Protect by the Sword, Win by the Intellect


Friedrich Nietzsche held more relevance in the thoughts of German intellectuals than any other philosopher on the eve of the First World War, partly because he had laid a dialectical basis for justifying conquest and power, but also because he asserted that life inherently had no meaning, which drove the German desire to reason that war was purposeful for a nation. To be clear, when Nietzsche wrote about war his connotation of the word was fitted under the context of individualism, in that instead of adhering to any idealism, a man should struggle through reality in order to reach his highest form, or, “Ubermacht.” Conversely, the German politician and historian Heinrich von Treitschke propounded national solidarity in a way that was inconsistent with, but still influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas. Treitschke advocated patriotism as a means to achieve a higher form of power. Treitschke’s piece, “The Greatness of War” asserted that the pursuit of peace was in itself reactionary, given the supposed natural inclination for war that superior races inherently felt. Treitschke even borrowed phrases from Nietzsche, such as “the Will,” which he used in a more simple manner by arguing that “Those that preach the nonsense about everlasting peace do not understand the life of the Aryan race, the Aryans are before all brave. They have always been men enough to protect by the sword what they had won by the intellect.” Nietzsche on the other hand, was not writing about war in a literal sense, but in a figurative way when he wrote in The Will to Power about the struggle to achieve a higher form of being, whom many Germans thereafter concluded must be none other than members of the Teutonic race. However, Nietzsche did not focus on Germans as a race as much as his fellow countrymen believed, instead, he was ambiguous and even at times ambivalent about German intellectual supremacy, rather choosing to speak in broad terms on the constant vying for power by the races of Europe.

Yet it was not far-fetched for contemporary German intellectuals to apply Nietzsche’s work to the idea of the German man’s ascendancy over other Europeans, as seen through an excerpt from The Will to Power, in which the philosopher seemed to call for: “The annihilation of the decaying races… -The annihilation of slavish evaluations. -Dominion over the earth as a means of producing a higher type…” It could be said that Treitschke offered the same argument just in different words- that Germany had an intellectual right to conquer other nations as a way of extending a higher being’s (the Aryan’s) influence over the world in order to better humanity. The Prussian general and military historian Friedrich von Bernhardi agreed with Treitschke, and even took the idea to a whole new level when he exclaimed in his famous pre-World War One book Germany and the Next War that “war is a biological necessity” -a concept undoubtedly conceived from late 19th century Social Darwinist notions of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. And yet, militarism and nihilism were not interchangeable ideas, but rather, the advent of nihilism as focused on by Nietzsche gave birth to an uncanny modern form of militarism that was meant to intellectually justify war -in that Christian notions of humility and compassion taught by Jesus were crushed altogether. Although some would argue this as irrelevant because war had been justified as a necessity throughout the era of widespread Christian intellectual dominance and even post-Enlightenment (which Nietzsche despised as much as Christianity). Thus, a militaristic mindset had been prominent in German and European culture for millennia, but Nietzsche was the first to apply it in the modern sense through existential thought, and in turn influenced the likes of Treitschke and Bernhardi to evaluate war in a new conceptual manner, albeit from a nationalistic standpoint.

Treitschke, as a member of the National Liberal party in the Reichstag, was particularly concerned with the individual putting his country before all else, and in this way he justified war, while The Will to Power focused on the individual exerting his strength over others so much as there would be a select few who exhibited power over the herds of commoners that were more than a nuisance in that they threatened the well-being of mankind. Treitschke and Bernhardi applied this struggle specifically to Germany’s diplomatic crises before the war, as France had complained to her allies about the longstanding German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine (which was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war). The situation worsened during the Moroccan Crisis, which was a result of Kaiser Wilhelm II advocating independence for the North African country in order to aggravate France and test the resolve of her allies. Hence, in the years preceding the First World War Germans felt that the multitude of weak European states were ganging up on the fatherland- just as Nietszche argued that the weak masses had culturally supplanted (through democracy and socialism) those who deserved power for themselves alone.

Nietzsche’s concepts have been widely misunderstood and oversimplified.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

10 Responses to Protect by the Sword, Win by the Intellect

  1. Peruzzi says:

    Good article, very insightful. I’ve always found Nietsche to be a compelling author as opposed to an existential philosopher.

    • Against his advisement, Thus Spake Zarathustra was the first work of his that I read. Although I didn’t understand all the references back in high school, I agree, it was a compelling read.

  2. It seems to me that Nietzsche’s will to power is that which drives nature to the selection of her finest specimens, and thus individuals. The Nazi part seem to have hijacked his philosophy for their own use when in reality their nationalism was not what he had in mind for the ideal man. I imagine he’d see it like religion.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. Although in my first draft I didn’t stress that enough. I didn’t include the Nazi aspect because the mindset of those like Treitschke and Bernhardi was the basis for the Third Reich intelligentsia’s view of Nietzsche’s work.

      • Dizzy says:

        I concur. The Nazi’s did hijack his phoilosphy which cast an unfortunate shadow on interpretations of his work for decades.

        All this talk of war… My Grandad was a career soldier with the allies. He would always say, “The only real and lasting peace that can be made must be made with your enemies. It is the only way.” Truer words were never spoken. War is not the answer. My Grandad. My Hero. That statement has influenced me to no end.

        Great read!💋

  3. Thank-you for this illumination about the will to war.

  4. 12kilroy says:

    This is well done. I’ve always found impossible to reconcile Nietzsche’s view of the individual and the group notions of his ‘inheritors’. It’s just a matter of how do you get from one to the other? .

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