Nietzsche’s closest friends and other people near to him were perplexed. No one could remember ever having heard the name of Stirner from Nietzsche’s mouth. There are dozens of letters in the archives that bear witness to the confusion of his friends.
They understood well enough why Nietzsche had been publicly silent about Stirner, but why did he, given his “habitual communicativeness” (Overbeck), never mention him even in the most familiar circles? Only Overbeck’s wife Ida remembered in 1899 a discussion she had with Nietzsche about twenty years earlier, during which he unintentionally let escape the remark that he felt a mental kinship to Stirner.
“This was accompanied by a solemn facial expression. While I attentively observed his features, these changed again, and he made something like a dispelling, dismissive movement with his hand, and spoke under breath: ‘Well, now I have told you, even though I did not want to speak of it. Forget about it. They would talk about a plagiarism, but you will not do that, I’m sure.'”
One other statement was taken: that of Adolf Baumgartner, who had been Nietzsche’s favourite pupil in his early years at Basel, though he had soon become alienated from him. Baumgartner, at the time a professor of Ancient History in Basel, recalled that he had borrowed Stirner’s ‘The Ego’ from the Basel university library in 1874. He stated that he had done this at Nietzsche’s recommendation. It was possible to confirm his borrowing of the book by checking the old lending registers.
Baumgartner said nothing about his reading of the book, however, nor about any subsequent events, for instance discussions about it with Nietzsche. In any case, after a period of twenty-five years he remembered clearly the book and Nietzsche’s words of recommendation, “this is the most consistent, which we possess”. Baumgartner’s later enigmatic statement that Nietzsche had, “for the first time […] turned the big wheel” inside him may be related to this event.
Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, however, never tired of seeking out “counter evidence” to contradict these claims. She went to great trouble to get written confirmation from all Nietzsche’s friends and from persons near to him that Nietzsche never had spoken about Stirner in their presence.
Mazzino Montinari, who from his thorough knowledge of the Nietzsche archives knew about Elisabeth’s intense efforts, helplessly spoke of her ‘inexplicable reasons’, because he had never overcome conventional notions of Stirner’s status and therefore would never entertain the suspicion that Elisabeth’s eagerness may have been energized by her secret knowledge regarding the role Stirner’s work had had in young Nietzsche’s development. In any case, in various articles she vehemently denied Nietzsche was acquainted in any way with ‘The Ego’. Furthermore, she was clever enough to drop the subject just as soon as public interest in the question faded away.
Franz Overbeck, probably Nietzsche’s most understanding, most reliable and most judicious friend, after a painstaking examination of all aspects of the question, came to the following conclusion: “There cannot be any doubt that Nietzsche behaved peculiarly in consideration of Stirner. With him he obviously did not allow his habitual communicativeness to prevail unrestrained.
But this certainly did not come to pass in order to obfuscate any influence [Stirner may have had] upon him (which in the exact sense is not at all present) but because he received an impression from Stirner, with which he might have preferred generally to cope with just on his own […] Accordingly I assert that Nietzsche did read Stirner. For opponents of his books this may easily justify the conclusion that he was a plagiarist. [Those] who knew him personally will think of this only as the very last possibility.”