British protests Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Nietzsche and the British Referendum

Today, as Europe faces difficult questions about its future, exemplified in the UK’s upcoming "Brexit" referendum, perhaps Germany’s experience in the late nineteenth century can be brought usefully to bear. If so, there are few better guides than Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most perceptive thinkers of his time.

CAMBRIDGE – Terrorist attacks. Tensions over religious and ethnic minorities. Growing support for extremist political parties. A widening North-South divide. A powerful German chancellor. An aggressive Russia expanding its territorial reach. A United Kingdom embroiled in distant wars, asking itself whether it should disengage from continental Europe. A young political order, born of a series of devastating international wars, threatening to implode.

The list of problems facing Europe today is long, but this is not unprecedented. Indeed, in many respects, contemporary conditions look strikingly similar to those confronting Otto von Bismarck’s Germany.

At that time, the fear was that southern Catholic minorities would undermine the unity of the newly founded German empire, intended to bring stability in the face of a rising radical socialist party, after a series of bloody wars (most recently against the French) and assassination attempts on the Kaiser. Germany was sandwiched between an imperialist Russia and a vengeful France. Meanwhile, Britain was entangled in military adventures in Asia and the Middle East.