The Case of Nietzsche

Published in: September-October 2018 issue.


THIRTEEN YEARS after its initial publication in 1989, the great Nietzsche biography Zarathustras Geheimnis, by Joachim Köhler, appeared in an English translation. While I praised the original German edition in the Winter 1999 issue of this magazine [then The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review], the conservative Nietzsche establishment has displayed considerably less enthusiasm. In fact, the book’s central thesis that the philosopher was a lover of males and that this love is encoded in his philosophical and poetic writings ruffled more than a few academic feathers.

            A scathing review of the English translation was published in the Times Literary Supplementof October 18, 2002, written by Brian Leiter, at the time a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, who unleashed a torrent of invective, decrying the book as “leering” and “voyeuristic,” adding that “smug innuendo, much of it sleazy, is what passes for argument in this work.” At one point he even asserted that “a tabloid editor would blush to print such rubbish.” It is my contention that Leiter’s criticism is a hatchet job, and my purpose here is to defend the biography and expose the fallacies of his argument.

            Leiter claims, for example, that no evidence is cited that Nietzsche’s favorite literary work (Lieblingsdichtung) was Plato’s Symposium, that extraordinary pæan to the ancient Greek love of youths. On the contrary, a citation is provided in the original German edition of the biography (from Karl Schlechta’s edition of Nietzsche’s works), of which Leiter is apparently ignorant. Even the late Professor Walter Kaufmann, who also indignantly denied that Nietzsche enjoyed the love of males, admitted in his trailblazing study, Nietzsche, that before leaving the boarding school Schulpforta, “he stated in his curriculum vitaethat Plato’s Symposiumwas his Lieblingsdichtung.”

            Leiter also disputes the inflammatory statement made by Paul Federn during the April 1, 1908, meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society: “From a reliable source he could say that Nietzsche had lived from time to time a homosexual life and contracted his lues [syphilis]in a homosexual bordello in Genoa.” Leiter considers this statement mere “hearsay,” but coming only eight years after Nietzsche’s death—and in view of the fact that Freud’s circle had gleaned firsthand knowledge from persons such as Josef Paneth, who had been directly acquainted with the philosopher—it is thoroughly credible. But who was Federn’s “reliable source”? Pricked by curiosity, I resolved to find out many years ago by writing to Ernst Federn, the son of Paul and co-editor of the Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In a reply dated July 7, 1994, he stated the following: “Unfortunately I have no idea how my father learned of Nietzsche’s homosexuality. His brother Karl may have been the source.” It should be noted that he does not call Nietzsche’s “homosexuality” into question. In his biography Köhler reports that brother Karl became a devoted Nietzschean propagandist and initiated the dancer Isadora Duncan into the mysteries of Zarathustra. (Inspired by the philosopher, she caused a scandal in Bayreuth in 1904 by dancing practically naked in the famous “Venusberg Bacchanal” in Tannhäuser.)

            Nietzsche’s same-sex disposition was also frankly discussed by the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society on October 28, 1908. The occasion was the publication that year of Ecce Homo. Here Freud himself weighed in and offered his solution to the riddle posed by Nietzsche: “Cut off completely from life by the illness [syphilis], he turns to the only object of research that remained to him and that lay closer to him anyway as a homosexual, the ego. And there he begins with great astuteness, as it were in endopsychic perception, to recognize the layers of his self.” In Freud’s judgment, this was the source of Nietzsche’s extraordinary psychological insights: “Such introspection as one finds in Nietzsche was never before achieved by any human being and in all probability will never be achieved again.” The minutes make clear that Freud never doubted that the philosopher was “a homosexual.” Earlier in the discussion he stated that “[a]certain sexual abnormality is certain. Jung claims to have learned that he got the lues in a homosexual bordello.” This is a stunningly frank assertion. Whether Federn and Jung got their information from the same source is unclear. Freud’s final remark about Ecce Homois also worth quoting: “The whole conception of the book suggests that a chapter entitled ‘On My Sexuality’ belongs in it and was perhaps also written.” Who knows? It would surely have been a sensation. What is known is that parts of the manuscript were destroyed by Nietzsche’s mother and sister.

            Had Leiter conscientiously considered all this evidence, he might have drawn a different conclusion than he did. Reading his review, I had the impression that he was attacking a different book than I had read. And then it dawned on me why: according to the publishing information cited in the TLS, the work translated as Zarathustra’s Secretis a mere 278 pages, whereas the original German edition is a whopping 642 pages. It would appear that a great deal was left out. His vituperative review in the TLSreflects the hysteria of the prudish Nietzsche establishment, which has tried for decades to stifle all discussion of the philosopher’s love of males and the impact it had on his thinking.

            For anyone who wishes to think beyond Leiter in assessing Nietzsche’s erotic interests, the posthumously published recollections written by Franz Overbeck (1837–1905) are indispensable. As a professor of church history in Basel, he was not only Nietzsche’s colleague, but also one of his closest friends. (It was Overbeck who went to Turin after the outbreak of Nietzsche’s madness and accompanied him to the asylum in Basel.) In notes from the year 1901, Overbeck wrote that he had learned from a colleague that the question was being considered at the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar: “to what extent N. was ‘homosexual.’” This is an astonishing disclosure. The first point to be noted is the early use of the “H” word as an adjective. At the turn of the century, it was hardly known. Apart from a narrow group of specialists (such as Freud’s circle), virtually no one would have understood it. This is presumably why Overbeck wrote the word with scare quotes. It must have been new for him as well. It should be recalled that the adjective as well as the abstract noun Homosexualität had first appeared in print in the year 1869, a coinage by the Austro-Hungarian writer K. M. Kertbeny (1824–1882).

            Overbeck proceeds to inform us that his colleague was of the opinion that “N’s Homosexualitätwas only aesthetic.” If by “aesthetic” he means merely sensitive to male beauty, then presumably no erotic acts were involved. Overbeck found here “quite correct hints” and commented: “N. was indeed by no means homosexual in the real sense, but the matter occupied him already very early and a great deal and was often discussed by us during our conversations in Basel. In his lively way of looking at things he could not, especially as a philologist and pedagogue, remain far from the matter.” Since Overbeck does not define his terms, it is by no means clear what he means when he says that Nietzsche was not “homosexual in the real sense.” Nevertheless, he and Nietzsche discussed “the matter” (presumably at the latter’s behest) during their time together in Basel. We can be virtually certain that they did not use the “H” word during their conversations in the 1870s. In 19th-century German, the word Päderastiewas the usual term to refer to erotic acts between males, even though, strictly speaking, it denotes intergenerational sex. Given Nietzsche’s interest in antiquity, one might assume that their conversations focused on the Greeks’ acceptance of this practice, and why it was later condemned by the Christians.

            Overbeck regarded them as “revelations … of the peculiar and noble and highly instructive heartiness (Herzhaftigkeit) with which he was accustomed to tackling things.” Whoever reads his writings properly will “learn enough from them how things stood regarding N’s Homosexualitätand his interest in the matter. For that no one needs our ‘conversations,’ but naturally even less will be learned from the ‘Archive.’” (Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, founder of the Archive, obviously would not have wanted this information to become public; back then it would have ruined her brother’s reputation.)

            In assessing the credibility of Overbeck’s testimony, we should bear in mind that he knew Nietzsche probably as well as anyone. There is no reason to assume that he falsified any of the statements regarding the frequency of their frank conversations. Unfortunately, they cut no ice with the guardians of Nietzsche’s sexual purity. I have in mind here the kind remarks from the editorial staff of the Journal of Nietzsche Studiesthat I received in a personal communication from November 9, 2011. Among other things, I was told that “Nietzsche did discuss homosexuality with Overbeck on occasion [emphasis mine].” It should be recalled, however, that the “H” word would not have been used in their actual conversations. Overbeck simply referred to it as “the matter” that they often discussed. The claim that they discussed it only “on occasion” is misleading. The letter went on to state that “this only shows that Nietzsche had some interest in the topic of homosexuality.” But Overbeck clearly states that “the matter occupied him already very early and a great deal.” Finally, I was told that none of this “proves that Nietzsche ‘endorsed’ same sex intercourse.” Overbeck’s testimony may not constitute proof, but it does make abundantly clear that Nietzsche had a lively interest in the matter.

IN THE MEANTIME, Joachim Köhler has published a much shorter scholarly biography titled Nietzsche (2001), which draws heavily on Zarathustras Geheimnisyet is full of many new surprises. The leitmotif of this study is Nietzsche’s discovery of a sensual paradise in Italy. His experiences there contributed to his blistering attack on the moral prejudices of the West and the God of Christianity. In effect, he turned his back on northern Europe and found what he’d been seeking in the south. In Italy, same-sex erotic acts were not illegal. Men whom we would today call gay had been traveling there since at least the time of Johann Winckelmann in the 18th century to experience sexual liberation. It was, as Köhler says, an early form of “sex tourism.” We know that Nietzsche visited Sicily in 1882 and returned happier than he had been in years. His incognito sojourn has been the bane of his biographers. They do not know what he did there.

            The photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden had been living in Taormina since around 1877. His portraits of naked Sicilian boys amid archaic Arcadian scenery were becoming famous throughout Europe. The revival of classical antiquity was his professed aim. It is noteworthy that he was visited by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Anatole France, the Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm, King Edward VII, and the steel magnate Karl Friedrich Krupp (who later committed suicide after it became known that he was a lover of boys). Köhler thinks there’s some basis for positing that Nietzsche could also have paid him a visit. (Some tantalizing clues can be found in the postcards he sent from Messina, which is just a stone’s throw from Taormina.) This is a plausible supposition and brings us to the question concerning the origin of the term Übermensch.

            In his speech “On Old and New Tablets,” Zarathustra exults in an orgasmic passage: “My wise longing cried and laughed out of me. … I flew quivering, an arrow, through sun-drunken delight, away into distant futures which no dream had yet seen into hotter souths than artists ever dreamed of, where dancing gods are ashamed of all clothing” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 3). And it was there, he says in a significant clue, that he picked up the word “Übermensch.” Actually, Nietzsche may have first read the word. But what does it have to do with “dancing gods”?

            Generations of Nietzsche scholars, as Köhler says, have wracked their brains over the question concerning the source of the term. It appears, for example, in Goethe’s Faust and may also have been suggested by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of the “Over-Soul.” Yet there is another book thus far ignored in the voluminous Nietzsche literature that deals precisely with the restoration of ancient Greek love in which that fateful word appears. The work in question is Heinrich Hössli’s apology for same-sex love, Eros, in Die Männerliebe der Griechen(“The Greek Love of Males”), first published in 1836. There’s no direct evidence that Nietzsche actually read the book, but a circumstantial case can be made that he may indeed have transformed Hössli’s thesis into the teachings of Zarathustra. Stripped to its essentials, Hössli’s thesis was that the ancient Greeks had much to teach modern Europeans. Hössli believed that same-sex love, far from being despicable in the Christian sense—“the bestial defilement of our nature in the sin of Sodom”—represented something divine. When, he asks, will we finally cease to regard Greek Eros as degenerate and recognize how this power made possible all the extraordinary cultural accomplishments of the Hellenes? It is no accident, he says, that the gods rewarded heroic male lovers with eternal life on the mythic “Blessed Isles,” a phrase that Nietzsche used in the title of one of Zarathustra’s speeches. (In Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus opines that the gods sent Achilles there on account of his loyalty to his lover Patroclus.)

            It is here that the key word appears: “From our nonhumans they formed superhumans” (Aus unseren Nichtmenschen bildeten sie Übermenschen). This is a paradigm-shattering assessment. Like Hössli, as Köhler says, Nietzsche also demanded such a world-historical decision that would bring forth the superhuman from our presently decadent Christian humanity. The latter is something that should be overcome. As Köhler says, for both thinkers the goal was the same: “the male-loving Übermenschwho knows no other god than the likes of him. Before Nietzsche no other thinker had dared to write such things.”

            Köhler serves up another surprise in speculating that Nietzsche may have been familiar with the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895), regarded as the most important pioneer of the early gay rights movement. Ulrichs—who knew of Hössli’s book—published some of his pamphlets exploring the innate origins of same-sex love during the time that Nietzsche studied classical philology in Leipzig. The fact that he gave them strange Latin titles would presumably have caught the student’s eye. Furthermore, Ulrichs left Germany in 1880 because of the harsh legal climate there that severely punished same-sex erotic acts. He settled in Italy, where, like von Gloeden, he received intellectual visitors from the north. It is conceivable that Nietzsche was one of them.

            Köhler points out that a crucial issue for both Nietzsche and Ulrichs was a final reckoning with the morality of their age, which was hostile to the enjoyment of erotic experiences. They wanted to break the chains in which the male body and its instincts languished. In fact, Ulrichs chose as the epigraph of his writings the Latin motto “Vincula frango” (“I break the chains”). One of his books also bears the title Prometheus. Two years after its publication in 1870, Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, appeared. The illustration on the title page depicted the naked and unbound Prometheus with broken chains. (One might recall here Rousseau’s famous declaration that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”) Ulrichs’ contention in his pamphlet Vindicta that the persecution and slander of Greek Eros could not exterminate it, but only degrade it to a “disgusting vice,” finds its equivalent in Nietzsche’s aphorism §168 in Beyond Good and Evil: “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink—he did not die of it, but degenerated into a vice.”

ULRICHS WROTE in Inclusathat it is an error to regard reproduction as the main purpose of the sexual instinct. Nietzsche argued in The Wanderer and His Shadow §5 that it is “a damned lie” to speak of “the procreation of children as the real intention of all lust (Wollust).” For both polemicists, Greek Eros longs for the sight of beautiful young men. “What is our prattle about the Greeks?” asks Nietzsche in Daybreak(Morgenröte) §170: “What do we understand of their art, whose soul—is the passion for naked male beauty!” The similarities between the two, as Köhler shows, can be found down to the most curious detail. When Ulrichs parodies the end of Goethe’s Faust II in Formatrixwith “The Eternal-Masculine draws us upward,” Nietzsche offers a variation in his posthumously published notebooks: “The Eternal-Masculine draws us in.”

            Rather oddly, one of the clearest indications that Nietzsche had some knowledge of Ulrichs’ work was overlooked by Köhler, and it can be found in Daybreak§164, whose subtitle is “Thoughts on the Moral Prejudices.” There Nietzsche speaks cryptically of those “who do not think they are bound by existing customs and laws … making the first attempts to organize themselves and thereby create for themselves a right.” Hitherto they had been denounced as “criminals, freethinkers, immoral persons and villains, under the ban of outlawry and the bad conscience.” Could it be that he had in mind here proto-gay activists such as Ulrichs? Can we not find in the condemnation of these people a clear instance of moral prejudice? Nietzsche then proceeds to make the following prophetic remarks: “The deviants (Abweichenden), who are so frequently creative and productive, shall no longer be sacrificed; it shall no longer even be considered disgraceful to deviate from morality (von der Moral abzuweichen) in deed or thought.” When we recall that the term “deviation” (Abweichung) was later used by Freud in the first of the Three Essays in his classifications of same-sex love as an aberration, there can be little doubt that Nietzsche was referring here to so-called “sexual deviants” such as Ulrichs.

            This could also explain the obscure remark at the beginning of the section where he speaks of all the “false, misleading names” used by these freethinking and supposedly “immoral” persons. If the entire section is an esoteric reference to the nascent gay rights movement, then we can say that Nietzsche was expressing here his disagreement with the new terminology, such as Ulrich’s term “Urning,” that was being proposed to talk about the phenomenon of same-sex love. When he speaks at the end of the section of expelling the “tremendous burden of bad conscience” from the world, it is tempting to read this as a call for a universal coming out. On the other hand, the fact that the section is entitled “Perhaps premature” suggests that the times were not yet ripe for what would come to be called gay liberation.

            If Köhler’s hypotheses about Nietzsche’s relationship to such key figures as Gloeden, Hössli, and Ulrichs are correct, then they are a bombshell that establish him as a philosopher of gay liberation. This is not music to the ears of Nietzsche’s puritanical defenders. Among these, other than Leiter, can be found Prof. Julian Young, whose 2010 biography states: “In 2002 a book appeared entitled Zarathustra’s Secretin which—undeterred by the complete absence of evidence—the author made the sensational claim that ‘Zarathustra’s (i.e., Nietzsche’s) guilty secret was that he was ‘gay.’” First, for the record, the German edition of the book first appeared in 1989. Second, Young ignores the evidence that Köhler brings to bear, such as the minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society from April 1 and October 28, 1908, which make no bones about Nietzsche’s love of males. Nor does he address the explosive recollections written by Franz Overbeck. These are glaring omissions. One gets the impression that Young has deep-rooted reservations about same-sex love in general, for he asserts that “Whereas a healthy modern schoolboy would likely have photographs of large-breasted film stars on his walls, Fritz decorated the walls of his room with photographs of his friends.” Does this imply that being gay is not “healthy”?

            The only topic in Köhler’s book that Young even mentions is Nietzsche’s incognito sojourn in Messina, Sicily, in 1882. Köhler devoted an entire chapter to his visit titled “On the Blessed Isles” (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”). Young puts it all out there, claiming that the lack of information about the time spent in Messina “is the centerpiece of the thesis of Joachim Kohler’s [sic] Zarathustra’s secret … that the ‘secret’ of Nietzsche’s ‘interior life’ is that he was (Shock! Horror! Book sales!) gay. There was, it appears, a colony of gay artists in Taormina, not far from Messina.” This is all extremely nasty stuff. For one thing, it’s evident that he is cynically accusing Köhler of having written a sensational book only to earn big money, implying that pecuniary motives overrode his commitment to the pursuit of truth. (For the record, I seriously doubt that Köhler has made a killing with any of his Nietzsche books.) Far more sensational are the parenthetical exclamations in the passage just cited. It has been a long time since there was much shock and horror around the discovery that a major writer was gay. It is also misleading and condescending to say that there “appears” to have been a colony of gay artists living in Taormina, as there certainly was a gay artist, namely the photographer Gloeden, and his many visitors and acolytes.

            So, the time has come for a great public reckoning, especially in view of the fact that Nietzsche has long been one of the most frequently discussed and admired Western philosophers. (I would guess he must now be in the list of the top four or five.) The stakes, then, are enormous. If, as both Köhler and I would maintain, he is in fact the preeminent modern philosopher of gay liberation, then his critique of Christianity becomes even more explosive, for it was ultimately due to biblical religion that we in the West inherited the prohibition against homosexuality. And if the Christian God is now dead in the sense that there are no longer credible grounds for believing in him, then there is no longer a foundation for the moral or theological condemnation of those acts on the basis of biblical texts. (It is commonly assumed that Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of the Christian God is an apology for atheism; in reality it is an invitation to the renaissance of divinity in ancient Greek form.)

            So we have here another clear indication of the level to which Nietzsche “criticism” has sunk over the years. We have Nietzsche scholars galore, but where are our Nietzschean philosophers, those committed to carrying out the fundamental meta-ethical project he termed the “revaluation of all values” or critique of religion and morality? I shall also venture the assumption that most, if not virtually all, mainstream Nietzsche scholars would deny that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that he was a lover of males.



Franz Overbeck: Werke und Nachlass. Edited by B. von Reibnitz and M. Stauffacher-Schaub. Autobiographisches, vol. 7/2, 1999.

Köhler, Joachim. Nietzsche. Claassen Verlag, 2001.

Young, Julian. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2010.


Charles Stone is a scholar of German history and philosophy and a Nietzsche specialist living in München, Germany.


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