Nietzsche::Life & Times::Faversham Stoa

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Nietzsche’s citizenship, nationality, ethnicity

General commentators and Nietzsche scholars, whether emphasizing his cultural background or his language, overwhelmingly label Nietzsche as a ‘German philosopher’. Others do not assign him a national category. Germany had not yet been unified into a nation-state but Nietzsche was born a citizen of Prussia, which was then part of the German Confederation. His birthplace, Rocken, is in the modern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. When he accepted his post at Basel, Nietzsche applied for the annulment of his Prussian citizenship. The official response confirming the revocation of his citizenship came in a document dated 17 April 1869, and for the rest of his life he remained officially stateless.

Nietzsche believed that his ancestors were Polish. Nietzsche himself subscribed to this story toward the end of his life. He wrote in 1888, “My ancestors were Polish noblemen (Nietzky); the type seems to have been well preserved despite three generations of German mothers.” At one point Nietzsche becomes even more adamant about his Polish identity. “I am a pure-blooded Polish nobleman, without a single drop of bad blood, certainly not German blood.” On yet another occasion Nietzsche stated “Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins […] I am proud of my Polish descent.” Nietzsche believed his name might have been Germanized, in one letter claiming, “I was taught to ascribe the origin of my blood and name to Polish noblemen who were called Nietzky and left their home and nobleness about a hundred years ago, finally yielding to unbearable suppression: they were Protestants.”

Most scholars dispute Nietzsche’s account of his family’s origins. Hans von Muller debunked the genealogy put forward by Nietzsche’s sister in favour of a Polish noble heritage. Max Oehler, the curator of the Nietzsche Archive at Weimar, argued that all of Nietzsche’s ancestors bore German names, even the wives’ families. Oehler claims that Nietzsche came from a long line of German Lutheran clergymen on both sides of his family, and modern scholars regard the claim of Nietzsche’s Polish ancestry as a “pure invention”. Colli and Montinari, the editors of Nietzsche’s assembled letters, gloss Nietzsche’s claims as a “mistaken belief” and “without foundation.” The name Nietzsche itself is not a Polish name, but an exceptionally common one throughout central Germany, in this and cognate forms (such as Nitsche and Nitzke). The name derives from the forename Nikolaus, abbreviated to Nick; assimilated with the Slavic Nitz, it first became Nitsche and then Nietzsche.

It is not known why Nietzsche wanted to be thought of as Polish nobility. According to biographer R J Hollingdale, Nietzsche’s propagation of the Polish ancestry myth may have been part of the latter’s “campaign against Germany”.

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