Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most-recognized name in philosophy behind Socrates and Aristotle. But his notoriety with the layman is mainly due to the people he inspired -- Ted Bundy, Mussolini and Hitler. His seminal work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is about as cheery as anything Nietzsche ever penned. It popularized the quote "God is dead" and illustrates Nietzsche's disdain for the concept of traditional morality and his prediction that some kind of master race would soon drag itself out of the slime and rule the world.
He refers to the rightful owner of the world as the "superman" and the "splendid blond beast," and anyone with a passing interest in modern history knows exactly where that line of thinking is going.
Hitler, who might otherwise have faded out of history as just another square-mustached college dropout, picked up a copy of Zarathustra and was inspired to do a little more with his life. Some years later he distributed copies to his soldiers and went about arranging a big-budget live stage adaptation known as "the Holocaust."
What it's really about:
If Nietzsche wasn't too busy being dead, he would probably have had a few words with Hitler about the fuehrer's liberal interpretation of his work, due mainly to the fact that Nietzsche hung around with entirely the wrong crowd. His sister, Elisabeth, and good friend, composer Richard Wagner, were both as Nazi as the goose-step.
This portrait of Wagner comes courtesy of a dockside caricature artist.
After Nietzsche died, Elisabeth inherited the rights to his works and went about diligently re-editing them with a "kill all the Jews" subtext. It didn't help that Nietzsche's thought-baton was then picked up by the philosopher Martin Heidegger -- you guessed it: Nazi.
Nietzsche actually hated anti-Semites, having refused to attend his sister's wedding because she was marrying a Nazi, and even wrote that "anti-Semites should be shot." We have his sister to thank for the "blond beast" confusion. She, Hitler and decades of disapproving philosophy students interpret this as an allusion to the Aryan race. In fact, Nietzsche was just describing lions.
After all, does this look like the mustache of a racist?
And as for the "superman" thing, rather than referring to some genetically pure German dictator, Nietzsche was just making a generic statement about people who believe in the subjectivity of morals and seek to find their own values in the world -- a concept wholly incompatible with just following the whim of some guy with a hate-boner for some specific race. Interpreting Zarathustra's message as a call to raise an army and purge the world of undesirables is something akin to believing that Animal Farm was really a warning about farm animals taking over the world.