The Faces of Nietzsche

Fittingly for a philosopher who famously declared that “every profound spirit needs a mask,” Friedrich Nietzsche has worn several.1

For much of the 20th century, it was the mask of a nationalist, an anti-Semite, and a proto-Nazi, an image due largely to the work of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. In a field that has never been a stranger to scandal, Elisabeth’s outrageous and, frankly, shameful mistreatment of her brother’s work has earned her a special reputation as one of philosophy’s true villains.

The elements of this story are generally well known if usually somewhat elided: following Nietzsche’s mental collapse in a plaza in Turin on January 3, 1889 , his sister Elisabeth assumed custody of the philosopher and his work, transporting them both to a large house—the Villa Silberblick—in Weimar Germany, where the manuscripts became the home of the Nietzsche Archives.2 Eager to promote her brother’s philosophy and to align it with her own anti-Semitic German nationalism, Elisabeth then set about altering Nietzsche’s unpublished writings: purging it of Nietzsche’s occasional expressions of contempt for Germany and admiration for neighboring European nations, and inserting a hostility toward Jews that her brother never shared. The aim—which proved terrifyingly successful—was to present Nietzsche as the philosopher of Nazism avant la lettre.3 As Nietzsche scholar Steven Aschheim notes, by the beginning of World War I

her sanitized image at last fell on fertile ground….Nietzsche was a patriot and a martial man—very much a reflection of Förster-Nietzsche’s own penchant for marching soldiers and bright uniforms.

Her efforts would ultimately influence the work of the völkish neopagan and anti-Semite Ernst Wachler, whose Nietzsche, according to Aschheim, hardly differs from the “heroic, political, nazified Nietzsche that Alfred Bäumler and others were soon to construct.”4

fraktur-zarathustra
The 1897 reprinting of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Fraktur

But while abundant attention has been paid to the important part that Förster-Nietzsche’s textual redactions and outright forgeries  in the representation of Nietzsche as the ür-philosopher of the Third Reich, none, to my knowledge, has been given to the subtle but still influential role played by the reprinting of Nietzsche in fraktur.

To fully grasp the semiotic power of such a move and the meaning it would have conveyed to German readers, it is important to understand something of the cultural background of German publishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly an event known as the Schriftstreit.

Antiqua oder Fraktur? or, The Schriftstreit Explained

It will no doubt amuse 21st century readers to learn that prior to World War I, Germany was wracked by another war—a war over typography.

Beginning around the turn of the century but becoming increasingly heated in the years just prior to the war, the writing-war (Schriftstreit) involved a vociferous quarrel about which typeface was better suited to expressing the German language, character, and culture: Antiqua or Fraktur.

verordnung
A 1763 publication mixing Antiqua (roman) and Fraktur typefaces

Antiqua (the German name for roman) or Lateinische Schrift, as it was frequently called, had partisans among many cosmopolitan humanists and neo-classicists, who viewed it as bearing not only the aura of Goethe but of urbanity and, indeed, rationality itself.5

Against this, the champions of Fraktur held that the spindly, overrefined Roman typefaces lacked the weightiness needed to properly convey the seriousness and depth of German language and thought. Fraktur, it was argued, with its heavier lines and greater linear density, expressed the true German character.

munsterberg-antiqua_oder_fraktur
Hugo Münsterberg’s copy of the 1912 edition of August Kirschmann’s Antiqua or Fraktur?

Far from being a recherché debate among printers or the literati, the Schriftstreit involved the whole of German society, occasioned the publication of no fewer than ten books and numerous newspaper articles on the subject over a three year period (1911-1914), and sparked a hotly contested debate and vote in the Reichstag in 1911.6  At stake, as the two sides in the struggle loudly made clear, was nothing less than German identity itself. Within this overheated atmosphere, Fraktur increasingly came to be viewed as the authentic expression of the German national character. By 1926, the zenith of the Weimar Republic’s Golden Era and the year in which Germany was admitted as a permanent member of the League of Nations, expressionist type designer Rudolf Koch was murmuring darkly about how “the German Way of Being” was clearly manifested “in the singularity of ‘the German Way of Writing.'”7

The identification between and growing valorization of both the German nation and Fraktur reached its height, however, after the fall of Weimar and the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler. With Hitler’s success in 1933, Fraktur became the official type of Germany: “all official printed matter, school textbooks, and newspapers were reset in Fraktur.”8 That same year, an ominous paean to  Fraktur’s expressive power and its aptness for a nation newly reinvigorated with an awareness of its world-historical destiny appeared in the Bavarian National Museum’s exhibition Deutsche Schrift:9

It is not without good reason that we sense in the gothic script the Germanic will for form to be more clearly demonstrated. Just like gothic design in other arts, gothic lettering appears primarily wherever virile German manhood is symbolized by fighting, creating nations, and building.

* * * * *

die-neue-typografie-small
Jan Tschichold, Die Neue Typografie (1928)

Although the nationalistic cast of Fraktur reached its zenith in the early 20th century—a point made graphically clear by Modernist type designer Jan Tschichold in his seminal 1928 publication Die Neue Typografie—its identification with a somewhat inchoate idea of Germanness had persisted since at least the 18th century. In a letter of 1794, Goethe’s mother, Catharina Elizabeth, begged him somewhat unsuccessfully  to “stay German even in your type.”10 As Willberg notes, it was particularly during periods of acute crisis that printing in Fraktur came to be viewed as a political act of nationalistic self-assertion: “so it was in 1813 when the German states stood up against Napoleon; so it was also in 1870 as the Franco-Prussian War resulted in the Second German Empire. The same phenomenon repeated itself in 1914, before World War I, and once again when Hitler took power in 1933.”11

Each time, fraktur was politicized as the “German type,” injected with nationalism in opposition to the “foreign” type (i.e., the classical roman, which was dominant in France).

james-nietzsche
William James’s 1894 copy of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality

If printing in Fraktur signaled a form of Germanic patriotism and pride, then the decision to have one’s work set in Antiqua might equally express a sense of one’s self as cosmopolitan and European. So it is significant that until his breakdown in 1889, Nietzsche had all of his work printed in Antiqua. In doing so, his work quite literally asserted and put into circulation Nietzsche’s self-conception as “good European[ ] and free, very free spirit[ ].”12 Only after he and his writings came under the custody of his sister did the reprinting of the work and the recasting of his philosophy as Germanic occur.

elisabeth
Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche

With uncanny prescience, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche foresaw the writing on the wall-to-come. As early as 1897, in conjunction with publisher C. G. Naumann, Nietzsche’s sister embarked on an ambitious campaign of resetting and reprinting her brother’s work in Fraktur. Not content with merely stripping the work of its offending barbs against Germans, Nietzsche’s writings had to be shorn of their appalling cosmopolitan dress (Antiqua) and clothed in good German garb. The “true” understanding of Nietzsche and his writing—as patriotic lover of the fatherland and Aryan true believer—would be visible on its face.


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Adrian Del Caro in vol. 8 The Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, eds. Alan D. Schrift and Duncan Large (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 42. 
  2. While on the whole this narrative is accurate, it omits that from 1889 to 1897 Nietzsche was under the care of his mother rather than Elisabeth. 
  3. For a full treatment of the issue, see Steven E. Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) and Carol Diethe, Nietzsche’s Sister and The Will to Power: A Biography of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). A review of Diethe’s book that details some of Förster-Nietzsche’s unscrupulous interventions is available here
  4. Aschheim, Nietzsche Legacy, 142. 
  5. Associations between Antiqua and cosmopolitanism arose not merely because Roman type was more widely in use among other European countries but also as a result of arguments by its German adherents that, due to its assumed greater readability, it enabled German language books to circulate more widely throughout Europe. 
  6. The proposal, advanced by the ambiguously named “Society for Old-Script,” sought to make Antiqua the official typeface of Germany but was narrowly defeated by a vote of 85-82. 
  7. I am indebted to Hans Peter Willber’s excellent chapter “Fraktur and Nationalism” in Blackletter: Type and National Identity, eds. Peter Bain and Paul Shaw (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 42 for the quote and, more generally, for important background on the Antiqua-Fraktur debate. 
  8. Willber, “Fraktur and Nationalism,” 44. 
  9. Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin, “Broken Images: Blackletter between Faith and Mysticism” in Blackletter: Type and National Identity, eds. Peter Bain and Paul Shaw (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 59. 
  10. For knowledge of this letter, I am indebted to the blog Typefoundry (currently on extended hiatus), run by Professor James Mosley of the University of Reading. See http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/2008/01/esszett-or.html 
  11. Willber, “Fraktur and Nationalism,” 40-41. 
  12. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 3. 
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