The history of a journey, a colony, a philosophy

November 22, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

FORGOTTEN FATHERLAND:

THE SEARCH

FOR ELISABETH NIETZSCHE.

Ben Macintyre.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

256 pages. $22.

In 1886 Elisabeth Nietzsche, the sister of philosopher Friedrich, and her husband, Bernhard Forster, an anti-Semitic propagandist, founded a settlement of 14 German families in the distant Paraguayan forest. Their purpose was to establish a self-sustaining colony, which they called Nueva Germania, of racially pure and nationalistic Aryans far away from corrupting Jewish and capitalistic influences.

The experiment, grandiosely described by Elisabeth and Forster a series of articles that appeared in the German press, was an economic and social failure. Faced with both angry creditors and desperate colonists who found, instead of the paradise they had been promised, drudgery, disease, and poverty in alien surroundings, Forster took his own life in 1889.

Elisabeth Nietzsche-Forster was made of sterner stuff. She stuck it out until 1893 when, on the pretext that she was needed to care for her brother, who was now insane, she sailed to Germany. She never returned to Paraguay.

Back in Germany, Elisabeth began a second career as her brother's caretaker and mythmaker. She wrested control from their mother of him and his writings. By manipulating the publications of his works, and concealing and fabricating where she found it necessary, she perverted his individualistic philosophy into an apology for the totalitarian state.

Incapacitated, Nietzsche became what he had most dreaded -- "an idol in his own twilight" -- and his philosophy was spuriously invoked to legitimate Nazism and Fascism. It has only been in the decades since the second world war that Nietzsche's philosophy has been reappraised and hence freed from the shadow cast by his sister.

By approaching Nietzsche indirectly, through the extraordinary career of his sister, and by revealing her distorted interpretations of his thought, "Forgotten Fatherland" presents an additional chapter in the rehabilitation of Nietzsche's reputation. The title refers to Nueva Germania, and the book also seeks to solve the mystery of the colony's fate after Elisabeth's departure.

Ben Macintyre, a journalist and author, has conducted two searches: one among the Nietzsche papers in the Goethe-Schiller Archive, only recently opened to the public since the demise of German Communism, and the other amid the remote rivers and forests of Paraguay. The result is part history and biography and part travelogue, as Mr. Macintyre takes us with him on his journey.

Mr. Macintyre is young and tough, and rather delights in shocking the reader. He has a flair for suggesting menace and a gift for description. This book is clearly influenced by the genre of the hard-boiled detective story, in which the protagonist constantly questions his purposes. But it becomes much more, as, in the first four chapters, Mr. Macintyre weaves the story of his journey with the tainted history of the colony.

The second four chapters recount the curious biographies of Elisabeth and Friedrich Nietzsche and explore Nietzsche's thought. Although Mr. Macintyre states, "It is not the primary intention of this book to discuss, once more, whether the Nazis had any justification when they cited Nietzsche in support of their evil aims," he in fact demonstrates by copious quotes from Nietzsche's own writings that the philosopher despised his sister's anti-Semitism. "This accursed anti-Semitism is the cause a radical breach between me and my sister," Nietzsche confided to a friend.

Elisabeth is the villain of the book. Mr. Macintyre leads us to realize that she was exactly the type of manipulative woman, self-deceiving and self-justifying, who inspired her brother's virulent misogyny. In establishing the Nietzsche Archive, she succeeded in becoming a kind of vestal keeper of the sacred flame at the altar of Nietzsche worship, and for the rest of her long life (she died in 1935, her brother in 1900), she devoted herself to propagating her interpretations of his thought and to successfully raising private donations and government funds in support of the archive. Mr. Macintyre describes her relationships with Mussolini, who claimed to be an acolyte of Nietzsche, and with Hitler, who despite lip service probably never read him.

After Mr. Macintyre's record of his harrowing journey and his spirited investigation of the Nietzsches, his discovery of the remnants of Nueva Germania comes as an anticlimax. In fact, he chooses to omit the report of his arrival among the gente perdita, or "lost people," as their Paraguayan neighbors refer to them. His descriptions of them are rather sketchy, and one is left with the notion that the truth was a good deal more dull than the author had anticipated.

This small criticism notwithstanding, "Forgotten Fatherland" is a fascinating and original book by a fluent and intelligent writer. It resurrects a forgotten chapter of 19th century history and traces the reach of its distorted shadow to our own times.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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