Nietzsche Is Dead: The Battle for His Legacy
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.”