Nietzsche, Tragedy and German Sovereignty over Europe

Following on from yesterday’s post on ancient tragedy and Athenian claims to sovereignty over Greece, it’s appropriate to think where Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy might fit.  The book has two parts, sections 1 to 16 on Greek tragedy and the rest on Wagner.  The earlier sections attract a lot more attention and interest than the latter sections.  This is tied up with Nietzsche’s German nationalism of the time.  Then, as later, Nietzsche did not aim to be a political thinker (despite which I find him to be very important as a political thinker in an indirect fragmentary kind of way), but he was undoubtedly enthused by the new German state, the Hohenzollern Empire, instituted by Bismarck after the 1870 Prussian defeat of France.  What was really important to Nietzsche was the Wagnerian opera which he thought was a renewal of the tragic unity of the Apolline (representation) and the Dionysian (embodiment).    

The German Empire was the new strong state in Europe and Wagner promised a renewed cultural redemption for Europe based in Germany.  All this stuff is not why anyone is interested in Birth of Tragedy, but Nietzsche remains true to the cultural and loose political imperialism of Greek tragedy.  Just as there was no European state in 1870, but there was Germany with a claim to arbitrate for  a recognisable political space of the European powers, in Ancient Greece there was nı unifying state, but Athens could very reasonably claim to be the cultural centre of Greece, and could make claimed, if a flawed one, to being the political leader.  

Germany of the 1870s was not culturally dominant in the way Athens was but could make a better claim to political and military leadership.  Not so much domination as the essential factor for European stability.  Germany could not claim to be the centre of democracy in Europe as Athens was in Greece.  The fall of the Second Empire in France as a result of defeat by Prussia, meant that France had some claim to be the democratic centre, along with Britain as the liberal and commercial centre, while Germany grew as an industrial as well military land power centre.  

With Wagnerianism and German nationalism, there is a kind of repetition of the Athenian claim to cultural and political hegemony, though the politics is one of  constitutional semi-democratic traditionalist conservatism, and most would take France, particularly Paris as the cultural centre of 19th century Europe.  Athenian claims to political leadership ended with the Peloponnesian War, and were crushed by the Macedonians after that.  Germany’s ambitions went down in flames in the First World War, a defeat ending in an expansionist totalitarian regime which ended in a Wagnerian apocalypse.  The idea of a Wagnerian cultural politics dominating Europe were confirmed in a dismal way, evidently not wished for by Nietzsche in 1872.  

Nietzsche pushed pass the Wagnerian-German nationalist phase to a grand politics of Europe based on a cultural transformation, which is his rather than Wagner’s, which has Goethe as a cultural exemplar though in a rather less dominant role than that assigned to Wagner before.  Dostoevsky and Stendhal also come into the great culture of Europe of the time.  One way of thinking of Nietzsche’s development is the move away from a Neo-Athenian dream of German political and cultural dominance, as if Greece had become a cultural union in which the politics was grand.  We could see Greece under Alexander the Great in those terms, but this is really the end of Athenian dominance in culture, accompanied by a fragmentation of Alexander’s empire.  

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche, Tragedy and German Sovereignty over Europe

  1. Firstly, thank you for a very interesting and thought-provoking blog.

    One thing that caught my attention in this post is that you state that Nietzsche is a political thinker, as a minimum in an “indirect fragmentary kind of way.” In my experience I have found that many scholars of Nietzsche do not accept, or rather do not notice (depending on how you see it), that Nietzsche’s political thought is of crucial significance.

    I have two questions:

    1. How would you advise one to pursue discovering Nietzsche’s political thought, due to said nature of it in his writing? Have you found it fruitful to play with the fragments from various texts of Nietzsche’s that talk directly about, for example, the state, politics, Europe and nationalism, in order to deduce a continuous, coherent theory?

    2. Would you please be able to clarify what evidence you are referring to here: “The idea of a Wagnerian cultural politics dominating Europe were confirmed in a dismal way, evidently not wished for by Nietzsche in 1872.”

    I look forward to your response; thank you for reading.

    • Hello Helena

      Thanks very much for your kind comment and your interesting questions.

      1. What you say is part of what I do. However, I think it is also worth reading some books by Nietzsche (Birth of Tragedy, On the Genealogy of Morals) as treatises on political theory, which is an exaggeration, but a fruitful one. There are some sections of books also worth reading like this (‘A Glance at the State’ in Human, All Too Human, ‘People and Fatherlands’ in Beyond Good and Evil).

      2. When I referred to Wagnerian cultural politics dominating Europe, I was referring to Naziism, which is a bit harsh on Wagner, but there is a more direct line from his cultural politics to Naziism than is the case with Nietzsche. I’m sure Nietzsche did not wish for something like the Nazi regime, his rejection of anti-semitism and German nationalism ensure that. I don’t think Wagner would have been happy with Nazi criminality, but lie some other idealist romantic German nationalists, lie those round Stefan George, I strongly suspect he would have been too willing to embrace an idealised version of Naziism. Like Stauffenberg, a member of the George circle, he might have redeemed himself later, though I have some doubts about whether Wagner was capable of that kind of self-sacrifice.

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