Nietzsche Is Dead
Count Harry Kessler received the news in the officersâ 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, Nietzscheâs writings had taken German culture by storm. One of Kesslerâs friends joked that âsix educated Germans cannot come together for a half hour without Nietzscheâs name being mentioned.â Nietzsche had become a heroâand cult figureâto those who wanted to reimagine Germany; and a villain to those who remained attached to Germanyâs Protestant roots and traditional order.
The philosopherâs 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 heâd become.
As Nietzscheâs 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 Ãpoque. Kessler seemed to meet or know everyone of importanceâmore 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, Kesslerâs biographer, has edited and translated selections from the countâs early years to createÂ Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918Â (Knopf). Nestled among its many stories is Kesslerâs encounter with the life and legacy of Nietzsche. When Kessler was a young man, Nietzscheâs 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 âprobably the most cosmopolitan man who ever lived.â