It was not the front, but the journey to the front that was the worst. ‘There was some shit in people’s pants, I tell you.’ Two years into the war, Otto Dix had seen it all. In 1914, he had unhesitatingly signed up to the field artillery. Back then, people had assumed that victory would be swift in coming. Germany was the greatest military power in Europe. [page 459]
In the next pages Tom Holland describes the horrors Dix witnessed in the First World War. He then adds:
It was not the Bible that had brought Dix to this conviction. In his determination to spurn the mindset of a slave, to revel in all the qualities that made for a master, there was a conscious repudiation of Christian morality, with its concern for the weak, and the poor, and the oppressed. A trench in the midst of the most terrible battlescape in history seemed to Dix a fitting vantage point from which to observe what was, so he had come to believe, the collapse of a 1900-year-old order. Alongside his Bible, he had a second book. So stirred was he by its philosophy that in 1912, while still an art student in Dresden, he had made a life-size plaster bust of its author. Not just his first sculpture, it had also been his first work to be bought by a gallery. Discerning critics, inspecting the bust’s drooping moustache, its thrusting neck, its stare shadowed by bristling eyebrows, had proclaimed it the very image of Friedrich Nietzsche.
‘After a terrible earthquake, a tremendous reflection,
with new questions.’ Otto Dix’s life-size bust of Nietzsche.
[Tom Holland himself took this photo—Ed.]
‘Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?—for even gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ To read these words beside the Somme, amid a landscape turned to mud and ash, and littered with the mangled bodies of men, was to shiver before the possibility that there might not be, after all, any redemption in sacrifice. Nietzsche had written them back in 1882: the parable of a madman who one bright morning lit a lantern and ran to the marketplace, where no one among his listeners would believe his news that God had bled to death beneath their knives.
Little in Nietzsche’s upbringing seemed to have prefigured such blasphemy. The son of a Lutheran pastor, and named after Friedrich Wilhelm IV, his background had been one of pious provincialism. Precocious and brilliant, he had obtained a professorship when he was only twenty-four; but then, only a decade later, had resigned it to become a shabbily genteel bum. Finally, seeming to confirm the sense of a squandered career, he had suffered a terrible mental breakdown. For the last eleven years of his life, he had been confined to a succession of clinics.
True, he was briefly institutionalised, but for most of the years following the psychotic crisis of January 1889, Nietzsche spent most of his time at home with his mother, and later with his sister.
Few, when he finally died in 1900, had read the books that, in an escalating frenzy of production, he had written before his collapse into madness. Posthumously, though, his fame had grown with startling rapidity. By 1914, when Dix marched to war with his writings in his knapsack, Nietzsche’s name had emerged to become one of the most controversial in Europe. Condemned by many as the most dangerous thinker who had ever lived, others hailed him as a prophet. There were many who considered him both.
Nietzsche was not the first to have become a byword for atheism, of course. No one, though—not Spinoza, not Darwin, not Marx—had ever before dared to gaze quite so unblinkingly at what the murder of its god might mean for a civilisation. ‘When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.’
Nietzsche’s loathing for those who imagined otherwise was intense. Philosophers he scorned as secret priests. Socialists, communists, democrats: all were equally deluded. ‘Naiveté: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing!’ Enthusiasts for the Enlightenment, self-proclaimed rationalists who imagined that men and women possessed inherent rights, Nietzsche regarded with contempt. It was not from reason that their doctrine of human dignity derived, but rather from the very faith that they believed themselves—in their conceit—to have banished. Proclamations of rights were nothing but flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating tide of Christianity: bleached and stranded relics. God was dead—but in the great cave that once had been Christendom his shadow still fell, an immense and frightful shadow.
The title of this chapter is precisely ‘Shadow’.
For centuries, perhaps, it would linger. Christianity had reigned for two millennia. It could not easily be banished. Its myths would long endure. They were certainly no less mythical for casting themselves as secular. ‘Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour’: these were Christian through and through.
Nietzsche did not mean this as a compliment. It was not just as frauds that he despised those who clung to Christian morality, even as their knives were dripping with the blood of God; he loathed them as well for believing in it. Concern for the lowly and the suffering, far from serving the cause of justice, was a form of poison. Nietzsche, more radically than many a theologian, had penetrated to the heart of everything that was most shocking about the Christian faith. ‘To devise something which could even approach the seductive, intoxicating, anaesthetising, and corrupting power of that symbol of the “holy cross”, that horrific paradox of the “crucified God”, that mystery of an inconceivably ultimate, most extreme cruelty and self-crucifixion undertaken for the salvation of mankind?’
Like Paul, Nietzsche knew it to be a scandal. Unlike Paul, he found it repellent. The spectacle of Christ being tortured to death had been bait for the powerful. It had persuaded them—the strong and the healthy, the beautiful and the brave, the powerful and the self-assured—that it was their natural inferiors, the hungry and the humble, who deserved to inherit the earth. ‘Helping and caring for others, being of use to others, constantly excites a sense of power.’ Charity, in Christendom, had become a means to dominate. Yet Christianity, by taking the side of everything ill-constituted, and weak, and feeble, had made all of humanity sick. Its ideals of compassion and equality before God were bred not of love, but of hatred: a hatred of the deepest and most sublime order, one that had transformed the very character of morality, a hatred the like of which had never before been seen on earth. This was the revolution that Paul—‘that hate-obsessed false-coiner’—had set in motion. The weak had conquered the strong; the slaves had vanquished their masters.
‘Ruined by cunning, secret, invisible, anaemic vampires! Not conquered —only sucked dry! Covert revengefulness, petty envy become master!’ Nietzsche, when he mourned antiquity’s beasts of prey, did so with the passion of a scholar who had devoted his life to the study of their civilisation…
That Nietzsche himself was a short-sighted invalid prone to violent migraines had done nothing to inhibit his admiration for the aristocracies of antiquity, and their heedlessness towards the sick and the weak. A society focused on the feeble was a society enfeebled itself. This it was that had rendered Christians such malevolent blood-suckers. If it was the taming of the Romans that Nietzsche chiefly rued, then he regretted as well how they had battened onto other nations.
Nietzsche himself, whose contempt for the Germans was exceeded only by his disdain for the English, had so little time for nationalism that he had renounced his Prussian citizenship when he was only twenty-four, and died stateless; and yet, for all that, he had always lamented the fate of his forebears. Once, before the coming of Boniface, the forests had sheltered Saxons who, in their ferocity and their hunger for everything that was richest and most intense in life, had been predators no less glorious than lions: ‘blond beasts’. But then the missionaries had arrived. The blond beast had been tempted into a monastery. ‘There he now lay, sick, wretched, malevolent toward himself; filled with hatred of the vital drives, filled with suspicion towards all that was still strong and happy. In short, a “Christian”.’ Dix, enduring the extremes of the Western Front, did not have to be a worshipper of Woden to feel that he was free at last.
‘Even war,’ he recorded in his notebook, ‘must be regarded as a natural occurrence.’ That it was an abyss, across which, like a rope, a man might be suspended, fastened between beast and Übermensch: here was a philosophy that Dix felt no cause to abandon at the Somme…
The unprecedented scale of the violence that had bled Europe white did not shock most of its peoples into atheism. On the contrary: it served to confirm them in their faith. How otherwise to make sense of all the horror? As so often before, when Christians had found themselves enmired in misery and slaughter, the veil that lay between earth and heaven could appear to many hauntingly thin. As the war ground on, and 1916 turned to 1917, so the end times seemed to be drawing near. In Portugal, in the village of Fatima, the Virgin made repeated appearances, until at last, before huge crowds, the sun danced, as though in fulfilment of the prophecy recorded in Revelation that a great and wondrous sign would appear in heaven: ‘a woman clothed with the sun’. In Palestine, the British won a crushing victory at Armageddon and took Jerusalem from the Turks. In London, the Foreign Secretary issued a declaration supporting the establishment in the Holy Land of a Jewish homeland—a development that many Christians believed was bound to herald the return of Christ…
Meanwhile, in basements stale with beer and sweat, men with strident voices were talking about Jews. [pages 462-467]