Previous prominent Prussian thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt saw moral value and the enhancement of individual capacities in war, even if their overall political vision was liberal, pacific and cosmopolitan.
Even war, if it is conducted with order and reverence for the rights of civilians, has something sublime about it, and at the same time makes the mentality of the people who conduct it in this way all the more sublime, the more dangers it has been exposed to and before which it has been able to assert its courage; whereas a long peace causes the spirit of mere commerce to predominate, along with base selfishness, cowardice and weakness, and usually debases the mentality of the populace. (Critique of the Power of Judgment Prussian Academy Edition 5.63.)
[W]ar seems to be one of the most salutary phenomena for the culture of human nature; and it is not without regret that I see it disappearing more and more from the scene. It is the fearful extremity through which all that active courage—all that endurance and fortitude—are steeled and tested, which afterward achieve such varied results in the ordinary conduct of life, and which alone give it that strength and diversity, without which facility is weakness, and unity is inanity. (The Limits of State Action, Chapter V. Humboldt)
We can see both in Kant, the academic philosopher, and Humboldt the state servant as well as a writer on politics and language, that war, culture, and ethical goals are interactive and mutually reinforcing. The related way of thinking of Prussia, or Prussian led Germany, as possessing both cultural and heroic virtues precedes them and goes up to the disintegration of that legacy in the total defeat of Germany in 1945 and forms a large part of the context of Nietzsche’s thought.
Nietzsche was not himself from the Prussian lands of Frederick the Great’s time, but his home town of Röcken, along with the rest of northern Saxony, was absorbed into Prussia at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently, Nietzsche had an early inclination towards the Prussian military tradition, welcoming the chance to perform his military service as a cavalry man and we can presume thinking of himself as spiritually descended from the Greek warrior heroes of antiquity.
The idea that a Hohenzollern German officer had such a spiritual ancestry can be found as late as Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain [Der Zauberberg, 1924], and indeed even later in a real life character such as Claus von Stauffenburg. That is the World War Two colonel famous for his attempted assassination of Hitler. He was a man of considerable literary and cultural sensibility, part of the ‘Secret Germany’ circle round Stefan George, influenced by Nietzsche amongst other German writers of an ‘aristocratic’ spirit.
Stauffenberg was also a man of considerable classical learning and historical conciseness of Medieval Germany warrior Emperors, following on from the connections of his ancestors at that time. Stauffenberg was Swabian rather than Prussian, but given his life and military career took place some time after Prussia absorbed the whole of Germany, we can reasonably place him in connection with Prussian tradition.
Leaving aside the discredited attempts of National Socialist ideologues and hangers on to appropriate Nietzsche, he was one point of reference for aristocratic officers of the thirties and forties, who placed themselves within a tradition of aesthetic and intellectual excellence, merging martial and intellectual virtues. Stauffenberg was clearly something of an exception in his high cultural level, but he is recognisably a product of a military-aristocratic tradition which at all times was exceptional in its adherence to the initiative of officers. It provided a sphere of educated individuality at times when the Prussian-German state was autocratic and promoted social conformity.
Another example of the last years of this tradition is the great grand nephew of Moltke the Elder, Helmuth James von Moltke. He was a member of Kreisau Circle, opposed to Hitler, some of whose members were associated with the Stauffenberg conspiracy, and Moltke himself was executed in 1945. While it it true that the Stauffenberg and Kreisau circles were aristocratic and conservative (though Stauffenberg himself had relations with the leftwing parts of the Widerstand), and were late in attempting assassination, anyone who studies these movements and the leading members will see that there is more to them than just cliques of nationalist aristocrats opportunistically breaking with Hitler when it became clear the war was lost, though there was certainly an element of that.
The Prussian (in association with other German regions) aristocrat-officer class was certainly culpable for at least co-operating with the National Socialists and even supporting Nazi ideology in many cases, and having an anti-democratic attitude in the Weimar republic, but people like Moltke and Stauffenberg showed something else within that tradition, paying the highest price for doing so. This takes us beyond Nietzsche in time and beyond philosophical discussion, but it does give useful indications of what it was exactly that Nietzsche was initially sympathising with and then criticising.
(to be continued)