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Is Friedrich Nietzsche, history’s most misunderstood philosopher?

Nietzsche, the most misunderstood philosopher of them all, was born today. On his birthday, a list of others whose ideas and words have been spectacularly misappropriated.

books Updated: Oct 15, 2016 14:03 IST
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas were appropriated by the Nazis as a justification for their twisted actions.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas were appropriated by the Nazis as a justification for their twisted actions. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Friedrich Nietzsche was born today in 1844. It’s been more than a century since his death (1900) and more than 50 years since he was internationally recognised as a major philosopher. But he’s still known as a man who inspired the Nazis.

Nietzsche is part of a longer list of people whose pioneering ideas and iconic words earned unexpected, even chilling, followers. A recent example: Queen and The Rolling Stones objected to US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign playing their songs at their events.

The Nazis took Nietzsche to heart

Friedrich Nietzsche (L) and Adolf Hitler (R) (Source: Wikimedia Commons )

Adolf Hitler was a voracious reader always looking for words that reinforced his twisted ideas. And he took to Nietzsche who had very complex, existential ideas about morality, power and human will: to be brutally simple, he rejected higher powers and other worlds, and celebrated individualism.

But the Nazis took his writings - about “the will to power,” “übermenschlich” (superman) and “blond beast” ( a controversial term often believed to be a reference to lions) - literally. Driven by a deeply racist and inhuman ideology, the Nazi state killed at least 11 million people, including six million Jews, many of whom perished in concentration camps. The regime also targeted many other groups : Slavs, gypsies, people of different religious groups, homosexuals, the differently abled and the mentally ill.

Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster, who supported the Nazis, inherited most of her brother’s works after he died. It’s her totalitarian, racist forewords and interpretations that sealed Nietzsche’s reputation for a long time.

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Social Darwinism is not Darwinism

Charles Darwin (L) and Francis Galton (R) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and “survival of the fittest” was transplanted from its original field - evolutionary biology - to everyday life. The result was horrifying: the idea that survival and success were a sign of superior morality or character. So inequality was the fault, not of social or economic factors, but of evolutionary traits.

Francis Galton (who was also Darwin’s cousin) took this idea further with “eugenics” - the belief that “negative” traits, from poverty to mental illness, can be bred out by controlled reproduction. This was something that some countries actually tried doing when they sterilised women of “poor or mixed racial quality.” In fact, many modern programs to control population such as incentives for family planning have their roots in eugenics.

Too many dictators loved Marx

Pol Pot (L) and Karl Marx (R) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

No one, arguably, has been more misappropriated than Karl Marx. His call for a revolution kickstarted a century of working class movements and produced some of history’s most enduring ideas. It also inspired some of 20th century’s most brutal dictators.

Joseph Stalin, the murderous heir to the Russian state, imprisoned and executed hundreds of Communist party members, government officials and Soviets who opposed him, including artists, composers and writers. Millions died in harsh labour camps or starved in famines. Nearly 20 million people are believed to have died under Stalin’s rule. Similar fates awaited those who lived under Mao Zedong’s China and reeled under the Red Army’s violent march across the country, artificially created food shortages and systematic torture and killing. Cambodia’s Pol Pot and his party, Khmer Rouge, did all of this and more - from forced labour to torture to mass executions.

All of them established totalitarian states and ruling elites even as they claimed to identify with Communism’s radical notions of a stateless and classless society.

“Helter Skelter,” the Manson version

The Beatles (L) and Charles Manson (R) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If you google “Helter Skelter,” Wikipedia throws up two entries: the 1968 single by The Beatles and mass-murderer Charles Manson’s interpretation of the song - that it was symbolic of an inevitable race war between White people and Black people in America. The song was, in fact, named after a slide in an amusement park.

But Manson, according to one of this followers, would listen to the song “over and over and over again,” convinced that The Beatles were singing about something he had been predicting for a long time - a hellish race war.

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