Ben Macintyre had a question that few of us have had to face. How do you start a conversation with a lost tribe of Aryans? Having sweated and bumped his way into northern Paraguay, just beyond the confluence of the Aguaraya-umi and Aguaraya-guazu, Macintyre had at last arrived at a small valley, on the far ridge of which were some shacks. ‘That,’ said the man who’d brought him on horseback from the river boat, ‘is Nueva Germania.’ Macintyre had come to look for descendants of the Saxons whom Elisabeth Nietzsche and her husband had brought there in the 1880s. He put ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ into his Walkman – ‘to get myself in the mood’ – turned up the volume, took some food, and waited for an authentic German to show up. Soon one did, dismounted from his stallion, and introduced himself as Dr Schubert. It was time for the question. ‘What,’ Macintyre asked him, ‘are you doing here?’
Schubert sighed, took a beer, and gestured at the green wastes around. ‘Well, you see, the thing is, I love Nietzsche.’
This was it. Here, in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle, was a Nietzschean, a man whose ancestors had been brought here by the great philosopher’s sister. Perhaps in this wilderness there had grown up a Nietzschean cult, based on his writings. But, if that was the case, he could know nothing of what Elisabeth had done to her brother’s philosophy, how she had linked his name to the fascists and encouraged men like Hitler and Mussolini to use his poetic, arcane brilliance to back up their creed. It was my duty to put this Nietzschean man right.
How did Schubert interpret the idea of the Ubermenschl? How did the colony reconcile Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God with their Lutheranism? What of the philosopher’s ‘blond beast’? Schubert looked blank. Macintyre realised that not only might he not have known about the uses to which Elisabeth had put her brother’s thoughts; he might also not have heard of anything that Nietzsche himself had written after 1886. What then, Macintyre more reasonably asked, of Thus spake Zarathustral? Schubert touched his arm. ‘I don’t think you heard me correctly, mein Herr.’ He explained that he’d come from suburban Munich, just three years before, to study the plants. ‘I love nature.’
It was the intellectual high-point of Macintyre’s visit. He’d come looking for what Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Bernhard Förster – whom the Times described as ‘the most representative Jew-baiter in all Germany’ – had intended to be ‘a new Deutschland, where synagogues shall be forbidden, and Bourses unknown’, as the Times put it. What Macintyre found was a remnant, poorer than their grandparents had been in the economic depression in Saxony itself in the 1880s, people who had never learnt, Schubert explained, to manage the soil or raise animals for the local conditions, who’d become visibly inbred, and who, although still viscerally racist, recalled little or nothing of what their ancestors had been supposed to stand for. It seems that, like many rural people in this part of the world, they come to life, at any rate with strangers from Europe, when competing to tell stories of Josef Mengele. The doctor of Auschwitz was supposed to have died swimming in Brazil in 1979. Experts exhumed that body in 1985 and declared that it was indeed Mengele’s. Of the doctor’s several reported incarnations in Nueva Germania itself, the most striking was that of a man calling himself Ilg, who appeared just after the death had been announced. Having fallen out with the storekeeper, who he thought was a Jew, Ilg took to running naked up and down the road, waving a pistol and shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ After he departed down river, one of the colonists claimed to have recognised him from a photograph in a newspaper report of the accident in Brazil. Ilg, whoever he was, threw himself under a bus in Asuncion in 1985. In 1991, the evidence for the body in Brazil having been Mengele’s was said after all to be inconclusive.
Nueva Germania had been Förster’s idea. More exactly, it had been Wagner’s. Förster, Elisabeth wrote to a fellow Wagnerian at the beginning of 1883, as her future husband was preparing to set off for South America, ‘is filled with magnificent enthusiasm for Wagner’s efforts to regenerate our country. We feast on compassion, heroic self-denial, Christianity, vegetarianism, Aryanism, southern colonies.’ Three years before, in Religion and Art, the composer had suggested that the emancipation of the Jews in 1871 was leading to a dreadful degeneration, and that this might be stopped by ‘a rationally conducted migration’ of true Germans to fertile places. Förster took this nonsense seriously, raised money from those who had been enthused by an anti-semitic petition which he had presented to an indifferent Bismarck, and decided to search for a suitable place. Paraguay was an obvious choice.
In 1864, the new young President of the country, a fat and stupid sadist who fancied himself as the Napoleon of South America, had decided to exercise his muscle by using the occasion of a Brazilian attack on Uruguay – there had long been a struggle for control of the Rio Plata region – to march through Argentinian territory to attack Brazil itself. It was the greatest military miscalculation of the 19th century. The move succeeded only in uniting Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay, and in the resulting War of the Triple Alliance, which lasted until 1870, Paraguay lost nine-tenths of its male population. An officer who’d fled there in disgrace from Austria-Hungary, Heinrich von Morgenstern de Wisner, sometime military adviser to the President and confidant of Eliza Lynch, the President’s astute and ambitious Irish mistress, became the republic’s now much-needed Immigration Officer. (Paraguayan society meanwhile became openly and understandably polygamous.) Morgenstern advertised in the European newspapers, offering land at advantageous prices.
Nueva Germania was a fiasco, and eventually an open scandal. Only the desperate applied to go; there were too few even of those – the Paraguayan Government had agreed to back the scheme on condition that at least one hundred and forty families would settle; no one had prepared for the local conditions, which were about as different as they could be from those in Saxony; and there was never enough money. Förster began to despair, took to staying at a hotel in another German colony near Asuncion, where he drank for weeks on end, and eventually poisoned himself. Elisabeth, determined as always to put the best face on things, denied suicide and decided that she had to return to Germany to raise more cash – to provide an excuse for the increasingly desperate colonists, she asked her mother to send a telegram to say that the ailing Nietzsche needed her at home. She had already added insult to injury by styling herself Queen of Neuva Germania and controlling all transactions in order, she explained, to avoid the Jewish crime of commerce. Back in Germany, she published a puff, telling her compatriots that Nueva Germania was a ‘paradise’ in which the only serious problem was that the heat sometimes made it hard to stiffen cream, but by then, the truth was out. She did go back in 1892, but the situation was hopeless, and she abandoned the place for good the next year. She had a new project at home.
Nietzsche, quite rightly, had always thought that Förster was an appalling rogue – they met just once, and upset Elisabeth by discussing sex – and when she intervened in the early 1880s to stop her brother’s understandable infatuation with Lou Salomé (Nietzsche had agreed to live in a threesome with Salomé and a Jewish friend) he described Elisabeth herself as ‘a vengeful anti-semitic goose’. In 1888, in The Case of Wagner, he repudiated the connection that had once meant much to him. Wagner, he wrote, had been one of his ‘diseases’. The composer’s followers were ‘chewing the cud of moral and political absurdities until they choke’. In 1889, in The Twilight of the Idols, he asked more generally ‘what the Germans lack’.
Once they were called the nation of thinkers: do they still think at all? Nowadays the Germans are bored with intellect, politics devours all serious things – ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ was, I fear, the end of German philosophy ... nowhere else are the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity, so viciously abused. Lately even a third has been added, one which is capable by itself of completely obstructing all delicate and audacious flexibility of spirit: music, our constipated, constipating German music – How much dreary heaviness, dampness, sloppiness. How much beer there is in the German intellect!
It’s unlikely that this endeared him to his sister. She had worshipped Wagner and his circle at Bayreuth, and was a wholly conventional Christian, an anti-semite and a nationalist – in her puff on Nueva Germania, she described how the happy colonists would break into ‘Deutschland über alles’ as they walked back from the smiling fields. Her mind was indeed as banal as beer. But Nietzsche’s increasing madness had begun to give him a fame he’d not had when sane, and Elisabeth saw that there was money to be made and a new standing to be gained from becoming his protector, publicist and publisher.
The first task, which she quickly accomplished, was to wrest control over his writing from Paul Gast, his closest associate and the only one who could read his handwriting, and her mother. She hired a new editor, who flattered her, and to establish a Nietzsche archive, acquired the services of Rudolf Steiner, who had published an influential book on Nietzsche and had recently made a success of an archive for Goethe and Schiller. Unphased by Steiner’s reaction to her request to explain her brother’s thinking to her – ‘she lacks any sense for fine, even crude, logical distinctions,’ Steiner wrote, ‘she convinces herself today that something was red yesterday that most assuredly was blue’ – she decided to write a biography. She turned the iconoclastic, rebarbative, atheistic, aristocratically-inclined radical into a mystical, sentimental and authoritarian German of thoroughly petty-bourgeois aspiration; she moved the archive to Weimar, the better to connect to the great spirits of the German past; she had the now inert philosopher, wrapped in white sheets and staring vacantly above his enormous moustaches, wheeled onto the terrace to elicit donations from the rich and silly; and downstairs, arranged letters, diaries (many now censored), photographs and statuettes for the more ordinary tourists. Nietzsche, an idol now, as Macintyre nicely describes him, in his own twilight, lived on until 1900, and against his express wish – ‘see that no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself’ – was given a Lutheran funeral and lowered into the earth with a silver cross on his coffin.
A few saw through the farrago. Oscar Levy, for instance, the British Nietzsche scholar, was horrified. ‘I scanned the streets of Weimar for a whole day, wondering how it could be possible that such a man could have such a sister.’ But the Nietzsche cult met a German need. The Will to Power was a runaway success on its publication in 1901, though merely a compilation by Elisabeth and the now submissive Gast of jottings that Nietzsche himself had discarded. In the First World War, Zarathustra sold a further 165,000 copies and was distributed to soldiers at the front. In the Twenties, Elisabeth secured the support of Oswald Spengler. She enthused about the new National Socialist Party: Hitler’s failed putsch in Munich in 1923, she said, was ‘patriotic’, the subsequent trial ‘deplorable’. And in 1927, she effected the reconciliation she’d long wanted between herself and the Wagners. This was sealed, remarked a sceptical observer,
when they all held hands around the table, and Elisabeth read them her brother’s ‘Star Friendship’. Siegfried Wagner issued an official invitation to her to share the family box at Bayreuth ... The Wagner-Nietzsche feud has petered out in an atmosphere of social cosiness, and in the manner of the courtly style so typical of the Bayreuth crowd ... The whole business is infinitely commonplace, and removed in sentiment by several thousands of miles from the closing chord of Göütterdämmerung, let alone the ending of Zarathustra.
Financial difficulties nonetheless remained. The archive was precariously dependent on a few generous individuals, and the copyright on Nietzsche would run out in 1930. Elisabeth needed new support. It’s unclear, as Macintyre explains, just what her politics were. By inclination, she was a simple snob, and would have been happiest if the Kaiser had been able to continue. But he was not, and although Hindenburg had granted her a small pension for life, she saw by 1930 that the Nazis were the power of the future. She wrote a congratulatory letter to the first of them to become a minister in a provincial government. He responded by introducing a Bill in the Reichstag to extend the copyright on Nietzsche’s works. This failed, but new sympathisers made donations, and a performance of Mussolini’s play, Campio di Maggio, in Weimar in February 1932 secured her future. Elisabeth was unable to persuade the author himself to come, but Hitler did. The next year, he met her again at a performance of Tristan in Bayreuth, and agreed to come on to the archive. It was the first of many well-publicised visits. It’s safe to assume, as Macintyre does, that he never read a word of Nietzsche, but the philosopher, as presented by Elisabeth, was a convenient decoration for the new regime. Hitler had his photograph taken staring into a statue of her brother, and eventually gave Elisabeth unlimited access to his private account. When she died in 1935, he came to pay homage, and a guard of honour from the SA, the SS and the Hitler Youth lined the street.
Meanwhile, Elisabeth had seen to it that the colonists in what was left of Nueva Germania were shown newsreels of the Nazis’ success, and in 1934, she persuaded Hitler to send a sack of German soil to be put on the tomb of her now famous ‘heart-Bern’. The settlers whom Macintyre met talked of Bernhard Förster only as a bully and a crook. For Elisabeth, despite it all, they had fonder words. But that, in 1991, was just about all they had. President Stroessner, who had been a friend to Germans – and who had had the remains of Eliza Lynch returned from Paris to Asuncion in 1964, describing her on the monument he erected as a woman who ‘with self-sacrifice supported the greatest hero of Paraguay’ – had gone at last. ‘The older generation don’t like it,’ Dr Schubert explained, ‘but thank God there is nothing they can do.’