The death of Nietzsche's father

FN's father died prematurely in 1849 at age 35. What caused his death at such a young age? Due to the limitations of the practice of medicine in rural Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, it is difficult to reconstruct what happened. The terminology, especially in rural practice, was vague. For example, the cause of the death of FN's brother Ludwig Joseph at the age of two was given as "teething cramps," obviously a most imprecise term by modern standards.

It is clear that Karl Ludwig died due to some pathology of the brain. Because of FN's own mental collapse, the Nietzsche family was concerned to prevent the impression that some kind of mental pathology ran in the Nietzsche family. Members of the family began recounting a story according to which Karl Ludwig's health problems commenced with a fall down some stairs. One example is letter from Nietzsche's mother to Carl Fuchs from 1890, in which she asserted that Karl Ludwig suffered from a "Gehirnleiden" [affliction of the brain] caused by a fall down stone steps and that he was never insane. [Janz I pp. 44-5] The word used most often by the Nietzsche family to describe the affliction was "Gehirnerweichung," literally softening of the brain, a vague word that today has no medical significance.

This story has not held up to close scrutiny. Montinari, editor the KGW, wrote in his notes to Ecce Homo: "einige Briefe von Ns Mutter an Freunde beweisen die Unhaltbarkeit der 'fable convenue', nach der ein Sturz auf der Treppe die Ursache der Krankheit von Ns Vater gewesen wäre" [some letters from N's mother prove that the 'fable convenue,' according to which a fall down the steps was the cause of N's father's illness, is untenable].

Certainly Elisabeth pushed the story of the fall down stone steps in many of her publications, again in order to refute suggestions that insanity was hereditary. And she did this not just in her own writings. Here we come across one of Elisabeth's falsifications. In an autobiographical sketch from 1858 FN wrote: "Im September 1848 wurde plötzlich mein geliebter Vater gemütskrank." [In September 1848 my beloved father suddenly became emotionally disturbed]. In her edition, Elisabeth falsified this so that it read: "Im September 1848 wurde plötzlich mein geliebter Vater infolge eines Sturzes bedeutend krank." [In September 1848 my beloved father became gravely ill as a result of a fall. Janz I p. 46]

Janz reports a letter by a stepsister of Karl Ludwig Nietzsche's, one Friederike Dächsel (written in August 1849), in which she wrote that after Karl Ludwig's death his head was opened and that a significant deterioration of the brain was evident. [Janz I p. 45] Dächsel made no mention at all of a fall down the stairs. Nor did Karl Ludwig's immediate superior, Superintendant Wilke, in a report written in March 1849, make any mention of a fall.

There was also talk of a brain tumor. Max Oehler reported that the autopsy performed on Karl Ludwig revealed a "Geschwulst" [lump, swelling, tumor; Janz I p. 46] This is of course at odds with the version in the Dächsel letter, according to which there was a deterioration, not a swelling, of the brain.

Whatever the cause might have been: Janz' conclusion that the cause was not hereditary seems justified. And it seems equally likely that the cause was not a fall down some stairs.

Dr. Archinto P. Anzil, Professor Emeritus of Neuropathology at the State University of New York-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., has offered the suggestion that Karl Ludwig suffered a stroke. In the February 14, 1999, issue of The New York Times Book Review, Dr. Anzil wrote: "As for Carl Nietzsche, the philosopher's father, he died of a stroke, a very common condition that as a rule has nothing to do with syphilis. "

copyright 2003 Malcolm B. Brown