By Isabel Jacobs
Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.
Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. As Felsch retraces in his book, their critical edition of Nietzsche’s handwritings would pave the way for French post-structuralism. Felsch also sheds new light on European cultural politics during the Cold War, traveling with his protagonists from Florence to Weimar and Royaumont.
Isabel Jacobs: First off, can you tell us how you became interested in the story of your new book? What did the research process look like?
Philipp Felsch: The book started with an image in my mind. I either heard or read about the story, I don’t remember. I imagined one of my two protagonists, the Italian communist scholar Mazzino Montinari (1928-1986), who at the time was, I guess, around 30. He had just moved to East Germany in the early fall or late summer of 1961—a few weeks before the Berlin Wall was built. That was of course a highly significant date. Montinari moved to the GDR, to Weimar, the capital of German classicism and high culture.
Next to Goethe and Schiller’s archives happened to also be the papers of Nietzsche. Montinari came precisely to Weimar to reedit Nietzsche who, which adds to the whole irony of the situation as I perceived it, was of course considered a fascist thinker in the GDR. Therefore Nietzsche’s writings were stored, let’s say, in the Giftschrank [a collection of forbidden books] of Weimar’s archives. And that’s where Montinari goes—apparently undisturbed by the fact that the GDR was building this wall.
At the time, Montinari was already deeply immersed in philology. He moved to the GDR, temporarily at first, going back and forth between Weimar and Florence, where he was mainly staying at the time. But then, after a few years, he permanently settled in Weimar and married a local. He even acquired a certain fame and became part of the “high society” there. A couple of years later, he was interviewed by East German television on the occasion of Goethe’s 215th anniversary. Shortly after, Montinari had already four kids with his wife which led to a telegram with congratulations from Walter Ulbricht himself. So this Italian cigar smoking communist who moved to the GDR in 1961 to decipher Nietzsche—that was just an image so loaded with different cultural, theoretical, and historical symbolism that I became interested in the story.
IJ: And then you started delving deeper into this figure?
PF: Yes, somehow the story had an appeal to me, because my previous book, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, was about the theory obsession of postwar intellectuals, mainly in West Germany, and their departure into abstract theoretical thinking. And in a way my new book does the opposite. While The Summer of Theory was mainly set in West Berlin, Paris, and Frankfurt, the story around Montinari and his companion Colli was situated between Florence and Weimar; it follows a completely different axis in the intellectual geography of the Cold War.
It didn’t have to do with theory, but in a way with its opposite, namely philology. In fact, it’s a dialectical relationship. So the extremely diligent, classical philology of these two Italians led to a renaissance of Nietzsche in France. But first of all, their philology was not about moving into ever higher levels of abstraction. Although Montinari and Colli were leftists and communists, they had to deal with the shock of 1956, when the New Left was born in Western Europe.
But they did not take off into theory; instead, they moved from communism into philology as the quest for an original text. You can see the biblical association here: the idea to discover an ultimate truth that was the opposite of the theoretical movement of the time. So I thought I could tell here a story that was also situated in the postmodern context, a very symptomatic story about the history of intellectuals at the time.
At the same time the research process moved into a completely different direction. That was also, of course, somehow appealing for me. Because, first of all, it became clear that I had to deal with the history of the GDR, which in my previous research hardly featured at all, although the book was located mainly in West Berlin. On the one hand, I began researching the historical context of the GDR; on the other, I had the chance to spend significant time in Italian archives. I studied in Italy in the 90s and speak Italian, and I like to spend some time there every year. So now I had a very nice excuse to spend a large amount of time in Italy which was fantastic! During the pandemic, it was basically empty, there was almost nobody in the archives except for me.
IJ: I find it interesting how you described Montinari’s philological research as a kind of spiritual quest. Let’s speak a bit more about that illustrious figure. While Nietzsche had escaped Germany to Turin, Montinari traveled the other way round, from Florence to Weimar, praising Germany’s healthy air. How did the Italian anti-fascist end up spending decades in Nietzsche’s archives, many of these years depressed and lonely. And what did his work in the GDR look like in practice? We also haven’t spoken yet about his paedagogo, Giorgio Colli (1917-1979).
PF: Yes, it’s important to remember that this is not a story about one figure but about two. It’s a story about a lifelong friendship, which at the same time has certain, let’s say, erotic undertones in a Grecophile, Georgean vein [referring to the literary circle around German poet Stefan George]. It’s a friendship, it’s a master-disciple relationship, and a work relation. And it starts in the 1940s, in 1943, when Giorgio Colli, in his mid 20s, 12 years older than Montinari, moves to Lucca in Tuscany to teach philosophy. At the time, we are of course in the midst of Italian Fascism. Montinari was a pupil in Colli’s class. Colli comes from a liberal bourgeois family in Northern Italy, in Turin; his father was a high-profile journalist who had lost his job under Mussolini. Colli was devoted to anti-fascism.
Not in an overtly political sense—he was against fascism as he was against politics in general, you know, in a very German way actually. Within the Italian history of ideas in the 19th and 20th century, we can observe a tendency that Italian thinkers had to find their intellectual home somewhere outside of Italy. Many chose France, others, like the literary modernists in the early 20th century around the Einaudi publishing house, Cesare Pavese and others, chose American literature, Melville, Faulkner, people like that.
Many others chose Germany, and Colli was someone who was very versed both in German and Greek philosophy; these two very often go together because many German thinkers were so fond of Greek culture—among them, of course, Nietzsche. So, part of Colli’s anti-fascism was a Nietzsche reading group in the early 40s. And in this context, Nietzsche was understood as an anti-fascist author, as somebody who was against the state and devoted to extreme individualism and freedom. I mean, we can find all that in Nietzsche. At the same time, we’re in the summer of 43, Mussolini turned 60, and Hitler gave him the 30-volume collected works of Nietzsche, bound in blue leather, because they shared, at least officially, a certain fondness of this thinker.
This reading group was the beginning of Colli and Montinari’s collaboration. Since Colli often went to his family in Turin, already in the 40s they were not at the same place. Therefore, there are letters which start at this young age. A 14-year-old Montinari basically wrote love letters to his teacher and colleague. And these letters go on until the 70s, when Colli died, so you have 30 years of intense correspondence. That’s the original scene, this anti-fascist reading group.
Then many things happened in between: Montinari became devoted to communism. Colli was, as always, the Grecophile philosopher who basically deplored politics as something dirty, so they moved apart. And then, in the late 50s, they met again, for many reasons, one of them being the fact that after 56, with the Hungarian uprising, Montinari became skeptical and moved away from the official party line of Italian communism. He meets his old teacher again. And at the same time, a debate starts in West Germany about the legacy of Nietzsche.
When looking at this debate, we have to keep two things apart which are important for the story. After 1945, Nietzsche, on the one hand, was regarded a fascist philosopher, especially within the Western Left, but also in Eastern Europe. In East Germany, in the 50s, it’s György Lukács who called him Hitler’s precursor and the mastermind of fascism. But also within Italian communism Nietzsche was a persona non grata. That was basically the consensus when it comes to Nietzsche. The fact that Hitler gave Mussolini this birthday present was a visible proof of Nietzsche’s allegiance to fascism.
On the other hand, and now we’re in the late 50s, there’s another line of discourse, namely, the question, whether the Nietzsche who was considered the mastermind of fascism was the real Nietzsche. Did the fascists even have the original writings of Nietzsche or was that merely a Nietzsche distorted by the editorial policies of his infamous sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche? That’s a whole story in itself, which I won’t recall here, it’s well-known that Nietzsche lost his mind in 1890. And then the last 10 years of his life, he was in custody of his sister and she began to witness the international fame of her brother. She published many books, among them the infamous Will to Power which Nietzsche himself never wrote in this form.
If we go back to the story, in the late 50s in Germany suddenly erupts a big debate about this question. Do we maybe need a completely new edition of Nietzsche? Of course, this was also driven by the attempt to denazify him. Because if you say it’s not Nietzsche himself but his sister who basically distorted his writing and even forged some of his writings, which in fact she did, then maybe we can save him and rediscover his work.
And that’s the point where the two Italian protagonists enter. They developed the idea to reedit Nietzsche. That’s why Montinari went to the DDR in 1961. You asked me about the existential undertones of Montinari’s philology. That was also for me one of the most interesting things. It’s, first of all, a question of character. Montinari wanted to become a monk in his youth, so the quest for truth was a constant in his life.
Then he meets his Grecophile teacher, who moves him away from Christianity. Thus, Montinari becomes a devoted reader of Nietzsche and an admirer of the Ancient Greeks. And then he turned into a communist in the post-war years. The Italian Communist Party, as is well-known, was the most glamorous, so to say, and intellectually most interesting of the Communist parties in Western Europe after 1945. So you can imagine that it was a very appealing choice to become a communist in the late 40s in Italy! Communism was very avant-garde, it was not yet trapped in the trenches of the Cold War, but provided a very rich cultural environment.
In Weimar, Montinari discovered philology through his interest in Nietzsche. As we can see from his letters to Colli and also his diaries, the idea of philological truth and the search for the Urtext, the original text, is deeply Protestant in nature. In that way, Montinari was a model Protestant. His diaries of the time almost read like a Protestant Erbauungsbuch [Christian devotional book]. It’s a genre from the early modern period in which authors describe their quest for religion, for truth, for finding themselves. And we can observe all of that in Montinari’s writings. The search for his own personal truth is intimately connected to his search for the truth of Nietzsche’s texts.
Montinari pursued that search for many years, while going to the archive in Weimar every day—a very lonely existence during his first years in Germany. Nietzsche’s handwriting was hardly decipherable. Sometimes it took half a day to decipher two lines of Nietzsche. It was a monstrous task. And Montinari basically devoted the rest of his life to this task. That his work was driven by this very existential quest for personal truth reveals his philological undertaking as something of a deeply Protestant spirituality—which is maybe historically symptomatic for philology as such.
IJ: And despite all that effort, at first, Montinari’s critical Nietzsche edition, the Kritische Gesamtausgabe, was not even very well received. Besides reflecting on philology, your book also explores cultural politics in the Cold War period. Through the lens of Nietzsche philology, you analyze the ties between the GDR, West Germany, and Italy. Could you tell a bit more about your treatment of the Cold War? And why was Montinari and Colli’s edition so explosive?
PF: Yes, exactly. First of all, we’re at the height of the Cold War in the 60s. And the Nietzsche edition is deeply tainted by that context. Already as a student I wondered: why has the definite edition of Nietzsche been edited by two Italians? It has to do with the fact that Nietzsche’s legacy was drawn into the frontlines of the Cold War. The majority of philosophers and publishers in post-war Germany considered Nietzsche a fascist philosopher. On the other hand, there were also the Nietzscheans, people like Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith or, Karl Schlechta—all of them fierce anti-communists. But Nietzsche’s papers were, and that’s the irony of history, in communist hands in Weimar.
Thus, for a character like Heidegger it was very natural to denounce the unpublished writings of Nietzsche as being irrelevant. To denounce the Weimar archive, Heidegger even claimed that the communists had basically secluded Nietzsche’s heritage and that it wasn’t even possible to get access, which was basically not true. But Heidegger was only one among many others who made such claims. As a matter of fact, Heidegger himself wouldn’t have been welcomed in the GDR for sure—unlike these two Italian communists.
From his time in the Italian Communist Party, Montinari maintained intense connections to the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. He had been in the GDR many times before, also during the 1953 uprising. These contacts made his work in the GDR possible. From the start, there was a feeling of fighting against the West German “Nietzsche establishment.” That’s the one thing, the other is the reception of their edition in France. And that opens up a completely different chapter.
Featured Image: Private photograph of Giorgio Colli (left) and Mazzino Montinari. Credits: Margherita Montinari.