An expert's point of view on a current event.

Just What Makes a ‘Good European’?

Nietzsche, Merkel, and the long, strange history of an elusive idea. (Hint: They don’t listen to Wagner.)


That Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century firebrand philosopher and Hitler’s go-to intellectual guide, would make an appearance on the eve of Greece’s big referendum vote last week was perhaps unexpected. But there he was last Tuesday, lurking in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she made a last-ditch appeal to Greeks to vote yes.

That Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century firebrand philosopher and Hitler’s go-to intellectual guide, would make an appearance on the eve of Greece’s big referendum vote last week was perhaps unexpected. But there he was last Tuesday, lurking in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she made a last-ditch appeal to Greeks to vote yes.

“A good European is not one that seeks an agreement at any price,” Merkel intoned. “A good European is rather the one that respects the European treaties and relevant national laws and helps in this way to ensure the stability of the eurozone is not damaged.”

A few days later Nietzsche turned up again — this time conjured up by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who, as the referendum results came in a resounding “no,” wrote to reassure Greeks that, should they opt to leave the common currency, it would not make them “bad Europeans.”

Merkel and Krugman may not have known they were quoting Nietzsche. Nor, perhaps, did British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012, when he accused Merkel of not being a “good European” after their talks for a European Union budget deal faltered. And those engaged in the debate over whether French President François Hollande has been a “good European” in his quest to effectively balance France’s interests in international institutions abroad with nationalism at home may, too, not know the origins of the term they so readily toss about. (“Good” and “bad” European finger-pointing has been something of a favorite pastime on the continent since the onset of the eurozone crisis in 2010.) All of the above can thank Nietzsche — a thinker more commonly known for his meditations on Übermenschen, nihilism, and the aristocratic elite than international diplomacy — for providing them with this particular piece of rhetorical flair.

Nietzsche’s concept of the “good European” has its origins in the 19th century — a time when the German nation, as well as German culture, was still in its infancy. Nietzsche, despite his later association with Adolf Hitler, was an early advocate for an outward-looking Germany, one that drew on the very best of Europe’s traditions. He was alarmed by what he saw as a crude form of nationalism that threatened to take hold in his country, extinguishing the young nation’s cultural vibrancy. So he put forth the idea of the good European as a counter to this German-centrism: The good European, for Nietzsche, was a politically responsible, cosmopolitan intellectual who would help usher Europe — all of Europe — to its rightful place in the world.

But today, this original meaning — broad, to be sure, and open to interpretation, but grounded in a particular philosophy — has been twisted, obscured, and altogether lost. (Nietzsche — never a fan of the pragmatic English as a people — would have been appalled to hear his words uttered by an equivocating Cameron.) This notion of the good European today is so muddled that it is used by both those who support austerity (for its contributions to continental stability) and those who condemn it (for the hurt it causes to fellow Europeans). How Nietzsche’s original vision for the virtuous pan-European citizen came to be so lost in part mirrors the story of Germany’s own twisted tour through the 20th century, from budding empire to fascist dictatorship to democratic superpower. The competition for who owns the term today mirrors the disparate visions over where Europe as a whole is headed in the 21st.

* * *

Historians often remark that Germany was a “latecomer” nation, born only in 1871 following Prussia’s victory over the French after a long 19th century that nurtured two competing German cultures. The first Germany encompassed a cosmopolitan, broad-sweeping, humanist tradition that was embodied in great classical poets like Goethe and Schiller. The second Germany, fueled by the Napoleonic invasion, took inspiration instead from a Volkish nationalism and was rooted in ideas of blood and soil.

The subsequent events of the 20th century often prevent us from remembering the former. But at the time, this inclusive and culturally vibrant Germany was prominent enough that it encouraged, among other things, nearly 10,000 Americans to study in this new nation over the course of the 19th century — including no less than 15 young Americans who would go on to become university presidents and shape American higher education in the mold of that German humanist ideal.

Always one to go against the grain, Nietzsche, for his part, was wary of this second Germany and its romantic nationalism. He called nationalism “the sickness of the century” and proposed the idea of the good European as a means of curing what he saw as its principal symptom — cultural philistinism.

Nietzsche was personally well suited to champion this idea of the pan-European citizen. He had a wide-ranging intellect (in fact, he believed that excessive specialization within the academy was in part to blame for German culture’s decay). As a young student at the famous Schulpforta Gymnasium and then at the University of Bonn, he pushed the boundaries of academic disciplines, drawing on philology, which historically centered on interpreting biblical texts, but taking this study into new areas of aesthetics, music, and cultural concerns at large. His widely acknowledged brilliance won him a professorial position at the University of Basel in 1869 at the ripe young age of 24.

Nietzsche was a quasi-European citizen ahead of his time. Never quite fitting in anywhere — he gave up German citizenship for his position in Basel but never fulfilled the requirements for Swiss citizenship — Nietzsche spent much of the 1880s traveling with a single suitcase and a few possessions between the Swiss Alps and various French, German, and Italian cities. His twin works published in 1886, Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human, with their aphoristic style and eclectic sources of inspiration, were, depending on one’s point of view, the result of this unmoored — or cosmopolitan — existence. An unrequited love, his split from his sometime friendship with the famously nationalist composer Richard Wagner, and his frustration with the direction of contemporary German culture all erupted in his endorsement of the creation of new values.

In both works, the philosopher bemoaned romantic nationalism, militarism, and anti-Semitism, and he promoted an ideal of the good European in opposition to these forces. Sure, we all could be forgiven our moments of weakness, Nietzsche conceded in Beyond Good and Evil: “We ‘good Europeans,’ we also have hours when we allow ourselves a warm-hearted patriotism, a plunge and relapse into old loves and narrow views.”

Losing oneself in the music of Wagner, for example, excused, if temporarily, “old-fashioned floods of sentiment.” But he believed deeply in the crossing of national borders and saw a new Europeanism as key to his more famous “superman,” who would help usher in a revival of noble philosopher culture. As he wrote, addressing this new breed in a characteristically ardent preface, “But we, who are neither Jesuits, nor democrats, nor even sufficiently Germans, we good Europeans, and free, very free spirits” were alone fit for this task.

Wandering like a bohemian throughout Europe, Nietzsche was what the Nazis would later deem a “rootless intellectual” and what in the postwar period diplomats would dub a “stateless person.” He would likely have embraced both of these characterizations and continued to mock the national chauvinism of the English, French, and Germans alike. If anything, he looked further to the past — to the ancient civilizations that comprised the continent’s shared heritage and that would give due purpose to the new Europe as the Greeks, Romans, and Jew originally intended. Still, his travels imbued in him respect for other cultures, so much so that he believed the true artist was one who would “write better … think better … to make ourselves accessible to the understanding of those foreigners who learn our language; to assist in making all good things common property and freely available to the free-minded.” It was not Wagner whom Nietzsche believed artists should model themselves after, but Goethe.

That Nietzsche — today mostly remembered for his egoistic and politically volatile philosophy — was at heart a cosmopolitanite would eventually be forgotten, just as it would also be forgotten that 19th-century Germany — or at least a part of it — once looked at the rest of the world with an open, even eager mind, not suspicion and malice. Just three years after publishing his landmark works, Nietzsche succumbed to a mental breakdown, either from a persistent illness, a war-inflicted wound, or heartache, and on the heels of his mother’s death, he and his legacy remained under the care of his opportunistic sister and her anti-Semitic husband.

Nietzsche’s foremost biographer, Walter Kaufmann, who devoted much energy to rehabilitating the philosopher from the clutches of Nazism, faults not 19th-century philosophy but the Germany of the 1920s for failing to capitalize on the more cosmopolitan German tradition embodied in Nietzsche’s original conception of the good European. There were certainly those in the Weimar Republic, Germany’s fateful experiment with democracy that lasted from 1919 to 1933, who quietly tried to promote the “other Germany” and even continued the use of Nietzsche’s trademark phrase. The cultural historian Aby Warburg, whose eclectic library in Hamburg became a center for humanist scholarship in this period, followed Nietzsche in crossing interdisciplinary and national borders. In an influential lecture he delivered in 1912 in Italy, he traced what he called the “remnants of antiquity,” of the complex astrological imagery of gods and spirits present in a cycle of frescoes. “It was this desire to restore the ancient world that ‘the good European’ began his battle for enlightenment,” Warburg argued, promoting a pan-European history of “internationally migrating images” that was revived in the Renaissance and might provide a guide for an inclusive aesthetic and cultural humanism in the Germany of his day.

Warburg and his counterpart in Vienna, Sigmund Freud, did not seek to politicize their intellectual projects. But others did that for them, increasingly denigrating their efforts to locate Germany within the European intellectual tradition as “cosmopolitan,” “foreign,” or “Jewish.” At the same time, the right-wing nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s set about reinventing the intellectual legacies of earlier German humanists: The Fichte who dreamed of a cosmopolitan utopia was eclipsed by the late nationalist one who carved out a domineering role for the German state in the present age; the Hegel who endorsed freedom was muffled by the version who promoted “the state”; and even Kant, who envisioned a proto-League of Nations, was only trotted out as a philosopher who endorsed submission to a higher order. The “other” German tradition only found a home — if at all — in exile during Germany’s dark years of 1933 to 1945.

This explains the eagerness on the part of Europe, and Germany in particular, to resuscitate the cosmopolitan German intellectual tradition post-1945 — and with it, the idea of the good European. In this new climate of pan-Europeanism, Kant — whose notions of human dignity and eternal peace provided a renewed source of guidance for a country at its zero hour — came back into fashion. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Schiller’s accompanying poem “Ode to Joy,” were suggested as the musical anthems of the new Europe, with their celebration of brotherhood and solidarity. And Goethe was feted on the occasion of his 200th birthday in 1949 with lectures and events throughout Europe. The cosmopolitan Germany had come home.

Yet in this new era, the meaning of the good European proved elusive. European leaders like Winston Churchill were just as quick to invoke the concept of the good European — as he did in his speech at the 1948 Congress of Europe in The Hague — as they were to disagree on what it meant. A Google Ngram, which tracks how frequently phrases appeared in print over a given period, reveals that the term’s usage peaked in 1955 — not at a moment of success for the pro-Europeanists, but at a moment of defeat. The previous summer, negotiations for the European Defense Community, which would have created a pan-European military defense force, came to a screeching halt. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a man whose Time magazine obituary hailed him a “A Good European,” had pinned his hopes on political and military European integration, and was devastated. But the German economics minister, Ludwig Erhard who would succeed Adenauer as chancellor, countered with his own vision of Nietzsche’s idea. “Who is a good European?” he asked in a bulletin published by the German government that same year, insisting that one could still meet the bar without buying into the concept of supranational institutions. Rather, he said, aspiring pan-continental citizens could achieve this status through a gentler path, drawing on common agreements and approaches that facilitated multilateral trade and led to prosperity. This was the only way “that a truly good European wishes to see this community of action and attitude as an obligation on all participants.

But the European Coal and Steel Community founded in 1951– the precursor to the European Union– was not the kind of “soft” Europeanism that Erhard had in mind. Yet other supranational entanglements soon followed, including the European Court of Human Rights, established in 1959, whose early leader, the Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak, was also deemed a “good European” by his contemporaries. Today, these unresolved conflicts over the concept haunt the conversations of Merkel, Krugman, Cameron, and others.

Nietzsche was a notoriously elusive philosopher. His idea of the “superman,” for instance, has had appeal for thinkers on the American left and the right, for everyone from Ayn Rand to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The good European may be a lesser-known Nietzschean concept, but it too has been subjected to interpretations both humanist and nationalist, cosmopolitan and jingoistic.

Understanding Nietzsche and the origins of his term doesn’t necessarily provide a guide to the questions troubling the eurozone today. He has no answers for whether being a good European means submitting to the conditions of a supranational organization no matter what pain it causes to one people, or being generous toward those people, no matter what pain is done to that organization.

But returning to the 19th century can help remind us that those who marshal Nietzsche’s concept in support of their own vision for the future of the union are laying claim to a very old idea – one whose implications they might not entirely endorse. (Today’s leaders, for instance, would likely not bat an eye at those who occasionally found themselves lost in the strains of Wagner or, for that matter, Liszt or Dvorak.)

The philosopher was no fan of the democracy that was sweeping Europe at the end of the 19th century, writing in 1886, “[T]he democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants” — that is, that it was a process that would eventually produce a strong elite. He might have felt vindicated by the predicament of today’s European Union, which both is a democracy, and isn’t, and which sees Angela Merkel invoking the idea of the good European — but insisting upon a German conception, and Germany as the standard bearer of this tradition.

Is that what a good European would do?

Photo illustration by FP

Emily J. Levine is Assistant Professor of Modern European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (University of Chicago Press), which came out in paperback in 2015.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.