of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
, and also his chief distorter
and greatest publicist
. During his productive
years up to his incapacitation
in January 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche
was little known and his works little appreciated
. At his sister's death in 1935, he was well known, appreciated, and the darling
of the Nazi Party
. One wonders whether the philosopher would have preferred obscurity
over the manipulate
d image of him crafted
by his sister.
Elisabeth's life was little of Nietzsche's concern: they had a falling out in 1884, and she married the strongly anti-Semitic Bernhard Forster in 1885—a marriage of which Nietzsche highly disapproved. The couple moved to Paraguay to establish a German colonial community backed by anti-Semitic principles. Her brother was incapacitated by a still-unexplained illness in early 1889, and later that year her husband (who was caught stealing from the community he helped found) committed suicide. She returned to Germany in 1893.
Elisabeth had previously disparaged her brother's philosophy, but after her husband's death and her brother's incapacitation, she took it upon herself to build Nietzsche's legacy. To this end, she began studying Nietzsche's works under the guidance of Rudolf Steiner, a noted Goethe scholar of the day. But it seems she was unable to grasp her brother's ideas, and Steiner gave her up as a lost cause. Nevertheless, she founded the Nietzsche Archive at their family home in Naumburg, Germany and (especially after her brother's death in 1900) began to craft an intellectual legacy that would have horrified Nietzsche. During his long illness, she let his mustache grow out haggardly, dressed him in white robes, and had him photographed staring blankly into the distance. Some of the best known photos of Nietzsche are from this period.
One of her early activities after 1900 was to compile, from fragments written in notebooks, a book called The Will to Power. This compilation, which was hailed by Elisabeth and (later) the Nazis as the crowning achievement of Nietzsche's thought, was constructed in a very subjective fashion that reflected little of Nietzsche's desire (much of what appears in The Will to Power was intended for a series of books that Nietzsche never finished). While it does contain much of Nietzsche's late thought, the book is by no means his most important.
She also withheld from publication until 1908 one of Nietzsche's last, and perhaps (for his true legacy) most important, works: Ecce Homo, Nietzsche's own critical evaluation of his philosophical corpus. Moreover, it has been shown that she tampered with several of his letters in order to skew their meaning, and made editorial changes in various manuscripts to remove passages she considered objectionable.
Given Elisabeth's deep anti-Semitism (earlier condemned by her brother) and her later membership in the Nazi party (the National Socialists), it is not surprising that Adolf Hitler should have mangled Nietzsche's ideas even further. He saw to it that Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book Nietzsche considered his most important, was issued to every soldier in the German army. It was not difficult for Hitler to warp Nietzsche's meaning about such concepts as the "superman;" it is, of course, not difficult to warp any topic if you choose not to read the underlying material with any care. He kept a bust of Nietzsche as inspiration, and even tried to pass along the philosopher's works to Mussolini. There is no evidence that he read them.
And so when Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche died in 1935, she must have been quite proud of herself: not only had she turned her version of her brother's thinking into a going concern, but she had seen the birth of a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi Germany. She had even met Hitler, when he visited the Archive in 1934; she gave him a gift of Nietzsche's walking stick, and the moment was captured in a famous photograph.
The tragedy of Friedrich Nietzsche's life—which included constant poor health, elusive critical acclaim, an unhappy love life, and the mysterious episode which rendered him a near-vegetable--lies not so much in the fact that he had to confront difficulty; in fact, he thanks fate for allowing him to confront so much trouble. But in the first section of Ecce Homo he writes, "…I have a duty against which my habits, even more the pride of my instincts, revolt at bottom--namely, to say: Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else" (Nietzsche's emphasis). His sister's manipulations did just that, for generations of readers. This is the true tragedy of the man.