Frightful doctrines: Nietzsche, Ireland, and the great war

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After the outbreak of war in August 1914, Friedrich Nietzsche’s name quickly became prominent in Irish and English newspapers as shorthand for a ‘philosophy of evil’ associated with the German Empire. This essay considers the rhetorical uses made of the philosopher and his ideas by commentators in the popular press, including: Thomas Kettle, University College Dublin economics professor and minor poet turned war correspondent and British recruitment officer, who wrote a series of articles attributing the rise of German militarism to Nietzsche’s influence; a host of Ireland’s Catholic clerics, who negotiated their difficult position between the Irish nationalist cause and the British war effort by arguing in newspapers around the country that both nations must stand together against Nietzsche’s ‘frightful’ doctrines; and W. B. Yeats, who rather mischievously evoked the philosopher’s name in Kettle’s presence at a nationalist celebration in November 1914, drawing rousing applause from his Dublin audience and generating headlines in the Irish press. During the course of the war, the Nietzsche controversy raged on in newspapers across the allied nations, while Yeats remained largely silent about the conflict. But, in January 1919, only weeks after the armistice was signed, he returned to Nietzsche’s philosophy through a series of allusions in ‘The Second Coming’, a poem that famously responds to the trauma – and the propaganda – of the war years by transforming the imagery of Christian faith into a nightmarish vision of the Anti-Christ.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)323-339
Number of pages17
JournalModernist Cultures
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018


  • Doctrine
  • First World War
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Poetry
  • Propaganda
  • Thomas Kettle
  • W. B. Yeats

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Music
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Cultural Studies


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