”). The name Nietzsche, too, has Slavic roots, being linked to the icki suffix of the Poles, to the ice (pronounced “itse”) of the Czechs, and to the Germanized itz one finds in Leibniz, Tirpitz, and Willamowitz.
This sociological duality was given graphic expression by the sculptor who carved the Naumburg Rathaus‘s picturesquely painted doorway—blue, black, and rust-red pillars, yellow lions, etc. It is dominated by the two armorial crests of the city’s patron saints: that of Wenzelaus, patron saint of the (partly Slavic) Burgerstadt, and that of Peter and Paul, adopted early on by the patrician bishops of Naumburg, who for centuries protected the cathedral with a separate wall.
It was in a spacious, well-lit hall inside this 16th-century Rathaus that a Martin Heidegger Gesellschaft of Halle University had decided to hold a four-day Philological Congress to honor the 150th anniversary of the birth of Naumburg’s most illustrious (though often absent) “son.” The mere fact that a Martin Heidegger Society should have been established in Halle (formerly part of the Ulbricht-Honecker Stasi-state), so soon after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, pays tribute to the energy with which certain Germans are pursuing the spiritual “reconquest” or “recolonization” of the East.
Of the lectures delivered during those four days, everything from Nietzsche’s “thinking poetry” to his interpretation of the Epicurean tradition—I will say nothing here. However, I am not sure that Nietzsche would have been thrilled to see his philosophy put through the abstruse, ontological wringer of Heideggerian analysis. For if there is one constant to be found in Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, it is surely an emphasis on das Werden (the process of Becoming) rather than on a Parmenidean Sein (Being or Essence). Whence his marked preference for Heraclitus, the philosopher of change and flux, and his hostility to Plato and his immutable “universals.”
I was surprised by the number of young German boys and girls—some of them dressed in jeans (O tempora, o mores!) who flocked into the upstairs Rathaus hall, capable of seating 400. But when I commented on this to one of the participants, he laughed: “Don’t worry, not all of these young folk are really interested in philosophy. They’ve simply come here out of curiosity to see how one celebrates a 150th birthday anniversary.”
I was even more surprised to learn from a professor of theology at Gottingen that his faculty numbered 400 undergraduate students, and that at Erlangen University the figure was close to 1,000. When I asked him what, as a theologian, his own position was with regard to the priest- and clergy-hating author of The Antichrist, he confessed that he had first stumbled on Nietzsche at the age of 16 and had been so enthralled by what he read that he had remained fascinated ever since. “It’s easy, though often useless, to argue with an ordinary atheist,” he explained. “But to tackle Nietzsche is an intellectual challenge. Indeed, it’s what I tell my students: no one is worthy of becoming a theologian who has not met this challenge.”
As a special treat we were offered a bus ride to nearby Schulpforte; the boarding school where Nietzsche (its 10,544th student) spent six studious years (1858-1864), most of them at the head of his class. I would frankly have preferred to have made the four-kilometer pilgrimage on foot, as the young Fritz used to do, often coming out on Sunday as far as the midway point of Almrich to meet his mother and his sister; but this was a guided tour, and had I trudged out alone, I would almost certainly have been denied admittance.
Originally a Cistercian monastery bearing the Latin name of Porta coeli (Gate of Heaven), Pforta was transformed in 1543 into a Lutheran Prinzenschule by the Prince-Elector Spritz of Saxony, who had first sided with Emperor Charles V (the Catholic “Defender of the Faith”) and had then helped to defeat him at Innsbruck, shortly before the convening of the Council of Trent. In Nietzsche’s day, when it numbered 12 resident teachers and 180 boarders, it was generally regarded as the foremost preparatory school for classical studies in Germany. Times have changed, but not apparently the lofty ideals of its founders and successive rectors; for though it was recently expanded from 150 to 350 boarders—almost half of them are girls . . . would Nietzsche have approved? I wonder—the present headmaster emphasized the fact that during their four years of schooling every boarder must master four foreign languages, including Latin. Tuition is free, now generously provided by the Land of Sachsen-Anhalt. Greek is no longer compulsory, which I personally find a pity; but instruction in Hebrew is available for students particularly interested in biblical studies. Inside the venerable walls we were soberly recalled to order by a bust of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (a Pforta student from 1774 to 1780), accompanied by the words: “Gross und glücklicil wäre der Meister, der alle seine Schüler grösser machen könnte als er selbst war.” (“Great and happy would be the Master who could make his pupils greater than he himself was.”) One of the humblest and most moving exhortations to scholastic excellence I have ever encountered.
We were led past an impressive photographic display of eminent Pforta graduates—the poet Klopstoek, the historian Leopold von Ranke, the great classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, author of a blistering critique of The Birth of Tragedy—into the old library. Its 80,000 volumes—including priceless first editions of works by Galileo and Copernicus—miraculously escaped the predatory ravages of Nazi “art collectors,” Soviet pillagers, and Marxist detesters of antiquity. Stacked all the way to the ceiling on eight successive bookshelves, the ancient tomes—many of them gratefully bequeathed by deceased graduates or teachers—were quite visibly present, even though “off-limits” to ordinary Pforta students, who are offered a smaller “working library” of 30,000 books. (Incredible as it may sound, each Pfortensian is expected to “consult” 4,000 different books during his or her four years of schooling.)
On the eve of Nietzsche’s birthday anniversary, the symposium’s prime mover, Professor Manfred Riedel, formerly of Erlangen and now of Halle University, decided to stage an informal press conference in an upper chamber of Naumburg’s Town Hall. Some pipsqueak of a journalist had accused him of being a fascist—for having dared to set up a Martin Heidegger Gesellschaft in once East German Halle and to have compounded this “provocation” by now honoring Nietzsche. Short, balding, bespectacled, the smiling professor wanted the half-dozen newshounds to know that, though he had used the word Herrschaft (“rule” or “dominion”) and had spoken of his Ubermenschen as destined to become die Herrn der Welt (Lords of the World), Nietzsche could not in any sense be regarded as a pre- or proto-Nazi. I chimed in to say that Bismarck was one of Nietzsche’s bites noires and that toward the end of his creative life he was thinking of launching one more thunderbolt, aimed this time at the Second (Wilhelmian) Reich. “Besides,” I added, “Nietzsche hated the masses”—a reference to Hitler’s Brownshirts.
“No, not the masses,” Riedel corrected me. “Simply those who use, exploit, and mislead them.” After which he returned to his favorite theme—one he had stressed during previous debates —to the effect that Nietzsche had always been the enemy of a caste, whether priestly or other, that the very notion of “caste” was an Oriental concept, dear to India and ancient China, whereas Nietzsche in his thinking had always been a European. Ah, how difficult it is to defend Nietzsche against himself! For was it not Nietzsche who wrote in one of his last works, Der Antichrist (which in German has the double meaning of “The Anti-Christ” or “The Anti-Christian”): “The organization of castes, the supreme, dominating law, is merely the sanction of a natural order [Natur-Ordnung in German], of a Nature-Lawfulness of the first rank, over which no arbitrary whim, no ‘modern idea’ has any force”? And even if the “artists” preordained to rule us include thinkers as well as poets and composers, what guarantee is there that they would prove any wiser and more competent to govern the restless masses than the poetry-condemning Guardians of Plato’s Republic? Alas, none.
André Malraux liked to say that the 20th century had proved Nietzsche right and Karl Marx wrong in predicting that it would be a century of violence and warfare, not one of the messianic triumph of the proletariat and the magical withering away of the state. But there arc at least three other respects in which Nietzsche’s preoccupations have immense relevance for the present.
The first was his prophetic vision of the quagmire of putrescent mediocrity into which Western “civilization” was going to be sucked down by a rampaging egalitarianism and an equally unbridled “liberalism” (the cult of freedom, elevated to the status of an absolute, as opposed to relative, value). As he put it in his Götzen-Dämmerung (The Twilight of the Idols): “Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions . . . they level mountain and valley, make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic—every time it is the herd-animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.”
Secondly, all of Nietzsche’s writings, from Human, All Too Human on, were aimed at propagating a joyous acceptance of life as it is—whence his notion of Fatum—as opposed to a life spent in anxious dread of an implacable Final Judgment, or in the petty, beggarly, vainglorious expectation of an otherworldly reward for piety on earth in an imaginary eternity.
Well, whether we like it or not, this has come to be the way of the world—more specifically of the Western world—in which we live. Some are still willing to pay lip service to those terrifying or exalting myths by going to church for an hour or two on Sunday—more would be an intolerable inconvenience—but for the vast number of persons in the West, notions like the Final Judgment, Eternal Damnation and hellfire, and a Heaven peopled with angels are either ignored or regarded as quaint inheritances from the past, which can occasionally serve a useful purpose in promoting pre-Christmas sales.
Recently I read an article in the Paris daily Le Monde, written by the head of a Muslim community in Switzerland. It was a plea for tolerance and understanding on the part of the nonbelievers of a largely godless société laïque for those, like himself, who take their faith seriously. He was right. This conflict between ardent believers and casual agnostics is already with us, and I am far from certain that it can be peacefully resolved.
And, third, we live in a frantic world increasingly dominated by Dionysian frenzy: orgiastic dances (more exactly jerks, twists, and contortions), endlessly pounding music, violent action. and emotional hysteria exhibited on stages, stadiums, and screens. I am far from certain that Nietzsche, confronted with such convulsions, would have appreciated this “eternal return” of basic instincts, since to normal lusts have now been added the soft perversions of vicarious pleasures, indulged in by hundreds of millions of tabloid-consuming smuthounds and television- watching voyeurs.
On the train that was taking me to Naumburg, I happened to read John Lukacs’ article “To Hell With Culture,” published in the September 1994 issue of Chronicles. With almost every word of this devastating indictment of our increasingly uncivilized society, I fully agree—except (truly a minor caveat) for his use of the word “sin” in speaking of “the decay of privacy—and of a sense of sin (that sense of sin without which sex tastes like egg without salt).” I would frankly have preferred “risk” here, instead of “sin,” since it is more all-embracing and not limited to a specified moral context.
One of the “superhuman” tasks Nietzsche set himself was the search for a new ethos from which the crippling notion of sinfulness would be totally banished—which is essentially what his spiritual heir, Freud, set out to do by attacking the “guilt complex.” This is what Nietzsche meant with his most parlous exhortations—Lebe kühn! . . . gefährlich leben—”Live boldly, dangerously!” Without this element of risk, love and even sex loses its passionate intensity. Without this element of risk—to move for a moment to a higher plane—Heloise’s fateful passion for Abélard, Tristan’s for Isolde, or Juliet’s for Romeo could never have been lived or imagined.
This kind of riskless world—excoriated by Nietzsche as soft, flabby, and corrupting—is precisely the kind of mushy, pulpous world in which we now find ourselves condemned to live in the name of a shameless sentimentalism that knows no bounds. At the Magdeburg railway station, where, on my way home, I had a long wait before being able to board the Berlin-Paris express, I made a visit to the men’s room. As I walked out, I noticed, attached to the wall, a long glass box, like a slot-machine offering various kinds of chewing gum or candy. Cosmopolitan to a degree, as befits our “new Europe,” the ten brands on display were all boldly advertised as “Condoms” and bore lovely names: “Long love,” “Rose d’armour,” “Black is my love,” etc.