Nietzsche is one of those philosophers who has been interpreted in many different ways. The concepts he uses have been taken by Nazi’s in order to fuel their ideological battle. Hitler was a huge fan of Nietzsche, even visiting his sister, who was a fervent anti-Semite and Hitler sympathizer. That doesn’t mean that Hitler had a well-thought-out interpretation of Nietzsche. It was Elisabeth Nietzsche who took the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and changed them so that they could be used by Nazi ideologues. In this small essay, I will try to explain Nietzsche’s Will to Power and how it was (mis)used by Hitler and the Nazi’s. Other concepts like the Übermensch that have been abused by the Nazi’s, will be explained in others essays on the topic, but I will use it whenever I deem it necessary.
To understand Nietzsche’s Will to Power, we first have to go back to a significant influence of Nietzsche, namely Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer believed a metaphysical ‘Will’ was inherent in everything, mostly in us. This Will to Live influenced the way we saw things, it made it subjective and difficult to see the true nature (or Idea) of the things we perceived. Everything has this Will to Live since we all want to survive in this world. We see a rock, not as a rock but as a tool for survival, maybe as a weapon or a grinder or a place to sit. We never see it as a rock per se, but rather as a means for a certain end. It is this inherent Will that drives us forward.
Nietzsche tweaked this Will to Live and turned into the Will to Power. It is untrue that a creature always wants to live. No, we all want to be powerful. I will explain the concept of power later since it is an ambiguous term and might be misinterpreted. For now, we need to understand that everything wants to increase its power. The things we see in the world are tools not to stay alive but to increase our power, to increase our life-affirmation. The rock no longer is a tool to stay alive but becomes a tool to increase our power over nature. With the rock we can maybe create fire or use it to cut things down. It becomes clear how the Nazi’s could use this concept for their own gain.
This Will to Power is a metaphysical reality. It is the underlying structure of reality. One such law that can give Nietzsche his due, is the Pareto principle, also called the 20/80 rule. 80 percent of the work in a firm is done by 20 percent of the workers. 20 percent of the stars have 80 percent of the mass. 20 percent of the cities have 80 percent of the citizens. The list goes on. This would be an example of something exercising its Will to Power. They become more and more extensive. They grow, sometimes by pushing others out of the way, like the plant who can push other plants away in order to absorb more sunlight.
Now the concept of power is ambiguous with Nietzsche. When we think of power, we mostly think about the capacity to make others do something which they don’t really want to do. Power can also be having the capacity to do many things, even immoral things. Most of the time, we view power as having influence on other people, being able to dominate other people, which is kind of a pejorative way of using the concept power. Nietzsche believed that needing other people to be powerful is actually a sign of weakness. Your power is dependent on other people. When the other people disappear, your power disappears as well. True power comes from within. Power is having the power to realize the self. Nietzsche has a famous subtitle in his book Ecce Homo: “Becoming who you are.” and this has become an existentialist credo. What does it mean that you must become who you are? Aren’t you already always yourself? Yes, but also no because you could be so much more. Your self is a lot bigger than the person you are at this moment. You have more potential that can be actualized. So, becoming who you are becomes actualizing your potential. But what do you need to actualize your potential? Power.
So, power isn’t dominating other people. Rather, power could well be spending less money on material things and donating it to people who need it more than you do. Power can be holding your head straight with pride at a funeral or committing yourself to cancer treatment and following it through even though it might be painful. A better term for power then in Nietzschean terminology would be competence. You cannot become competent by virtue of other people. Competence comes from within. No one else can make sure that the painting you are making is good. Only your increasing competence in painting can realize the qualitative painting. When your power increases, your self also increases. Your self will take in more space, it will become larger. It is this that we need to strive towards according to Nietzsche.
The expansion of the self can be practically explained. Imagine the painter again. If he is a very incompetent painter, the reach of him being a painter will be small. Some friends will go see a gallery (if he even gets one), and his grandmother will buy a painting out of pity. The reach of his self isn’t that great. Now if he would be very competent, have that Picasso-level of skill, his reach would be enormous. His self would reach millions of people as people would be traveling from across the world to see his paintings. His self is expanded because of it and influence over others.
Now that we have investigated what Nietzsche’s Will to Power is, we can look how the Nazi’s have taken that concept and turned it into something vile. Hitler believed that the Will to Power was a will of everyone to dominate others. Power was here regarded as the dominion over other people, the definition that we use nowadays for power. Here the person needs a lot of people in order to be powerful. This can be shown by looking into the etymology of the word fascism. This word comes from the word fasces, which is like a small broom where the middle stick is supported by numerous smaller sticks at the bottom. You could also say the Fürher and his loyal followers.
So, for Hitler, becoming the Führer and gaining a massive following was a way for him to exercise his Will to Power. By extension he wanted to increase the power of Germany as a whole. He believed that the Germans and even more the Aryan race to be superior to everyone else because they could exercise the Will to Power the best. As we have seen, this is not how Nietzsche conceptualized the Will to Power, but we can say that it isn’t that hard for someone to twist the concept so that it fits Hitler’s definition. However, Nietzsche would have been appalled by the way Hitler conceptualized the Will to Power. Hitler’s Will to Power is drenched with hate towards what he calls ‘lower’ races. Nietzsche rather doesn’t have a particular race which he favors. Nietzsche favors strong people, but everyone has the capability to be a strong person. Even physically handicapped people can be strong and exercise their Will to Power by becoming competent in something. Hitler wouldn’t agree with this.
According to the Nazi’s, power is for domination. The Will to Power is the will to dominate lesser people. Exercising this will might mean going to war since that is the way that their power can be expanded. The more people that you control the more power you have. Nietzsche’s conception is thus almost the exact opposite of that. Nietzsche will claim that this is a form of weakness. You need other people to be powerful. The true powerful individual is competent and can do things without the help of people. This shows that the Nazi conception of the Will to Power is a perverted form of Nietzsche’s. Yet, to this day the Will to Power still has a negative connotation to it.