Nietzsche’s Italian connection

  • Themes: Books, Philosophy

After his death, Nietzsche's work was mutilated by malign editing, imprecise interpretation and forever associated with 20th-century fascism. The German philosopher owes his more nuanced reputation to the heroic efforts of two Italian academics – one of whom was even a member of the Italian Communist Party.

A German commemorative stamp of Friedrich Nietzsche.
A German commemorative stamp of Friedrich Nietzsche. Credit: PjrXX / Alamy Stock Photo

How Nietzsche Came in From the Cold: Tale of Redemption, Philipp Felsch, translated by Daniel Bowles, Polity, £25

Of all the ideologies Nietzsche has been associated with, Communism seems the least likely. On 29 July 1943 Hitler sent Mussolini a complete edition of Nietzsche’s work for his 60th birthday: the link between Nietzsche and fascism during the Second World War is well known. Later, during the Cold War, the tone in the Soviet Bloc was set by Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason. Nietzsche was cast as a bourgeois reactionary, whose glorification of irrationalism was to be understood as an assault on the progressive forces of socialism. In both East and West, Nietzsche was the ‘pioneer of fascism’. Yet when one looks at the biographies of the men who inspired the definitive edition of Nietzsche’s work – Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari – one of them, Montinari, was a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party.

Colli and Montinari met in Lucca in 1942 at the Ginnasio N. Machiavelli, where Colli was Montinari’s philosophy teacher. Montinari was only 14 at the time, but Colli wasn’t much older (25). Colli, a liberal, came from a bourgeois Torinese family. Blocked from pursuing an academic career, he found himself compelled to move to the provinces to become a schoolteacher. There, the strict-looking academic, with heavy glasses, sweater, vest and tie, reinvented himself as a charismatic pedagogo, singling-out the most promising students to invite them to read Nietzsche after class.

Montinari, from a more proletarian background, was one of the ‘chosen few’, the pais – the Ancient Greek term for pupil – as they called themselves, and participated in the Dionysian evenings of readings, music and wine. Colli attempted to recreate the ‘School of Educators’ Nietzsche had dreamed about at the Villa Rubinacci in Sorrento. Legend has it, as Philipp Felsch recounts in How Nietzsche Came in From the Cold – a thoroughly-researched, funny, methodological astute and rich text that shows how Nietzsche served as a political cipher during the Cold War – Colli convinced Montinari to abandon his idea of joining the Dominican order. To celebrate his new-found Nietzschean faith, Montinari pan-fried a crucifix on both sides. Their homoerotic relationship would last till Colli’s death in 1979.

The choice of Nietzsche was subversive: the reigning philosopher in Italy was not Nietzsche, as Hitler supposed in his gift to Mussolini, but Hegel. Giovanni Gentile, the fascist philosopher, saw history as the progression of Reason into its political realisation in the ‘ethical state’ of fascism. Gentile’s adversary, Benedetto Croce, also thought history as the progress of Reason, but this time ending in the liberal state. Nietzsche’s critique of these grand narratives in his second Untimely Meditations, ‘On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life’, was, for Colli, a critique of the regime itself.

Nor did the paides remain indifferent to politics. When the time came, they joined the partisans, the anti-fascist resistance. Montinari was chief among them, organising anti-fascist protests, for which he was arrested, interrogated and beaten. After the war, during his studies at the elite Scuola Normale in Pisa, he joined the Italian Communist Party, becoming one of their ‘cultural warriors’ heading up a communist editing-house, the Edizioni Rinascità, in Rome. This was the time of Gramsci’s ‘war of position’: before the communists could take over the state through a ‘war of movement’, there needed to be a ‘long march through the institutions’ in order to prepare the ground culturally for the coming revolution. In 1958, following visits to East Germany, Montinari became the founding director of the GRD-backed Centro Thomas Mann, to ‘reunite Germany in Rome, at least culturally’.

Colli, in the meantime, having returned to Italy after the war (he had escaped to Switzerland with Montinari’s help), finally got the break in academia he had been craving, becoming a libera docenza – a lecturer – at the University of Pisa in 1948. He came to prominence by editing a new series of philosophy books. The question of an edition of Nietzsche’s complete works soon appeared. Nietzsche was something of a ‘Third Way’ between the reigning Hegelianism on the left, and the Catholicism on the right: he was notoriously critical of both.

It was a hard sell. In Germany, Nietzsche’s unpublished notes – his Nachlass – had been compiled by his antisemitic sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche into a fraudulent edition, the Will to Power, which had served as a support for the Nazi regime. During the Cold War, it was rumoured that the Nachlass had been lost ‘in the Eastern Zone’, carted off by a German work crew in April 1946 to an ‘unknown destination’. We now know that the notes were packed into large wooden crates and sat outside the Villa Silberblick in Weimar (where Nietzsche’s sister had made her home after his descent into madness) for days, guarded by Soviet soldiers, before a decision was made to send them down the road to the Goethe-Schiller Archive. They are still there today.

In this the Italians had a trump card: Montinari, who, thanks to his Communist contacts, had access to the ‘Eastern Zone’ and Weimar, where he found the entirety of Nietzsche’s literary estate waiting for him in 1961. If we have a complete edition of Nietzsche’s work today – published by de Gruyter in Germany, Gallimard in France, Adelphi in Italy and an English language edition with Stanford University Press is in the works – it is thanks to a communist.

Colli and Montinari had one last battle to fight. While France, thanks to Georges Bataille and his Acèphale circle, had been spared the ‘Nietzsche-Fascist’ association, a new generation of Nietzsche interpreters had come onto the scene. Their names were Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and they were interested in poststructuralism and deconstruction; or, in short: French theory.

Colli and Montinari came from the Italian humanist philological school, where every word mattered, but their critical edition of Nietzsche’s work, of which Deleuze and Foucault served as the French editors, played into the poststructuralists’ hands: the abundance of notes, which accounted for two thirds of the critical edition, and its fragmentary nature (which included lots of quotes), lent credence to their decentred, anarchist and transgressive readings. If there was no foundational Urtext, then Foucault was at liberty to ‘deform’ Nietzsche’s thought, to make it ‘groan and protest’. ‘If commentators then say that I am being faithful or unfaithful to Nietzsche’, Foucault declared, ‘that is of absolutely no interest.’ Meanwhile, Derrida was left to muse on what Nietzsche meant when he had written in one of his notebooks: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’

Colli and Montinari were no doubt naïve to think that by letting Nietzsche ‘speak for himself’, through revealing the entirety of his published and unpublished oeuvre, facile interpretations of Nietzsche would disappear. Instead, predictably, new ones came to light, but in an era of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, one which Nietzsche is often accused of having brought about, knowing exactly what Nietzsche said still seems the key to understanding the world we live in.

It is Nietzsche, of course, who was the first to diagnose nihilism, where if ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. But diagnosis and endorsement are not the same thing: that was the poststructuralists’ mistake. Some readings of Nietzsche really are better than others.


Hugo Drochon