Nietzsche, More Polish than German?

By Lidia Fedorska

I thank Heaven, that in all my Instincts I am a Pole and Nobody Else – Nietzsche

Nietzsche was born a citizen of Prussia, which was then part of the German Confederation. At the age of 25, when he accepted his post at Basel, Nietzsche applied to have his Prussian citizenship revoked.

For the rest of his life he remained officially stateless.

Several times he declared 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. His sister supported his claims of Polish ancestry.

There are a few possible reasons why he though he was Polish:

  • He didn’t merely claim to have a Polish background. He claimed to have descended from the Polish nobility – szlachta. Church records trace the Nietzsche family tree to Prussian peasants. The Nietzsches might have aspired to an aristocratic background. Friedrich also admired the French and the Italians, but Polish aristocratic background could not be as easily verified at the time, as Poland didn’t officially exist.
  • Pro-Polish sympathies were fashionable among European intelligentsia of the 19th century, particularly after the heroically romantic 1831 Polish uprising.
  • Friedrich genuinely admired the image of ”the Polish free spirit”, the Polish struggle for independence, the unbending stance, the unruly attitude, the sense of individuality. He found them lacking in Prussia. In Ecce Homo he wrote:

“My ancestors were Polish nobility: I inherited from them my instincts, including perhaps also the liberum veto”.
Liberum veto was a political device of the nobles democracy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which served to curb the powers of the king. There was no such system in Prussia.

  • He was opposed to Prussian militarism, to obedience to authority, to subordination of the population to strong rulers, all of which were the features of the German states. He wrote: “I am a pure-blooded Polish nobleman, without a single drop of bad blood, certainly not German blood.” On another occasion Nietzsche stated “Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins […] I am proud of my Polish descent.”
  • He was an anti-militarist. He despised the German monarchy’s imperialistic ambitions, and was disturbed by the growing anti-Semitism in his homeland.
  • He saw the Polish gentry as pacifists. They regarded the art of war as being of great value for self protection/self assertion, without expansionist desires.
  • Nietzsche romanticised the Polish capacity to stand alone in defence of an unpopular opinion or course of action.
  • He was friends with Georg Brandes, a Danish critic and scholar, and a great admirer of Polish culture.
  • He had a romantic streak, at a time when romanticism was the zeitgeist, and Poles were considered the quintessential romantic figures.

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