Nietzsche spent the final days of 1870 with Richard and Cosima, revelling in the unmatched philosophical discussion. But his love for them could not lastby Sue Prideaux / December 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
In 1870, Nietzsche was 26. He had recently been promoted to full professor at Basel University when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. This presented him with a moral dilemma. Basel being in Switzerland, the university wanted him to stay in his teaching job. But Nietzsche, being German, felt it his duty to defend his country despite his loathing of mindless German nationalism. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, that is the end of German philosophy!” he wrote. He absolutely did not want to fire cannonballs against France, a country whose culture and philosophy he loved dearly. His compromise was to volunteer to go to the front as a medical orderly. Nursing the wounded and dying on the battlefields, he caught dysentery and diphtheria simultaneously, and was invalided out.
During his recovery, he was invited to spend Christmas with Richard and Cosima Wagner in their elaborate mansion on Lake Lucerne. Nietzsche was in love with Cosima, who had married Wagner while Nietzsche was at war. The daughter of Franz Liszt, Cosima was terrifyingly effective; capable even of dominating the notoriously libidinous Wagner. When Nietzsche had volunteered for war, stern Cosima had briskly told him that “a gift of a hundred cigars would be more use to the army than the presence of a dilettante,” a remark that made him adore her all the more.
Now, on his return from the battlefield, Nietzsche had grown in the eyes of his hosts into the heroic philosopher-warrior. He accepted their invitation without realising that his wartime experience had in fact opened a chasm between them that would eventually widen into a full-blown rift. War left Nietzsche committed to European cooperation, while it stoked Wagner and Cosima’s blazing, vengeful, nationalism. Wagner—who spoke French perfectly well—was refusing even to read letters sent to him written in French.
On Christmas morning, ravishing sounds came pulsing through the scented air of the house. Wagner had secretly smuggled Hans Richter and a 15-piece orchestra on to the staircase where they played a glorious piece of music for the very first time. It was the Siegfried Idyll, Wagner’s sublime symphonic poem composed to celebrate Cosima giving birth to his only son, Siegfried, named after the human hero of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle.
Cosima writes in her diary that on hearing the music wafting…