Nietzsche’s Footfalls

NF kindle cover

Only the day after tomorrow belongs

to me. Some are born posthumously.

Nietzsche’s Footfalls Abstract

During the final decade of Nietzsche’s life, when he was mad, his sister created an archive in his name. She placed him upstairs as a living exhibit while she beavered away in the rooms beneath rewriting his work and establishing him as a great name in the new world of Nazi Germany. Her efforts gave him a ‘posthumous existence’ totally at odds with his own expressed desires. While she worked downstairs, Nietzsche was sitting on his rocking chair on the veranda enjoying the view of the Ettersberg hills where, later, the concentration camp of Buchenwald was built.

This image is at the core of the novel which follows the parallel lives which intertwine with Nietzsche’s own, especially that of his sister who married an anti-Semitic agitator called Förster and went out with him to Paraguay to found an Aryan colony and later, after he had committed suicide and her brother had gone mad, returned to Germany and assiduously turned him into an icon for Nazi thinking. It follows her relationship with Hitler and, earlier, with Mussolini, and her creation of the famous archive.

Some of the other figures whose lives intersect with this story are Richard Wagner who Nietzsche rejected but never stopped loving, Heinrich Heine, the poet and Lou von Salomé who loved Nietzsche and later Rilke and later still, Sigmund Freud.

The book also deals with Nietzsche’s madness and how (madly) things change into their opposites; for example, how anti-anti-Semitism can change into anti-Semitism and Nazism, then into a reaction against the holocaust and then into a new kind of revisionism and denial.



Part I – Wagner

Part II: – Paraguay

Part III   – Madness

Footfalls – The Archive

Posthumous Existences



Röcken still lies in the Eastern German flatlands under a limitless cobalt grey sky and, because there are signposts pointing away but none towards it, you can easily drive past without realising it is there. The village is just off a road surfaced with cobbles that shake the car violently to a crawl. It lies beyond Lützen, site of the battleground where Napoleon defeated the allied Prussian and Russian armies on his victorious march to Moscow (a march another dictator tried later with equal success and equal failure). Nietzsche mentions that he saw cheering rebels passing the parsonage on wagons during the year of revolutions but the very rarity of this contact proves the isolation of the place. Off the road are the few houses that make up the village, children playing on bikes raising dust on the earth tracks. Like the motorway a few miles away and the great armies that on to their battle at Lützen, the world has passed the place by. It is not on the map and it is not easy to get off the motorway at the right place or to get back on to it again. Once there, the steeple directs you to the church and you leave the car in the shadow of a wall.

The place is run-down like the rest of the village. Surely no services have been held here for a long while. However, the latch moves down and, if shoved, the door gives. Inside, the place has a quiet Lutheran beauty. Facing the east end are fifteen rows of wooden pews painted in pale red, green and white. A balcony runs around three walls and is painted with improving inscriptions from the Bible. Above the door is a small organ. In front of the apse is a wooden screen which incorporates altar, pulpit and vestry. The altar is painted and the pulpit, of the same design, is directly above it. The cross on the altar seems to point towards the place where the parson would stand to give his weekly sermon. The South wall has seven deeply set windows which throw a gentle shadowy light into the building. Like the motorway, time has passed this little building by. Outside the surrounding churchyard is overgrown and full of weeds and high grass. This isn’t really the kind of graveyard you expect.

There are only a couple of tombs and these, peaceful in the evening light, are set against the south wall of the little church. The more showy of these is covered in carefully raked pebbles and almost overshadows the three graves beside it. These are overhung with a soft green bower so as to make it difficult at first to read the inscriptions on the stones to the right and left. But you lean down and push the greenery to one side. The grave on the right, which is different from the others, is inscribed to Franziska Nietzsche born Oehler and the dates are 2nd February 1826 to 20th April 1897. The grave on the other side is dedicated to Friedrich Nietzsche, born 15th October 1844, died 25th August 1900. On this are some fading flowers, lobelia in a pot and a wilting bunch of cut irises. The stone in the centre, clear of the shadows, is altogether easier to see and belongs to Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, born 10th July 1846, died 8th November 1935. It is difficult not to get the impression that she has elbowed aside her mother and her brother in the calm of death.

The parsonage is a nondescript three storey building which is now in private hands and no amount of persuasion will get you into the room in which Nietzsche was born. The woman who answers the door, standing there with her hands on her hips, tells you that it is not possible although she hesitates for a moment at the mention of money. Here, as always, birth and death are within a few footsteps of each other but no hint of what brought the baby to the grave. The real posthumous existence is not that far away at Weimar where the mad philosopher lived quietly with his sister, saying little and writing less, while his reputation was both made and destroyed in the archive downstairs.


But this is only one story of posthumous existences, of real lives that have past. There is another which also has to do with graves. On the fifth of May 1934 Uberbahnsturmführer Alfons Sachs or Shacks and Gruppenführer Henrik Himmler (no relation) boarded the steamer SS Peru for the four thousand mile journey across the ocean to the coast of Latin America. Both felt honoured to have been chosen for this crucial mission. They had in their care a small urn; stone, Greek in form but without the subtlety, in which was some German earth. This they were instructed to take to the heart of the Paraguayan jungle. The urn had been sent half way round the globe for a ceremony dear to the heart of the leader of the Third Reich and Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, one of his most faithful subjects. Around a grave in the middle of an unkempt clearing a small crowd had gathered, composed mostly of the schoolchildren who are always commandeered for these occasions. The seal on the urn was broken and German soil, the real stuff from the fatherland, sprinkled over the grave.

After a delay of nearly half a century this gesture put an end to the half-and-half existence of the man whose body was and still is rotting beneath. Certainly he was dead and a valid certificate issued to that effect by the proper authorities and yet, in the old country, there was much hard work being done to resurrect both husband and brother and turn them into . . . Resurrection that can qualify mortality and deny it its quiescence, that can make a corpse revolve a hundred and eighty degrees in its grave and face about. Certainly this is one of those deaths denied the finality hoped for in endings. His ghost is still there, hovering and dangerous.

No coincidence, perhaps, that the little ceremony by the graveside took place in Asunción. The town was named, of course, not after the assumption of Moses but of Mary who was gathered up into heaven to live in glory for all eternity. You know the kind of thing, clouds parting and the virgin, dressed in blue satin which shimmers in the light of sun and halos, floating upwards towards the figures of God and Jesus who sit on high, awaiting her with outstretched arms. The Paraguayan jungle mists swim and part just like the clouds in so many religious paintings and, as they do so, in the space that now becomes visible, the tombstone is revealed. The grave is now overgrown with weeds and began to fall apart many years ago. There is a cracked vase which is sometimes filled with flowers. On the headstone are words inscribed in the hope of a similar kind of resurrection, ‘Here lies with God, Bernhard Förster, founder of the colony of ‘Nueva Germania’’.

But this is a strange kind of after-life where ghosts and zombies dwell, those half-dead who return to haunt us through the generations. The reverse of sanctification. There is an unpleasant smell of suicide in the air and a persistent refusal of the dead to lie still in their graves and of the living to leave well alone. The grave is in the cemetery of San Bernadino, named after a fifteenth century preacher monk who, for much of his life, ranted against the Jews.

Förster’s death, the Paraguayan one, leaves another body in that parade of the dead. It took place in the Hotel del Lago, near the provincial capital. On the morning of June 3rd 1889, the maid as usual pushed her trolley loaded with sheets and towels along the corridor on the second floor and opened the door of the bedroom. The poor girl was half stunned by the smell of chemicals in the stagnant air. On the bed was the already stiffening corpse. She left it there and fled for help. Earlier Förster had written to his sister, ‘I am in a bad way. What will become of us?’ Then he had put the pen carefully on the little cabinet by the side of the bed and had swallowed a lethal mixture of strychnine and morphine.


This pathetic suicide lies at the centre of a subtle mixture of lives and resurrections. That of Friedrich Nietzsche for one. On January 3rd, exactly five months to the day before the discovery of that stinking body half way round the globe in Asunción, the philosopher had left his hotel room in Turin and made his way towards the Piazza Carlo Alberto where he saw an old nag being brutally whipped by its master. Overcome with pity for the beaten horse he had broken into tears, staggered across the square and flung his arms around the poor animal’s neck in an attempt to protect it. Then he had collapsed sobbing onto the cobbles. Thus ended a prolonged period of euphoria and the beginning of his own posthumous existence. In Turin at that very moment, sitting at his desk, was Cesare Lombroso, the author of ‘Genius and Insanity’.

The sister of the insane philosopher was the widow of the corpse in Asunción. She knew exactly where her duty lay and immediately fled from husband to brother, from one kind of posthumous existence to another. By the way, and this is also part of the story, it was Hitler, the German dictator, the one who tried to end the legend of the wandering Jew in his own original way, who sent the earth of Germany to cover that grave in the jungle of Paraguay. And this leads us to another resurrection, perhaps the most dangerous of all, the one which demands the final burial of the holocaust and the celebration of the führer’s birthday half a century and more after another suicide, this time by a bullet in the head in the private bunker under the burning city of Berlin. Then there is Heinrich Heine, the Jewish poet lying on his mattress grave and another, John Keats, who was the first to think of the phrase ‘posthumous existence’ to describe a life beyond the world in the very letter in which he makes his ‘awkward bow’ from it. ‘I have’, he writes far away from home and friends in Italy, ‘an habitual feeling of my real life having past’. Both of these are dying and yet still alive. And it doesn’t stop there, for these are infinite resurrections, each playing on the other till the end of time. These lines merely add to them, are yet another rebirth and remembering of things which need, perhaps, to be forgiven.

Thus we have a whole series of unquiet graves all of which are the legacy of Palinurus, the exiled pilot of Aeneas’ storm-tossed bark who, chosen as victim to assuage the fury of Juno, was vanquished by the god of sleep and cut off from the boat he was steering, taking not only the tiller but the rudder and entire stern along with him. As Dryden translates the Aeniad, ‘The God, insulting with superior strength / Fell heavy on him, plung’d him in the Sea, / And, with the Stern, the Rudder tore away’. This left Aeneas to fulfil the oracle and land, quite by chance or at least without the aid of his pilot, on the shore of Italy, the birthplace of fascism.

Palinurus, after ‘Three blust’ring Nights’, finally came ashore near Velia, only to be brutally murdered and left on the beach. Because unburied, he had to wait a posthumous hundred years before being permitted to cross the Styx. Incidentally, Dido called out for the same fate for Aeneas, ‘Let him fall before his time and lie in the sands unburied’.


There was another unquiet grave, this time in a darkened room at number 50 Rue d’Amsterdam. Here lay the poet Heinrich Heine, the first Jew to achieve real prominence in the history of German letters. He was the son of Samson and the grandson of Lazarus. Born before the wedding of his parents, he was, as well as being Jewish, also illegitimate. The Heine family business had failed and his father, just like Nietzsche’s, had lapsed into a kind of epileptic madness, another kind of posthumous existence. He writes of a visit to his father, ‘In my delight at seeing him, I wanted to rush up to him and kiss his hand. But strangely enough, the nearer I came to him, the more everything became blurred and changed its shape. When I bent to kiss his hand, I was seized by a deathly chill, the fingers were dry as twigs and he himself a tree without leaves and covered with frost’.

Likewise, Heine lay dying ever so slowly. In Germany it was announced that he had entered an asylum and, soon after, that he had died. This was near enough to the truth. In fact he had returned to Paris and taken to his bed, or rather a pile of mattresses in a shabby second floor room. A small ante-room led to this bedroom which was basic but large enough. The place was in semi-darkness and semi-silence, the curtains drawn, the only sound of piano playing which came from the other side of the courtyard beyond. The poet himself lay in a darkened part of the room separated from the rest by a screen. On the walls were a portrait of his wife and two etchings by Robert, ‘The Fishers’ and ‘The Reapers’, but they were hardly distinguishable in the gloom. On mattresses placed on the floor lay Heine. Once the visitor had got used to the darkness he could see the wasted body under the bedclothes. His beautiful, white, bloodless hands lay on the counter-pain and his face, also beautiful, showed no pain. His relief came, not from strychnine and morphine but from writing and morphine. He stayed immobile on this bed for eight years.

In these rooms he lived half helpless on his mattress grave, a posthumous existence which lasted just two years less than Nietzsche’s. Both were controlled by adoring women jealous of their own role: Nietzsche by his sister, Elizabeth, Heine by his wife, Mathilde. The story goes that the poet’s existence was little helped by her behaviour. The only doctor who ever relieved his terrible suffering was a certain Dr Wertheim. He bravely complained about the quality of Mathilde’s nursing and got punched squarely on the jaw for his pains after which he never returned. She was horribly jealous of anyone who could do more for the dying poet than she could herself.

An eternity with nothing to do. Hour after hour in the company of drifting thoughts, trapped in a death once removed, a body cradled in time, like a baby but without the hope of escape, of getting up on uncertain legs and walking away. Caught up in immobility surrounded on all sides by thoughts that prey like vultures on one’s own flesh, thinking it already dead. Mirrors stare back in every direction. Eyes, pallid in the half light and that strange grin of the zombie which insists on the certainties that have to be forgotten until the next thought rises to displace it and even that is the same thought. Idle time has gates that swing too easily. The slightest draught blows them open to admit large sorrows it had hoped forgotten. Not vistas of daffodils under a blue sky but fears.

Fear, of course, is origin and out of that Hades came his finest work. The poems he wrote at this time were ‘like listening to a man buried alive, They are ‘a cry from the grave’, a cry in the night from someone buried alive, or even from a corpse, “Life is lost to me forever”‘. An unquiet grave, without the privileges of the dead, who have no need to spend money and write letters, let alone books, In this unhappy state, ‘I’ve long been measured for my coffin, and for my obituary also, but I am taking so much time dying that I am beginning to find it as tedious as do my friends’., ‘I hope that the interminable death song of the swan of the Rue d’Amsterdam hasn’t bored you too much!’ whispered the sick man and turned away. When Mathilde prayed to God to forgive him his unkindness, he told her, ‘He will pardon me; it is his job’.


Nietzsche thought very highly of Heine, ‘The highest conception of the lyric poet was given me by Heinrich Heine. I search over the realms of thousands of years for equally sweet and passionate music in vain […] and how he handles his German! One day it will be said that Heine and I have been far and away the first artists of the German language – at an immeasurable distance ahead of everything that mere Germans have done with it’.


Heine’s illness can be dated from 1844, the date of Nietzsche’s birth. In this year he published his ‘New Poems’ and ‘Winter Story’. It was towards the end of that year that Heine’s uncle Solomon died, a multimillionaire worth some 40 thousand million francs. Heine had always been led to understand that he would inherit a considerable pension from this estate but nothing was mentioned in the will and his cousin, Carl, to whom the fortune was left, allowed Heine a mere 2000 francs a year, a pittance. Heine was devastated ‘God forgive my family for the sins they have committed against me. Truly it is not the question of money, but the moral outrage that the most intimate friend of my youth and my blood relation did not honour his father’s word that has broken the bones of my heart; and I am dying of the fracture’. The shock of his disinheritance weakened him in the face of his disease. He was threatened with jail if he should try to re-enter Prussia and went instead to Barèges in the Pyrenees where his health collapsed. He was almost blind and could hardly speak or swallow and he had continual fainting fits. It was then that the announcement of his death was made and he lay down on his mattress grave. He had trouble with his eyes and his mouth and often could not swallow his food. He had to push up his left eyelid with his finger in order to read, ‘Alas, I can now eat only on one side and weep only with one eye. Oh ladies, shall I be able to claim only half your hearts in future’? He could not even kiss.


That year then, 1844. A year we need to tread around with some care. A year with its own history which circles round its own and other stories. A few more pointers:

John Smith and his brother Hyrum, founders of the Mormon Church, were dragged from their prison cell by a mob of 200 and lynched in Carthage, Illinois, the result of a disagreement over the question of polygamy. A rioter commented, ‘If the law could not reach them then powder and shot could’. Brigham Young rose up to be the new leader. The Smiths were translated.

James Knox Polk was elected the eleventh President of the U.S.A. Polk was president from 1844-1848. He began a process which doubled the size of the nation within a decade and gave the fledgling land some lebensraum. His stated aims were ‘the reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas’ and it was indeed during his rule that Texas was added to the United states. The U.S.A. and China signed their first treaty of Peace, amity and commerce. Joseph Buonaparte, brother of the dictator, died.

Much in the way of publications. Dumas Père produced both ‘The Count of Monte Christo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’, Charles Dickens finished ‘The Chimes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote her ‘Poems’. A new and enlarged edition of Schopenhauer’s ‘The World as Will and Idea’ appeared.

Also in 1844 Karl Marx, who Nietzsche never met or mentioned in his writing, met Friedrich Engels in Paris and wrote ‘The Jewish Question’. This year also saw this descendent of a line of Rabbis married, exiled and converted to Communism. In his book, Marx explains how the Jews emancipated themselves through the power of money, ‘The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the


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