Exposing The Philosophy Behind Neo-Nazism

Like the 20th Century German Nazis before them, modern white nationalists like Richard Spencer are exploiting the illiberal work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Richard Spencer at the Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2016 (Source: Richard Spencer)

Richard Spencer at the Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2016 (Source: Richard Spencer)

Bàrbara Molas, Ph.D., is Head of Publishing at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Research Fellow with the Canadian network for research on terrorism, security and society.

So much has been said about the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the American white supremacist and founder of the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer. After Spencer said that he had been “red-pilled by Nietzsche,” the world reacted either accusing Nietzsche of inspiring new forms of Nazism or accusing Spencer of misinterpreting the philosopher’s work.

For the most part, media and scholars alike said Spencer had manipulated Nietzsche; or pursued what Nietzsche would have condemned; or misunderstood what was a philosopher of the spirit with a non-existent philosopher of race. You could say, however, that Nietzsche can be read both for the benefit of fascists and for the benefit of liberals. One just needs to pick the excerpts that most accurately reflect their own views or aspirations – and Nietzsche would agree with that.

As the father of post-modernism, the German philosopher challenged the objectivity of science, truth, and knowledge, and pointed at the idea that concepts, beliefs, and values, are a construct. So, he was a genius indeed. But that doesn’t mean he was necessarily a progressive person. As Ronald Beiner suggests in his book Dangerous Minds (2018): when it comes to Nietzsche, what’s there, it’s there.

For Nietzsche was, no doubt, illiberal. He despised democracy, celebrated war and genocide, and he did not think equality was a desirable way upon which to base good government. It would seem, then, that Spencer might have not necessarily twisted Nietzsche, but selected what most closely relates to his own beliefs. That is, if Spencer ever studied Nietzsche at all. It is possible that he simply quotes (and misquotes) the philosopher on Twitter to gain legitimacy. But, why is asking whether Spencer ever read Nietzsche relevant at all?

The question is relevant because the alternative is dismissing the possibility of the Alt-Right being actually familiar with texts that were crucial for Nazi Germany to legitimize, develop, and sustain state terrorism. Indeed, Nietzsche offered Nazi Germany with a philosophical raison d’être (Whyte, 2008). Thus, it would seem unsafe to ignore Spencer’s hoping that “Nietzsche’s day will come.”

According to Spencer, the future would be brighter if based on what Nietzsche “as educator” taught him about “society, politics, and religion.” To be precise, Spencer argues that the white ethnostate (his idea of progress) “is Nietzschean at its core.” It is difficult to believe that Spencer is unaware that promoting Nietzschean understandings of progress implies spreading the intellectual foundations for what became Germany’s interwar state terrorism.

But if it’s true that Spencer’s adoption of Nietzschean key ideas reproduces Nazi readings of the philosopher’s works, then we would be in a position to refute the Alt-Right’s long-standing claim that they pursue “metapolitical” changes (Bar-On, 2021) that first and foremost focus on the mindset or “consciousness,” as well as Spencer’s own public rejection of violence. Aiming to do so, this article will compare the uses and misuses of three Nietzschean concepts by the Nazis, specifically by Nazi philosopher Alfred Baeumler, and by Richard Spencer. These concepts will be ‘slave morality,’ the ‘will to power,’ and the ‘superman’ or ‘overman.’

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Nietzsche famously divided the world into two moralities, ‘master’ and ‘slave’ morality, which have allegedly been battling for cultural supremacy since ancient times. According to Nietzsche, the ‘master morality’ was hegemonic in ancient Greece and Rome, and celebrated power, courage, strength, and nobility. The mediocre, unremarkable, and weak, were those espousing a ‘slave morality.’ According to Nietzsche, the beginning of modernity is equal to the beginning of Christianity, when the Jews (representing ‘slave morality’) allegedly rebelled against the Romans (‘master morality’) and reversed our understanding of morality. Thus, the modern era would be characterized by the value of weakness over strength, of equality over excellence, of universal brotherhood over universal struggle for power. The start of civilization’s decay – of which the Jews are to blame.

Another of Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas revolves around the concept of ‘will to power,’ or the idea that all human actions are motivated by the desire to increase the feeling of power. Unlike the social Darwinist idea that we all struggle for survival, Nietzsche insisted that survival is not enough for human happiness or satisfaction, as what we wish is to dominate and expand our control over space, time, values, and others to our benefit.

Finally, in his rejection of modernity, Nietzsche believed that an exemplary figure and an exception among humans, a savior, would rise among the people to “keep up the faith in man” – rather than in God. Western civilization, Nietzsche thought, needed such a ‘great man’ in order to fight against equality, pacifism, humanism, liberalism, democracy, and the overall ‘slave morality.’ Relying on only one man to achieve a socio-political order that opposes all we believe is good in liberal democracies leaves little room to perceive this ‘superman’ as the twentieth-century reactionary dictator.

So, what did the Nazis make of these three Nietzschean ideas and how did they use them to their benefit? According to intellectual historian Max Whyte (2008), the Nazis successfully politicized Nietzsche’s philosophy. This was in part thanks to interwar German philosophers at the center of the Nazi regime like Alfred Baeumler, who ‘nazified’ Nietzsche and made him an ideological reference from which to build a new Germany. Led by the Führer and inspired by Nietzsche, Baeumler used the idea of master vs. slave morality to argue that Germany “has only this one choice: either to be the anti-Roman [read ‘anti-Christian’] power of Europe, or to be nothing” (Whyte, 2008:182 n. 55). “The old task of our race”, he said, “reappeared before Nietzsche’s eyes: the task to be leaders of Europe” (Whyte, 2008:282).

On the one hand, in adopting the concept of ‘slave morality,’ Baeumler suggested that Judeo-Christian values were obstacles for Germany’s progress, an idea associated with the imagined parasitic presence of Jews that Nietzsche had argued was at the root of national conflict and cultural decay. On the other, in his use of ‘slave morality’ to justify continental control or imperialism, Baeumler also incorporated the idea of the ‘will to power’ and the need to not only preserve one’s power or sense of dominance, but to enlarge it.

In turn, the right to expansion involved rejecting the fiction of a generalized humanity, or the Christian understanding of universalism, which is at the basis of modern liberal democracy. Instead, “the race-struggle” would prevail: a “struggle of life and death against the Jews” as embodying the modernity Nietzsche despised (Whyte, 2008:185-6). Such expansion would be guided by a ‘superman’ or ‘guide’ (literally Führer in German) followed by a “super-race” resulting from interbreeding and war (Whyte, 2008:187).

In his own use of Nietzsche, Richard Spencer is not so different from thinkers like the Nazi philosopher Alfred Baeumler. In ‘What It Means to Be Alt-Right: A Meta-political Manifesto for the Alt-Right Movement’ (also called ‘The Charlottesville Statement’) written by Spencer and released on 11 August 2017, he criticizes the “religious egalitarianism of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” or what Nietzsche calls ‘slave morality,’ that “produced secularized egalitarian variants linked to liberalism, socialism, multiculturalism, and feminism.”

In a Youtube interview, Spencer specifically said that he wants to “[revive] the Roman Empire,” which built upon the ‘master values’ that Nietzsche believes were reversed by Judeo-Christianity. According to Spencer, this new empire “would be welcome to Italians, Scots, Russians, white Americans, Finns, etc. To have a safe space for all Europeans around the world.” In other words, to have a white state devoid of any colored or non-white minorities – or whatever Spencer considers to be of non-European origin. This, of course, would constitute an illiberal state, as democracy and freedom are, Spencer says, “false ideals.”

In Point 20 of the Alt-Right manifesto, Spencer insists that a man “must strive to be more than a man … to be part of something greater than his self,” which directly opposes the Darwinist idea that humans aim to survive and adapt, and embraces the Nietzschean concept of power expansion explained by the idea of ‘will to power.’ “The world,” said Spencer on Twitter in October 2020, “is will to power. Every thing doesn’t seek to ‘survive’; every thing is compelled to expand, dominate, grow … Will to power is, in this way, the opposite of mere survival.”

This growth would be, Spencer says, to the benefit of “our race.” And despite the fact that Nietzsche was explicitly against nationalism, just like Baeumler Spencer chooses to believe Nietzsche’s longing for a race-based type of nationalism is there, though “never made explicit.” Thus, he insists that there is an “eugenicist component to Nietzsche’s vision” that involves breeding a “master race.” And even though Spencer “imagines himself having a heroic role in the grand cycle of history,” he doesn’t describe himself as a potential Führer but rather, as he put it, a “Kulturminister” (Minister of Culture in German) of an ethnostate.

Having put the Nazi use of Nietzschean key concepts on morality and government against that of Spencer, it seems easy to discredit the Alt-Right leader for saying that “Obviously, German National Socialism is not something that has any direct relationship with what I am doing.” For Nazis were violent, he said, and “that is not something that I would have anything to do with.” Perhaps Spencer is not being explicitly violent. However, having stressed his reading of Nietzsche we can confirm he is following the steps of Alfred Baeumler. Thus, if not in an organizational manner, in an intellectual manner Spencer is a Neo-Nazi.

This means that his promoting Nietzsche’s idea of progress is equivalent to his promoting a type of illiberalism that seeks to convince of the need for race-based state terrorism. This is not to be confronted lightly by accusing Spencer of being an “intellectual fraud” or as simply “repackaging” old ideas. He is not just repackaging, but continuing the hundred-year-old task of selective reading of Nietzsche, which previously convinced many that liberal democracies are not to be improved, but to be overcome.

Why would such reading be less threatening today than it was in the interwar period, when we equally see more and more people frustrated with a system that is often perceived as corrupted and elitist? I am not saying we need to give Spencer too much credit for what he says, but I do think utterly dismissing him as a pseudo-intellectual is not the way to effectively fight the Alt-Right which, however loose, constitutes an actual threat.

Freedom of speech allows for people like Spencer to talk about white supremacism and genocide with no major consequences. This is why we need to take his use of Nietzsche seriously. It is in Spencer’s adoption of nineteenth-century ideas such as ‘slave morality,’ ‘will to power,’ and ‘superman’ that we can see the possibility of violence and not only hate speech. This is where we can find the seeds from which once emerged one of the most violent forms of state terrorism – and we all know how that ended.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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