Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, January 31, 2015

1/31 Introduction

The syllabus and a link to this sight can be found on blackboard under "information." There is also a box where you can enter your email to get updates when I post something, otherwise I will send out mass emails to the class when the lecture is ready.

Instructions For Creating a Student Blog:
Although I use blackboard for sending messages the majority of work will be done on our class blog: http://nihilismlehman.blogspot.com/

To create a Blog
1) Go to Blogger.com
2) Create a Title and an Address for your blog and choose a template which you can change later
3) Once you have created it you will be on your "Dashboard," click the arrow pointing down in the center
4) Click on "Layout" to design you blog
5) Click on "Template" to change the background if you want to
6) Click on "Settings"
7) Go to Posts and Comments and turn "word verification" to NO.
8) Go back to the dashboard
9) Email me the link to your website, copy and paste the web address. bmurdaco@gc.cuny.edu

Definitions of Nihilism: Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/
Nihil.org http://www.nihil.org/

These definitions focus on nihilism as rejecting established notions of meaning and belief, but equally important is the political aspects of nihilism which holds that institutions based upon these outmoded belief systems must be destroyed.

A nihilist referred to a revolutionary and is usually attributed to the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev in the novel Fathers and Sons (1862). The nihilist movement in Russia in contrast to moderate liberals and conservatives openly pushed for the overthrow of the czar (the Russian emperor) and the destruction of traditional Russian society. This idea of a complete break with the past and the desire to create new values and institutions has been a signature feature of nihilism since then.

So then why not call the course Nihilism in Russia? Because the most famous thinkers to be labeled as nihilists have been German, and none is probably more famous than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). 
He declared that "God is dead". Christianity in effect destroys itself. God is commonly identified as the source of truth and knowledge and the "bringer of light." But it is the same relentless pursuit of the truth that in the modern scientific age undermines the foundations of religion.  In his view, these moral beliefs were completely incompatible with our "life-affirming" vital instincts, and to that extent they were nihilistic in that were against "life." Nietzsche was searching for a "cure" for nihilism. In contrast the phrase "Amor fati" a Latin phrase that literally means, "love of ones' fate," but specifically in this context, one who does not shut themselves off from life. 

Besides the "denial of life" which he sees inseparable from most traditional moral systems (Christianity is a model) he believes that the priests who manage and oversee morality and the institutions which support them secretly have the same desires for power and glory that they outwardly condemn in the less "good" warrior classes, as sociologists C. Wright Mills and Hans Gerth said: "Nietzsche modified Matthew's statement, 'He who humbles himself shall be raised,' into 'He who humbles himself wants to be raised.' Thus he ascribed volitions to the speaker which lay beneath the content of his ideas. 'I did that,' says my memory, 'I could not have done that,' says my pride and remains inexorable. Eventually the memory yields" (Gerth and Mills, 1944, pp. 61-62). It is Nietzsche's insight into the deepest desires which drive humanity and his biting social criticism and ability to point out hypocrisy that helped build his reputation as a writer:
Humanity itself still suffers from the aftereffects of these priestly cure naïvétes! Think, for example, of certain dietary forms (avoidance of meat), of fasting, of sexual abstinence, of the flight “into the wilderness”…in addition, the whole anti-sensual methaphysics of priests, which makes lazy and overrefined, their self-hypnosis after the manner of the fakir and Brahmin–brahma used as glass pendant and idée fixe–and the final, only too understandable general satiety along with its radical cure, nothingness (or God–the longing for a unio mystica with God is the longing of the Buddhist for nothingness, Nirvana–and nothing more!) With priests everything simply becomes more dangerous, not only curatives and healing arts, but also arrogance, revenge, acuity, excess, love, lust to rule, virtue, disease;–though with some fairness one could also add that it was on the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human existence, the priestly form that man first became an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul acquire depth in a higher sense and become evil–and these are, after all, the two basic forms of the previous superiority of man over other creatures!...(Nietzsche 1998 pp. 15-16).

He contrasts the "priests" with the "warriors" especially the Romans or the Greeks, which also reinforces the idea of "amor fati." Note again the recurring theme in Nietzsche's writing about the conflict between our 'natural' and 'human' or moral qualities. The other major themes of this passage is the historical recognition that 'culture' and 'civilization' are built on violence and oppression. So then the Greeks, who have the reputation of the being the most civilized and advanced of ancient people had an unmistakable power lust and even cruelty which is inseparable from their other cultural achievements. In fact, Nietzsche suggests that these achievements would be impossible without the cruelty and violence:

When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation: “natural” qualities and those called truly “human” are inseparably grown together. Man, in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual character. Those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soil out of which alone all humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work.Thus the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate—a trait that is also very distinct in that grotesquely enlarged mirror image of the Hellenes, in Alexander the Great, but that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern “humanity.” With the same feeling we may also observe the mutual laceration, bloody and insatiable, of two Greek parties, for example, in the Corcyrean revolution. When the victor in afight among the cities executes the entire male citizenry in accordance with the laws of war, and sells all the women and children into slavery, we see in the sanction of such a law that the Greeks considered it an earnest necessity to let their hatred flow forth fully; in such moments crowded and swollen feeling relieved itself: the tiger leaped out, voluptuous cruelty in his terrible eyes. Why must the Greek sculptor give form again and again to war and combat in innumerable repetitions: distended human bodies, their sinews tense with hatred or with the arrogance of triumph; writhing bodies, wounded; dying bodies, expiring? Why did the whole Greek world exult over the combat scenes of the Iliad? I fear that we do not understand these in a sufficiently “Greek” manner; indeed, that we should shudder if we were ever to understand them “in Greek” (Nietzsche, 1976 pp. 22-23).
Laocoön and His Sons, The Vatican

Elsewhere he refers to Aryan "blond beast" and the need to "discharge itself," but also includes non-European races like Arabs and Japanese in his list of "noble races":
At the base of all these noble races one cannot fail to recognize the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast who roams about lusting after booty and victory; from time to time this hidden base needs to discharge itself, the animal must get out, must go back into the wilderness: Roman, Arab, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings–in this need they are all alike (Nietzsche 1998 p. 22).

Those who are victimized by these races then develop their own values, which Nietzsche emphasizes are the opposite of the values of the oppressors:
That the lambs feel anger toward the great birds of prey does not strike us as odd: but that is no reason for holding it against the great birds of prey that they snatch up little lambs for themselves. And when the lambs say among themselves “these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is as little as possible a bird of prey but rather its opposite, a lamb,–isn’t he good?” there is nothing to criticize in this setting up of an ideal, even if the birds of prey should look on this a little mockingly and perhaps say to themselves: “we do not feel any anger towards them, these good lambs, as a matter of fact, we love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb.”–To demand of strength that it not express itself as strength, that it not be a desire to overwhelm, a desire to cast down, a desire to become lord, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as nonsensical as to demand of weakness that it express itself as strength (p. 25).

In contrast to the noble values he sees in Greek culture and other warrior cultures, he contrasts these "Aryan" cultures with the "Semitic" culture of the Jews. Although many modern scholars have been concerned with trying to rehabilitate Nietzsche's image in relation to Nazism, it is clear that he subscribed to many of the late 19th century racial theories which later influenced the Nazis:

Of all that has been done on earth against “the noble,” “the mighty,” “the lords,” “the power-holders,” nothing is worthy of mention in comparison with that which the Jews have done against them: the Jews, that priestly people who in the end were only able to obtain satisfaction from their enemies and conquerors through a radical revauluation of their values, that is, through an act of spiritual revenge. This was the only way that suited a priestly people, the people of the most suppressed priestly desire for revenge. It was the Jews who in opposition to the aristocratic value equation (good= noble= powerful= beautiful= happy= beloved of God) dared its inversion, with fear-inspiring consistency, and held it fast with teeth of the most unfathomable hate (the hate of powerlessness), namely: “the miserable alone are the good; the poor, powerless, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly, are also the only pious, the only blessed in God, for them alone is there blessedness,–whereas you, you noble and powerful ones, you are in all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless, you will eternally be the wretched, accursed, and damned!”… (pp. 16-17).

Under the guise of Christianity, these values have continued to grow in European civilization, something which in Nietzsche's time he sees as something degenerative:
Assuming it were true, that which is now in any case believed as “truth,” that the meaning of all culture is simply to breed a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, out of the beast of prey “man,” then one would have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment, with the help of which the noble dynasties together with their ideals were finally brought to ruin and overwhelmed, as the actual tools of culture; which is admittedly not to say that the bearers of these instincts themselves at the same time also represent culture. On the contrary, the opposite would not simply be probably–no! today it is obvious! These bearers of the oppressing and retaliation-craving instincts, the descendants of all European and non-European slavery, of all pre-Aryan population in particular­–they represent the regression of humankind! These “tools of culture” are a disgrace to humanity, and rather something that raises a suspicion, a counter-argument against “culture” in general! It may be entirely justifiable if one cannot escape one’s fear of the blond beast at the base of all noble races and is on guard: but who would not a hundred times sooner fear if he might at the same time admire, than not fear but be unable to escape the disgusting sight of the deformed, reduced, atrophied, poisoned? And is that not our doom? (p. 23).

Depiction of "Dancing Plague of 1518" in Strasbourg,
Alsace, France
 by Hendrick Hondius (1642)
It was not just a warrior lifestyle that Nietzsche praised but the vigor of life that Nietzsche admired which he thought was so lacking in Christian society, something which he equated with a kind of spiritual sickness, an inability to enjoy life which turns into a desire to destroy life, and this is nihilism. This sickness was rooted in the incompatibility between Christian morals and our own natural instincts.

The continuous repression of our instincts builds up pressure and tension which manifests itself in different ways. One of the stranger ways in which this manifested itself was in what was called in the middle ag
Cover of The Black Death & Dancing Mania,
by Justus Hecker (1832)
es, St. Vitus' dance or simply just dancing mania. Is this evidence of people's instincts reacting uncontrollably to the repressive morals of their day? It is hard to say, although it is interesting that this condition seems to have stopped by the mid-17th century. Some other people have said that raves are the modern day version of this.
Nietzsche saw the time he was living in as beginning now to move past the Christian epoch and move into a new era. He looked forward to this new era as a time when people will have to create new values and new ways of living, "The value of these values must itself be called into question."  In opposition to nihilism, Nietzsche's ultimate objective is to provide guidelines for living a joyful life in a world where God is dead, or as he called it "the gay science."

Or as he goes on to say:

One has taken the value of these "values" as given, as a fact, as beyond all calling-into-question; until now one has not had even the slightest doubt or hesitation in ranking "the good" as of higher value than "the evil," of higher value in the sense of its furtherance, usefulness, beneficiality–with respect to man in general (taking into account the future of man). What? if the opposite were true? What? if a symptom of regression also lay in the "good," likewise a danger, a temptation, a poison, a narcotic through which perhaps the present were living at the expense of the future? Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but also in a reduced style, on a lower level?
...So that precisely morality would be to blame if a higher power and splendor of the human type–in itself possible–were never attained? So that precisely morality were the danger of dangers?...(p. 5).

After his death, the idea of a "will to power" became the central concept associated with Nietzsche's thinking, under the influence of his sister who managed his estate after his death. The will to power essentially is his earlier thoughts on the "noble races" (Aryan literally means noble), that humanity is fundamentally driven by a need for power, and the most powerful are those who are able to achieve their values. Ideas such as this fit in well with the political context of the early 20th century leading up to World War I.

That partly answers the question of why this class is called Nihilism in Germany, but even a brief overview of German history will show why studying nihilism in a German context fits together best. First of all Germany is a very important country today, it is the third largest exporter in the world today (the U.S is #4) and is the main force behind the European Union which combined gives the EU the largest GDP in the world today at over $15 trillion (CIA, The World Factbook, Germany https://www.cia.gov/). 

Although it is the most economically powerful country in Europe it has almost no military power. This is a direct consequence of the legacy of World War II which we will talk about more later on.
What is most surprising to those unfamiliar with German history is the state of Germany has only been in existence since 1871. Prior to this "Germany" existed only as a loose collection of independent states known as the "German Confederation" made up of a few dozen smaller states. The ancient Romans used to refer to the ancient "Germanic" tribes that lived in the dense woods to the North of their empire. However German culture and a sense of German identity had been developing since the Middle Ages especially after the Protestant Reformation begun by the German monk Martin Luther in the 1500s. 

By the 1800s German culture and identity had reached a high level of development. Figures like Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, the Brothers Grimm, Heinrich Heine, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis and other important artists and philosophers helped establish German literature and philosophy and its distinctive emphasis on development and the dynamics of opposing forces. German culture and later German social science has also had a profound effect on American culture at many different levels in part owing to the large number of German immigrants to this country in the 19th and 20th century, and the exile of many Germans fleeing from the Nazis in the 1930s. Until 1871 however, the modern German state did not exist. 

Beginning in the 1700s one of these states, Prussia, began to become a dominant power in European politics mostly because of its highly centralized state and efficient military bureaucracy, it was also able to suppress any democratic uprisings that swept most of Europe in the 19th century. Its power grew until it was able to unify all of the German states together into one new entity–the German Empire.

From 1871-1914, Germany was considered (along with Japan in the East and the United States in the West) as one of the rapidly developing powers in the world quickly moving past the older powers in the world: Great Britain, France, and Russia (considered the most backwards country). Nietzsche is writing in the late 1870s and 1880s, a period of time in which Germany is basically a new state filled with self-confidence which also breeds a strong jingoistic and nationalistic current in German society that was relatively new. German industry and banking were quickly becoming the envy of the world. Everything was developing fast in Germany and it looked as if old ways of life were rapidly being swept away by history.

Germany also had come to have the most highly developed social democratic party in the world. Modern socialism also developed in France during the French Revolution, however after the 1870s, the center of the movement switched from Paris to the major cities of Germany like Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, and Cologne, and others. This change occurred after "communards" in Paris were violently suppressed by French troops after the establishment of the Paris Commune (March to May 1871). Karl Marx (1818-1883) was German from the city of Trier in Western Germany near France and Luxembourg. The development of socialism and communism in Germany is not identical but a parallel development to nihilism that develops roughly during the same period of time and we will discuss it from time to time.

One of the major catalysts for the growth of socialism (or social democracy) in Germany was the Franco-Prussian War fought between France and Prussia in 1870-1871. The mobilization effort for this war was created a sense of Germany unity against a perceived foreign aggressor. Germany almost immediately became a major industrial power and it immediately had one of the largest, best educated, and most skilled working classes in the world. Afterwards the final unification of the German state took place under the Kaiser (Emperor or literally Caesar) Wilhelm I of Prussia. In addition Germany took possession of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in France and combined them into a single German province Alsace-Lorraine. Contention over this territory (which stretches back centuries) was one of the major reasons for the beginning of World War I (1914-1918). It was given back to France after World War I but was then re-conquered by the Nazis along with most of France during World War II.

map of France showing Alsace-Lorraine
 from Bargeladycruises.com
  Over 65 million people fought in World War I and over 8 million were killed, Germans themselves lost over 1.7 million in the war not including wounded and other casualties (http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html).

Our class will pick up in the aftermath of the war and how Germans attempted to put their lives back together again. But besides that, there were serious political, economic, and social consequences to the war, the immediate was the break up of the German Empire and the overthrow of the emperor (the Kaiser, in German meaning Caesar). This led to a full scale revolution in Germany which was put down brutally and violently by the authorities. The revolution was led by German workers who since the 1870s had also developed into one of the most organized and developed working class parties in the world. Germany is the land of Karl Marx and although socialism (like nihilism) came out of the French Revolution in the late 1700s, it was in Germany where the movement reached its highest level of development in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD). Regrettably, like many movements that start out opposing the status quo, success and popularity brought with it entry into the halls of power but also seemed to compromise the integrity of the movement, or at the least the leadership of the movement. There is no better example of this than the fateful decision that the working class social democratic party made to support the war effort in 1914. Despite always seeing itself as an international movement in the critical moment the German working class party chose nationalism over internationalism and helped bring about the atrocities that followed.

The 1920s in Germany is a time of many conflicting, contradictory trends and developments. The revolution is crushed by the now establishment SPD, a new republican government is formed, The Weimar Republic, and Germany begins a brief experiment in democracy that lasts a little over ten years. At the same time in which the early Nazi party is beginning to make its move, sexual openness is at an all time high in Germany and more women are beginning to challenge traditional gender roles which had grown oppressive over time.

Although our class deals with the crucial period of time in between the two world wars, Germany history after the war has hardly been much better than first half of the century. The 50s and early 60s are referred to as the "Amnesia Era" for reasons that should be obvious by the end of the course. After the war, Germany became a symbol and a center stage for the coming Cold War conflict. Germany was divided into a capitalist West and communist East Germany, the capital Berlin was also divided into East and West Berlin, and the infamous Berlin Wall was built in 1961. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, one of the dramatic symbols of the end of the Cold War. The following year Germany was reunified as one state with the current borders it has today.
East and West Germany 1949-1990
That will about cover the opening introduction to the course. Please email me the link to your blog as soon as you can. I would then like to post a list of all of the student's websites so the class can communicate with each other. You can leave comments below if you have any questions or comments or you can email me directly at bmurdaco@gc.cuny.edu.

Assignment Due 2/7: Go the link that says Nietzsche on the blog main page. Read through the quotes and select one that interests you. Write out the quote, followed by your interpretation of this quote and explain how it applies today. 

Also, using the CIA World Factbook write a short one page summary of either German society, politics, or its economy. These assignments will be your first assignments posted on your blog which are due by next week's class. Once they have been posted I and the rest of the class can read and comment upon what you write.

Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford University Press, 1944
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Penguin, 1976; On the Genealogy of Morality, translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen, Hackett Publishing, 1998
Merteen B. ter Borg, "The Problem of Nihilism: A Sociological Approach," Sociological Analyses, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Spring, 1988) pp. 1-16


  1. I would like to know are you receiving this?

  2. Pomaretta Bennett -https://www.blogger.com/profile/12420356015268239103

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  4. Professor. I couldn’t find your link. All I found was a facebook with a CIA link that had nothing on it but advertisement of the site itself
    I found a quote said to be from brainyquote.com of Friedrich Nietzsche “We love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving. My head is spinning having gone through blogger like you said I should under your link. I still don’t understand that platform for searching things. I’ll leave it at that. I can’t seem to see the lecture you posted on day one anymore on Blackboard. So I am using this Microsoft word-file as my medium.
    This quote above in my document is hinting me that Nietzsche is complaining that society is trying to be spiritually repressed, and that he feels that it ought to be about his own experience of living life. Since our lectures have pointed upon Nihilism with its history of being a story that life is lived in the moment without resistance, I gather that he is stating that people are being conditioned to behave with tradition that is holding one back from a real experience of their own. I also think that he may be stating that because he is experiencing his life to the fullest, he then feels satisfied with it as he uses words that could be of religious context to be heard more mainstream.
    In recalling something I read about him in other quotes in other lectures from him, I visualize a person who is not wanting to live for others he never met, but for moments he is living in present in his surroundings. Somewhere else I recall reading that he is sick in spirit. I picture that he is not content on how society guides him to be as a person.
    In regards to how Germany interests me, I would write that this Country was a raw place for many years. People expressed freely their desires. Unfortunately, I view this world where good and evil exists and clash. I would never want to meet a person with this perspective. I would in my opinion be like meeting evil. Germany however, is a place of powerful history. It is truly a unique part of the world where misery and evil were common thing and place. It is amusing to understand how life can get so out of hand. Germany is a tourism spot for me one day because it will make me feel something in the air that was once awful see in that era of war and unrest.