Nietzsche’s Sister and The Will to Power
The story of the mysteriously devious Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, also known as “the lama”
This is the story of one of the most despised women in German history, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Her crime: forgery. Her victim: the world-famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, her brother. Research on the two siblings today shows a picture of the two, which seems rather creepy.
Although she has idolized her brother all her life, there have always been rifts between the two. Whenever his interest turned to another woman, she tried to stop it by spinning a web of lies and intrigues. She cared for her brother and nursed him. As the administrator of his written estate, she set about using penknife and ink to ensure that her own Nietzsche image was propagated as the only valid one. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Friedrich Nietzsche needed each other but also took advantage of each other.
To him, she was a great housekeeper, nurse, and side-kick to look down on. He must have been well aware that he could not have prevailed in high society with his health issues and anxiety if it weren’t for her support. For her, his philosophy and writing were the tickets to leading an independent life, which at the time wasn’t really in the cards for women.
And yet, the actual break between the two occurred shortly before Friedrich Nietzsche lost his mind. He had never understood what she was: Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was a blatant antisemite and Nazi supporter.
Fatal Emancipation at the Turn of the Century
Two years younger than her brother Friedrich, Elisabeth was born in Röcken, Germany, in 1846, as the daughter of Pastor Carl Ludwig Nietzsche and his wife Franziska, being the second child of the family. After pastor Carl Ludwig’s death, the family moved from Röcken to Naumburg. Elisabeth attended the elementary school and then Fräulein von Paraskis’ “School for Young Ladies”, in Naumburg. There she received lessons in German, French, history, natural history, arithmetic, drawing, singing, and religion until 1861. In February 1862, she moved to a girls’ boarding school in Dresden.
As was conventional during this time, women had to get married: the mother looked for an appropriate match, Elisabeth appeared at summer and winter balls, but she willfully frightened various applicants. Supported by her brother, and mentally leaning on Schopenhauer, she torpedoed marriage plans and wished to go her own “predetermined” way.
In 1868, Elisabeth was in Leipzig as a ‘trial student.’ Friedrich Nietzsche supported his sister’s educational ambitions and, from 1870, brought her to Basel to run his household as an alternative to getting married. Friedrich was named professor for philology at the tender age of twenty-four and taught at the University of Basel. While witnesses’ accounts report that she loved the lifestyle of high society, he felt uncomfortable. Only through the new-found access to high society was it possible that a year later, Nietzsche met the composer Richard Wagner, which set off a bizarre and fluctuating relationship between the two and his mistress and later wife, Cosima Wagner.
The Racist Wagner Circle and the Emigration to Paraguay
Through her brother, Elisabeth became acquainted with the most famous German composer of his time, Richard Wagner. As part of the Wagner Circle, she also regularly consorted with his wife, Cosima Wagner. Cosima Wagner was very fascinated, acting as an aunt to the Wagner children and reserved for Friedrich Nietzsche at the first Bayreuth festival 1876. At the time, Cosmia Wagner, the illegitimate daughter of the Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was the female role model of her time. After Richard Wagner died in 1883, she directed the Bayreuth Festival for more than twenty years, increasing its repertoire to form the Bayreuth canon of ten operas and establishing the festival as a significant event in global musical theatre. With the Bayreuth Festival, Cosima achieved what Elisabeth would achieve years later with the Nietzsche Archive: the possibility of an independent career. Not only did she find a role model in Cosima, but through her, she also met her future husband, Bernhard Förster.
While living in Basel, the rift between the siblings started to deepen further. It escalated into a massive fight due to Friedrich’s disappointment with his friend Richard Wagner and, after having been a supporter of the Bayreuth Festival idea, he withdrew from it. This is due to Friedrich Nietzsche’s opposition to antisemitism. Furthermore, as an atheist, he could not support Richard Wagner’s last big opera, Parsifal. On the other hand, Elisabeth rejected Nietzsche’s more recent, post-Wagner, writings, and the relationship between the siblings became increasingly disruptive. Perhaps contributing further to the rift between the two, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche continued her friendship with the Wagners and traveled back and forth between Basel, Naumburg, and Bayreuth.
During the trips to Bayreuth in 1883/84, she decided to emigrate to Paraguay with Bernhard Förster to establish the utopia of a pure German colony. Both were antisemites and convinced that this colony could help them to fulfill their hunger for glory. After marrying, on Richard Wagner’s birthday (May 22), they set off from Hamburg and landed in Asunción on March 15, 1886. After many difficulties, they finally moved into the manor house in Nueva Germania on March 5, 1888, and the Little Queen of Nueva Germania began her reign.
Little Queen of Nueva Germania becomes the Empress of the Archive
In the years that followed, her adventure in Paraguay slowly turned into a nightmare. Faced with a harsh environment, plagued by high and unserviceable debts, Bernhard Förster fell more and more into alcoholism and, in 1889, committed suicide. Unfortunately, colonial life did not turn out to be the hoped-for fulfillment. Her Försterhof was sold for good in 1893. A telling ‘farewell article’ published in the Bayreuther Blätter in 1894 detailed her next task in life: nursing her sick brother. Upon her arrival in Germany, she had her new double name, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, confirmed in court.
Equipped with this new double name, she set out with the plan for a ‘Nietzsche Archive,’ which later became a memorial and cult site à la Bayreuth, for Nietzsche lovers from near and far. In 1895, the first volume of her Nietzsche biography, which was laid out in three volumes, was published with the declared goal of establishing her Nietzsche image as the ‘valid’ one. Much in contrast to Elisabeth’s accounts is the book published by Lou Andreas-Salomé’s Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken (Friedrich Nietzsche in His Works), published in 1894, which relies more upon Nietzsche’s thoughts and motives. In 1896, with the help of the Jewish banker Mendelsohn and Harry Graf Kesslers, she paid off her mother and thus acquired the sole exploitation rights to Friedrich Nietzsche’s estate. In the same year, she moved to Weimar and began work in the archive.
Weimar, the Archive, and the Nazis
After her mother, Franziska Nietzsche, died in April 1897, she moved everything from Naumburg to Weimar, where her friend Meta von Salis had donated a representative house for the archive. From there, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche started to cultivate a hype around her brother Friedrich. According to the paper The neurological illness of Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 2008 by the University of Ghent, “Friedrich Nietzsche’s disease consisted of migraine, psychiatric disturbances, cognitive decline with dementia, and stroke. Despite the prevalent opinion that neurosyphilis caused Nietzsche’s illness, there is lack of evidence to support this diagnosis.”
After her brother died in 1900, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche systematically molded her brother’s written estate into the zeitgeist. With growing popularity, she quickly published the second part of her Nietzsche biography and, in 1901, the very controversial book Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power). After research trips in 1902/03, the last volume of her Nietzsche biography was published in 1904. During this period, Elisabeth became a central figure of the ‘New Weimar,’ thus achieving her longed for popularity, a career, and fame.
To further consolidate her influence and with an astonishing zeal for work, Elisabeth published a new edition of Wille zur Macht in 1906 (the book’s volume had doubled). In 1908, the long-awaited Nietzsche work Ecco homo.
Until 1910, Elisabeth published volumes of letters, consolidating her position and view of her brother’s work in the public eye. However, there was increasingly well-founded public criticism. The former archive staff members Rudolf Steiner and Ernst Horneffer revealed the inner workings of the archive. Further criticism of Elisabeth’s interpretation came from Basel, where Friedrich had been a young age professor, making Elisabeth’s situation increasingly difficult. In 1908, with the help of the Swedish banker Thiel, the Nietzsche Foundation was established so that Elisabeth could be officially retired. However, she remained the final decision-making authority in the archive.
The outbreak of World War I changed everything. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s popularity is still growing — many compatriots have Zarathustra in their luggage — , on the other hand, there was no time for extravagances like a monument or a ceremonial reburial. In 1918, after the catastrophe, the Zarathustra was a great success, but Elisabeth observed it suspiciously. She wanted to prevent “the wrong people” from referring to Nietzsche.
In 1919/20, she joined the German National Party, and Oswald Spengler joined the Nietzsche Foundation board. In 1921, Elisabeth was also the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Jena. In 1922, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by German professors for the last time. In the same year, she published Nietzsche Words compiled in the spirit of O. Spengler.
After an increasing deterioration of the archive’s economic situation during the 1920s, the German state granted her an honorary award. Furthermore, they supported the first historical-critical complete edition of Nietzsche’s works. Thus the archive was saved, but Elisabeth’s disempowerment began. In 1932 and 1933, the library drifted even more into the direction of national socialism. On Elisabeth’s 88th birthday on July 20, 1934, Hitler came to visit.
On November 8, 1935, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was found dead in her bed. Hitler attended her funeral.
What Is the Heritage of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche?
How can her antisemitism be placed in the context of that time? Her views were undisputedly wrong, but she managed to find a way to have the independet life she always wanted. She took her chance and became a writer in her own right and achieved what other women did not dare to. The Lama seized the chances given to her and lived an independent and autonomous life, which was denied to many women of her time. Was she dedicated to her brother’s philosophy? No, you can’t see it that way today, especially given how much Elisabeth falsified and reinterpreted her brother’s work.
Does one have to certify that she made the most out of the opportunities she was given with her business sense? Yes, you have to take your hat off to that.
How famous would the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche be today without the tireless work and dedication of his sister? The myth that surrounds his philosophy is solely due to her. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche is for him, as for us, a curse and blessing at the same time.