Friedrich III: A Vital Aspect of Judging Nietzsche Politically

There is stream of Nietzsche commentary which sees at the core of Nietzsche’s politics a devotion to Napoleon Bonaparte, and even more a devotion to Bonapartism as a  political principle, itself a modernised version of Caesarism.  Bonapartism as a political principle distinct from the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s, refers to a form of autocratic government based on the methods of the coup, and resting on military power but not a pure military government and lacking in the totalitarian ideology of fascism.  It amounts to a personalised rule legitimated by plebiscites and charisma without the constraints of a real separation of powers and balance of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state.  The original Caesarism become a hereditary system of Emperor rule.  Both Napoleon I and Napoleon III failed to establish a dynastic system lasting beyond their own falls from power.  

The enthusiasts for Bonapartist Nietzsche don’t so much take him as a deep Caesarist/Bonapartist, as someone whose thoroughgoing extreme elitism leads him to see Caesar/Bonaparte as the expression of a generalised belief that political and social arrangements should only be designed to suit some elite of exceptional humans.  So the Caesarist/Bonapartist interpretation of Nietzsche quickly runs into the problem that it cannot be Nietzsche’s ground belief.  Further problems arise around the Ceaserist/Bonapartist tendency to appeal to democratic will, through the mood of the Roman crowd in Caesar’s case; through plebiscites in the Bonapartist case.  While these can be regarded as manipulative and staged, they at least slightly undermine the supposed Nietzschean enthusiasm for unlimited autocracy.   Other problems arise with what this might have to do with Platonism, which is something the autocratic reading of Nietzsche lies to bring in, but then finds that a belief in semi-pacifism (war as strictly last resort and purely defensive) and the self-sacrificing nature of the philosopher-legislator elite.

The ramifications and ambiguities are endless.  I will concentrate of something more simple though, a quotation from part 1 of the Zarathustra section in Ecce Homo (Walter Kaufmann translation).


Mornings I would walk in a southerly direction of splendid road to Zoagli, going up past pines with a magnificent view of the sea; in the afternoon, whenever my health permitted it, I walked around the whole bay from Santa Margherita all the way to Portofino.  This place and this scenery came even closer to my heart because of the great love that Emperor Friedrich III felt for them; by chance, I was  in this coastal region again in the autumn of 1886, when he visited this small forgotten world of bliss for the last time.


Friedrich III reigned as King of Prussia and German Emperor for 99 days in 1888, until his life was cut short by illness. That 99 days makes his reign one day short of Napoleon I’s return as Emperor.  This is more a sign of difference than similarity.  Friedrich certainly did not plan to emulate Napoleon’s domination of Europe  or his energetic application of autocratic rule.  Friedrich was not happy with the weighting of the Prussian-German system to the power of the Emperor (often exercised in his name by the Chief Minister), the aristocracy (particularly in eastern Prussia), and the officer class (which heavily overlapped with the aristocracy).  He wished to move the alliance of National Liberals (rather conservative liberals), the Conservative Party and free conservatives (who were even more conservative), which was the basis of Imperial government in the Imperial parliament, to a situation in which the more radical liberals (who changed their name over time) who rather like the Liberal Party in Britain started as a small government free market kind of liberal party, and came under the influence of more interventionist regulatory welfare state liberals over time.  Friedrich was distinctly impressed by the British example, presumably helped by his wife Victoria who was the daughter of the British Queen of that name.  

Friedrich was also no Bonapartist in personality, displaying very little courage and self-confidence in opposing conservative institutional forces, while he was Crown Prince or King-Emperor.  As a self-conscious man of poor health, he does maybe have some resemblance to Nietzsche though.  It is not easy to see how Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Friedrich can be reconciled with the autocratic extreme elitist Bonapartist.  Perhaps Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Napoleon was an interest in seeing the ruthless power seeking state dominating side of politics made explicit.  Tt does not by any means exhaust his political models, or his philosophical views of politics.  

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