The Truth About Friedrich Nietzsche And His 'Letters of Insanity'

The library of the former Nietzsche Archives in Weimar, Germany, first founded by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche in 1894 in Naumburg. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1221-002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Nietzsche crafted a new worldview that would form the basis of what we now know as constructivist thought. Constructivism is the idea that everything about the world is artificially constructed by the individuals who make it up. Nothing can be understood with any certainty; truth can no longer be regarded as absolute because all authority must be questioned. Instead, what matters is people’s perspectives on different issues, and the individual’s narrative is championed rather than any claims to truth. Essentially, if God is dead, then man must decide for himself what is true. Because truth claims can no longer be tested according to Scripture, they must be evaluated by his own experiences.

At the heart of Nietzsche’s constructivist, humanist thought was the concept of the Ubermensch, a “Superman” messiah-like figure who would arise and help bring humanity into a new age. Unfortunately, some of his readers used his writings to justify anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazi party, even claiming that Hitler was the Ubermensch. Nietzsche actually wrote against anti-Semitism and would have been horrified at the idea of Hitler being seen as the savior of his homeland, Germany.

Nietzsche’s Mental Breakdown

In 1889, an incident occurred that many people see as the beginning of insanity that would consume the last 11 years of his life. According to the story, he was taking a long walk through the city of Turin when he saw a man whipping a horse. The sight horrified Nietzsche. He ran to the horse and threw his arms around its neck to try to shield it from its abusive master. He began to sob uncontrollably and collapsed to the ground in tears. He was escorted home and allegedly spent the next two days in a catatonic, vegetative state.

“Der kranke Nietzsche” series of photos by Hans Olde, between June and August 1899 depicting The Ill Nietzsche. The Vintage News.

The incident with the horse occurred on January 3, 1889. Two weeks later, on January 18, he was taken to a mental asylum in Basel. Two weeks after that, he was taken to the Jena mental asylum, where he was diagnosed as having tertiary syphilis. Tertiary syphilis is the final stage of syphilis and sets in between three and 15 years after the person initially becomes infected with syphilis. It is characterized by tumor-like sores and damage to the central nervous system, which can result in dementia, psychotic breakdowns, and other neurological or psychological problems.

Doctors claimed that he showed signs of paralytic dementia, also known at the time as general paralysis of the insane. It is characterized by delusions, loss of short-term memory, depression, manic behavior, apathy, tremors, confusion, and seizures. In the final stages, the patient can become completely catatonic. Many people, including members of Nietzsche’s family, believed that a case of syphilis was to blame for the mental breakdown that began when he watched a horse being mercilessly beaten by its owner. He had supposedly contracted syphilis as a young man, possibly while he was at the University of Basel.

One of the letters that Nietzsche wrote during his mental breakdown known as Dedication of Dionysos-Dithyramben. Slavić, CC BY-SA 3.0.

While being hospitalized for insanity, Nietzsche wrote a flurry of letters to friends as well as royals and other people of influence. Collectively, these letters are known as “Wahnbrief,” or “the letters of insanity.” He frequently signed them with appellations such as, “Dionysus” or “the crucified one;” according to the ideas he had formed, these two characters were opposites, indicating that he may have developed multiple personalities and was signing his letters based on which personality was currently present. Ultimately, he would die in a catatonic state after suffering from insanity for 11 years. He was only 55 years old.

A letter from Friedrich Nietzsche to Meta von Salis (“Madonna”): “Fraulein von Salis. The world is transfigured, for God is on the earth. Do not you see how all the heavens rejoice? I have just taken possession of my empire, cast the Pope into prison, and let Wilhelm, Bismarck, and Stöcker be shot. The Crucified.” University Library of Basel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Text from one of his letters reads, “The world is transfigured, for God is on the earth. Do not you see how all the heavens rejoice? I have just taken possession of my empire, cast the Pope into prison, and let Wilhelm, Bismarck, and Stöcker be shot. The Crucified.” In another letter, he wrote, “I have had Caiaphas [the high priest who had Jesus crucified] put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the German doctors in a very drawn-out manner. Wilhelm, Bismarck, and all anti-Semites abolished.” Today, many of the letters are held in the Nietzsche archives in Naumberg, Germany, which were initially compiled by his sister, Elisabeth Foster-Nietzsche.

Potential Causes of His Breakdown

For a century, no one challenged the assumption that Nietzsche had gone mad as a result of tertiary syphilis and never recovered. However, in 2003, Dr. Leonard Sax published an article in the Journal of Medical Biography that posted that, according to forensic evidence, Nietzsche did not have syphilis. Rather, he had a slow-growing tumor that eventually crowded out his brain and led to his psychosis. If Nietzsche really had tertiary syphilis, the crazy man would have died within two years of his diagnosis; however, Nietzsche lived for another 11 years. Dr. Sax believed that he could not have had syphilis.

In addition to forensic medical evidence, Dr. Sax saw as critical the origin of the story about Nietzsche having syphilis in the first place: it was basically a case of hearsay. A book by Wilhelm Lange-Eichbaum said a Berlin neurologist told me that Nietzsche had infected himself with syphilis in a Leipzig brothel during his time as a student there and that he had been treated for syphilis by two Leipzig physicians.” Nietzsche may have never even been formally diagnosed with tertiary syphilis, at least not according to rigorous diagnostic criteria. The original documents that his doctors provided to him were destroyed.