Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

Nietzsche and Hitler

After World War I, Germany set up a democratic constitution, but when its money lost value, the economy collapsed. Soon the Great Depression that spread across Europe and America took its toll. The country craved a leader, paving the way for Adolph Hitler, who resented the peace settlement from the previous war and hated Germany's enemies. Millions voted Hitler and his Nazi Party into power. In 1933, he declared the Third Reich, setting out to restore Germany's power. Hitler used his Gestapo to stomp out all "enemies of the state," and many people were sent to concentration camps, even as the build-up of armaments strengthened the country's spirit. But Hitler also envisioned the possibility of a purified master race of Aryans—symbolic of what he lacked in himself—so he instituted the wide-scale persecution of inferior races, notably the Jews. He wanted to purge them from his nation.

Adolf Hitler, 1936
Adolf Hitler, 1936

In 1939, with the support of Germany and fascist Italy, General Franco won the Spanish civil war, inspiring Hitler. When he grabbed control of Czechoslovakia, France and Britain issued warnings, but Hitler went ahead and invaded Poland, igniting World War II. By 1942, as he occupied sixteen countries, he secretly exterminated millions of Jews and other social or racial "misfits" in concentration camps and mass shootings. Was he inspired by Nietzsche?

The Nazi Invasion of Poland
The Nazi Invasion of Poland

It's well-known that after Nietzsche went insane for ten years before his death in 1900, his sister Elizabeth managed his literary estate and twisted his writings to support aggressive regimes such as Hitler and the Nazis. Some sources indicate that Hitler had one of Nietzsche's books, Thus Spake Zarathustra, issued to his soldiers. It spoke of the new age of truth in morality and power. William Shirir writes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that while Nietzsche was never anti-Semitic, Hitler basically saw what he wanted to see in Nietzsche's writings. "Hitler often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and published his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man."

Book cover: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Book cover: The Rise and Fall
of the Third Reich

Thus, regardless of what he hoped for, Nietzsche offered grounds for the reprehensible Nazi ideology of a superior race exercising its will to power as it saw fit. Hitler was living out what Nietzsche had envisioned, trying to prove himself to be the Übermensch and the precursor of the Master race. He despised weakness as much as Nietzsche did and wanted to "transvalue" the current social values into something that supported the aggressive instinct. He wanted to become, as Nietzsche called it, a "lord of the earth."

Like some killers today, Hitler appropriated Nietzsche's ideas and made them his own. It may not have been Nietzsche's intent to have his themes taken out of context, but few thinkers have the luxury of controlling what others do with their work. It's unlikely he would have viewed a petty, dysfunctional and tyrannical little man like Hitler as the Übermensch that would usher in a new age of self-realization and cultural achievement. Yet Hitler was indeed a "monster filled with joy" with the "conscience of a beast of prey," as Nietzsche described. Vague phrasing provided a certain flexibility of interpretation.

And in other ways, too, Nietzsche's influence has been pervasive. Warmongers took up his philosophy, as well as other philosophers, artists and poets. It's no wonder that there's been a widespread cultural influence from Nietzsche's time that persists even today. Whether young minds bent on aggression come across him in a classroom or just hear some popular (and often distorted) rendition of his ideas in music or movies, there's no doubt that he resonates with a certain breed of killer. Let's look at a film that both captured this relationship and spawned it.

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