James Hawes

A meeting of remarkable men

In 1945, with the second world war won bar the shouting, Bertrand Russell polished off his brief examination of Friedrich Nietzsche’s contribution to Western thought with the splendid phrase: ‘His followers have had their innings.’ Russell knew that Nietzsche’s followers didn’t just mean the Nazis. Ten years before Hitler’s acolytes started editing special volumes of Nietzsche’s aphorisms about the Will to Power, the Blond Beast and suchlike, Leon Trotsky declared that ‘the Nietzscheans’ were his natural allies in the creation of the socialist ‘superman’. In fact, from around 1900, Nietzsche was the go-to philosopher for all millennial fanatics, whether they claimed to be left-wing, right-wing or both (National Socialism says it on the tin, after all). In 1945 it seemed to Russell that they had been bowled out by the Democrat, Roosevelt, and the Liberal-turned-Tory, Churchill.

But Nietzsche never went away. Sue Prideaux’s excellently researched and compulsively readable book shows us exactly why. There are essentially two sorts of biographies. Some try to fit the Great Person into the larger world of their era; others try to bring them alive as a timeless human being. Prideaux’s book is very firmly in the second category, packed with insights into the man who ecstatically prophesied the Übermensch (and we’re not talking a thoughtful minicab driver) from his desk. Here he is, recorded by a contemporary witness, ‘struggling to give his lecture. At the lectern, his face almost touching his notebook despite the thick eyeglasses, the words were produced slowly and laboriously, with long pauses in between. Unbearable tension built up as to whether he would be able to complete the task.’ Yet he was also so fine a romantic pianist that his passionate improvisations could reduce Cosima Wagner herself — normally ice-cold to anyone but her adored husband — to a state of fear and trembling.

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