Why was Nietzsche misunderstood? Philosophy isn't necessarily easy to understand, but with e.g. the nazis, was it a malicious misreading of him that set germany on the road to extreme fascism? Is it sufficient to not join any political parties to avoid misappropriating him, and if not then what is going on here?

  • 4
    The poetic, bordering on cryptic way he wrote is probably a key factor.
    – armand
    Jan 10 at 0:45
  • It is not so much "misunderstanding", but "used". Nietzsche was read and well-known since the 1880's: "By World War I, Nietzsche had acquired a reputation as an inspiration for right-wing German militarism and leftist politics [please, note:"leftist"]. From 1888 through the 1890s there were more publications of Nietzsche works in Russia than in any other country. Nietzsche was influential among the Bolsheviks. " 1/2 Jan 11 at 9:32
  • 2
    I think we can't really listen (read understand) anybody, we hear what we want and then draw out selfish conclusions from it. Nitzche or any other philosopher can't be understood truly, we can have information about their philosophy or can use them to support our ego as Hitler did.
    – Junsui
    Jan 13 at 10:12
  • 1
    Misunderstood by whom? Your question is far too broad. Please specify the particular misunderstanding you had in mind. If you are referring only to the appropriation of Nietzche by the Nazis, how do you know it was a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate distortion? Feb 9 at 10:43
  • 1
    In a strong sense Nietzsche was before his time, not just at his time but even today 1½ century later. See. Thus is what makes him tantalizingly attractive but also inscrutable
    – Rushi
    Feb 9 at 11:32

7 Answers 7


Nietzsche was to Nazism what Darwin was to eugenics, Marx to Stalinsim and so on - justification via selective reading. Nietzsche's sister played an important role in his association with Nazism, but ultimately his contribution was quite limited. Nazism, like most political movements, cherry picked from any and every philosophy, religion and movement that might be seen to prove the ideological point. So whilst a superficial understanding of the ubermensch might appeal to fascist ideology, the rejection of assumed authority it results in does not fit so easily, but if you read the ubermensch through the lens of aryan supremacy and throw in some norse mythology a bit of social Darwinsim and some selective Marxist materialism and whole load of fascism and let it cook in the disaffected minds of 1920s Germany (and Europe in general if we are going to be honest) - hey presto you end up with Nazism.


This isn't precisely a matter of 'misunderstanding'. Philosophy is a tool (a tool for examining and improving one's life), but like any tool it's dangerous in the hands of novices, and open to misuse by malicious actors. What happened in Germany was essentially what happens inside any malignant spiritual or religious cult: someone takes high-minded, idealistic words and uses them to promote low-minded, degraded behavior. The Nazis specifically reached out to a group of frustrated, disempowered, disheartened people and used the Nietzschean ideal to inspire those people to break free of social 'morality' structures that (ostensibly) constrained and oppressed them. But the Nazis never encouraged people to do the philosophical work of defining or discovering higher-order morality (never taught them how to use Nietzsche's tool properly). They merely used the ideal to break the moral order, so that Nazi ideology could fill the void.

Nietzsche's philosophy was a rejection of nihilism. The Nazis used it to generate nihilism, so that no moral argument could counter their goals or actions. It's no different than Cristians or Muslims (both self-defined religions of peace) calling for the blood of the other side. A real Nietschean could have overcome the Nazi misapplication, but real philosophers are few and far between. Most everyone else cannot easily see when a principle in words is being used against itself in action.

One should never philosophize incautiously…

  • why not a misunderstanding? i'm with you with i guess the rest of it
    – user70707
    Jan 10 at 4:30
  • 2
    @halp: Because the failure isn't in understanding, exactly. The failure is in application or consequential understanding. To use my other example, if someone says 'God is love', they surely understand the words well enough. But the problem comes from applying them in a world filled with hatred, violence, and difference. Philosophy is the art/science of understanding how to understand and apply the words in the world. Jan 10 at 4:56
  • i think the difference between understanding and wrong application is forced.
    – user70707
    Jan 10 at 5:29
  • 1
    @halp: If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty, I'm going to tell you that an overt philosophy is an effort to express a particular 'attitude' — a way of holding/presenting oneself with respect to the world — in language. Ultimately it's the organic 'attitude' one want's to grasp; the words are just a vehicle. But one has to develop into the attitude, which means learning to drive the vehicle. And even good drivers sometimes take wrong turns. Jan 10 at 6:35
  • 3
    @halp: The Nazis were interested in Nietzsche's work (in part, at least) because they were looking for a philosophical justification of the 'Master Race' concept, and a lot of N's writing could be read that way superficially. It was teleological reasoning: they knew the goal they wanted to reach, and N could be read towards that goal, and he was German, and modern, so they went with it. I don't think they ever really tried to grasp the 'attitude' behind the writing, because that certainly wouldn't have served their purpose. Jan 10 at 6:43

Did the Nazi's misunderstand Nietzsche, or did they understand himself too well? Consider aphorism 872 from his Will to Power:

The great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.

The Jews were unfit, so were the romanies, the mentally ill, and likewise the darker races. Why should I admire Nietzsche given he thinks the Indians were an 'unfit people' who do not have the 'right to life'?

This tallies with an aphorism from his Anti-Christ:

The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall even be given every possible assistance

And didn't the Nazi's think the Jews were unfit people, and didn't they give them "every possible assistance" into the gas chambers along with the Romanies and mentally ill? And didn't this derive from their "love of man" because they didn't want the 'weaker' races polluting their bloodlines so as to breed the super Aryan?

  • a fair enough answer, though i don't neecessarily want to upvote it
    – andrós
    Apr 14 at 4:59


an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

And surely we can fetishise ideals, especially when they reproduce capital

The mistaken view that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and the corresponding failure to appreciate the investment of labour that went into its production.


Surely the ubermensch itself, even if achievable and especially if it's all that matters, is not especially interesting. Construct a just so story that whenever we stub our foot, the anger associated with it signals that the external world is unreal, and posit that this means that the near unachievable ideal is to have very strong toes.

Make is appealing with some nice shoes.

  • kinda fun to say, though i should add that ofc idk barely anything about the topic of how important nietzsche was, let alone why etc
    – user70707
    Jan 10 at 4:22
  • Something caught your attention about it, so see what it was.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 9 at 14:46

Was he misunderstood in the first place?

Disclaimer: My knowledge about Nietzsche is quite limited and I've only read fragments of his work or secondary thoughts about him. So take it with a grain of salt and correct where necessary.

The way I understand it Nietzsche essentially argued that the enlightenment killed god. That is the previous moral code of a universal morality, handed down by a god and propagated by the church has been exposed as a fraud and thus god is dead and we killed him.

Nietzsche apparently extensively rants about this fraud essentially thinking he uncovered that this fraud is an example of a "slave morality", i.e. a morality of slaves that define their masters as evil and as good what is not the master's. And conjectures that this is basically bound to perpetuate and intensify the enslavement because a) they literally define themselves by their antagonists, thus can't be without it and b) in the consequence of rejecting what is the master's they also end up rejecting their own freedom and agency of themselves as evil. And thus end up with enslavement as a virtue.

And apparently is really not a fan of that, but instead tries to push the idea of a new morality of the "free individual" who is the "master of their own fate", one might say a "master morality". Now a truly free person can't be bound to the categories of "good" and "evil", because if they were then whomever is "evil" would truly be their master as they'd be the source of their morality. So in consequence you need to become that master. Which you might be able to read as a positive affirmation of life, as becoming your own source of morality as defining new categories of "good" and "bad" with respect to what suits you and your goals and what doesn't. While on the other hand you might also come away from that with the idea that being the master,i.e. being evil is actually good.

I guess Nietzsche would not be a fan of the latter interpretation as that is still kind of a slave morality where you just swapped the labels of "good" and "evil" but still define yourself by an other and still kinda reject your own agency. Something like a "what would Jesus NOT do". Though given that he was careful not to place any restrictions on your own morality, while arguing against classic ideas of what is and isn't moral, you might also come away from that with the idea that agency really is about subjugating others and being an asshole.

Or the other way around, Nietzsche would not have a problem with you doing that, as long as you did so in pursuit of your own moral.

Now whether that creates a problem with Nazi ideology depends on how much you believe, that they believed their own propaganda.

Like ultimately the ideology that they propagated would, irrespective of being objectively bullshit and genocidal, also be in contradiction with what I got from Nietzsche. Like the idea of a "master race" just makes no sense in this framework. First of all, afaik, Nietzsche was not a darwinist, the ascension of the übermensch comes from taking control of one's own morality, NOT by eugenics and evolution. And crucially the master is a free individual, not a group... A whole race of those would either have no master (which Nietzsche would probably again reject as slave morality where the individual is suppressing their own uniqueness, agency and freedom in favor of other people) or there would be competition for the position of the master, which you can read as darwinism but which in his framework would neither favor the strongest nor fittest, but the one being the most themselves, even if that meant hardship and trouble, actually especially if it meant that.

Though that assumes that the idea of a master race was issued in good faith. But for example the Nazis tried to keep their clubs and institution elite, as soon as their popularity increased they shut down membership admission and as soon as their thug army of useful idiots increased in size, popularity and power (SA) they killed their leaders and created a new and even more elite one (SS). They wanted followers and useful idiots not a "master race". They literally advocated for the perfect human to be "Fast as a greyhound, tough as leather, hard as Kruppsteel" or how it's often lampooned "dumb, strong and water resistant". Those aren't qualities of the Übermensch, these are qualities of a tool, so if you want to be sarcastic rather those of an Untermensch (subhuman) and that was their ideal for members of what were supposed to be their own team...

So while the ideology that they propagated was in contrast with Nietzsche's ideas and rather makes followers of it, useful idiots/tools and trapped in a slave morality... it is not actually necessary that he Nazi leaders actually believed that. Like maybe their quest for power was after all less of a "race struggle" and more of personal struggle for power? In that case they might have been in the clear (at least with respect to Nietzsche) in terms of subjugating others, lying, deceiving, oppressing and killing others as long as that served their own egoistic goal, that would have been "good"... After all killing people and taking their stuff sure (at least at first) served their hedonistic pleasures (if they weren't bothered with the morality of that or adopted one where that isn't a problem) or torturing people might have served their "scientific curiosity".

Now what they believed in particular is a matter for historians and I do not want to entertain a narrative that the Nazi crimes were just the result of their upper echelon, as there were far more willing participants in that, which directly and indirectly made it possible. The point is rather that Nietzsche could actually be read as supportive of these things, without a necessary misunderstanding (under certain assumptions). Also it would not be the most despicable crimes that would necessarily produce the problems but rather the slave mentality of their followers willing to go along with it.

And in that regard Nietzsche is probably just abused in order to entertain the idea of morality being obsolete, in order to better subjugate them to a new morality, presented as their own, but only meant to be accepted not actually crafted or negotiated.


One way to answer is what would Nietzsche think of the nazis, an illustration of his ideas or herd animals drunk on the moral value of political power, which just happened to be fascistic? It is not that nazis were universally stupid or psychopathic or even authoritarian that I would think he wouldn't really care if they left him and his "type" alone, and I doubt he was so anti-semitic that he felt nazism was of benefit, if they had won the war.

In general, I would be wary of claims of anyone being the overman, since Nietzsche.


If someone is NOT misunderstood, then he is probably not worth reading!

You must log in to answer this question.