Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Warrior

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was part of Otto Bismarck’s efforts to unify Germany, with Prussia as its center of power. Being a Prussian, Nietzsche had been reared in a culture where the military was valued and Fritz seemed to value it as well. “He became an ardent admirer of Bismarck and even a ‘rabid Prussian’ (as he wrote to his mother)…” (Cate, page 71)

Nietzsche wanted to volunteer but was not eligible because of his poor eyesight. As the war continued, however, some restrictions on service were loosened to accommodate badly needed replacements. On October 9, 1867, Fritz’s studies were interrupted by conscription into the mounted section of a field artillery regiment stationed at Naumberg.

“You will know that a mounted artilleryman is supposed to learn an amazing number of things. I like the riding lessons best. I have a very good-looking horse, and people say that I have a talent for riding. When I whirl around the exercise area on my Balduin, I am very satisfied with my lot.” (Selected Letters, page 32)

As it turned out, Fritz was the most capable rider among all the new recruits. For that reason in March 1868 he was given responsibilities for mastering the battery’s most unruly new horses. One particular horse proved too spirited for Nietzsche. “Unbalanced by his fiery charger’s sudden spurt in going for a jump, he ended up on the horse’s neck, his chest hitting the pommel of the saddle with full force. He went on riding as though nothing had happened, despite the pain he felt on one side of his ribcage and in the center of his chest. But the next day he fainted twice and had to be put to bed.” (Cate, page 77)

It wasn’t until May that doctors finally realized that, rather than simply tearing some chest muscles as they thought, Fritz had cracked his sternum. He was dismissed from service after several additional weeks of treatment and recovery. Before returning to his studies at Leipzig, however, he posed for a photograph in his uniform. Nietzsche always enjoyed nice clothes and couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture himself in military regalia.

In 1870, his teaching career and research for The Birth of Tragedy was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Nietzsche saw the war as “our whole threadbare culture slamming headlong into this most frightful of demons”. (Cate, page 111) Basel was in Switzerland so theoretically Fritz could have remained neutral. But, he desired to serve “the Fatherland” in war, another reflection of the Prussian aspect of his emerging personal nature.

The University granted him leave on the restriction that his military service be strictly limited to caring for the wounded. In August he was assigned to a clinic carrying for both French and Prussian wounded soldiers in the wake of the Battle of Worth. After a few days, Nietzsche was told to meet a medical team serving out on the battlefield, to deliver letters and medical supplies to the front.

He reported to the headquarters of the Prussian Southern Army at Nancy, France. Along the way he saw the aftermath of several major battles, the wreckage and death. At Nancy, Fritz ended up assisting a Basel colleague he met accidentally with a train load of wounded soldiers.

He wrote to Richard Wagner on September 11, 1870: “I had a miserable cattle truck in which there were six bad cases; I tended them, bandaged bones, several with four wounds – moreover, I diagnosed in two cases gangrene. That I survived in those pestilential vapors, and could even sleep and eat now seems a marvel. But I had hardly delivered my transport at a Karlsruhe hospital when I showed serious signs of illness myself. I reached Erlangen with difficulty, to give various reports to my group. Then I went to bed and am still there. A good doctor diagnosed my trouble as, first, a severe dysentery and, then, diphtheria. But we took strong measures against both infectious maladies, and today the outlook is hopeful. So I have made the acquaintance of two of those ill-famed epidemics at once; they weakened and enervated me so rapidly that I must for a start give up all my plans for working as a medical auxiliary and am obliged to think only of my health. Thus after a short run of four weeks, trying to work on the world at large, I have been thrown back once more upon myself – what a miserable state of affairs!” (Selected Letters, page 69)


This brief, second experience with war had a fundamental impact of Fritz. "But the unglamourous reality of stinking body parts (a reality to which he was, in fact, more exposed than had he served with the relative remoteness of an artillery officer), and the deaths of his schoolfellows, barely out of their teens, stripped away the Apolloian glamour by exposing him in the most direct way possible to the 'terrors and horrors' of life." (Young, page 139)

To my knowledge, Nietzsche didn’t have his photograph taken in this, his second, brief war experience. He returned to teaching and research again in November 1870.

It is worth noting that Fritz experienced the preparation for war and the aftermath of it but he never participated in a battle. He knew the pageantry and drill. He knew the agony and disease and death, but actual fighting was merely a secondary knowledge. His total period of service was about 7 months.

His exposure to war and his Prussian temperament would show up in several respects throughout his more mature philosophical writings. War was a metaphor he understood and used to communicate his ideas.

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