Art by Alex Boyd.
In Warhammer 40,000, Nietzsche’s arguments are taken to their logical extents. However, instead of the revitalization that Nietzsche hoped for, his values in application generate endless chaos, decay, and futile war. Part Two of my series will explore Nietsche and the Imperium, a grim parody of the Holy Roman Empire and modern faschism.
In 40K lore, the Imperium is a sprawling human empire ruled by a half-god and his cabal of nobles, commanders, and priests. It is an institution worthy of Nietzschean abhorrence—an amalgamation of militaristic, ecclesiastical, and medieval systems bound by ascetic denial in service of a pope-emperor. Every office of the Imperium advocates for utter “self-denial” and “self-sacrifice” to this figurehead—a physical and mental martyrdom of free will (BGE 45). It is the Western system taken to extremes, with all principled Christian-ecclesial norms (i.e. love of God, virtue) corrupted into meaningless.
If there is an Übermensch to be found in the Imperium, one should first look to the Emperor, whose origin story reads like the opium dreams of Alexander the Great.
Art by Kevin Chin (2012).
The Emperor was born a mutant with powerful psychic abilities and near-immortality—he was, in other words, biologically better. For millennia, he watched as “empires grew and fell, and mankind discovered how to control and exploit the Earth” (Rogue Trader 135). Finally, about thirty thousand years into our future, the Emperor choose to rise, ending all inter-human warfare through conquest and uniting the planet under one sovereignty, his sovereignty, before launching a Great Crusade to subjugate the galaxy (132).
The officers of his new Imperial Army were deemed insufficient for such a task; therefore, in a gross form of nepotism, the Emperor commissioned the creation of the Primarchs, twenty superhumans bio-engineered from his own genetic tissue, to be the generals of his Crusade (CSM 6th 6-9). Übermensch begot Übermensch.
Art by Alex Boca (2017).
As if to prove the Emperor’s rise was not the gift of chance, the staff writers at Games Workshop contrived an incident to separate the Emperor from his ‘sons.’ A mishap with a warp storm scattered the infant Primarchs across the galaxy—each landing on some distant human colony. In most cases, the Primarch grew to become a global warlord without the supervision of their ‘father,’ or, more accurately, paternal clone.
In their absence, facing pressing wars against alien cultures, the Emperor used his remaining genetic resources to create mass-producible yet weaker superhumans by transplanting lab-grown Primarchial organs into normal humans. Thus, the Emperor created the most recognizable figure in the Warhammer 40,000 franchise—Legiones Astartes, or the Space Marines. For the next ten centuries, humans would be “recruited from the feral planets,” undergo “intensive training and indoctrination,” and be subject to a series of pscho- and physical surgeries to create “disciplined, controlled killer[s]” (RT 156).
Art by John Blanche (1998).
These Space Marines, like all the Imperium’s medievalized accruements, function essentially as crusader knights. But they are also reminiscent of eugenics programs conceived by the Nazi Party, whose ideology included a bio-political misapplication of Nietzsche (Kaufmann 9-18). Games Workshop’s twist is that the Space Marines fail Nietzsche’s criterion for Übermensch. Although they are bio-politically ‘higher men,’ they have been genetically-configured and indoctrinated to be sterile, puritanical slaves to the Emperor’s will. The Emperor has succeeded in “establishing [his] pictures and preferences” so thoroughly that the other superior humans of his era are nothing but pale imprints (Nehamas 28).
Not long after the creation of Legiones Astartes, the Emperor recovered the Primarchs and installed them as princely governors of his empire. However, the Primarchs had matured without the invisible entanglement of dogma into individuals with independent, unique personalities, some of which clashed with the Emperor’s agenda. What happens when Übermensch attempts to subvert Übermensch? 40K’s answer is, of course, war.
Art by Adrian Smith (2004).
In allusion to the betrayal of God by his brightest angel, Lucifer, and to the War in Heaven, some of the Primarchs, led by the Emperor’s favored ‘son,’ Horus, revolted against their father. The war culminated in a siege on Earth with “Traitor Legions’ drop ships [falling] like deadly rain upon the Imperial Palace” and the “gigantic cannons of the rebel army pound[ing] the walls” (CSM 4th 14). In the final moments of the battle, the Emperor, exploiting a tactical opportunity, teleported to Horus’ battle barge and “destroy[ed] the traitor utterly,” dispelling the resolve of the rebellion. But the melee also “shattered the Emperor’s body” physically and psychically (SM 5th 7). To preserve his life-force, the broken champion of mankind was installed on an “arcane life-support” designed to appear as a throne (CSM 6th 8-11).
So inexhaustible is the Emperor’s will that even beyond ‘death’ his power continues to manifest. For a hundred centuries he has remained, as the opening lines of the sixth edition WH40K rulebook describes, the “Master of Mankind,” the “Carrion Lord,” a “rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power.” All of this alludes to Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead: but given the way men are, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown” (Gay Science 191).
Art by John Blanche (1987).
The Emperor’s will manifests ‘beyond the grave’ through two potent energies. The first is the institution of the Imperium, an incredibly-stratified theocratic bureaucracy that begins on Earth with the Adeptus Terra, comprised of “millions of devoted Imperial servants” and “quasi-religious followers,” and extends across human-colonized space beneath the administration of the aptly-labeled Adminstratum. Any contention to the Emperor’s will is terminated by the Legiones Astartes, by the Imperial Guard (a “reserve of garrison troops which can be moved into major conflicts where needed”), by the Imperial Fleet, and by more subtle organizations like the Inquisition and Adeptus Arbites (RT 130-134). Parasitically, the Imperium not only implements the Emperor’s will, but sustains his life. The “life-giving machinery” of the Golden Throne is unable to fully succor its occupant; the Emperor must also be fed a steady stream of “human life-force,” or souls, to survive. The donors must be psykers, one of those strange mutants into which “mankind will evolve” (135-138, 146). This, in effect, stagnates the human race—the few potential Übermensch who are not turned into a tool of the administration are consumed by tyrannical vampirism.
The second energy is a signal which admits from the Emperor’s brain and projects across the galaxy; a beacon used by Navigators to pilot the Imperial Navy through nebulous space-storms called the Warp. In this regard, the Emperor has made himself a necessary asset to his empire. Without his psychic transmission, there “would be little space travel,” and mankind would be fractured into isolated, easily-conquered planet-states (RT 138).
Furthermore, the Emperor has allowed the stagnation of technologies which could oust his monopoly on psychic power. Scientific thought has devolved into “mysticism and madness” i.e. “the warp engine must have runes upon its side, the laser gun requires the blessing of the Gods of Battle” (132). The Emperor controls the flow of information, allowing some technologies and philosophies to rot into oblivion or be converted into forbidden knowledge by the Adeptus Mechanicus, while scaffolding others that support his regime and religion.
Art by John Blanche (2003).
This includes the arts. Holy texts and images abound: ritual booklets, litanies, call-and-responses, catechisms, codices, parables, scrolls, banners coated in iconography, badges, and regalia—all of which proclaim the necessity for warrior values, devotion to the state apparatus, and hero-worship. Images of eagles, arrows, skulls, crosses, lightning bolts, wings, swords, wolves, etc., have become tribal markings for Space Marine Chapters and divisions of Imperial Guard—in essence, identifiers like the heraldry of the Middle Ages used to distinguish men-at-arms on the battlefield. Colors, too, bracket the soldier. Art becomes uniform, both literally and metaphorically.
In contrast, Nietzsche was convinced that the arts were the “supreme task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life,” i.e. a way of enabling the individual to self-actualize into their noble self (Twilight of the Idols 113). Nietzsche wondered if “existence and the world” could only be justified by “aesthetic phenomenon” – if art could be the one true method in which to bestow life with meaning and purpose (113-114). But the machinations of the Imperium have infected the arts with propaganda—that terrible medium of dogma. Even the rulebooks and codices are populated by Imperial advertisements and admonitions.
From the 5th Edition Rulebook (p. 18).
But how is this a surprise? Those barbarians that Nietzsche praised—what art could they produce but bloodthirsty narcissism and monopoly? This is the cultivation of the dictator, from the Adolf Hitler back to Nietzsche’s idol, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose criterion for the arts was that “the masses… must be guided without knowing it” (Bonaparte 92). Napoleon cultivated his image through art – the heroic, solitary protagonist on campaign – that solitary leader (Hanley 23). But by doing so he imposed singular meaning. Perhaps this is style; perhaps this is value-creating; perhaps this is a tactic like Nietzsche’s own literary self. The ‘opposite man’ “honors himself as one who is powerful” (BGE 205). But in the long scheme, the overwhelming use of misdirection generates orthodoxy; in effect, this expressed value becomes law – “venerable, unassailable, holy, true” – with its origin “forgotten” and dogma secure (“March-June 1888” in Will to Power).
Nietzsche detested how orthodoxy reduced men to “meager, tame domestic animal[s]” but for the Übermensch to retain his ambition he must crush any mote of rebellion (BGE 65). Nietzsche detested Christian duty and the slave morality, but for the Übermensch to consolidate power he must make sacrifice and slavery not only attractive but morally necessary. Nietzsche detested nationalism and xenophobia but both are excellent tools of regime. Thus, in its full realization, Übermensch becomes Nietzsche’s enemy – an “old God” who demands a “savage form of modern nationalism… xenophobia… plutocratic greed…” and the “sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, [and] all self-confidence” (Allison ix; BGE 60).
This is 40K’s great Nietzschean irony. Nietzsche’s ideal ‘opposite man’ sheds dogmatic confines and seeks power, but to keep that power, the ‘man’ must create new dogmatic confines to deter subjects from rebellion. This might come in the form of the institution, which Nietzsche admits must be “anti-liberal to the point of malice,” using “tradition,” “authority,” and “centuries-long responsibility” to create a “solidarity between succeeding generations backwards and forwards in infinitum” (Twilight 105). The ‘opposite man’ might create a cult, placing himself as a deity or the Voice of the Godhead. Or he might deter his subjects from illumination and promote ignorance, for “if one wants slaves, one is a fool if one educates them to be masters” (106). In effect, 40K explores how Nietzsche’s will to power creates the very systems of submission and ignorance that he abhorred. In the grim darkness of Nietzschean philosophy, there is only war.
Art by Igor Sid (2017).
Allison, David B. Reading the New Nietzsche. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Bonaparte, Napoleon. “To M. Fouche, Aix La Chapelle, 9th Sept, 1804” in A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, vol. 2. Edited by D. A. Bingham. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Cavatore, Alessio and Gav Thorpe. Chaos Space Marines, fourth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2007.
Cook, Chris et al. Index Astartes. UK: Games Workshop, 2002.
Cruddace, Robin. Space Marines, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.
Hanley, Wayne. The Genesis of Napoleonic Propaganda. NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Kelly, Phil. Chaos Space Marines, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.
Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil (1886). Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols (1889). Translated by R. J. Hollingdale (1968). UK: Penguin, 1990.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Will to Power (1887-1888). Internet Archive. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Priestley, Rick, Alan Merrett, Jim Bambra, et al. Book of the Astronomican: Warhammer Chapter 40,000 Approved. UK: Taylor Bloxham, 1988.
Priestley, Rick. “Legiones Astartes.” Warhammer 40,000 Compendium. UK: Games Workshop, 1989.
Priestley, Rick. Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader. UK: Games Workshop, 1987.
Troke, Adam, Jeremy Vetock, and Matt Ward. Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.
Ward, Matthew. Space Marines, fifth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2008.
Warhammer 40,000 Compilation. UK: Games Workshop, 1991.
Warhammer 40,000, seventh edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2014.
Any academic discussion of 40k lore is A-OK with me.
I’m fond of this piece:
That article is fantastic.
To complement a queer reading of 40K, there’s a really interesting homage in the Dark Angels, whose Primarch is Lion El’Jonson, to romantic poet Lionel Johnson and his poem “The Dark Angel.” Subtle, eh? Allegedly, Lionel had a lifelong conflict between his outward heteronormative values as a Catholic and his inner-urges as a homosexual (he had a scandalous affair with Oscar Wilde), and allegedly the Dark Angel Chapter actively suppresses an ancient dabbling with Chaos…