After his death in 1900, Nietzsche acquired the reputation of a wrathful and unsystematic thinker, an apostle of teutonic chauvinism, barbarianism, and ruthlessness, whose thought has inspired the Nazi movement. His reputation was resurrected after the Second World War with the publication of new books on his life and work. The most important of these books is Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, published in 1950.
For Nietzsche’s ugly posthumous reputation, Kaufmann places a major part of the blame on Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth. In 1885, she married Bernhard Förster, a prominent teutonic nationalist and antisemite. Nietzsche was against the marriage and he did not attend the wedding. After her husband died in 1889, Elizabeth became devoted to caring for her brother, who suffered a loss of mental capacity in the same year, and managing his intellectual legacy. She assumed the name Förster-Nietzsche. Regarding this name, Kaufmann writes: “The irony of this name suggests almost everything that could be said against her: the gospel she spread was indeed Förster first and Nietzsche second.”
Nietzsche had distanced himself from Richard Wagner—they last saw each other on November 5, 1876. But Elizabeth was inspired by Wagner’s Teutonism; she could not accept her brother’s rejection of Wagner, and desired to create a union between their thoughts and motivations. Kaufmann reveals his low opinion of Wagner’s political and cultural philosophy in several lines. Here’s a line in which he suggests that there is a symbiotic relationship between Wagner and Nazism: “Hitler, of course, knew fifty times as much about Wagner as he did about Nietzsche, and Wagner’s essays, unlike Nietzsche’s, did not have to be expurgated by the Nazis before being used in schools.”
Kaufmann says that Elizabeth, in her zeal for reconciling Nietzsche with his opposites (Förster and Wagner), intentionally or due to lack of understanding, misrepresented Nietzsche’s thought, especially in The Will to Power, which she published from an arbitrary selection of Nietzsche’s personal notes which she compiled and crudely edited, and which were consequently taken out of context. According to Kaufmann, Nietzsche is not antisemitic and he is not the supporter of a dominant state. He is the enemy of all types of states, totalitarian as well as liberal, and his ideal man is not Napoleon (he would have despised Hitler) but Goethe.
Nietzsche’s philosophy, Kaufmann says, is rooted in Kant, Hegel, and Socrates—the reference to Socrates, of whom Nietzsche has been very critical, is surprising. But Nietzsche had a kind of love-hate relationship with both Socrates and Wagner. Kaufmann rejects the jingoistic and revolutionary conception of the overman (Übermensch) that was popular in the first half of twentieth century—he asserts that the overman is not a biological or racial concept; rather it indicates the enterprise of “overcoming” oneself (one’s own weaknesses, vices, and doubts) and not others.
Kaufmann's Nietzsche is, like Kierkegaard, and two of the most important philosophers of the 1950s and 60s, Heidegger and Sartre, an existentialist. There is no doubt that, in his attempt to reinvent Nietzsche, Kaufmann went too far. He is often accused of sanitizing Nietzsche, making him appear too soft. Perhaps it was necessary to go this far, otherwise Nietzsche could not be rescued from the taint of Nazism. By exaggerating the gentle aspects of Nietzsche, Kaufmann managed to establish him as a serious thinker.