Darwin, Nietzsche, and Hitler: Evolution of the Ubermensch
Judging by the number of posts, my recent column “Darwin and Hitler…in their Own Words” set the fur a-flying. Many folks just don’t like it when you trace a revered scientific icon to an icon of evil. Small wonder. Too bad it’s true.
Not to rub too much salt in the wound, but Darwinism is responsible for a lot more destruction than the eugenic fantasies of the Third Reich. He can also claim substantial patrimony for the rantings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that likewise inspired the intellectuals that surrounded and supported Hitler’s scheme.
Nietzsche is famous for declaring that “God is dead,” and asserting in his infamous Beyond Good and Evil, that mere morality, like religion, is for cowering slaves. The future must belong to the real masters, proclaimed Nietzsche just before the horrors of the 20th century, to those who disregard moral limits, override distinctions between good and evil, and shedding charity for cruelty, impose their will on others for the sake of their own earthly glory.
Ah, the übermensch, the super-man, the new man, the master. Where did he come from?
Darwin, at least in partial pedigree. Evolution means that human nature is malleable. It was produced by the struggle to survive, and that same struggle can push it upwards to something even greater. As Darwin makes clear in his Descent of Man, his very rejection of the belief that human nature is defined by God, allows for the possibility of creating a super-man from man, for “the fact of his having thus risen” by evolution to where he is, “instead of having been aboriginally placed there” by God, “may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”
So how do you go up? On the evolutionary ladder, the same way you got there — by conflict, where those with superior traits extinguish those with inferior traits. As Darwin made clear, human evolution takes place by conflict and conquering, even the evolution of moral traits like fidelity and courage.
“When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included…a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all-important, in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be."
Now let’s hear from Nietzsche, whose words sound so like Darwin’s, albeit with a sharper rhetorical edge.
“Let us admit to ourselves…how every higher culture on earth so far has begun. Human beings whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey who were still in possession of unbroken strength of will and lust for power, hurled themselves upon weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races…”
The will-to-power. A more savage, but also more spiritualized form of Darwinism. More savage, because Nietzsche chooses to emphasize what Darwin mutes, that it is the savage destruction of one tribe by another, just as it the destruction of one species by another, that eliminates the weak and carries forth the new-found powers of the strong.
“The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy” argues Nietzsche, is that it “accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments.” The “fundamental faith” of the aristocracy, then, is that “society” exists for them, for their sake, so that all the lesser types who serve them in society exist “only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being…”
A higher state of being, the übermensch, who cares nothing for those upon whom he steps to go up the evolutionary slope — that is Nietzsche’s goal. Whatever Darwin would have thought of the evolution of his view of human evolution, Nietzsche takes it to be the ultimate understanding.
For Nietzsche, these were not merely philosophic ruminations, as some scholars like to claim. Nietzsche thought we were slipping back down the evolutionary slope to the “last man,” something a bit above the bovine, and the only thing that could drive upwards, was a great conflict. Writing before World War I, as a kind of preacher and prophet, he believed the “‘European problem’” could be solved by “the cultivation of a new caste that will rule Europe.” To revive Europe, a great danger must present itself, thought Nietzsche, one that calls forth once again the desire to fight and conquer:
“I mean such an increase in the menace of Russia [for example] that Europe would have to resolve to become menacing, too, namely, to acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe, a long, terrible will of its own that would be able to cast its goals millennia hence — so that the long-drawn-out comedy of its many splinter states as well as its dynastic and democratic splinter wills would come to an end. The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth — the compulsion to large-scale politics.”
One cannot help but hear the marching boots of the Third Reich, an obvious inference that some liberal propagandists of Nietzsche vehemently deny. But it is not enough to find scattered pro-Jewish and anti-German statements in Nietzsche to clear him of such charges. While Nietzsche may not have approved of the particularities of how Hitler answered the call, he rightly receives the blame for having issued the call that Hitler, in his own way, answered. Ditto for Darwin. While Nietzsche put a new spin on Darwin, Darwin must answer for making such a spin so easy and inviting.