Count Harry Kessler received the news in the officers’ mess of his army regiment from a fellow officer going through dispatches. On October 25, 1900, Friedrich Nietzsche, who had famously announced the death of God, had himself died.
During the previous decade, Nietzsche’s writings had taken German culture by storm. One of Kessler’s friends joked that “six educated Germans cannot come together for a half hour without Nietzsche’s name being mentioned.” Nietzsche had become a hero—and cult figure—to those who wanted to reimagine Germany; and a villain to those who remained attached to Germany’s Protestant roots and traditional order.
The philosopher’s tragic decline only added to his mystique. Nietzsche had suffered a major mental breakdown in 1888, just as his ideas were catching fire outside of academic circles. The once brilliant scholar and philosopher, reduced to the mental cognition of a child, had no understanding of how famous he’d become.
As Nietzsche’s ideas were being adapted to various and contrary ends by avant-garde artists, psychoanalysts, and racial ideologues, his death provoked a battle over his legacy. Kessler, a prominent patron of culture and a well-connected operator on the European art scene, took part in the fight.
The count was a man of voracious intellect and endless charm, as well as a deeply committed diarist. At the age of twelve he started keeping a journal, creating a treasure trove for historians writing about the artistic forces of Wilhelmine Germany and the Belle Époque. Kessler seemed to meet or know everyone of importance—more than forty thousand names appear in fifteen thousand pages written over fifty-seven years. With the discipline of a great reporter, he recorded countless remarkable moments that describe, in intimate detail, the seismic political shifts that rocked Europe from the turn of the century to the Third Reich. Laird M. Easton, Kessler’s biographer, has edited and translated selections from the count’s early years to create Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880–1918 (Knopf). Nestled among its many stories is Kessler’s encounter with the life and legacy of Nietzsche. When Kessler was a young man, Nietzsche’s writings provided him with a framework for thinking beyond the staid categories of his bourgeois upbringing. Over time, Kessler fashioned himself first into a remarkable aesthete and later a diplomat and a spy. W. H. Auden, who considered Kessler a friend, called him “probably the most cosmopolitan man who ever lived.”
In the years leading up to the First World War, Kessler channeled his organizational talents into designing and raising money for a memorial to honor Nietzsche. But he wasn’t the only one with a keen interest in the philosopher’s legacy. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the philosopher’s sister, had her own ideas about how her brother’s work and life should be used.
THE LIVES AND LOVES OF FRITZ AND ELISABETH
Close in age, Fritz (as he was known to friends and family) and Elisabeth shared a bond made all the stronger by the loss of their father, a Lutheran minister, who died in 1849, when Fritz was four and Elisabeth was three. As the boy, Fritz received a fine education, one that encouraged his interest in literature and music. In 1864, he enrolled at the university in Bonn, switching to Leipzig the following year, leaving Elisabeth behind with Franziska, their domineering mother. Fritz’s studies and exposure to the wider world led him, in another sense, away from his sister and his family. He came to question the place of God and religion, and then abandoned theology in favor of philology. His disenchantment with Christianity caused the first of many rifts with Elisabeth, who found his rejection of their father’s faith disconcerting.
In 1869, after a riding accident cut short his military service, Nietzsche accepted a position teaching classical philology in Basel, Switzerland. That same year, he met composer Richard Wagner. Despite an age difference of three decades, the two men forged an intellectual connection through their love of music and an appreciation of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. In The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872, the young thinker argued that western culture had reached its pinnacle under the Greeks, but Wagner’s operas had come closest to embodying the Greek tradition in modern terms.
Fritz’s health had never been robust and his mania for work frequently left him spent and vulnerable to illness. His body was also slowly being consumed by syphilis, which he had contracted from a prostitute. Worried by letters recounting migraines and stomach problems, Elisabeth journeyed to Basel in 1870 to care for her brother. Over the next eight years, she spent long stretches managing his household so that he could teach and write.
Fritz’s relationship with Wagner, over time, assumed a father-son dynamic—and the son began to chafe at the father’s overbearing influence. After attending the Bayreuth Festival, inaugurated in 1876 to celebrate Wagner’s music, Fritz experienced a conversion: Wagner’s operas were not the reawakening of Greek culture as he first thought, but spectacles pandering to the basest impulses of the newly unified Germany. He also had doubts about Schopenhauer’s pessimism and the anti-Semitism that permeated Wagner’s worldview.
In 1878, Nietzsche published Human, All-Too-Human, which featured a critique of Christianity and anti-Semitism. The book upset Elisabeth, who was distraught that Fritz may have made her persona non grata to the Wagners and their social circle. The strain led Elisabeth to abandon her brother and return to Germany. Unable to maintain his own household, Nietzsche resigned his post at Basel and became an itinerant philosopher.
Next, the siblings began to quarrel over each others’ love lives. In 1882, at the age of thirty-seven, Fritz fell hard for Lou Salomé, a twenty-one-year-old Russian who was as smart as she was beautiful. Fritz found her mind intoxicating, relishing their never-ending philosophical discussions. Elisabeth, who prized respectability and was fiercely protective of her relationship with Fritz, regarded the unconventional Salomé as a threat. She objected to Salomé’s plan for a “philosophical convent,” in which Salomé, Fritz, and philosopher Paul Rée would create a platonic household. And she cringed with mortification when Salomé shared a photograph—one that depicted Salomé, whip in hand, driving a cart pulled by Fritz and Rée—with their social circle.
In Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, Julian Young suggests that Nietzsche staged the scene as an homage to the enslavement of both him and Rée to Salomé’s charms. The photograph also serves as the inspiration for the notorious remark in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Do you go to women? Don’t forget the whip.”
Angry at his sister’s meddling, Fritz accused her of “dirty and abusive” behavior. Fritz had his own issues with Elisabeth’s engagement to Bernhard Förster, a leading figure in Germany’s anti-Semitic political movement. In 1881, Förster masterminded an unsuccessful petition drive demanding that the government register all Jews, limit Jewish immigration, and ban Jews from teaching. When Förster’s political activities cost him his teaching job, he decided to pour his energy into launching Nueve Germania, a racially pure German colony in Paraguay. While initially skeptical of Förster’s radicalism and his colonial project, Elisabeth came to embrace his ideas, finding them more palatable than her brother’s rejection of God. By 1884, the siblings ceased to speak to each other. “This accursed anti-Semitism … is the cause of a radical breach between me and my sister,” Nietzsche wrote a friend.
Over the course of the next year, they reconciled. Elisabeth even asked Fritz to serve as best man at her wedding. He refused—standing up at the ceremony meant endorsing the marriage, something he couldn’t do. Elisabeth married Förster on May 22, 1885, the anniversary of Wagner’s birthday. At the end of October, Fritz wished Elisabeth well before she departed for Paraguay, secretly happy to put both physical and philosophical distance between himself and Förster. It was the last time Elisabeth saw her brother in his right mind.
By 1888, Nietzsche was becoming remarkably well known. The University of Copenhagen hosted a series of lectures about his philosophy, and translations of his key writings were in the works. So promising was the outlook that he made inquiries about buying back his oeuvre from his publisher.
But most of his fame lay abroad, he complained: “In Vienna, in St. Petersburg, in Stockholm, in Copenhagen, in Paris, in New York—everywhere I have been discovered; but not in the shadows of Europe, Germany.”“And this splendid form appears everywhere through the emaciation: the wide, arched forehead, the robust, powerful jaw and cheekbone appear still more sharply under the skin than when he was alive. The total impression is one of strength despite the pain.”
In early 1889, he collapsed, his body exhausted from almost two decades of battling syphilis. When he regained consciousness, the philosopher declared himself to be the reincarnation of Dionysus. It was not an ironic philosophical proclamation, but the desperate cry of a faltering mind. It was the end of his intellectual life, and the beginning of his immortality. But as Friedrich Nietszche and the nineteenth century entered their final years, German readers began to embrace the works of this native son.
“A great deal of the magic lay in the lyricism, beauty, and power of Nietzsche’s language. The philosopher was a German thinker with German roots addressing what were thought to be largely German problems,” writes Steven E. Aschheim in The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890–1990.
Kessler was one of those enraptured by the magic. Born in Paris in 1868 to a Hamburg banker and a British heiress, he spent his childhood straddling Victorian Britain and Wilhelmine Germany. The nationalist fervor of the late-nineteenth century, in combination with pressure from his father, made it impossible to be a citizen of Europe, as the sensitive young man would have preferred. Faced with the prospect of becoming a banker, Kessler this time asserted himself and convinced his parents to let him study law and art history at Bonn and Leipzig. When it came time to fulfill his military service, he secured a spot in the elite Third Guard Lancers.
Through his studies, Kessler developed an interest in ancient Greece, an appreciation of art and aesthetics, and a disdain for historicism, making him an ideal reader for Nietzsche’s writings. At the end of 1891, a friend lent him a copy of Human, All-Too-Human. Kessler wasn’t immediately smitten. His diary entries find him contesting Nietzsche’s explanation of schadenfreude and observing that the philosopher’s hatred of everything German had “led him to utter absurdities,” such as divorcing Goethe’s accomplishments from German culture. But Kessler’s skepticism soon waned.
Uncertain of what career path to take, Kessler found solace in Nietzsche’s dictum that “the world is only justifiable as an aesthetic phenomenon.” As he embarked on a trip around the world in 1892, he packed Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s meditation on how to achieve a “superhuman” state. Kessler read it, along with the Odyssey, on a voyage between San Francisco and Yokohama.
This excerpt is originally from Humanities.