Friedrich Nietzsche claimed to be Polish in writing at least five times in his books. Why on Earth would this icon of philosophy deny being German and instead insist he belonged to a nation that at the time wasn't even on the map?
With Polish history being as turbulent as it is, there are several historical characters whose Polish nationality is questioned by other countries. For instance, most people are completely unaware that both Chopin and Marie Skłodowska-Curie were born and raised in Poland.
There’s also a never-ending Polish-German quarrel over Copernicus’ nationality, even if the concept of ‘nationality’ was quite different at the time he lived and Copernicus would most likely be baffled if forced to declare whether he was Polish or German. However, among all this semi-serious historical deliberation, one case stands out the most.
Namely, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Poles have never tried to Polonise, declared several times in his writings not only to have had Polish ancestors, but also to feel Polish, deep inside his soul and in his most basic instincts. Verification of this surprising statement presents problems and scholars have looked deeply into the matter. Since Nietzsche’s personal feeling of being Polish is hard to penetrate let’s start with hard fact-checking and begin our investigation…
Friedrich Nietzsche was friends with Georg Brandes, a Danish critic and scholar who went down in history as the discoverer of Nietzsche’s genius and the theorist behind the Modern Breakthrough in Scandinavian literature, amongst other things. In 1888 Nietzsche, twelve years before his death and a year before he suffered a mental breakdown, wrote to his friend (in a letter dated 10th April):
My ancestors were Polish nobility. It appears that the type is well rooted despite three ‘German’ mothers. Abroad I customarily pass for a Pole, in fact this winter’s foreign register in Nice lists me as Polish.
Moreover, he tried to prove that his odd-sounding last name was a Germanised version of a Polish one – Nietzky (also spelled Niecki). Brandes, a great admirer of Polish culture (who went as far as declaring Mickiewicz superior to Goethe, Shakespeare and Homer1), bought this story and vastly contributed to its popularisation. It went as far as Poland's most renowned history of philosophy scholar writing about Friedrich Nietzsche as a ‘German of Polish ancestry’2
However, the whole thing seems to be purely a product of Nietzsche’s imagination. Research conducted by heraldry experts as well as Max Oelher, Nietzsche’s close cousin and curator of the Nietzsche archive, revealed that over 200 of Nietzsche’s ancestors, related by both blood and marriage, were German3 The same conclusion is reached in an excerpt of Maria Ziółkowska’s work4
The history of the house of Nietzsche, recorded in parish registers dating back to the 16th century and conveyed in the oral tradition, lists Germans only. They belonged to the mob – peasants, craftsman: farmers, woodworkers, cobblers, pork-butchers (…)
The answer seems unambiguous, then. Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t Polish at all. But, the other half of the question remains unanswered…
Why did Nietzsche claim to be Polish?
The answer is: we don’t know. However, there are three hypotheses, all quite possible and not mutually exclusive.
The first one is straightforward: Nietzsche might have wanted to be thought aristocratic. It wasn’t an uncommon desire at the turn of the 19th century and telling cloudy stories about noble ancestors from a non-existent country was a good way of making one’s status unambiguous, and that was all Nietzsche, with his pedigree, could have counted on. Not a very scientific hypothesis, but on the other hand not a very improbable one.
The next hypothesis is based on Nietzsche having a very specific concept of the 16th-century Polish nobleman. In Ecce Homo he wrote:
My ancestors were Polish nobility: I inherited from them my instincts, including perhaps also the liberum veto.
And continued in his autobiographical notes from 1883:
It gave me pleasure to contemplate the right of the Polish nobleman to upset with his simple veto the determinations of a [parliamentary] session; and the Pole Copernicus seemed to have made of this right against the determinations and presentations of other people, the greatest and worthiest use.
The liberum veto (Latin for ‘free veto’) was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It granted every member (noblemen only) of the Sejm (the legislative assembly) the right to single-handedly stop the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed since it began. Meanwhile, Nietzsche’s Übermensch (German for Overman, Superman, Hyperman) was supposed to be ultimately free, above all moral constraints, full of disdain and creative powers. Thus, the idea of the liberum veto as a right attributed to a single person, allowing them to entirely change the course of the work of a huge assembly, must have looked to him as a practical emanation of his ideal. Whether Nietzsche was aware of the consequences of the abuse of the liberum veto in the 17th and 18th centuries (which was in fact fatal, contributing to Poland vanishing from the political map of Europe) is not clear – he never referred to any of its vices.
A third possibility is that Nietzsche was so full of hatred toward his compatriots that he could not tolerate being one of them.
I am a Polish nobleman pure sang, in whom there is not the slightest admixture of bad blood, least of all German.
Of Germany, he wrote in Ecce Homo as a nation with ‘every great crime against culture for the last four centuries on their conscience’. R. J. Hollingdale suggests that this odium was instrumental in him never attaining large readership in Germany, despite his growing popularity. He concluded:
(…) <the German nation> had bought only 170 copies of Human, All Too Human during the first years after its publication and whose reaction to the first three volumes of Zarathustra had been so cool that no publisher would risk handling the fourth (…). He had encountered silence and indifference; and his just anger at this treatment toppled over in his last year of sanity into blind unreasoning hatred.
Moreover, Nietzsche was a strict anti-militarist and despised the German monarchy’s imperialistic ambitions, and was greatly disgusted by the anti-Semitism growing rapidly in his homeland. His claiming to be Polish was just another way of putting a thick boundary between him and a nation he didn’t want to have anything in common with, just like openly declaring his love for France (Germany’s greatest enemy at that time), Switzerland, and Italy.
Therefore, we can safely conclude that neither Nietzsche nor his ancestors had anything to do with Poland, and that the saga of the Polish noble house of Nietzky is nothing more than Nietzsche’s eccentric method of manifesting his ideas and… a very rare case in the history of Polish-German relationships.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 14 September 2016
1. Marcin G. Piątkowski: Georg Brandes.
2. Władysław Tatarkiewicz: Historia filozofii, vol.3
3. R. J. Hollingdale: Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy
4. Maria Ziółkowska: Wybitni ludzie, też ludzie