Förster-Nietzsche, Elisabeth (1846–1935)
Förster-Nietzsche, Elisabeth (1846–1935)
Celebrated literary figure, notorious anti-Semite, who wrote books and articles on the life and ideas of her brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, and participated in the founding of the New Germany colony in Paraguay. Name variations: Elisabeth Nietzsche; Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche; Lisbeth or Lichen or Eli Förster. Pronunciation: Ee-LIZ-ah-beth FURstur-NEET-chee. Born Elisabeth Therese Alexandra Nietzsche on July 10, 1846, in Röcken, Saxony; died on November 8, 1935, following a bout of influenza, at Villa Silberblick, Weimar; daughter of Karl Ludwig Nietzsche (a Lutheran pastor) and Franziska (Oehler) Nietzsche; attended Fräulein von Pareskis' private school for young ladies in Naumburg, Germany, and finishing school in Dresden; married Bernhard Förster, on May 22, 1885; no children.
Dr. Bernhard Förster's Kolonie Neu-Germania in Paraguay (Dr. Bernhard Förster's New Germany colony in Paraguay, 1891); Das Leben Friedrich Nietzsches (The Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, 2 vols., 1895–1904); Das Nietzsches-Archiv, seine Freunde und seine Feinde (The Nietzsche-Archive, his Friends and his Enemies, 1907); Der junge Nietzsche (The Young Nietzsche, 1912); Der einsame Nietzsche (The Lonely Nietzsche, 1914); Wagner und Nietzsche zur Zeit ihrer Freundschaft (Wagner and Nietzsche: Their Times and Their Friendship, 1915); Friedrich Nietzsche und die Frauen seiner Zeit (Friedrich Nietzsche and the Women of His Times, 1935).
When Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche entertained Adolf Hitler at the Nietzsche Archive after his accession to power in 1933, there was fixed in the popular mind a connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Nazism. That association in large part was the result of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche's unrelenting and successful effort to project and disseminate her renditions of her dead brother's ideas.
In a sense, Friedrich Nietzsche had been the focus of Elisabeth's life from the time they were children. Both of them grew up in a house that exposed them to strong conservative and anti-democratic views. Their father, a Lutheran pastor, maintained the 17th-century view that monarchs had a divinely ordained right to rule and that monarchy's logical partner, the aristocracy, were to be honored. Elisabeth, who grew up in a middle-class environment, always aspired to join the ranks of nobility. With regard to the masses, she wrote later in life that "an abyss separates us from them; they are and remain common."
When Elisabeth was christened, she was given the names of the three young princesses—Elisabeth of Saxe-Altenburg (1826–1896), Therese , and Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg (1830–1911)—daughters of Amelia of Wurttemberg and Joseph, duke of Saxe-Altenburg, whom her father had tutored before he assumed his pastoral duties in the town of Röcken. Tragically, her father died in 1849, when she was three years old, of what was described as a "softening of the brain." Franziska Nietzsche , Elisabeth's mother, could not support her family on the inadequate pension of her dead husband and had to move in with relatives in the town of Naumburg. Biographers describe Naumburg as a staunchly conservative, devoutly Christian town; they describe the family environment as curious at best. Historian Ben Macintyre notes that they shared a large apartment with Franziska's mother-in-law and two aunts. Aunt Rosalie, "devout and dotty and opposed to Shakespeare," Aunt Augusta and her gastric problems, and Grandmother Erdmuthe who "couldn't stand noise." The children, according to H.F. Peters "grew up in secret alliance against being dominated by women. They had no playmates, shared one room for play and sleep, and declared … that they would become husband and wife when they were grown up."
Elisabeth doted on, deferred to, and defended her brother Friedrich. By age six, she was in the habit of collecting every scrap of paper on which Friedrich had written and storing them in her treasure drawer. His nickname for her was Llama, according to Peters, because of her habit of spitting at him when she was angry. Elisabeth found no reason to challenge the ruling 19th-century assumption that women were subordinate to men, who were the makers of history. Throughout her life, according to Macintyre, she opposed the idea of women's suffrage and wrote that "feminism is a movement of spinsters and its adherents are generally childless women." A woman, in Elisabeth's view, "tries to lighten her husband's burdens … refresh him of the petty worries of daily life, and shows some understanding of his higher aspirations." Elisabeth, however, would follow this advice only when it suited her, or advanced her own agenda.
Fräulein von Pareskis' private school for young ladies was the venue for Elisabeth's early education. There, she was immersed in the art of good manners and exposed to arithmetic, French, English, reading and composition. In a revealing comment to her brother, she said that while in school she could "talk about anything without understanding much of it." While brother Friedrich, known as Fritz, was enrolled at the Royal Boarding School at Pforta, Elisabeth attended finishing school in Dresden. Young women in their teenage years were expected to show an interest in prospective husbands. Elisabeth did not, to the consternation of her mother. At least one Nietzsche biographer, Ronald Hayman, suggested that her indifference to marriage was a reflection of her fixation on her brother. That Elisabeth and Friedrich were close was clear, how close has been a matter of conjecture, some of it scurrilous.
A crisis in Elisabeth's relations with her brother occurred as he moved away from Christianity. While she wanted to trust Fritz's "superior judgment," she was also, in Peter Bergmann's words, "disturbed by this threat to the 'most holy, at least most believable' aspect of her faith and fled to her clerical uncle for fortification of
her piety and for a 'reconversion' to the correct path." Elisabeth's intellect was narrow, and her ideas were based on a number of set and rigidly held beliefs that would influence her views of politics, culture, and race.
Elisabeth's view of the world in combination with her biases and bigotry set the stage for turmoil in the Nietzsche family. She glowed in 1869 when Friedrich become a professor at the University of Basel at age 24 and asked for her assistance to index 24 volumes of the Rheinische Museum, a scholarly journal. She beamed when Fritz struck a friendship with the great German composer Richard Wagner. Peters notes that Elisabeth was "determined not to be left behind" in Friedrich's "rise to fame." She occasionally watched the Wagner children and was delighted when they called her "Aunt Elisabeth." To be part of Wagner's inner circle played to her ambition.
Throughout the 1870s, Elisabeth alternately cared for and fought with Friedrich, who by 1871 was suffering the effects of syphilis, the disease that would ultimately destroy his mind and take his life. When Friedrich broke with Wagner in 1876, it was partly because of his failing health—but it was also a realization of his dissatisfaction with Wagner's anti-Semitism, his loud, arrogant nationalism, and his pompous self-centeredness. Elisabeth was distraught with the break, because she thought it might harm her chances for advancement. Her simple explanation for Fritz's defection from the inner circle was that her brother had fallen under the influence of a cynical Jew, Paul Rée. Elisabeth had embraced the anti-Semitism that surrounded Wagner and his friends.
Present at Bayreuth, the site of Wagner's self-glorifying festivals, was Bernhard Förster, who was attracted to Elisabeth and shared with her his dreams for a rebirth of the German spirit. That German spirit had no room for capitalism, communism, or democracy, which he perceived in negative terms and blamed on Jews. Bern-hard's anti-Semitism served to enforce that of Elisabeth. In 1880, Bernhard circulated a petition that demanded government action to "cleanse" Germany of Jewish corruption. Elisabeth willingly helped to gather signatures.
My mission in the next ten years is to plant the personality of Nietzsche, as the noblest figure of light, firmly into the hearts of people.
Elisabeth also continued to monitor her brother's writings and escapades. In 1882, his dalliance with the beautiful and intelligent Lou Andreas-Salomé sparked an explosion of indignation from Elisabeth, especially when Lou suggested a sexless menage à trois that would see Friedrich, Paul Rée and Lou living together in what they described as a "Holy Trinity." As Elisabeth wrote: "I cannot deny that [Lou] really personifies my brother's philosophy: that rabid egotism which tramples on anything in its way, and that complete indifference to morality." Historian Bergmann suggests that Elisabeth reacted as strongly as she did because she was upstaged by Andreas-Salomé and "affected indignant outrage to the younger woman's provocative manner, melodramatically declaring that were she a Catholic she would enter a nunnery to atone for her brother's philosophy of sin." Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to Elisabeth after his breakup with Lou: "Souls like yours, my dear sister, I do not like, especially when they are morally bloated."
While the Andreas-Salomé affair absorbed much of Elisabeth's attention, Bernhard responded to the rejection by the German government of his anti-Semitic petition with a pledge to found a New Germany in a different part of the world, on "a soil unadulterated by Jewish influences." Elisabeth was again attracted to a man she saw as "visionary." In a letter of 1883, she wrote that Bernhard was "filled with a magnificent enthusiasm for Wagner's efforts to regenerate our country. We feast on compassion, heroic self-denial, Christianity, vegetarianism, Aryanism, southern colonies. I find all this so sympathetic and feel so much at home in it." In February, Bernhard departed for Paraguay intent on the forging of a new fatherland.
In the meantime, Elisabeth's relationship with her brother blew hot and cold. While she was horrified by Friedrich's assertions that he was the Anti-Christ, she reveled in his growing fame, especially after the publication of Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). When he was apprised not only of Elisabeth's strong attraction to Bernhard but also of her intention of joining him in Paraguay, he exploded with rage. In Peters' words: "That his own sister was considering making common cause with a man whose ideas he abhorred was incredible. Elisabeth knew how much he detested Förster's vulgar anti-Semitism, and as for Förster's Aryan ideals, they were patently absurd." Elisabeth "was betraying him and his philosophy by embracing it." She, on the other hand, wrote to Bernhard that Friedrich's goal "is not my goal, his entire philosophy goes against my grain." While his "striving for the superman seemed something admirable and I thought that you with your colonizing venture had taken the first step toward it," after reading the second part of Zarathustra "my excitement is gone. I see now that superman is not my ideal."
Bernhard and Elisabeth were married on Wagner's birthday, May 22, 1885. Together they would reconstitute the old Germany in the New World. To that end, she helped him author a book on Paraguay that served as a prospectus for the envisaged colony and bombarded friends and acquaintances with requests for financial support. It was in February 1886 that Bernhard, Elisabeth, and a disappointingly small group of colonists sailed for South America. In typical fashion, Elisabeth recreated Paraguay in the paradisal image she imagined it to be. In time, land was acquired and by 1888 enough acreage was cleared to establish the first town of New Germany, Försterrode. But both financial backing and families of immigrants failed to materialize, which jeopardized the colony's existence. Under the terms of the contract signed by Bernhard Förster with the Paraguayan government, should he fail to settle 140 families on the land it would revert to the state. Moreover, Elisabeth found that as her husband lacked the ability to manage the colony's day-to-day affairs she was forced to take control.
Not surprisingly, as the colony teetered on the verge of failure, charges were raised by some colonists as well as critics in Germany that Bernhard was a fraud and that the colonists had been willfully deceived. Elisabeth took the offensive, simultaneously defending her husband and assailing his critics. Bernhard in the meantime had become increasingly moody and distant. Paraguay presented Elisabeth with one set of problems; the declining state of her brother's health raised others. In 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche drifted into insanity and, despite the harsh words that had been exchanged, wrote to his sister for help. Although she was fully absorbed with the New Germany colony, Elisabeth began, in Macintyre's words, "the long process of reinventing her own relationship with Fritz.… Instead of being a bad-tempered burden with a taste for Jewish company, she started to turn him back into the idolized figure of her childhood."
Clearly, Elisabeth was torn between her obsession to make a success of New Germany and her deepening concern over brother Fritz. The burdens of the colony proved insurmountable for Bernhard Förster and on June 3, 1889, he committed suicide. In true fashion, according to Peters, Elisabeth transformed his death into "a patriotic apotheosis." She could not accept failure, and this would not be the first time that Elisabeth changed the historical record to bring events into conformity with her beliefs. In August, she was forced to give up ownership of New Germany to a consortium, most of whose members were non-German. But she was intent on regaining control and traveled to Germany to raise the necessary funds and silence her dead husband's critics. The culminating effort of her campaign was the authorship, in just five months, of a book on the colony. Bernhard Förster's Colony New Germany in Paraguay was published in 1891 and cast her husband, according to Macintyre, as "a battling hero worthy of Valhalla, in the image of whose face the true Christ is united with the real German race, who has fallen on a foreign field for his belief in the German spirit."
To raise money for the colony, she determined to take advantage of her brother's growing fame in German intellectual circles. To this end, she attempted to gain control of the publication of Friedrich Nietzsche's works. Peters wrote that those she found blasphemous, such as the fourth part of Zarathustra, she tried to suppress, to the consternation of the editor of the manuscripts, Peter Gast. In essence, Elisabeth wanted a publisher who would print all of her brother's works in exchange for a lifetime annuity for Friedrich and the assurance that the publisher would assume liability for any legal actions taken against the author.
A suitable publisher was located, and, given the appeal of Nietzsche, she promoted an inexpensive edition for the use of students. Having secured a reasonable source of support, Elisabeth returned to Paraguay in July 1892. Her return was not a cause for celebration on the part of the colonists. While most of the settlers kept quiet for fear of reprisals, some lashed out at Elisabeth. "Germany had not cured Frau Förster of her sickness, almost amounting to megalomania," one wrote. "On the contrary, she appears to be even more domineering and deluded." The situation was beyond salvation, but Elisabeth managed to find a way to cut her losses and simultaneously save face. She sold her home, the largest in New Germany, and published an official farewell that, in Peters' words, spoke of courage in the forests and the glories of the transplanted fatherland. She appealed for further financial support for New Germany but noted that she was no longer involved. "I must say farewell to all colonial affairs because another great task now awaits me—the care of my dear and only brother, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche."
Elisabeth's plan was simple: "to preside over the execution of [Friedrich's] literary estate, which was rapidly increasing in value, and to establish herself as his representative." With this in mind, she had her name legally changed to Förster-Nietzsche. Phase one of her scheme was to pen a biography of Friedrich which would "present a picture to the world in a manner that would appeal to his admirers and enhance his reputation." Then she would supervise the publication of his works with an eye to the maximization of profits. Manipulative and self-centered, Elisabeth explained her actions in other terms: "My mission in the next ten years is to plant the personality of Nietzsche, as the noblest figure of light, firmly into the hearts of people." Macintyre is convinced that Elisabeth was "incapable of distinguishing between what she wanted and what was actually true." Once she gained control of Nietzsche's writings, there was little doubt that her will would triumph over that of the bed-ridden philosopher. However, the caveat expressed by Bergmann is worth repeating: "the political complications facing the prophet emergent cannot be simply or solely blamed on Elisabeth Nietzsche, as extensive and as stupid as were her later forgeries and insinuations." Nietzsche was profoundly anti-democratic and elitist and provided the material with which Elisabeth worked.
Elisabeth completed the first volume of her biography of Nietzsche in 1895, and it enjoyed immediate popular success. Nietzsche became the prophet and his sister an object of reverence as his "only true confidant and supporter." Nietzsche's philosophy was significantly recast by Elisabeth; his anti-nationalism became patriotism and his anti-Christianity masked "a tender love for the founder of Christianity."
By the end of 1895, Elisabeth had wrested control of the Nietzsche archive from her mother, and in the following year it was moved to Weimar where Nietzsche's notes were edited into her version of the truth. One editor complained that "she did not understand her brother at all, that she was falsifying him, that everything she did was a sham and that she had organized the archives only to satisfy her personal vanity." In 1897, after the death of their mother, the insane Nietzsche was moved to Villa Silberblick in Weimar, which in time became a shrine for his devotees. Elisabeth delighted in the visits of intellectuals, artists, poets, and aristocrats to the archive. She lived the life of royalty to which she had always aspired.
Even Nietzsche's death by stroke on August 25, 1900, was manipulated to further Elisabeth's ends. The funeral was an event, and Nietzsche was buried with the blessings of the Christian church. Elisabeth completed volumes two and three of Nietzsche's biography by 1904. Those critics who dared challenge the assertions of the author were rudely dismissed. The popular view of Nietzsche's philosophy had gained the high ground. A close friend of Nietzsche's was dismayed by Elisabeth's biography. "One often hears that the world wants to be deceived, and yet rarely has the reading public been so duped as in Förster's book," he wrote. "It reads sometimes as though Frau Förster wants to prove that she is far wiser than her brother. She is often praised now as a saint among sisters. But this will change. The time may come when she will be considered a prime example of the type: dangerous sisters."
Elisabeth's extravagant spending habits always placed a strain on the resources of the Nietzsche archive. Ironically, it was a Jew, the Swedish banker Ernst Thiel, who put the archive on a firm financial footing and remained a friend until her death. He had Elisabeth painted in 1906 by Edvard Munch and entertained her entreaties for his support in her quest for the Nobel prize for literature in 1908.
When World War I shattered Europe's peace, Elisabeth rejoiced at the sight of a nation in arms. "This war shows the force of my brother's words—'become hard.'" Not surprisingly, she opposed any movement toward peace and firmly believed that the armistice of 1918, made by un-patriotic politicians, had stabbed the German army in the back. The establishment of the Weimar Republic, the very real prospects for revolution in 1919, and chaos in the streets of Germany—all of these were anathema to Elisabeth. She wrote to Thiel in 1921: "My brother wished us dangerous times. Well, we are now living dangerously enough. Let us hope that a great star will arise out of this chaos, a truly great man and leader like Napoleon.… Our young people want to worship, venerate and love someone." Elisabeth looked for heroes to save Germany. Fortunate Italy had been saved by Benito Mussolini. Who would save Germany?
Elisabeth met Adolf Hitler in 1932 and was struck by his eyes, "which stare right through you." She had approved of his attempted putsch in Bavaria in 1923 and when he assumed power in 1933 she rejoiced at this manifestation of her brother's triumph of the will. Hitler welcomed her support and promised financial backing for the archive. Superman had been found: "[W]e have suddenly achieved the one Germany which for centuries our poets have depicted longingly … and which we have been waiting for: one People, one Empire, One Leader." The Nietzsche Archives, she announced, had become the center of National Socialist, i.e. Nazi, ideology. Blind to Nazi ambition and naive as to the means by which Nazism would be spread, Elisabeth willingly subordinated her brother's name and philosophy to the cause of the fatherland. Days after she was informed that Hitler's government planned to build a memorial to Nietzsche, complete with an auditorium and library, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche died after a bout with influenza. She did not live to see the horrors that her superman would unleash on the world.
Bergmann, Peter. Nietzsche, "the Last Antipolitical German." Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. NY: Oxford, 1980.
Macintyre, Ben. Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992.
Peters, Heinz F. Zarathustra's Sister: The Case of Elisabeth and Friedrich Nietzsche. NY: Crown Publishers, 1977.
Hayes, Carlton J.H. A Generation of Materialism, 1871–1900. NY: Harper & Row, 1941.
Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.
"Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche" (2-part, BBC documentary), shown on Arts & Entertainment network, 1992.
Paul B. Goodwin , Jr., Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut