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Born 1846, died 1935. Sister of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and also his chief distorter and greatest publicist. During his productive years up to his incapacitation in January 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche was little known and his works little appreciated. At his sister's death in 1935, he was well known, appreciated, and the darling of the Nazi Party. One wonders whether the philosopher would have preferred obscurity over the manipulated image of him crafted by his sister.

Elisabeth's life was little of Nietzsche's concern: they had a falling out in 1884, and she married the strongly anti-Semitic Bernhard Forster in 1885—a marriage of which Nietzsche highly disapproved. The couple moved to Paraguay to establish a German colonial community backed by anti-Semitic principles. Her brother was incapacitated by a still-unexplained illness in early 1889, and later that year her husband (who was caught stealing from the community he helped found) committed suicide. She returned to Germany in 1893.

Elisabeth had previously disparaged her brother's philosophy, but after her husband's death and her brother's incapacitation, she took it upon herself to build Nietzsche's legacy. To this end, she began studying Nietzsche's works under the guidance of Rudolf Steiner, a noted Goethe scholar of the day. But it seems she was unable to grasp her brother's ideas, and Steiner gave her up as a lost cause. Nevertheless, she founded the Nietzsche Archive at their family home in Naumburg, Germany and (especially after her brother's death in 1900) began to craft an intellectual legacy that would have horrified Nietzsche. During his long illness, she let his mustache grow out haggardly, dressed him in white robes, and had him photographed staring blankly into the distance. Some of the best known photos of Nietzsche are from this period.

One of her early activities after 1900 was to compile, from fragments written in notebooks, a book called The Will to Power. This compilation, which was hailed by Elisabeth and (later) the Nazis as the crowning achievement of Nietzsche's thought, was constructed in a very subjective fashion that reflected little of Nietzsche's desire (much of what appears in The Will to Power was intended for a series of books that Nietzsche never finished). While it does contain much of Nietzsche's late thought, the book is by no means his most important.

She also withheld from publication until 1908 one of Nietzsche's last, and perhaps (for his true legacy) most important, works: Ecce Homo, Nietzsche's own critical evaluation of his philosophical corpus. Moreover, it has been shown that she tampered with several of his letters in order to skew their meaning, and made editorial changes in various manuscripts to remove passages she considered objectionable.

Given Elisabeth's deep anti-Semitism (earlier condemned by her brother) and her later membership in the Nazi party (the National Socialists), it is not surprising that Adolf Hitler should have mangled Nietzsche's ideas even further. He saw to it that Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book Nietzsche considered his most important, was issued to every soldier in the German army. It was not difficult for Hitler to warp Nietzsche's meaning about such concepts as the "superman;" it is, of course, not difficult to warp any topic if you choose not to read the underlying material with any care. He kept a bust of Nietzsche as inspiration, and even tried to pass along the philosopher's works to Mussolini. There is no evidence that he read them.

And so when Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche died in 1935, she must have been quite proud of herself: not only had she turned her version of her brother's thinking into a going concern, but she had seen the birth of a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi Germany. She had even met Hitler, when he visited the Archive in 1934; she gave him a gift of Nietzsche's walking stick, and the moment was captured in a famous photograph.

The tragedy of Friedrich Nietzsche's life—which included constant poor health, elusive critical acclaim, an unhappy love life, and the mysterious episode which rendered him a near-vegetable--lies not so much in the fact that he had to confront difficulty; in fact, he thanks fate for allowing him to confront so much trouble. But in the first section of Ecce Homo he writes, "…I have a duty against which my habits, even more the pride of my instincts, revolt at bottom--namely, to say: Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else" (Nietzsche's emphasis). His sister's manipulations did just that, for generations of readers. This is the true tragedy of the man.

Pressed For Time? Here's a Summary: Rook's w/u is excellent, and I can only offer a different assortment of details as justification for the inclusion of mine in this node. What follows is an analysis of the role played by Friedrich Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, in the incorporation of his philosophy into Nazism. Elisabeth was a violently anti-Semitic and vain woman, who loathed her brother's ideas but loved him (in her fashion). She powerfully affected the dissemination of his ideas after his breakdown, and suppressed much of his work in order to mask the fact that her brother hated anti-Semites, German nationalism, and even her.

Note: Cletus the Foetus, whose excellent writeup on Nietzsche can be found here, strongly objects to the suggestion that Nietzsche suffered from syphilis for the last decades of his life; we argued a bit about it, and I include the messages below. In the near future, I hope to add a node concerning the process of posthumous diagnosis and its debatable accuracy, both in general and in the case of Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche's complex relationship with his sister has been the subject of an enormous amount of scholarly inquiry; the intensity of interest in the matter has been so great, in fact, that there exists a manufactured forgery, purported to be the work of Nietzsche himself, entitled My Sister and I.1 The reasons for this fascination are many: the entirety of Nietzsche's reputation was, for many years after his death, controlled by his sister, who redacted and altered his works and hid or edited letters he wrote which reflected positions she disliked; there is also the disturbingly friendly relationship his sister maintained with men Nietzsche detested (or probably would have), like Wagner and Hitler; there is the multiplicity of interpretations of Nietzsche's work; and, of course, there is the compelling, dramatic nature of the interactions between brother and sister.

Essentially, their story attracts attention because in it, one of the great geniuses of modern history struggles with a sister determined to control her brother, to reshape him into a thinker more to her taste, and to affix to his fame her own identity.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844. About his life there have been many volumes written, but for the purposes of this paper, it is most important to know that, as a child, he exhibited all the prodigal properties becoming a young German genius: willfulness, brilliance, and "the habit of self-absorption." 2 His young sister rapidly grew to think of him in adoring terms, and she often argued with her friends using her older brother as the ultimate authority, saying, "Fritz says so too." 3 During the course of his adolescence, her fondness for him grew, even to the point that she was jealous of any woman he mentioned in his correspondence. By the time he published Human, all too Human, however, she had begun to think of her brother as a fragile genius, one whose mind was easily corrupted by negative influences; in this way, she explained away whatever she found problematic in his books.4

Elisabeth Therese Alexandra Nietzsche was born on July 10, 1846. Named after a trio of minor princesses, she began life with an appellation that signaled her father's radical adoration of the nobility, a trait she (and, to some extent, her older brother) were to inherit. Throughout her youth, Elisabeth demonstrated a quick mind and a quicker temper; she was fiercely protective of her reputation and that of her brother. She had no compunctions about intimidating her peers, or lying to them to further her social aims.5 Later in life, her nearly tyrannical behavior would become famous among those unfortunate enough to meet her in dispute.

During their youth, brother and sister were extremely close; whatever the extent of Friedrich's indulgent condescension toward his sister, he loved her and she him. She was devoted to him, an admirer and follower even though she frequently misunderstood his thoughts and ultimately came to feel that her brother had gone astray, misled by cynics and Jews, and perhaps enfeebled by his illnesses (illnesses the nature of which she likewise refused to accept).6

After a youth spent largely watching her brother's meteoric rise to academic success, Elisabeth eventually married a fairly famous and strongly anti-Semitic colonist named Bernhard Förster, whose life ambition was to found and develop a new Germany in Paraguay, free from decadence, liberalism, and Jewry. Although he and Elisabeth did spend several years from 1886 until 1890 with settlers in Nueva Germania, as it was called, the project was ultimately an utter failure, and Förster committed suicide.7

That Nietzsche was profoundly scornful of both Förster and his efforts at colonization should be apparent to anyone familiar with his philosophy. So contemptuous of anti-Semitism and nationalism was he, in fact, that he did not attend his sister's wedding and met Förster only once, in an encounter whose end neither man regretted.8 Elisabeth, whose own political and philosophical tendencies were far more closely aligned with Förster's than with Nietzsche's, was torn between the two men, but came to feel that her brother was in the wrong about anti-Semitism and Germany.9

Elisabeth's disagreements with her brother were not strictly philosophical, however; she also had reservations about his lifestyle and behavior. The infamous "Lou episode," as it is called by scholars, demonstrates how fully she could consider his judgment to be lacking. Louise von Salomé was an aristocratic Russian of a fascinating, eccentric character; she was, to some, "wild" and was fond of flaunting social conventions relating to young women and men.10 She was also learned, quick-witted, and attractive, and her first meeting with Nietzsche in Rome in 1882 made an instant impression on the philosopher, then in the grips of a syphilitic euphoria. He fell in love with her, and despite the scandal it caused, attempted to live with her and a friend in what "they jokingly called their 'Holy Trinity'...". 11 Elisabeth was not amused. Lou did not love her brother, and in fact the entire affair became something of an embarrassment to him; and all the while, he rejected his sister's bourgeois advice to be discreet. After Elisabeth attempted to intervene, even spreading rumors about Lou to scare her away from her brother, Nietzsche had harsh words for her and they fell out with each other. Elisabeth said that she "...wept the bitterest tears over my poor, deluded brother." 12 For his part, Friedrich concluded some reflections on the ordeal in a conversation with a friend by saying that he "hated his sister."13

Whatever his feelings concerning his sister, however, it was she who came to control his literary estate after his syphilitic collapse in Turin in 1889. She was not instantly excited by the prospect, as she had given herself over to the running of her husband's colony, as well as to the public defense of her husband, who was accused of fraud and dishonesty. Besides that, Elisabeth had, for some time, felt reservations about her brother's newer work, especially ideas inspired by Schopenhauer. As to Nietzsche's request that he be called "the Antichrist," she wrote to her mother:

"Antichrist, it is terrible. I cannot help myself, but I find my brother's views more and more unsympathetic... Do you understand now why I wish he shared Förster's views? Förster has ideals that will make people better and happier if they are promoted and carried out..."14

So when Nietzsche became an invalid, Elisabeth initially said she was too busy with other elements of her life to help their mother care for him. But when Förster's suicide freed her from defending his colonial failure, she left Nueva Germania for good, saying that she had to "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." 15 Grateful for the excuse to leave, she was nonetheless unprepared for her brother's condition: totally vacant, he sat still or lay on his sofa for long periods of time.

Nothing could be done about his physical or mental condition, but Elisabeth had been planning since her departure from South America to take control of Nietzsche's literary estate. She began by renegotiating all arrangements with publishers and reissuing manuscripts and passages from Nietzsche's notebooks, in order to make money quickly. A friend called this her "money madness." 16 In short order she hired and fired a succession of editors, dismissing Nietzsche's close friend Peter Gast and replacing him with an intellectual impresario of whom she was personally more fond. The many intrigues concerning editorial personnel at the Nietzsche Archives took place as Elisabeth wrote her hagiographical work on her brother's life, but also as she slyly manipulated the mythology growing around her brother's name. For example, although she claimed that Nietzsche had never had any illness, suggesting instead that he was poisoned by an overdose of chloride sleeping pills, she violated her mother's wishes and allowed an artist to paint him in his enfeebled, vegetative state: "The more people talked about her brother, the more books were sold." 17

As her plans for the Nietzsche Archives became more elaborate, Nietzsche's friend's became more alarmed. It became clear that "her main concern was to monopolize her brother's work." 18 After still more drama, involving the hand-wringing acquisition of financial support, fierce public scandals, and familial discord, Elisabeth finally assumed control over Nietzsche's legacy, and it was not long before she began to use her position to manipulate her brother's image.

A primary example of Elisabeth's misrepresentation of her brother's opinions was the subject of anti-Semitism. A rabid anti-Semite and German nationalist, Elisabeth was frustrated that some of Nietzsche's closest friends were Jewish, men like Paul Rée and Franz Overbeck. She felt that Overbeck in particular was an enemy, and even suspected that he had somehow mishandled her brother's care and was partially responsible for his condition. She also could not accept that Nietzsche detested men like Richard Wagner and her late husband Förster, in part because of their anti-Semitism, and she came to claim that her brother actually disliked Jews.19 For years after his death, she controlled (through ownership, lawsuits, and threats) which of her brother's letters could be published, and she edited out his remarks about anti-Semitism, as well as his many derisive statements about her. This nonsense was not refuted for many years, in part because many Nietzscheans were not fond of Jews either. Anti-Semitism was not uncommon in fin de siecle Europe. Something of a cycle emerged: anti-Semites and the political far-right were attracted to Nietzsche based on a misunderstanding of his work, and they were hardly likely, upon further contact with his thought, to point out how he differed from them.20 It is therefore difficult to say whether Elisabeth's initial suppression of her brother's opinion had a substantial effect on his role in the genesis of Nazism. By the time men like Alfred Bäumler, "the Reich's authorized Nietzsche scholar," were using Nietzsche to justify Nazi policies and National Socialist theories about race, culture, and politics, a minor amount of research into Nietzsche's correspondence would have illustrated his opposition to anti-Semitism.21 And one cannot read The Dawn or any of the other books of collected aphorisms without encountering Nietzsche's very low opinion of Germany, of the "German spirit," the German people. In Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he attacks his old friend by saying that he had "...moved to Germany, he had condescended step by step to everything I despise - even to anti-Semitism." 22

Nietzsche had often made it clear the extent to which he disliked many of the ideas on which National Socialism was founded, but to no avail. Due in part to a selective interpretation of his work, but also to an indifference to anything that did not serve their ends, the Nazis were able to use Nietzsche as a legitimizing figurehead. Hitler even posed for a photograph with Nietzsche's bust at the Nietzsche Archives.23 Elisabeth Nietzsche was not alone responsible for the recontextualization of her brother's philosophy, but she certainly didn't object. She was an admirer of Hitler, saying that she was "...drunk with enthusiasm because at the head of our government stands such a wonderful, indeed phenomenal, personality like our magnificent chancellor Adolf Hitler." 24

But it was not merely in censoring his views on Jews that Elisabeth did harm to Nietzsche: she furiously suppressed any discussion of his illness, saying always that his condition was the result of poisoning, and thus contributed to the image of Nietzsche as a saint or seer, a semi-supernatural prophet to be venerated, whose madness may have been a sort of divine mental transcendence, an idea completely absurd to those who knew him. That his most bizarre works, such as Ecce Homo, so obviously the product of an agitated mind, were considered alongside his soberest reflections on morality and society diminished his reputation among the learned. She also insisted that Nietzsche's contempt for the Emperor and for the Hohenzollern family be excised from his books, as she "hoped to be presented to the former someday." 25

In total, Elisabeth strongly affected Nietzsche's reputation, but not permanently. Like Bettina von Arnim's letters to Goethe, her alterations of her brother's work were eventually exposed and scholars have now sorted out the details she labored to conceal, including many passages in Nietzsche's letters in which he insulted her brutally. To some, however, her influence is unforgivable: "By vulgarizing her brother's ideals, Elisabeth...perverted them into their opposites - superhumans had become subhumans." 26 And Nietzsche's closest friend Overbeck wrote in the midst of Elisabeth's reign as "Mistress of the Nietzsche Archives" that "she is often praised 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." 27 As to what extent she actually affected the dissemination and interpretation of her brother's thought, this much is clear: without the work of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the philosopher might not have become as famous as quickly, and he certainly wouldn't have been as popular with the general public, but he might have had fewer of his ideas appropriated by causes anathema to his beliefs.

1. Widely considered to be totally bogus, the book has merit only in that it demonstrates the amount of interest in the subject.
2. Hoover, 1.
3. Peters, 12.
4. Ibid., 43-49.
5. Ibid., 19. Elisabeth's vivid imagination is often mentioned in connection with her tale-telling.
6. Ibid., 76. "...there had been such a change in {her brother} after his break with Wagner that she did not believe in him anymore." See also Peters, 46 64, 67, and 72.
7. In fact, the story of Nueva Germania seems to some to be the origin for Elisabeth's desire to control her brother's post-breakdown and posthumous reputation. Peters, 107-116.
8. Ibid., 91-92.
9. Of Förster's type, he said in a letter to a close friend, "I am just having all anti-Semites shot." (January 6, 1889 letter to Franz Overbeck and from Kaufmann, 687).
10. Hoover, 13.
11. Peters, 57.
12. Ibid., 66. For more on the fallout of the Lou episode, see Hoover, 13.
13. Ibid., 74.
14. Ibid., 72.
15. Ibid., 125.
16. Ibid., 134. Elisabeth was always very anxious about money, and was somewhat shameless in her attempts to acquire it.
17. Ibid., 143.
18. Ibid., 148.
19. Ibid., 151.
20. H.L. Mencken was in no rush to depict Nietzsche as a friend of Jews, nor were most of his devotees. Aschheim, 233.
21. Aschheim, 234.
22. Kaufmann, 676.
23. Aschheim, 240. The author notes that "...only one half of {Nietzsche's head}, ironically, was visible." But the Nazi's used probably even less than half of Nietzsche's ideas, and were forced to discard all mention of Dionysus and the concept of eternal return.
24. Ibid., 239.
25. Peters, 181.
26. Ibid., 227.
27. Ibid., 184.


Aschheim, Steven E. The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890-1990. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

Hoover, A.J. Friedrich Nietzsche: His Life and Thought. London: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Kaufmann, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1982.

Nietzsche, Elisabeth F. The Nietzsche-Wagner Correspondence. New York: Liveright Publishing, Inc., 1921.

“Nietzsche, Friedrich.” My Sister and I. New York: Bridgehead Books, 1951.

Peters, H.F. Zarathustra's Sister: The Case of Elisabeth and Friedrich Nietzsche. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1977.

Messages with Cletus the Foetus concerning Nietzsche and Syphilis:

"Cletus the Foetus says re Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche: "then in the grips of a syphillitic euphoria" is kinda disingenuous -- if this disease was really the cause of his madness, it is not considered to have played any role in his behavior or health before late 1888."

I responded by saying that most of the scholars I had encountered claimed that, on the contrary, the cyclic periods of elation and despair Nietzsche encountered for much of his later life was the direct result of syphilis, contracted earlier.

"Cletus the Foetus says That really sounds like the sort of thing that someone would say if they were trying to make his ideas less legitimate, by suggesting that his most productive period was a syphillitic haze. Or at least, it sounds like something someone would say, who just didn't know what euphoria actually was, or was like."

I responded by noting that nearly every book book I've read claims that Nietzsche suffered from syphilis from as early as 1870, and the thoroughly comprehensive history of Nietzsche's diagnosis (and Elisabeth's attempts to suppress it) are available at http://poxhistory.com/work12.htm as well as many other sites. Many scholars and admirers set the probable date of contraction at 1867, in fact.

"Cletus the Foetus says I still think it's a little arbitrary and ex post facto. By what standard could a lightning inspiration be judged pathological? Let alone due to a specific nervous condition? -- even if we knew that such a pathology would develop later. Seems like it's pushing speculation a little far, ya dig?"

I appreciate his point, that there is something strangely reductive and presumptuous about doctors determining that what Nietzsche percieved to be flashes of genius were really just organic brain problems. But of course, it isn't that simple, and it doesn't derogate someone's ideas to say that they had a physical or mental illness, unless one feels that such people are incapable of meaningful thought. Besides, the diagnosis is quite clear: syphilis follows a clear pattern and was extremely common in Nietzsche's time; his sickness, which he describes in tremendous detail in his diaries and letters, matches that pattern, and there is no other explanation for his constant pain, mental instability, collapse, and death.

Simply reading Ecce Homo demonstrates amply that something had gone wrong, and since syphilis is a recurrent but not constant infection, it just makes sense.

"Cletus the Foetus says Yes, but Ecce Homo was his last big project, and it was completed in late 1888, only very shortly before his final "breakdown" (which kinda puts an artificial cast of suddenness on the whole process). To suggest that even his earlier work was the product of a diseased mind seems to me to be consummately tacky. Even as late as "The Antichrist" he was perfectly able to communicate rationally (though the nature of his delirium never really prevented that, so much as that it made it difficult because what he would communicate was itself so agitated). Anyway, yeah, sure, you can include everything I've said, though of course I'm not a Nietzsche scholar."

I do not feel that I am being tacky by reporting what all the scholarship on Nietzsche claims, nor do I feel that it is insulting to suggest that his mind was diseased. Many of us have diseased minds in one way or another, and I doubt that Strauss or Van Gogh would assent to the idea that mental illness bars one from creating art or ideas of significance or brilliance. Syphilis may have destabilzed him, but we are all aware of the complex relationships between mental irregularity and creativity, between "otherness" and vision.

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