Note: This is a greatly expanded and updated version of an essay that first appeared on TOO in 2012.
A long line of books and documentaries have explored Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his putative role as the spiritual and intellectual godfather to Adolf Hitler. In the Jewish-dominated cultural milieu of the contemporary West, this meme has taken on such a life that Wagner’s name is seldom mentioned today without the obligatory disclaimer that, while admittedly (and unfortunately) a musical genius, his reputation is forever sullied by his standing as a morally-loathsome anti-Semite. A consequence of this is that, for many people, Wagner “has become symbolic of everything evil in the world.”[A1]William Berger, Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love—and Even Enjoy—Opera’s Most Demanding Genius (New York, Viking, 1998), 373.
Richard Wagner was a one-man artistic and intellectual movement whose shadow fell across all of his contemporaries and most of his successors. Other composers had influence; Wagner had a way of thinking named after him. A significant biographical feature of the composers that followed Wagner was how they grappled with his legacy. Some, like Bruckner and Strauss, imitated him; some, like Debussy and Bartok, rejected him; and some, like Hugo Wolf were almost paralyzed by the immensity of his achievement. Wagner’s influence extended to writers and intellectuals like Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Mann, Baudelaire, Eliot, Nietzsche and Shaw. Given his huge impact on Western culture, Bryan Magee has strong grounds for his contention that “Wagner has had a greater influence than any other single artist on the culture of our age.”[A2]Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 56.
Wagner was a deeply polarizing figure in his lifetime, and no other composer has provoked such extreme antipathy or adulation. It has been said that his music has been loved and hated more immoderately than that of any other composer. Wagner was notoriously unscrupulous in his personal life—but his sexual and financial misdemeanors pale into insignificance beside the vastness and originality of his compositions. Even the anti-Wagnerites have had to acknowledge the enormity of his achievement, and his most fanatical detractors (a great many of them Jewish) have reluctantly agreed with the Russian composer Tchaikovsky, who wrote of the Ring: “Whatever one might think of Wagner’s titanic work, no one can deny the monumental nature of the task he set himself, and which he has fulfilled; nor the heroic inner strength needed to complete the task. It was truly one of the greatest artistic endeavors which the human mind has ever conceived.”[A3]Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 195.
The essence of Wagnerian opera lies in the music which deepens and subtilizes the overt meaning of the storyline. Profound, far-reaching psychic changes are accomplished through the music with little or no help from the words, and Wagner’s oeuvre includes some of the most powerful scenes in all opera. Wagner’s music dramas are notable for their use of leitmotifs, musical phrases associated with an idea or character. Not simply accompanying the libretto, they reveal the subconscious feelings of the characters or anticipate what will happen later in the story. There is no one-for-one correspondence between a leitmotif and the concept, idea or emotion that is first attached to it. The leitmotif has a potential to develop—but to develop musically. Scruton observed how “by implanting the principal of musical development in the heart of the drama Wagner is able to lift the action out of the events portrayed on the stage, and to endow it with a universal, cosmic and religious significance.”
One hundred and forty years after his death, Wagner retains a cultural prominence that surpasses any of his contemporaries. The excellence of his music has ensured its popularity has never waned, and Wagner is still well represented on recordings, on radio, and in the theater. Wealthy Wagner devotees travel the world in pursuit of live performances of his fifteen-hour, four-night opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Every year thousands still make a pilgrimage to the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth where in 1876 he inaugurated a festival devoted to his own music. The appeal of Wagner’s music, libretti and stagecraft have ensured his music dramas remain useful to opera companies around the world as a reliable income source, even in straitened economic times.
It is, however, Wagner’s standing as “a notorious anti-Semite,” and the intellectual establishment’s obsession with him on this basis, that has increasingly shaped his image in the popular consciousness. Wagner’s reputation is now so thoroughly tainted that one almost never encounters a serious examination of his ideas. For some, Wagner’s anti-Semitism diminishes or even invalidates his accomplishment as a composer. As the commentator Adrian Mourby noted: “The notion that artists don’t have to be as beautiful as the works they create is a commonplace now—except in the case of Wagner. ‘Judaism in Music’ is what has made him the unforgivable exception.”[A4]Adrian Mourby, “Can we forgive him?,” The Guardian, July 21, 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,360...0.html
Judaism in Music
Kevin MacDonald observes in Separation and its Discontents that Richard Wagner is perhaps the best known intellectual who focused on the Jewish domination of culture.[A5]Kevin MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (1st Books Library, 2004), 60. Wagner first expounded on what he saw as the pernicious Jewish influence on German art and culture in his 1850 tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (usually translated as Judaism in Music or Jewishness in Music), which was published under pseudonym in 1850.[A6]Richard Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 3 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 79-100. http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/JudaismInMusic.pdf Wagner’s essay took up the theme of a previous article by Theodor Uhlig in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that was critical of the “Hebraic art taste” that Uhlig thought manifest in Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera Le Prophète.
Wagner attempted in his essay to account for the “popular dislike of the Jewish nature,” and “the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews.” He concludes that Germans instinctively disliked Jews due to their alien appearance, speech and behavior, noting that “with all our speaking and writing in favor of the Jews’ emancipation [i.e., the result of German high-mindedness and dedication to abstract principles of human rights], we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them.”[A7]Ibid.
(Richard Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 3 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 79-100. http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/JudaismInMusic.pdf) Wagner here simply stated an obvious fact: that Germans, like all other racial and ethnic groups, were ethnocentric, and this colored their interactions with a fiercely-competitive, immensely ethnocentric resident outgroup like the Jews. According to Wagner, “We are deliberately distorting our own nature if we feel ashamed to proclaim the natural revulsion aroused in us by Jewishness. … Despite our pretended liberalism we still feel this aversion.”[A8]Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2001), 349.
Wagner argued in Judaism in Music that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial because they had no connection to the genuine spirit of the German people. He observed that: “So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it down to the epochs of Mozart and Beethoven, there was nowhere to be found a Jewish composer. … Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgment in it—yet merely to destroy it.”[A9]Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit. Jews had not fully assimilated into German culture, so did not identify with and merge themselves into the deepest layers of that culture, including its religious and ethnic influences—the Volksgeist. According to Wagner, “our whole European art and civilization … remained to the Jew a foreign tongue.” The Jews “through an intercourse of two millennia with European nations” had never fully abandoned the posture of “a cold, nay more, a hostile looker-on.” The entry of the Jews into nineteenth-century European society was, for Wagner, the infiltration of an alien and antagonistic group whose success symbolized the spiritual and creative crisis of German and European culture.
The same thesis was advanced by Zionist intellectuals like Ahad Ha’Am (the pseudonym of Asher Ginsburg). Kevin MacDonald notes that both Wagner and Ginsburg “developed the idea that Jews could not have their own artistic spirit because they failed to identify completely with the surrounding culture.”[A10]MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 184. In Wagner’s view, higher culture springs ultimately from folk culture. In the absence of Jewish influence, German music would once again reflect the deeper layers of German folk culture. For Wagner, “Judaic works of music often produce on us the impression as though a poem of Goethe’s, for instance, were being rendered in the Jewish jargon. … Just as words and constructions are hurled together in this jargon with wondrous inexpressiveness, so does the Jewish musician hurl together the diverse forms and styles of every age and every master. Packed side by side, we find the formal idiosyncrasies of all the schools, in motleyest chaos.”[A11]Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit.
For Wagner, Jewish art was characterized by imitativeness, and therefore, by shallowness and superficiality. This was exemplified by the compositions that dominated the music scene of his time. From the depth and intensity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, the music of the concert hall had descended to the comparative superficiality of Mendelssohn—who had diverted the “tempests of revolution” into soothing salon music. Similarly, opera had fallen from the musical-dramatic peaks of Gluck and Mozart to the barren flatlands of Meyerbeer and Halevy. For Wagner, all that was meretricious in Grand Opera could be ascribed to the Jewishness of its composers—whose work amounted to a series of glib surface effects. He writes: “Of necessity what comes out of attempts by Jews to make art must have the property of coldness, of non-involvement, to the point of being trivial and absurd. We are forced to categorize the Jewish period in modern music as the period of consummate uncreativeness—stagnation run to seed.”
Writing in 1988, philosopher and cultural historian Bryan Magee observes that “to write works of this kind was to make use of art as a mere means—a means of entertainment, a means of giving pleasure and getting to be liked, a means of achieving status, money, fame. For Jews it was a means of making their way in an alien society.”[A12]Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 27. It certainly worked for Meyerbeer, with the first hundred performances of Le Prophète in Berlin alone netting him 750,000 marks—almost 200,000 marks more than the entire sum Wagner received over nearly two decades from his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria.[A13]Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan (London: Faber and Faber, 2007) 83-4.
Wagner’s thesis has been roundly condemned by Jewish commentators, and yet the Jewish academic David Rodwin, while labelling Wagner’s essay “a vile anti-Semitic screed,” admits there is substantial truth in the “aesthetic eclecticism” that Wagner identified as a unifying feature of Jewish composers.[A14]David Rodwin, “Wagner Was Right: Eclecticism and the Jewish Aesthetic,” (Los Angeles: 2011). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkfGEqo3YjQ Separation and its Discontents, 98.< [A16] Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 24. Regarding Wagner’s attribution of “imitativeness” as a particularly Jewish trait, Jacob Katz likewise acknowledges that: “Jewish qualities may quite naturally appear—for better or for worse—in artistic creations of Jews, even of those who have joined non-Jewish culture. It would therefore be preposterous to dismiss categorically all observations from the mouths of anti-Semites as prejudicial misconceptions.”[A15] Magee calls Wagner’s thesis “unbelievably original” and notes:
One does not need to share Wagner’s view of Mendelssohn, who came from a Christianized and highly assimilated family, to see that his argument is substantially correct. … A really great creative artist is one who, in freely expressing his own needs, aspirations, and conflicts, articulates those of an entire society. This is made possible by the fact that, through his earliest relationships, mother tongue, upbringing, and all his first experience of life, the cultural heritage on which he has entered at birth is woven into the whole fabric of his personality. He has a thousand roots in it of which he is unaware, nourishing him below the level of consciousness, so that when he speaks for himself he quite unconsciously speaks for others. Now in Wagner’s time it was impossible for a Jewish artist to be in this position. The ghettos of Western Europe had only begun to be opened in the wake of the French Revolution, and their abolition was going on throughout the nineteenth century. The Jewish composers of Wagner’s day were among the very first emancipated Jews, pastless in the society in which they were living and working. They spoke its language with, literally, a foreign accent.[A16]
According to Magee, Wagner failed to notice that he was describing a transitional phenomenon—that the creations of Jewish composers would inevitably become “deeper” and more culturally authentic as the descendants of emancipated Jews assimilated into their host societies. Magee cites the emergence of Mahler and Schoenberg in the late nineteenth century to illustrate his point.
Drawing on the thesis of Heinrich Laube’s book Struensee, Wagner argued in Judaism in Music that Jews had also degraded German art by introducing their commercializing spirit into it. In February of 1848, at the funeral of Wagner’s mother, Laube had commiserated with his friend Wagner, equating the sadness of the hour with their mutual despair at the state of German art and culture, noting that “On the way to the station, we discussed the unbearable burden that seemed to us to lie like a dead weight on every noble effort made to resist the tendency of the time to sink into utter worthlessness.” As the preface to Struensee makes clear, this “worthlessness” consisted in the flowering of Jewish commercial values. Wagner’s only remedy was to “plunge dully and coldly into the only thing that could cheer me and warm me, the working out of my Lohengrin and my studies of German antiquity.”[A17]Paul Lawrence Rose, German Question/Jewish Question: Revolutionary Anti-Semitism from Kant to Wagner (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992) 360. Regarding the Jewish tendency to convert art into a branch of commerce, Wagner writes:
[All] is turned to money by the Jew. Who thinks of noticing that the guileless looking scrap of paper is slimy with the blood of countless generations? What the heroes of the arts … have invented … from two millennia of misery, today the Jew converts into an art-bazaar. … We have no need first to substantiate the Jewification [Verjudung] of modern art. It springs to the eye and thrusts upon the senses. … But if emancipation from the yoke of Judaism appears to us the greatest of necessities, we must hold it crucial above all to assemble our forces for this war of liberation. But we shall never gain these forces by merely defining the phenomenon [of Judaism] in an abstract way. This will be done only by accurately knowing the nature of that involuntary feeling of ours which utters itself as an instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence. … Then we can rout the demon from the field … where he has sheltered under a twilit darkness … which we good-natured humanists ourselves have conferred on him.[A18]Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit.
For Wagner, Judaism was the embodiment of the bourgeois money-egoist spirit, and he observes that: “When our social evolution reached that turning-point at which the power of money to bestow rank began to be openly admitted, it was no longer possible to keep the Jews at bay. They had enough money to be admitted to society.” Wagner believed that Jews “will continue to rule as long as money remains the power to which all our activities are subjugated.” He later confessed to his fellow composer friend (and future father-in-law) Franz Liszt, “I felt a long-repressed hatred for this Jewish money-world, and this hatred is as necessary to my nature as gall is to blood. An opportunity arose when their damnable scribbling annoyed me most, and so I broke forth at last.”[A19]Richard Wagner, letter of April 1851 trans. by W. Ashton Ellis, In: Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt 1841-1853, (London: 1897; repr. 1973), 145. In Judaism in Music Wagner finds the plea for Jewish emancipation to be “more than commonly naive, since we see ourselves rather in the position of fighting for emancipation from the Jews. The Jew is in fact, in the current state of the world, already more than emancipated. He rules.”
While stressing the harmful effects of the Jewish financial domination of German society, Wagner believed that the Jewish manipulation of language and art was infinitely more pernicious than their control over money. In his essay “What is German?” (1878, but based on a draft written in the 1860s) he states that culture, not economy, lies at the heart of German identity, and that Jews had bought the German soul and turned German Kultur into a sham, a mere image; and in doing this had destroyed “one of the finest natural dispositions in all the human race.”[A20]Richard Wagner, “What is German?” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 4 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 151-69. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagwi...er.htm
Wagner believed that the German people had been endowed with a uniquely rich inner life which had been forged during the crucible of the Thirty Years War. The body of the nation had almost been annihilated, “but the German spirit had passed through,” and amidst the physical ruins the Germans once again realized they were a nation of the spirit. This spirit had been preserved in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the German spiritual mission in the world was to proclaim “that the Beautiful and the Noble came not into the world for sake of profit, nay, not for the sake of even fame and recognition.”[A21]Ibid. (Italics in the original)
(Richard Wagner, “What is German?” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 4 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 151-69. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagwi...er.htm) Wagner thus viewed the new festival theater he built in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth in 1876 as the Grail Castle of a reborn, spiritual Germany. Far from the cosmopolitan theaters owned and operated by city-dwelling Jews, Bayreuth would allow the German nation to regain a sense of its true self by experiencing the mythic force of its own ancient epic—the Nibelungen. Through Bayreuth, Wagner wanted to reclaim German art and culture from that “race of mediators and negotiators whose influence was … to spread its truly ‘international’ power more and more widely over Germany.”[A22]Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 376.
Wagner repeatedly observed (and lamented) the fact Jews had stormed the fortress of German high culture and had successfully “brought the public art-taste of our time between the busy fingers of the Jew.”[A23]Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit. A host of Jewish middlemen had gained a hold over the critical press, publishing, theaters, operas, orchestras, art galleries and agencies. This Jewish cultural ascendancy in Germany was, of course, to reach its zenith in the Weimar Republic. Despite his stated views, Wagner twice refused to sign the “Anti-Semites Petition” of 1880 (presented to Bismarck) which complained about the very economic domination that so troubled him. The Petition, which quickly won 225,000 signatures, stated:
Wherever Christian and Jew enter into social relations, we see the Jew as master, the indigenous Christian population in a subservient position. The Jew takes part only to a negligible extent in the heavy labor of the great mass of the nation. But the fruits of his [the German’s] labor are reaped mainly by the Jew. By far the largest part of the capital which national labor produces is in Jewish hands. … Not only do the proudest palaces of our large cities belong to Jewish masters whose fathers and grandfathers, huckstering and peddling, crossed the frontiers into our fatherland, but rural holdings too, that most significant preservative basis of our political structure fall more and more into the hands of the Jews. … What we strive for is solely the emancipation of the German Volk from a form of alien domination which it cannot endure for any length of time.[A24]Quoted in MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 52.
Cosima Wagner gave several explanations for her husband’s refusal to sign the petition, among them that he had already done as much as he could for the cause, that a petition he had signed against vivisection had failed, and that the new appeal was addressed in servile language to Bismarck, who by this time Wagner loathed.[A25]Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 75. Wagner deplored the “Jewishness” of the new German empire, which he thought, thanks to Bismarck, had turned out to be a real-politischer state, rather than a truly German one. In 1878, Wagner wrote that “Bismarck is creating German unity, but he has no conception of its nature. … His conduct is a disgrace for Germany … his decisions have brought forth from the Jews a petition of thanks.” When Bismarck spoke out against the Anti-Semites Petition it only confirmed Wagner in his conviction that Bismarck had “a pact with the Jews.”[A26]Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 372.
For Roger Scruton, central to Wagner’s genius was his determination to use his art to escape from the increasingly commercialized world of art he detested—a world “where value is price and price is value,” and where entertainment is considered more important than art. Wagner escaped “to a garret, high above the market place” in conscious reaction against the sentimentality and disingenuousness of the art and music at his time.
The operas of Wagner attempt to dignify the human being in something like the way he might be dignified by an uncorrupted common culture. Acutely conscious of the death of God, Wagner proposed man as his own redeemer and art as a transfiguring rite of passage to a higher world. The suggestion is visionary, and its impact on modern culture so great that the shockwaves are still overtaking us. … In the mature operas of Wagner our civilization gave voice for the last time to its idea of the heroic, through music that strives to endorse that idea to the full extent of its power. And because Wagner was a composer of supreme genius, perhaps the only one to have taken forward the intense inner language forged by Beethoven and to have used it to conquer the psychic spaces that Beethoven shunned, everything he wrote in his mature idiom has the ring of truth, and every note is both absolutely right and profoundly surprising.[A27]Roger Scruton, Modern Culture (London: Continuum, 2000), 69.
Wagner fled from the commercialized world of art into the inner realm of the imagination. He believed the idealism and heroism of a bygone age could be rekindled again. He strove to create a new music public that would not just identify with the Germanic heroic ideal, but embrace it as part of an idealistic nationalism that eschewed the bourgeois values of the mid-nineteenth century. In this endeavor, he strived to connect at an emotional rather than a rational level with his audience. As Wagner once wrote of his Ring cycle: “I shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the emotional—not the critical—understanding of the spectators.”[A28]Richard Wagner, “A Communication to my Friends,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 1 (London: 1895; repr. 1966), 269-392. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagcomm.htm This was in keeping with his dictum that art should be “the presentation of religion in a lively form.”
It was precisely this quality in Wagner’s works that most repelled the Frankfurt School music theorist and leading Wagner critic T.W. Adorno, who likened Wagner’s famous system of leitmotifs to advertising jingles in the way they imprinted themselves on the memory. For Adorno, Wagner’s musical innovations led to feelings of disorientation and intoxication that seduced audiences and rendered them docile and dangerously susceptible to political persuasion. In every crowd applauding a Wagnerian work, Adorno insisted, lurked “the old virulent evil” of “demagogy.” Elizabeth Whitcombe notes that
Adorno believed that Wagner’s work is “proselytizing” and “collective-narcissistic.” Adorno’s complaint about the “collective-narcissistic” quality of Wagner’s music is really a complaint that Wagner’s music appeals to deep emotions of group cohesion. Like the Germanic myths that his music was often based on, Wagner’s music evokes the deepest passions of ethnic collectivism and ethnic pride. In Adorno’s view, such emotions are nothing more than collective narcissism, at least partly because a strong sense of German ethnic pride tends to view Jews as outsiders—as “the other.” It is also not surprising that Adorno, as a self-consciously Jewish intellectual, would find such music abhorrent.[A29]Elisabeth Whitcombe, “Adorno as Critic: Celebrating the Socially Destructive Force of Music,” The Occidental Observer, August 28, 2009. http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2009/08/adorno...ritic/
Adorno’s jaundiced assessment of Wagner was encapsulated in Woody Allen’s quip that: “When I hear Wagner I have the irresistible urge to invade Poland.” Scruton points out that Wagner’s attempt to engage his audiences at the emotional level of religion (which so perturbed Adorno) was already doomed when Wagner first conceived it. The main problem being that:
[Wagner’s] sacerdotal presumptions have never ceased to alienate those who feel threatened by his message. Hence modern producers, embarrassed by dramas that make a mockery of their way of life, decide in their turn to make a mockery of the dramas [in so-called Regietheater/Eurotrash productions]. Of course, even today, musicians and singers, responding as they must to the urgency and sincerity of the music, do their best to produce the sounds that Wagner intended. But the action is invariably caricatured, wrapped in inverted commas, and reduced to the dimensions of the television sitcom. Sarcasm and satire run riot on the stage, not because they have anything to prove or say in the shadow of this unsurpassably noble music, but because nobility has become intolerable. The producer strives to distract the audience from Wagner’s message, and to mock every heroic gesture, lest the point of the drama should finally come home.
As Michael Tanner has argued, in his succinct and penetrating defense of the composer, modern productions attempt to “domesticate” Wagner, to bring his dramas down from the exalted sphere in which the music places them, to the world of human trivia, usually in order to make a “political statement” which, being both blatant and banal, succeeds only in cancelling the rich ambiguities of the drama. In contemporary Wagner productions we see exactly what the transition from modernism to the “post-modern” world involves, namely, the final rejection of high culture as a redemptive force and the ruination of the sacred in its last imagined form.[A30]Scruton, Modern Culture, 69.
In the conclusion to Judaism and Music, Wagner asserts of the Jews that “only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasverus—going under!”[A31]Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” Ibid.
(Scruton, Modern Culture, 69.) Although this has been taken by some commentators to denote actual physical annihilation, in the context of the essay it refers to the eradication of Jewish separateness and traditions. Wagner advises Jews to follow the example of the German-Jewish political writer and satirist Ludwig Börne by abandoning Judaism. In this way Jews will take part in “this regenerative work of deliverance through self-annulment; then we are one and un-dissevered!”
Wagner was calling for the assimilation of Jews into mainstream German culture and society. He thus offered to take Hermann Levi, the first conductor of his last opera Parsifal, to be baptized. Under the influence of Darwinian thinking (promoted in Germany by Ernst Häckel), Wagner later came to favor expulsion over conversion, and thus paralleled the trajectory of German anti-Semitism over the course of the nineteenth century, which “shifted from demands for Jewish assimilation by intellectuals such as Kant and the young Hegelians in the early part of the century, to an increasing emphasis on the ethnic divide separating Germans and Jews.”[A32]MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 165.
Wagner republished Judaism in Music under his own name in 1869 with an extended introduction, leading to several protests by Jews at the first performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In the introduction he writes: “Whether the downfall of our culture can be arrested by a violent ejection of the destructive foreign element I am unable to decide, since that would require forces with whose existence I am unacquainted.”[A33]Richard Wagner, “Some Explanations Concerning ‘Judaism in Music,’” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 3 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 77-122. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagju...a2.htm In that year Wagner wrote a letter to the French philosopher Edouard Schoure in which he lamented that the assimilation of Jews into French society was preventing the French people from discerning the “corrosive influence of the Jewish spirit on modern culture.”
The second edition of Judaism in Music was published in the same year as Wilhelm Marr’s influential Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum (The Victory of Jewishness over Germanism). Historian Richard Evans claims that by the end of the 1870s Wagner had read Wilhelm Marr’s essay and had “broadly agreed with it.”[A34]Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2005), 33. In 1878, Wagner confessed that “It is distressing to me always to come back to the theme of the Jews. But one cannot escape it if one looks to the future.” In his late essay “Religion and Art” (1881), he described the Jews as “the plastic demon of the decline of mankind,” and declared: “I regard the Jewish race as the born enemies of humanity and everything that is noble in it; it is certain we Germans will go under before them, and perhaps I am the last German who knows how to stand up as an art-loving man against the Judaism that is already getting control of everything.”[A35]Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 377-8.
Wagner’s Racial Thinking
In addition to his concern about the baleful Jewish influence on German culture, Wagner, under the influence of Darwinism and the French racial theorist Arthur de Gobineau, became increasingly concerned about the fate of the White race generally. Wagner met Gobineau in Rome in 1876 and again in Venice in 1880 when he read the French author’s bestselling An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Wagner thought that Gobineau had demonstrated in this famous essay that “we should have no History of Man at all, had there been no movements, creations, and achievements of the White man,” and was taken with his pessimistic notion that Western society was doomed because miscegenation would inevitably lead to the degeneration of the White race. He nevertheless disagreed with Gobineau’s claim that this degeneration was unstoppable. In his essay “Hero-dom and Christianity,” Wagner writes that: “We cannot withhold our acknowledgment that the human family consists of irremediably disparate races, whereof the noblest well might rule the more ignoble, yet never raise them to their level by commixture, but simply sink to theirs.” The Jews, however, offered a unique exception to this general rule:
The Jew, on the contrary, is the most astounding instance of racial congruence ever offered by world history. Without a fatherland, a mother tongue midst every people’s land and tongue he finds himself again, in virtue of the unfailing instinct of his absolute and indelible idiosyncrasy: even commixture of blood does not hurt him; let Jew or Jewess intermarry with the most distinct of races, a Jew will always come to birth.[B1]Richard Wagner, “Religion and Art,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 211-52. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wlpr0...26.htm
While accepting many of Gobineau’s basic premises, Wagner, in his 1881 essay about the German people entitled “Know Thyself,” rejects the idea of Aryan superiority and writes about the “enormous disadvantage at which the German race… appears to stand against the Jewish.” Furthermore, when Gobineau stayed with the Wagners for five weeks in 1881, their conversations were punctuated with frequent arguments. Cosima Wagner’s diary recounts one exchange in which Wagner “positively exploded in favor of Christianity as compared to racial theory.” Wagner proposed that a “true Christianity” could provide for the moral harmonization of all races, which could, in turn, help prevent the physical unification of the races, and thereby the degeneration of the White race through miscegenation:
Incomparably fewer in individual numbers than the lower races, the ruin of the white races may be referred to their having been obliged to mix with them; whereby, as remarked already, they suffered more from the loss of their purity than the others could gain by the ennobling of their blood. … To us Equality is only thinkable as based upon a universal moral concord, such as we can but deem true Christianity elect to bring about.[B2]Richard Wagner, “Hero-dom and Christianity,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 275-84. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/waghero.htm
Wagner had first developed the idea of a revolutionary new Christianity in the opera text Jesus of Nazareth (1849), which depicted Jesus as redeeming man from the materialism of the “Roman world … and still more, of that [Jewish] world subject to the Romans. … I saw the modern world of the present day as a prey to the worthlessness akin to that which surrounded Jesus.”[B3]Richard Wagner, “Know Thyself,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 264-74. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagknow.htm Wagner here drew heavily on Kant’s critique of Judaism. Enslaved to the Law, the Jews had rejected Jesus’ message of love; Jewish egoism and lovelessness had led Judas to betray Him. The Jews had preferred “power, domination… [and] the loveless forces of property and law, symbolized by Judaism.”[B4]Quoted in Paul Lawrence Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 361. Wagner’s hope for the emergence of a “new Christianity” to act as a bulwark against miscegenation and the degeneration of the White race has not transpired, although some Jewish commentators see it as having being realized in the ideology and practices of National Socialism.
For the Jewish music critic Larry Solomon, in Richard Wagner “all the racist historical models from Luther to Fichte, Feuerbach, Gobineau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Chamberlain, come to full maturity.”[B5]Larry Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, (Online article: 2002) http://solomonsmusic.net/WagHit.htm Yet, despite the irate epithets routinely directed at Wagner, most of his assertions are objectively true—not least his many warnings about the dangers of the Jewish economic and cultural domination of Western nations. The evidence shows that the races are unequal intellectually and physically, and race mixing does lead (on average) to the cognitive decline of the more intelligent racial party to the admixture. It should also be noted that Wagner’s racial views were mainstream opinions at the time he expressed them—including among the leading Jewish intellectuals I cited in my review of Jews & Race—Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940.
Wagner’s views on the Jewish Question strongly paralleled those of the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. Both Wagner and Herzl saw the Jews as a distinct and foreign group in Europe. Herzl saw anti-Semitism as “an understandable reaction to Jewish defects” brought about by the Jewish persecution of gentiles. Jews had, he claimed, been educated by Judaism to be “leeches” and possessed “frightful financial power.”[B6]MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 57. For Herzl, the Jews were a money worshipping people incapable of understanding any other motives than money. Kevin MacDonald notes in Separation and its Discontents that Herzl argued that “a prime source of modern anti-Semitism was that emancipation had brought Jews into direct economic competition with the gentile middle classes. Anti-Semitism based on resource competition was rational.” Herzl “insisted that one could not expect a majority to ‘let itself be subjugated’ by formally scorned outsiders that they had just released from the ghetto.”[B7]Ibid., 54.
(MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 57.) Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim notes that “Wagner’s conclusion about the Jewish problem was not only verbally similar to Herzl’s” but that “both Wagner and Herzl favored the emigration of the German Jews.”[B8]Daniel Barenboim, “Wagner, Israel and the Palestinians,” Blog post, Undated. http://www.danielbarenboim.com/index.php?id=72 Despite their convergence of opinion on the Jewish Question, Herzl avoided the opprobrium posthumously heaped on Wagner; intellectual consistency being the first casualty of Jewish ethnic warfare through the construction of culture.
Jewish Responses to Wagner’s Ideas
Basically ignoring whether Wagner’s views on Jewish influence on German art and culture had any validity, a long line of Jewish music writers and intellectuals have furiously attacked the composer for just having expressed them. In his essay “Know Thyself,” Wagner writes of the fierce backlash that followed his drawing “notice to the Jews’ inaptitude for taking a productive share in our Art,” which was “met by the utmost indignation of Jews alike and Germans; it became quite dangerous to breathe the word ‘Jew’ with a doubtful accent.”[B9]Richard Wagner, “Know Thyself,” op. cit. Wagner was surprised by the hornet’s nest he had stirred up, and in a letter to the composer Franz Liszt noted that “I seem to have struck home with terrible force, which suits my purpose admirably, since that is precisely the sort of shock that I wanted to give them. For they will always remain our masters—that much is as certain as the fact that it is not our princes who are now our masters, but bankers and philistines.”[B10]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 352.
Wagner’s critique of Jewish influence on German art and culture could not be dismissed as the ravings of an unintelligent and ignorant fool. Richard Wagner was, by common consent, one of the most brilliant human beings to have ever lived, and his views on the Jewish Question were cogent and rational. Accordingly, Jewish critics soon settled on the response of ascribing psychiatric disorders to the composer, and this has been the stock approach ever since. As early as 1872, the German-Jewish psychiatrist Theodor Puschmann offered a psychological assessment of Wagner that was widely reported in the German press. He claimed Wagner was suffering from “chronic megalomania, paranoia … and moral derangement.”[B11]Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany, op. cit. Cesare Lombroso, the famous nineteenth-century Italian-Jewish criminologist, branded Wagner “a sexual psychopath.”[B12]Christopher Nicholson, Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2007) 131.
Later, drawing on this approach, and with the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis and Expressionism in art and music, the habit arose of treating Wagner’s operas as journeys into the inner life of their creator. Scruton observes that:
From the first days of psychoanalysis, Wagner’s works were singled out as both confirming and demanding a psychoanalytic reading. Their super-saturated longing, their cry for redemption through sexual love, their exultation of Women as the vehicle of purity and sacrifice—all these features have naturally suggested, to the psychoanalytic mind, incestuous childhood fantasies, involving a fixation on the mother as wife. Such is the interpretation maintained by [the Jewish psychoanalysts] Max Graf and Otto Rank, both writing in 1911. Thereafter the habit of reading the works in terms of the life became firmly established in the literature.1183
Such interpretations have strongly influenced the discussion of Wagner’s works—“revenge on Wagner” has for some time been “an almost obligatory part of the intellectual’s apprenticeship.” Books like Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s Wagner Androgyne and Joachim Kohler’s Richard Wagner: Last of the Titans continue a now venerable tradition in regarding “anti-Semitism as the meaning and Oedipal confusion as the cause of just about everything the master composed.” Even the respected British musicologist Barry Millington frequently writes “as though anti-Semitism is somewhere near the top of Wagner’s musical and intellectual agenda.”
The denigration of Wagner in the post-World War II era, spearheaded by Jewish musicologists and intellectuals like T.W. Adorno, established the pattern of treating his works as expressions of a deeply pathological personality, where the musicological task at hand was to “analyse them as exhibits in a medical case study, and to create the impression that we can best understand them not for what they say but for what they reveal about their creator.” Adorno condemned Wagner as a symbol of all that was hateful in the culture of nineteenth-century Germany. Scruton notes how Adorno’s criticisms of Wagner were deeply influenced by “the Holocaust and all that it meant concerning the roots of German nationalism.” Wagner’s autobiography is regularly trawled for evidence of psychopathology and “for the proof—however fleeting and arcane—that in this or that respect he was just as ordinary as the rest of us, even though the mind revealed in the book is one of the most extraordinary and comprehensive that has ever existed.”
In 1968, the Jewish writer Robert Gutman published a biography of Wagner (Richard Wagner: the Man, his Mind and his Music) in which he portrayed his subject as a racist, psychopathic, proto-Nazi monster. Gutman’s scholarship was questioned at the time, but this did not prevent his book from becoming a best-seller, and as one source notes: “An entire generation of students has been encouraged to accept Gutman’s caricature of Richard Wagner. Even intelligent people, who have either never read Wagner’s writings or tried to penetrate them and failed … have read Gutman’s book and accepted his opinions as facts.”[B13] The long-time music critic for The New York Times, the Jewish Harold Schonberg, was one of them, describing Wagner in his Lives of the Great Composers as “Amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with gospels of the superman … and the superiority of the German race, he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character.”[B14]Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 268. Likewise, for Jewish music critic David Hurwitz, Wagner was “an obnoxious, jackboot-stomping Nazi pygmy.” He regards Verdi, that other great opera composer of the nineteenth century, as “so overwhelmingly more important and deeper and more emotionally significant and a more finished and talented composer than Wagner could ever aspire to being.”[B15]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ax4N2B4GNs&t=662s According to the composer Thomas Adès, Wagner is more than bad; he is pathologically bad, and his “music grows parasitically … It has a laboratory atmosphere—a sort of fungus.”
Another prominent refrain from Jewish commentators like Jacob Katz, the author of The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner’s Anti-Semitism, is that Wagner’s concern about the Jewish influence on German culture stemmed from his morbid jealousy of all the brilliant Jews around him like Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Heine. Taking up this theme, the music writer David Goldman insists that “Wagner ripped off the scenario for his opera ‘The Flying Dutchman’ from Heine and knocked off Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ overture in the ‘Dutchman’s’ evocation of the sea. Wagner tried to cover his guilty tracks by denouncing Jewish composers he emulated, including Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner was not just a Jew-hater, then, but a backstabbing self-promoter who defamed the Jewish artists he emulated and who (in Meyerbeer’s case) had advanced his career.”[B16]David P. Goldman, “Muted: Performances of Wagner’s music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?” Tablet, August 17, 2011. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/mu.../muted Boroson, writing in the Jewish Standard, likewise claims Wagner’s envy of Meyerbeer’s success “played a pivotal role in Wagner’s suddenly becoming a Jew-hater.”[B17]Warren Boroson, “Richard Wagner—The Devil Who Had Good Tunes,” Jewish Standard, August 7, 2009, 16.
Numerous sources trace Wagner’s anti-Semitism to his perception that a clique of powerful Jews (led by Meyerbeer and Halevy) had thwarted the staging of his Rienzi in Paris, and “at his dependence on money lenders, mostly presumably Jewish, at this time.”[B18]Michael Steen, The Lives and Times of the Great Composers (London: Icon Books, 2005), 464. Carr notes that from early in his career Wagner’s profligacy “put him in hock with moneylenders who were usually Jews.” Already in Magdeburg where he courted his first wife Minna, “he railed at having to deal with the ‘Jewish scum’ because ‘our people’ offered no credit. In Paris he pawned his goods to Jews and did work he felt was menial for, amongst others, Maurice Schlesinger, a Jewish music publisher. Schlesinger’s cash helped ward off starvation but that made the struggling composer feel no better.”[B19]Carr, The Wagner Clan, 83. Magee notes that the two and half years Wagner spent in Paris trying and failing to establish himself was “the worst period of deprivation and humiliation he ever had to suffer.”[B20]Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 26.
Invoking Freud, the Jewish music writer Marc A. Weiner in his Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, claims that: “Wagner’s vehement hatred of Jews was based on a model of projection involving a deep-seated fear of precisely those features within the Self (diminutive stature, nervous demeanor and avarice, as well as lascivious nature) that are projected upon and then recognized and stigmatized in the hated Other.”[B21]Marc A. Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 6. Weiner’s view echoes that of the Jewish psychiatrist Theodore Rubin who views anti-Semitism as a “symbol sickness” that involves envy, low self-esteem and projection of one’s inner conflicts onto a stereotyped other.[B22]Theodore Isaac Rubin, Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind (New York: Barricade, 2011), 12.
All these various theories, where Wagner’s criticism of Jewish influence is made a scapegoat for his own psychological frustrations, vastly overemphasize the irrational sources of prejudice, and effectively serve to clothe Jews in defensive innocence. According to these theories, anti-Jewish statements are never rational but invariably the product of a warped mind, while Jewish critiques of Europeans always have a thoroughly rational basis.
A Self-hating Jew?
Another well-worn theory has it that Wagner may have been part-Jewish, and that his anti-Semitism was his way of dealing this unedifying prospect (a variation of the “self-hating Jew” hypothesis). It is claimed that Wagner’s biological father was not his presumed father, the police registrar Friedrich Wagner who died of typhus shortly after Wagner’s birth, but his stepfather, the successful actor and painter Ludwig Geyer. However, there is no evidence that Geyer had any Jewish roots. In his biography of Wagner, John Chancellor states plainly that he had none, and “He [Geyer] claimed the same sturdy descent as the Wagners. His pedigree also went back to the middle of the seventeenth century and his forefathers were also, for the most part, organists in small Thuringian towns and villages.”[B23]John Chancellor, Wagner (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 6. Magee is even more categorical, stating, “Geyer was not Jewish, and it had never occurred to anyone who knew him to think that he might be. He came from a long line of church musicians; for generations his forebears had been Lutheran cantors and organists in the town of Eisleben. There was nothing Jewish about his appearance that might have misled people who were ignorant of his background.”[B24]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 358.
Chancellor blames Friedrich Nietzsche for first raising the question of Geyer’s possible Jewishness to add extra sting to his charge of illegitimacy, after the philosopher famously fell out with Wagner after years of close friendship. In his 1888 book Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner), Nietzsche claimed that Wagner’s father was Geyer, and made the pun that “Ein Geyer ist beinahe schon ein Adler” (A vulture is almost an eagle)—Geyer also being the German word for a vulture and Adler being a common (but not exclusively) Jewish surname. Magee, while agreeing that Nietzsche undoubtedly intended to rile Wagner with the suggestion of his possible Jewish ancestry, believes Nietzsche’s words also represented a jibe of a quite different kind.
Wagner, a provincial with a regional accent, a lower-middle class family background, and a long personal history of penury, had risen late in life to walk with kings and emperors; and somewhere along the way (strikingly reminiscent of Shakespeare, this, as so often) he allotted himself a coat of arms. This was revealingly (it shows what he thought his descent was), the “Geyer” coat of arms, prominently featuring a vulture against the shield while the kings and emperors would have been displaying their royal or imperial eagles. I think it is more than likely that Nietzsche was being sarcastic about Wagner’s self-promotion to the arms-bearing ranks of society with his “a vulture is almost an eagle.”[B25]Ibid., 360.
(Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 358.)
If, as has been often claimed, Wagner was concerned with denying the possibility that Geyer may have been his father (because of Geyer’s possible Jewish ancestry), why would he have adopted the Geyer coat of arms and insist it be prominently displayed on the cover of his autobiography? This obvious fact did not deter Gutman who contended that Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima tried to outdo each other in their anti-Semitism because they both had Jewish roots to conceal. While offering no proof Geyer was Jewish, Gutman insists that Wagner in his later years discovered letters from Geyer to his mother which led him to suspect that Geyer was his biological father, and that Geyer might have been Jewish. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was, according to Gutman, his way of dealing with the fear that people would think he was Jewish. Derek Strahan recycles this discredited theme, noting that:
Geyer’s affair with Wagner’s mother pre-dated the death of Wagner’s presumed father, Friedrich Wagner, a Police Registrar who was ill at the time young Richard was conceived, and who died six months after his birth. Soon after this, Wagner’s mother Johanna married Ludwig Geyer. Richard Wagner himself was known as Richard Geyer until, at the age of 14, he had his name legally changed to Wagner. Apparently he had taken some abuse at school because of his Jewish-sounding name. Could his later anti-Semitism have been motivated, at least in part, by sensitivity to this abuse, and by a kind of pre-emptive denial to prevent difficulties and suffering arising from prejudice?[B26]Derek Strahan, “Was Wagner Jewish: an old question newly revisited,” Online article, Undated. http://www.revolve.com.au/polemic/wagner.html
According to the only evidence we have on this point (Cosima’s diaries, 26 December 1868) Wagner “did not believe” that Ludwig Geyer was his real father. Cosima did, however, once note a resemblance between Wagner’s son Siegfried and a picture of Geyer.[B27]Quoted in John Deathridge, Wagner: Beyond Good and Evil (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 1. Pursuing the theme that anyone who expresses antipathy toward Jews must be psychologically unhealthy, Solomon draws a parallel between Wagner and Adolf Hitler in that “both feared they had Jewish paternity, which led to fierce denial and destructive hatred.”[B28]Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit. For Magee, these theories, which are now widely entrenched in the Wagner literature, are the “crassest falsehood.” Moreover, “the idea that Geyer might have been Jewish, or even that Wagner thought that he might have been, is pure fabrication, distilled nonsense.”[B29]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 358.
Wagner’s Music Dramas as Coded Anti-Semitism
T.W. Adorno and Wagner biographer Robert Gutman began a modern Jewish intellectual tradition when they proposed that Wagner’s antipathy to Jews was not limited to articles like Judaism in Music, but included hidden anti-Semitic and racist messages embedded in his operas. Numerous Jewish writers have taken up this theme and encouraged audiences to retrospectively read into Wagner’s operas latent signs of anti-Semitism. The gold-loving Nibelung lord Alberich in Siegfried is, for instance, supposedly a symbol of Jewish materialism. Solomon writes that Alberich is clearly “the greedy merchant Jew, who becomes the power-crazed goblin-demon lusting after Aryan maidens, attempting to contaminate their blood, and who sacrifices his lust in order to acquire the gold…”[C1]Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (originally written in 1845), is frequently touted as his most anti-Semitic opera. The character Beckmesser, who is incapable of original work and resorts to stealing the work of others, is said to symbolize the lack of Jewish originality that Wagner highlighted in Judaism in Music. According to Gutman, Beckmesser was modeled after Eduard Hanslick, the powerful half-Jewish music critic who constantly disparaged Wagner. Beckmesser purportedly draws directly on a common fund of nineteenth-century anti-Semitic stereotypes: he shuffles and blinks, is scheming and argumentative, and is not to be trusted. He slinks up the alley behind the night watchman in Act II, and limps and stumbles about the stage in Act III, blinking with embarrassment when Eva turns away from his ingratiating bow at the song contest. Furthermore, when he sings, he wrongly accents certain syllables and sings with disjointed rhythms, parodying the Jewish cantorial style. For British musicologist Barry Millington, the fact that Wagner invested Beckmesser with such traits “is a startling fact that almost of itself provides proof of Wagner’s anti-Semitic intent in Die Meistersinger.”
At the 2017 Bayreuth Festival, Barrie Kosky—the first Jewish director to stage a work at the festival—played up such notions, portraying Beckmesser with stereotypical Jewish features (see the lead photograph). In the production, Kosky embedded the opera’s setting of Nuremberg in the twentieth century as the birthplace of the race laws enacted by the National Socialists, the setting of the NSDAP’s giant torch-lit rallies, and the scene for the postwar show trials of Hitler’s henchmen. Kosky’s “edgy” production won rapturous applause from an audience that included Chancellor Angela Merkel. Spiegel Online called the production “chillingly relevant” in using Wagner’s anti-Semitism to take on “hatred of Jews” in today’s Europe. Die Welt said Wagner’s “toxic ideology” had always been an “elephant in the room” which Kosky had ingeniously opted to make “the actual subject of his staging.”
Like Beckmesser, the characters of Mime in the Ring and Klingsor in Parsifal are also widely identified as Jewish stereotypes, although none of these were actually identified as Jews by Wagner in the libretto. Mime is, for Solomon, depicted by Wagner “as a stinking ghetto Jew” while “Siegfried represents the conscience-free, fearless Teuton, he feels no remorse. … He is glorified as the warrior hero of the Ring, the archetypal proto-Nazi.”[C2]Ibid.
(Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.) Unconcerned at the lack of any real evidence for his thesis, Solomon maintains that virulent racism “permeates all aspects of his music dramas through metaphorical suggestion. Wagner is always just a step away from actually calling his evil characters ‘Jews,’ even though it was obvious to his contemporaries.” He claims that Wagner was too clever to identify Jews in his music dramas, especially after the critical reactions he received to his essay Judaism in Music. “His intent was far more artful and covert, but nevertheless still political: to reach his audience on an emotional, subliminal level, bypassing their critical faculties.” In the final analysis, Wagner’s operas are, for Solomon, “tools of racist, proto-Nazi hate propaganda, written for the purpose of redeeming the German race from Jewish contamination, and for expelling the Jews from Germany.” Moreover, the malign influence of Wagner continues insofar as “the subtext of racist metaphors has not diminished in Wagner’s operas, so they will continue to exert a subliminal influence.”[C3]Ibid.
(Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.)
In his book Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (1997), Marc A. Weiner likewise argued that Wagner deliberately used the characters in his operas to promote his sociological theories of a pure Germany purged of Jewish influence. According to Weiner:
Wagner’s anti-Semitism is integral to an understanding of his mature music dramas. … I have analyzed the corporeal images in his dramatic works against the background of 19th-century racist imagery. By examining such bodily images as the elevated, nasal voice, the “foetor judaicus” (Jewish stench), the hobbling gait, the ashen skin color, and deviant sexuality associated with Jews in the 19th century, it’s become clear to me that the images of Alberich, Mime, and Hagen [in the Ring cycle], Beckmesser [in Die Meistersinger], and Klingsor [in Parsifal], were drawn from stock anti-Semitic clichés of Wagner’s time.[C4]Mourby, “Can we forgive him?,” op. cit.
For Weiner, Wagner’s anti-Semitic caricatures can be readily identified from their manner of speech, their singing, their roles, and their body language. “All of the stereotypical cardboard, cookie-cutter features of a Jew … show up all over the place in his musical dramas.” Under Weiner’s deconstruction of Wagner’s characters it emerges that his Teutonic heroes are “invariably clear-eyed, deep-voiced, straight-featured and sure-footed. The Jewish anti-heroes have dripping eyes, high voices, bent, crooked bodies and a hobbling, awkward step, with these embodied metaphors all serving to reinforce the ideology of racism.”[C5]Quoted in Lisa Norris, “Jewish Dwarfs and Teutonic Gods,” H-Net Reviews, September 1997. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=1318 In response to Weiner’s critique, one is reminded of the aptness of Goldwin Smith’s remark that the “critics of Judaism are accused of bigotry of race, as well as bigotry of religion. This accusation comes strangely from those who style themselves the Chosen People, make race a religion, and treat all races except their own as Gentile and unclean.”[C6]Quoted in MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 56.
Numerous Jewish commentators cite Wagner’s Parsifal, the last of his music dramas, as his most racist opera. Gutman, for example, labels it “a brooding nightmare of Aryan anxiety.” According to Jewish academic Paul Lawrence Rose in his book Wagner, Race and Revolution, Wagner intended Parsifal to be
a profound religious parable about how the whole essence of European humanity had been poisoned by alien, inhuman, Jewish values. It is an allegory of the Judaization of Christianity and of Germany—and of purifying redemption. In place of theological purity, the secularized religion of Parsifal preached the new doctrine of racial purity, which was reflected in the moral, and indeed religious, purity of Parsifal himself. In Wagner’s mind, this redeeming purity was infringed by Jews, just as devils and witches infringed the purity of traditional Christianity. In this scheme, it is axiomatic that compassion and redemption have no application to the inexorably damned Judaized Klingsor and hence the Jews.[C7]Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner, Race and Revolution (Yale University Press, 1998), 166.
This theory sits rather incongruously alongside the fact that when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, Parsifal was condemned as “ideologically unacceptable” and unofficially banned throughout Germany after 1939.[C8]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 366. In his diaries Goebbels dismissed the opera as “too pious.”[C9]Quoted in Carr, The Wagner Clan, 182. If Parsifal truly is the racist opera that Rose alleges, one might have expected it to have been given a place of prominence in the Third Reich.
In Wagner, Race and Revolution, Rose claims the philosophical revolution brought about by Kant in the late eighteenth century was a response to the Jewish Question, with Kant’s transcendental idealism intended as liberation from the shackles of Jewish ways of looking at the world. The corollary of this, for Rose, is that Schopenhauer’s philosophy (with its heavy debt to Kant) is thoroughly infused with anti-Semitism, and, consequently, Wagner’s Schopenhauerian opera Tristan and Isolde is deeply anti-Semitic. Rose proposes that: “Such is the most fundamental anti-Jewish message that underlies the apparently ‘non-social’ and ‘non-realistic’ opera composed in Wagner’s Schopenhauerian phase, Tristan.”[C10]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 373. Magee trenchantly observes that:
We are no longer surprised when he goes on to tell us that “Hatred of Jewishness is the hidden agenda of virtually all the operas.” It is no good Wagner trying to slip this past Professor Rose by making no mention of it: Rose is not to be so easily fooled. … Rose often sees the omission of any mention of Jews or Jewishness as being due to anti-Semitism, and this enables him throughout his book to expose anti-Semitism in undreamt-of places, in fact in all forms of art and ideas that are not either Jewish or about Jews. … Writers like Professor Rose can be endlessly resourceful in arguing that the apparent absence of something is proof of its presence. … Such a procedure is intellectually fraudulent from beginning to end.[C11]Ibid., 373; 377 & 380.
(Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 373.)
Jewish music critics and intellectuals, like those cited above, have enthusiastically seized upon Wagner’s great-grandson Gottfried for having backed their various theories about the inherently anti-Semitic nature of Wagner’s operas, and Wagner’s firm standing as a moral pariah. Gottfried Wagner has made a virtual career out of attacking his ancestors—constantly denouncing his great-grandfather and other family members as evil anti-Semites. In his book The Wagner Legacy, he declares: “Richard Wagner, through his inflammatory and anti-Semitic writings, was co-responsible for the transition from Bayreuth to Auschwitz.”[C12]Gottfried Wagner, The Wagner Legacy: An Autobiography (Sanctuary, 2000), 240. In writing his Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family’s Legacy, Gottfried Wagner had, according to Solomon, “in an act of self-imposed moral obligation and great personal sacrifice, restored to his roots the conscience that Wagner and Hitler took away.”[C13]Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit. Gottfried Wagner appeared at a symposium at the American Jewish University in 2010 where he continued “to set the record straight today. Always on the side of the Jews, he stopped off on Shabbos to mingle with congregants at a local temple.”[C14]Carol Jean Delmar, “Let the Truth be Heard!,” Ring Festival LA Protest Campaign, June 14, 2010. http://ringfestlaprotest.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/g...-2010/
Despite all the claims made about the allegedly anti-Semitic nature of Wagner’s operas, Strahan points out that it is equally possible to point to cultural references in Wagner’s work that are sympathetic to the Jewish place in European culture. For Strahan, “the hero of the early opera The Flying Dutchman is synonymous with the ‘Wandering Jew,’ the Dutchman’s endless journeying analogous to that symbol of the Jewish Diaspora.”[C15]Strahan, “Was Wagner Jewish: an old question newly revisited,” op. cit. Wagner himself referred to his eminently non-Jewish personification of redemption through love, the Flying Dutchman, as an “Ahasverus of the Ocean.” Despite this, Rose argues that Wagner’s making the Wandering Jew a Dutchman was itself an anti-Semitic act, claiming that: “Wagner’s use of this universalized figure of a wanderer has a profoundly anti-Semitic implication; for Wagner’s heroes—and especially the Dutchman—are able to achieve redemption precisely because they are not Jewish.”[C16]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 373.
Wagner explicitly states in Judaism in Music that what makes Jews such unsatisfactory characters in real life also makes them unsuitable for representation in art, including dramatic art. He writes:
In ordinary life the Jew, who as we know possesses a God of his own, strikes us first by his outward appearance which, whatever European nationality we belong to, has something unpleasantly foreign to that nationality. We instinctively feel we have nothing in common with a man who looks like that. … Ignoring the moral aspect of this unpleasant freak of nature, and considering only the aesthetic, we will merely point out that to us this exterior could never be acceptable as a subject for a painting; if a portrait painter has to portray a Jew, he usually takes his model from his imagination, and wisely transforms or else completely omits everything that in real life characterizes the Jew’s appearance. One never sees a Jew on the stage: the exceptions are so rare that they serve to confirm this rule. We can conceive of no character, historical or modern, hero or lover, being played by a Jew, without instinctively feeling the absurdity of such an idea. This is very important: a race whose general appearance we cannot consider suitable for aesthetic purposes is by the same token incapable of any artistic presentation of its nature.[C17]Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. by Bryan Magee, In: Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 375.
In this passage (first published in 1850 and then again unchanged in 1869), Wagner totally rejects the idea of Jews playing characters and characters playing Jews on stage, stating categorically that the Jewish race is “incapable of any artistic presentation of his nature,” and leading into the statement with the words: “This is very important.” Magee notes that here Wagner “positively and actively repudiates the idea of trying to present Jews on the stage; and if we seek an explanation of why he never did so, here we have it.” Wagner would not, contrary to the wishes of many of his friends, have gone out of his way to publish this again in 1869 if, as alleged, he had just done the opposite and made Beckmesser a Jewish character in Die Meistersinger which had premiered the previous year.[C18]Ibid., 375-6.
(Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. by Bryan Magee, In: Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 375.)
Wagner produced thousands of pages of written material analyzing every aspect of himself, his operas, and his views on Jews (as well as many other topics); and yet the purportedly “Jewish” characterizations identified by Adorno, Gutman and countless others are never mentioned—nor are there any references to them in Cosima Wagner’s copious diaries. It can hardly be argued that Wagner was hiding his true feelings for he took great pride in speaking out fearlessly and vociferously on the subject of Jews, and did not worry about offending anyone. None of Wagner’s supposedly obvious characterizations were ever used in the propaganda of the Third Reich. To identify such characters as Beckmesser, Alberich, Mime, Klingsor and Kundry as Jews is, therefore, entirely speculative.
The Jewish pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim makes the point that: “Whoever wants to see a repulsive attack on Jews in Wagner’s operas can of course do so. But is it really justified? Beckmesser, for example, who might be suspected of being a Jewish parody, was a state scribe in the year 1500, a position that was unavailable to Jews.”[C19]Daniel Barenboim, “Wagner, Israel and the Palestinians,” op. cit. Barenboim is also quick to point out that Wagner’s anti-Semitism did not prevent his music from being performed by Jews even after Hitler came to power. In Tel Aviv in 1936, for example, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra—precursor to today’s Israel Philharmonic—performed the prelude to Act 1 and Act 3 of Lohengrin under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. “Nobody had a word to say about it,” Barenboim observes. “Nobody criticised [Toscanini]; the orchestra was very happy to play it.”
Even Nietzsche, who attacked Wagner on numerous occasions for his personal anti-Semitism, never alleged there was anti-Semitism in the operas. Moreover, the audiences that flocked to Wagner’s works all over the world did not seem to perceive their supposedly obvious anti-Semitic subtexts for, as Magee points out, “in the huge literature we have on the subject, unpublished as well as published, the question arises rarely until the middle of the twentieth century.”[C20]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 374. For Magee, a great many writers (especially Jewish writers) are simply “swept forward by the momentum of their own anger” into alleging the omnipresence of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas. “To a number of them it comes easily anyway, for they are adept at finding anti-Semitism in places where no one had detected it before. … At the root of it all is an unforgiving rage at the mega-outrage of anti-Semitism—and at the root of that in the modern world is the Holocaust.”[C21]Ibid., 373; 380.
(Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 374.)
“Sarcasm and Satire Run Riot on the Stage”
Even when not overtly propagandistic like Kosky’s 2017 production of Die Meistersinger or the 2013 Düsseldorf production of Tannhäuser which depicted people dying in gas chambers, productions of Wagner’s operas in the modern era almost invariably seek to satirize the drama in order to subvert the message Wagner attempts to convey. Scruton observes that, notwithstanding the increasingly tiresome preoccupation with dissecting The Ring for anti-Jewish and proto-fascistic themes and images (and counteracting them), Wagner’s celebrated tetralogy is also, on a more basic level, problematic for opera producers because its “world of sacred passions and heroic actions offends against the skeptical and cynical temper of our times. The fault, however, lies not in Wagner’s tetralogy, but in the closed imagination of those who are so often invited to produce it.”1203
The template for modern productions was set with the Bayreuth production of 1976, when Pierre Boulez sanitized the music, and Patrice Chereau satirized the text. Scruton notes that:
Since that ground-breaking venture, The Ring has been regarded as an opportunity to deconstruct not only Wagner but the whole conception of the human condition that glows so warmly in his music. The Ring is deliberately stripped of its legendary atmosphere and primordial setting, and everything is brought down to the quotidian level, jettisoning the mythical aspect of the story, so as to give us only half of what it means. The symbols of cosmic agency—spear, sword, ring—when wielded by scruffy humans on abandoned city lots, appear like toys in the hands of lunatics. The opera-goer will therefore very seldom be granted the full experience of Wagner’s masterpiece.
This certainly describes the Ring I attended in Melbourne in 2016. While the soloists and the orchestra were excellent, the postmodernist, Eurotrash-inspired production detracted from the power of the music and drama. Following established precedent, much of the action was set in a space akin to an industrial wasteland. Siegfried’s heroic forging scene was lampooned by being set it in a tawdry apartment replete with fluorescent lighting, microwave, bar fridge and bunk beds. Fafner (meant to have transformed himself into a dragon) was depicted as a transvestite-like figure smearing make-up on his face and appearing naked on the stage.
Productions like these deliberately sabotage Wagner’s attempt to engage his audiences at the emotional level of religion. They let “sarcasm and satire run riot on the stage, not because they have anything to prove or say in the shadow of this unsurpassably noble music, but because nobility has become intolerable. The producer strives to distract the audience from Wagner’s message, and to mock every heroic gesture, lest the point of the drama should finally come home.”
Wagner and National Socialist Germany
Richard Wagner has long been reviled by Jews as the intellectual and spiritual precursor to Adolf Hitler who, according to William Shirer, once declared: “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.”[D1]William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Random House, 2002), 101. This line is spoken by the Hitler character in the 2008 Hollywood film Valkyrie (the Wagnerian title of the film being taken from the codename for the failed Wehrmacht plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944). For music critic Larry Solomon, no other composer in history had a greater impact on world events than Richard Wagner; and “his devastating political legacy is second only to Adolf Hitler.”[D2]Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit. In his book Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind: A Psychiatrist Explores the Psychodynamics of a Symbol Sickness, Theodore Rubin states that a psychologically sick Adolf Hitler “borrowed from the almost equally sick anti-Semitic Wagner.”[D3]Rubin, Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind, 127. Jewish activist and prolific writer on anti-Semitism, the late Robert Wistrich, likewise proposed that: “Wagner’s essentially racist vision of Jewry would have a profound influence on German and Austrian anti-Semites, including the English born Houston S. Chamberlain, Lanz von Liebenfels, and above all on Adolf Hitler himself.”[D4]Robert S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (London: Thames Mandarin, 1992), 56.
This widely accepted notion of a direct intellectual line of descent from Wagner to Hitler has, however, been challenged by historians like Richard Evans who points out that “the composer’s influence on Hitler has often been exaggerated,” and that while Hitler “admired the composer’s gritty courage in adversity,” he “did not acknowledge any indebtedness to his ideas.”[D5]Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York, Penguin, 2005), 199. Magee likewise maintains that “if one studies the intellectual development of the young Hitler one finds no evidence that he got any of his anti-Semitism from Wagner.”[D6]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 362. While Evans and Magee slightly overstate their case, they are right to attempt to put the issue of Wagner’s influence on Hitler into a more rational perspective.
Wagner’s intellectual influence on Hitler was mainly secondhand through his son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who developed some of Wagner’s ideas in his bestselling 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which did influence Hitler’s ideas on race and the Jewish Question. The man who founded the library at the National Socialist Institute in Munich, Friedrich Krohn, compiled an inventory of the titles borrowed by Hitler between 1919 and 1921. The four page list contains over a hundred entries. Listed alongside Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century is the German translation of Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, and condensations of titles such as Luther and the Jews, Goethe and the Jews, Schopenhauer and the Jews, and Wagner and the Jew. Clearly Hitler had some exposure to Wagner’s anti-Jewish writing.[D7]Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (New York: Vintage, 2010), 50. It is also clear that Hitler read and greatly admired Wagner’s autobiography, and the title of his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was conceivably modeled on Wagner’s Mein Leben (My Life).[D8]Guido Knopp, Hitler’s Women, trans. by Angus McGeoch (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2003) 158. According to German historian Guido Knopp, “It was not just the title, but also one of the key sentences, that Hitler copied from Richard Wagner. Just as the composer has written in Mein Leben: ‘I decided to become a composer,’ so did the prisoner [Hitler] now write: ‘I decided to become a politician.’”[D9]Ibid., 169.
(Guido Knopp, Hitler’s Women, trans. by Angus McGeoch (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2003) 158.)
In his book Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life, Timothy Ryback notes that among the books that found their way into Hitler’s vast private collection was a biography of Wagner by Chamberlain entitled Richard Wagner: The German as Artist, Thinker, Politician.[D10]Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, 134. This book contains only a few minor references to Jews. In 1933, Hitler received a volume entitled Wagner’s Resounding Universe which was inscribed by its author, Walter Engelsmann, to “the steward and shaper of the descendants of Siegfried upon the earth.”[D11]Ibid., 146.
(Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, 134.) Among the books found in the bunker complex after the fall of Berlin in 1945 was a 1913 treatise on Wagner’s Parsifal.[D12]Ibid., 239.
(Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, 134.) Wagner’s ideas clearly exerted some influence on Hitler’s intellectual development. However, just three known volumes on Wagner (with none by Wagner himself) out of an estimated 16,000 books in Hitler’s collection at the time of his death, hardly suggests Wagner’s intellectual influence was “profound.”
There is certainly no evidence to support the extravagant claim of Joachim Fest in his biography of Hitler that: “Wagner’s political writing was Hitler’s favorite reading, and the sprawling pomposity of his style was an unmistakable influence on Hitler’s own grammar and syntax.” Fest even ventured to claim that Wagner’s “political writings together with the operas form the entire framework of Hitler’s ideology,” and that in these he “found the granite foundation for his view of the world.”[D13]Joachim Fest, Hitler (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 56. This assessment of Wagner’s influence on Hitler is utterly rejected by Jonathan Carr in his 2007 book The Wagner Clan. Carr makes the point that:
If Wagner’s works really were “the exact spiritual forerunner” of Nazism, surely the Fuhrer of all people would have drummed that point home ad infinitum. But one looks to him in vain not only for fascist interpretations of the music dramas but, stranger still, for direct references to the theoretical writings. There is, indeed, surprisingly little evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s prose works, though he evidently did borrow some from a library before he rose to power and the wording of some of his speeches indicates that he imbibed at least Das Judentum in der Musik. Why then did he not use the Master more clearly as an ally, especially in his anti-Semitic cause? In Mein Kampf, for instance, he notes that his early hostility to Jews owed much to the example set by Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna. He also praises Goethe for acting according to the spirit of “blood and reason” in treating “the Jew” as a foreign element. He pays no similar tribute to the Master, indeed he only mentions Wagner by name once in the whole book (although he refers elsewhere to the “Master” of Bayreuth).[D14]Carr, The Wagner Clan, 187.
In one of three brief references to Wagner in Mein Kampf, Hitler reflects on his early experiences attending Wagner’s operas: “I was captivated. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no limits. Again and again I was drawn to hear his operas, and today it still seems to me a great piece of luck that these modest productions in a little provincial city prepared the way and made it possible for me to appreciate the better productions later on.”[D15]Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. by James Murphy (Bottom of the Hill, 2010), 23. Among the “great men” in history that Hitler singled out in Mein Kampf were Luther, Frederick the Great, and Wagner. He praised Wagner as a “combination of theoretician, organizer, and leader in one person” which he regarded as “the rarest phenomenon of this earth. And it is that union which produces the great man.”[D16]Ibid., 488.
(Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. by James Murphy (Bottom of the Hill, 2010), 23.)
Despite the paucity of evidence for Wagner having exercised the high level of intellectual influence on Hitler that is widely alleged, for the Jewish music writer David Goldman, Wagner’s name is eminently worthy of execration on the basis that he “mixed the compost heap in which the flowers of the twentieth century’s greatest evil took root.” According to Goldman:
The Nazis embraced Wagner not by accident or opportunism but because they recognized in him the cultural trailblazer of the world they set out to rule. … Wagner may not have been the only anti-Semite among the composers of the 19th century, nor even the worst, but he did more than anyone else to mold the culture in which Nazism flourished. The Jewish people have had no enemy more dedicated and more dangerous, precisely because of his enormous talent. In a Jewish state, the public has a right to ask Jewish musicians to be Jews first and musicians second. With reluctance, and in cognizance of all the ambiguities, I think the Israelis are right to silence him. [Goldman here refers to the unofficial ban on performances of Wagner’s music in Israel][D17]David Goldman, “Muted: Performances of Wagner’s music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?” op. cit.
For Goldman, Hitler’s intellectual debt to Wagner and the “proto-Nazi” nature of Wagner’s musical dramas are unambiguous. Magee questions the idea that Wagner’s works inherently support National Socialist notions of heroism, and notes that Wagner’s last opera Parsifal (frequently cited as Wagner’s most “racist” opera) was denounced by the regime in 1933 for being “ideologically unacceptable” and was not performed at Bayreuth during the war.[D18]Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 366. Moreover, while Wagner’s music and operas were frequently performed during the Third Reich, his popularity in Germany actually declined in favor of Italian composers like Verdi and Puccini. In the theatrical year in which Hitler came to power, 1932–33, there were 1,837 separate performances of operas by Wagner in Germany. The number of performances then went steadily down until, by 1939–40, they were less than two-thirds of that figure, 1,154.[D19]Ibid., 365.
(Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 366.) Evans notes that by the 1938–39 opera season, Wagner had only one opera in the top fifteen most popular operas of the season, with the list being headed by Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.[D20]Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 201.
It is well known that the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance prior to their evacuation from Berlin in April 1945 was of a scene from the conclusion to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to an audience that included Speer, Dönitz and Goebbels. Likewise, when the Reich Radio announced Hitler’s death, the funeral march from Götterdämmerung was played. With these events in mind, Wagner’s music has been used in countless Third Reich documentaries—in the process consolidating the misleading impression that Wagner’s music was uniquely bound up with the cultural politics of the National Socialist state.
It is clear that the supposed National Socialist fascination with Wagner, to the extent it genuinely existed, was mostly Hitler’s inspiration. Hitler’s boyhood friend, August Kubizek, noted in his book The Young Hitler I Knew that what made the young Hitler so receptive to Wagner’s operas was not the composer’s political outlook, but rather Hitler’s own “constant, intensive preoccupation with the heroes of German mythology,” and Wagner’s ability to translate “his boyish dreams into poetry and music” which satisfied “his longing for the sublime world of the German past.”[D21]August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), 84. Kubizek writes that, “listening to Wagner meant to him not a simple visit to the theater, but the opportunity of being transported into that extraordinary state which Wagner’s music produced in him, that trance, that escape into a mystical dream-world which he needed in order to sustain the enormous tension of his turbulent nature.”[D22]Ibid.
(August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), 84.)
Kubizek describes the time they first went to a Wagner opera—Rienzi, an early work by Wagner that established him as a composer. “We were shattered by the death of Rienzi,” he writes of that fateful evening in 1906, “and although Hitler would usually begin to talk immediately after being moved by an artistic experience, and to voice sharp criticism of the performance, on this occasion Adolf remained silent for a long time.” Rienzi was a Roman who rose to be tribune of the people but was then betrayed and died within the ruins of the Capitol. Kubizek described how his friend suddenly announced with “grand and thrilling images,” how he would lead the German people “out of servitude to the heights of freedom.”[D23]Ibid., 118.
(August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), 84.) According to Kubizek, Hitler’s decision to become a politician “was seized in that hour on the heights above the city of Linz,” when “in a state of complete ecstasy and rapture,” he transferred the character of Rienzi “to the plane of his own ambitions.”[D24]Ibid., 116-8.
(August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), 84.) Describing that fateful night to Winifred Wagner in 1939, Kubizek claims that Hitler solemnly declared “In that hour it began!”[D25]Ibid., 118-9.
(August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), 84.)
Hitler heard Tristan and Isolde at least thirty or forty times during the Vienna phase of his life. At one stage, he even wrote a brief sketch for a Wagner-style opera entitled Wieland the Smith. Gretl Mitlstrasser, the woman who managed the daily running of the Berghof “recounted numerous stories of Hitler’s private ‘communing’ on the property… when he held late-night vigils on the Berghof balcony, watching the Untersberg bathed in moonlight; when he let the ethereal strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin fill his study as he watched the jagged cliffs peek through the enfolding mists.”[D26]Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, 176. Hitler had a bust of Wagner by Arno Breker in his private quarters, and in his table talk once claimed that “when I listen to Wagner I hear the rhythms of a bygone world.”[D27]Nicholson, Richard and Adolf, 21.
In the 1920s, Hitler became a friend of Wagner’s children and grandchildren, and particularly of his English-born daughter-in-law Winifred, who joined the NSDAP in 1926, and who proposed marriage to him. She later wrote that “the bond between us was purely human and personal, an intimate bond founded on our reverence and love for Richard Wagner.”[D28]Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 152. In the summer of 1933 she found that hundreds of foreign ticket reservations for that year’s Bayreuth Festival had been cancelled, threatening its financial viability. Lieselotte Schmidt, a close friend of Winifred, noted at the time that “we have been frozen into isolation. The hate campaign against Bayreuth, which is at root of purely Jewish origin, stops at nothing in its lies and unpleasantness.” When the matter came to Hitler’s attention, he summoned Winifred to Berlin, and Schmidt noted that: “She flew there, and within a quarter of an hour we had the necessary help—and how!” The festival was made exempt from all taxes during the Third Reich, and Hitler donated 50,000 Reichsmarks of his own money for each new production.[D29]Ibid., 181.
(Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 152.)
Evans points out that Hitler’s personal patronage meant that “neither Goebbels nor Rosenberg nor any of the other cultural politicians of the Third Reich could bring Bayreuth under their aegis.”[D30]Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 200. Winifred Wagner and the managers of the Festival were “granted an unusual degree of cultural autonomy” by Hitler, and Knopp states that “It is a fact that even the Bayreuth productions during the Nazi era hardly display any evidence of distortion for propaganda reasons.”[D31]Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 189. Hitler was a regular guest at the Bayreuth festivals between 1933 and 1939, and on his fiftieth birthday Winifred arranged for him to be presented with the manuscript draft to Wagner’s Rienzi and original scores of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, as well as a sketch for Götterdämmerung.[D32]Ibid., 193.
(Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 189.)
When considering Wagner’s posthumous relationship with the National Socialists, we need to draw a clear distinction between Hitler as an individual and the Third Reich as a regime. Magee is careful to do so:
It was not the case that the Nazi regime in general was devoted to Wagner, or did anything to promote his works. Many people nowadays write and talk as if Wagner provided a sort of sound-track to the Third Reich, and that on organized party occasions there was always, or usually, Wagner. This conception has become a cliché on film and television, where it is usual for any depiction of the Nazis to be literally accompanied by Wagner’s music, for preference at its most brassy and bombastic, as in the Ride of the Valkyries or the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, and played very loud. The whole picture that this conjures up, and is meant to conjure up, is false.
Supporting this thesis, Evans maintains that there was a “lack of interest” in Wagner “on the part of almost everyone in the Party leadership except Hitler himself.”[D33]Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 201. In 1933, Hitler ordered that each Nuremberg Rally would open with a performance of Die Meistersinger, although these performances were very unpopular with other Party functionaries who had be ordered to attend. Evans notes that when Hitler “entered his box he found the theater almost empty; the party men had all chosen to go off to drink the evening away at the town’s numerous beer halls and cafes rather than spend five hours listening to classical music. Furious, Hitler sent out patrols to order them out of their drinking-dens, but even this could not fill the theater. The next year was no better. … After this Hitler gave up and the seats were sold to the public instead.”[D34]Ibid.
(Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 201.)
While Joseph Goebbels seems to have shared some of Hitler’s affinity with Wagner, and often visited Bayreuth, his diaries reveal no special insights into Wagner’s works or ideas, and nor do his public speeches. He praised Die Meistersinger as “the incarnation of all that is German.” It contained everything “that defines and fulfills the cultural soul of Germany.”[D35]Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 184. The 1933 Bayreuth Festival was opened by Goebbels with the words: “There is probably no work so close in spirit to our age and its intellectual and psychological tensions as Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. How often in recent years has its rousing chorus, ‘Wacht auf, es nahet gen dem Tag’ (Awake for morn approaches), echoed the faith and longing of Germans, as a tangible symbol of the reawakening of the German people from the deep political and spiritual slumber coma of 1918.”[D36]Ibid., 182.
(Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 184.)
Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, and later also his armaments minister, was another Bayreuth regular, ostensibly motivated more by duty than genuine interest. He notes in his memoirs that Hitler often discussed Wagner with Winifred and seemed to know what he was talking about. Evidently Speer did not know enough to be sure.[D37]Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 184. For the leading ideologist of the party, Alfred Rosenberg, the real National Socialist musical model was Beethoven who “took fate by the throat and acknowledged force as the highest morality of man. … Whoever understands the essence of our movement knows that there is a drive in us all like that which Beethoven embodied to the highest degree.” While he also believed Wagner embodied the strength of the “Nordic soul,” Rosenberg criticized the composer’s Gesamtkunstwerk approach, noting that “the inner harmony between word content and physical content is often hindered by the music. … An attempt to wed these forces destroys spiritual rhythm and prevents emotive expression.”[D38]Ibid.
(Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 184.)
Rosenberg was certainly not alone in his view. The general manager at Bayreuth during the Third Reich, Hans Tietjen, made the point after the war that “In reality, the leading party officials throughout the Reich were hostile to Wagner. … The party tolerated Hitler’s Wagner enthusiasm, but fought, openly or covertly, those who, like me, were devoted to his works—the people around Rosenberg openly, those around Goebbels covertly.”[D39]Quoted in Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 366. Aside from the hostility to Wagner grounded in aesthetics and ideology, Carr makes a more general point:
The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner. There is nothing very odd about that. Lots of people past and present who may well have a certain interest in other music will run a mile to escape a seemingly interminable evening with the Master. Too few tunes, too many scenes in which people stand about for ages apparently doing nothing much. The point is only worth stressing here because the Nazis are reputed to have had a special affinity to Wagner’s music. The evidence suggests this was simply not so.[D40]Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 184.
It has been sometimes alleged that Wagner’s music provided a “soundtrack to the Holocaust” and was played at concentration camps during wartime. The German historian Guido Fackler claims that Wagner’s music was sometimes used at the Dachau concentration camp in 1933 and 1934 to “reeducate” political prisoners through the beneficial exposure to nationalistic music.[D41]Guido Fackler, “Music in Concentration Camps 1933-1945,” trans. by Peter Logan, Music & Politics, Undated. http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics...r.html There is, however, no documentary evidence supporting claims that Wagner’s music was used in this way during the war. Larry David mocked this urban legend (and the unhealthy Jewish obsession with Wagner) in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where he is rebuked by a Jewish stranger for whistling a Wagner tune in the street.[D42]To view this scene see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nS66Ivbvc
The ethno-political motivation that underpins the construction of Richard Wagner as moral pariah is exemplified by the contrasting way that Jewish commentators have reflected on the life and legacy of the Jewish composer Hanns Eisler who once declared Wagner to be “a great composer, unfortunately.” A committed Marxist, Eisler began in 1930 a long-standing collaboration with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. With Hitler’s ascent to power, Eisler left Germany and eventually settled in Hollywood, where he was nominated for Oscars for writing the music for the films Hangmen Also Die (1942) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944). In 1947, Eisler appeared before the Un-American Activities Committee, and despite the intercession of Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, was deported to East Germany in 1948 where he remained for the rest of his life, writing music for the totalitarian state (including its national anthem, and the Comintern anthem). Eisler collaborated with T.W. Adorno in 1947 to produce the book Composing for the Films. Instead of reproaching Eisler for his ardent commitment to a regime and ideology that destroyed millions of lives, Jewish commentators invariably portray him as the innocent victim of the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich, and then of the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood blacklist.
The Jewish-dominated intellectual and media elite eagerly invoke Wagner’s life and legacy as a salutary lesson in the evils of anti-Semitism and White nationalism. Constructing Wagner as moral pariah allows the composer and his works to be constantly used as a springboard for intensive reflections on “the Holocaust,” the evils of white racial feeling, and the moral necessity of state-sponsored multiculturalism and mass non-White immigration to the West. Only these policies, after all, will ensure that Wagner’s “morally loathsome” intellectual legacy (which amounts to a proposal for a European group strategy in opposition to Judaism) can never again find a receptive White audience—by progressively doing away with White people altogether.
In the meantime, the construction of Wagner as an anti-Semitic exemplar and moral pariah ensures the composer, whose achievement far surpasses that of any Jewish composer, can never become a locus of White racial pride and group cohesion. Richard Wagner has been a particular target for Jewish denigration because of his strong and unashamed ethnic and racial identification, and for his willingness to publicly oppose Jewish influence. This, together with his status as one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that the world has ever seen, endows him with rich potential to re-emerge as a rallying point for White Nationalists. The rebirth of a strong sense of racial feeling among White people will be greatly aided by reclaiming cultural heroes like Richard Wagner from the manufactured taint of moral censure that distorts their popular remembrance.
[A1] William Berger, Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love—and Even Enjoy—Opera’s Most Demanding Genius (New York, Viking, 1998), 373.
[A2] Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 56.
[A3] Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 195.
[A4] Adrian Mourby, “Can we forgive him?,” The Guardian, July 21, 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,3605,345459,00.html
[A5] Kevin MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (1st Books Library, 2004), 60.
[A6] Richard Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 3 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 79-100. http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/JudaismInMusic.pdf
[A8] Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2001), 349.
[A9] Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit.
[A10] MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 184.
[A11] Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit.
[A12] Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 27.
[A13] Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan (London: Faber and Faber, 2007) 83-4.
[A14] David Rodwin, “Wagner Was Right: Eclecticism and the Jewish Aesthetic,” (Los Angeles: 2011). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkfGEqo3YjQ Separation and its Discontents, 98.< [A16] Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 24.
[A17] Paul Lawrence Rose, German Question/Jewish Question: Revolutionary Anti-Semitism from Kant to Wagner (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992) 360.
[A18] Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit.
[A19] Richard Wagner, letter of April 1851 trans. by W. Ashton Ellis, In: Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt 1841-1853, (London: 1897; repr. 1973), 145.
[A20] Richard Wagner, “What is German?” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 4 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 151-69. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagwiger.htm
[A21] Ibid. (Italics in the original)
[A22] Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 376.
[A23] Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” op. cit.
[A24] Quoted in MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 52.
[A25] Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 75.
[A26] Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 372.
[A27] Roger Scruton, Modern Culture (London: Continuum, 2000), 69.
[A28] Richard Wagner, “A Communication to my Friends,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 1 (London: 1895; repr. 1966), 269-392. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagcomm.htm
[A29] Elisabeth Whitcombe, “Adorno as Critic: Celebrating the Socially Destructive Force of Music,” The Occidental Observer, August 28, 2009. http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2009/08/adorno-as-critic/
[A30] Scruton, Modern Culture, 69.
[A31] Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” Ibid.
[A32] MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 165.
[A33] Richard Wagner, “Some Explanations Concerning ‘Judaism in Music,’” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 3 (London: 1894; repr. 1966), 77-122. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagjuda2.htm
[A34] Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2005), 33.
[A35] Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 377-8.
[B1] Richard Wagner, “Religion and Art,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 211-52. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wlpr0126.htm
[B2] Richard Wagner, “Hero-dom and Christianity,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 275-84. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/waghero.htm
[B3] Richard Wagner, “Know Thyself,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 264-74. http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagknow.htm
[B4] Quoted in Paul Lawrence Rose, German Question/Jewish Question, 361.
[B6] MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 57.
[B7] Ibid., 54.
[B9] Richard Wagner, “Know Thyself,” op. cit.
[B10] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 352.
[B11] Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany, op. cit.
[B12] Christopher Nicholson, Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2007) 131.
[B14] Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 268.
[B16] David P. Goldman, “Muted: Performances of Wagner’s music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?” Tablet, August 17, 2011. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/music/75247/muted
[B17] Warren Boroson, “Richard Wagner—The Devil Who Had Good Tunes,” Jewish Standard, August 7, 2009, 16.
[B18] Michael Steen, The Lives and Times of the Great Composers (London: Icon Books, 2005), 464.
[B19] Carr, The Wagner Clan, 83.
[B20] Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 26.
[B21] Marc A. Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 6.
[B22] Theodore Isaac Rubin, Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind (New York: Barricade, 2011), 12.
[B23] John Chancellor, Wagner (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 6.
[B24] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 358.
[B25] Ibid., 360.
[B27] Quoted in John Deathridge, Wagner: Beyond Good and Evil (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 1.
[B28] Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.
[B29] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 358.
[C1] Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.
[C4] Mourby, “Can we forgive him?,” op. cit.
[C6] Quoted in MacDonald, Separation and its Discontents, 56.
[C7] Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner, Race and Revolution (Yale University Press, 1998), 166.
[C8] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 366.
[C9] Quoted in Carr, The Wagner Clan, 182.
[C10] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 373.
[C11] Ibid., 373; 377 & 380.
[C12] Gottfried Wagner, The Wagner Legacy: An Autobiography (Sanctuary, 2000), 240.
[C13] Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.
[C14] Carol Jean Delmar, “Let the Truth be Heard!,” Ring Festival LA Protest Campaign, June 14, 2010. http://ringfestlaprotest.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/gottfried-wagner-at-the-american-jewish-university-june-6-2010/
[C15] Strahan, “Was Wagner Jewish: an old question newly revisited,” op. cit.
[C16] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 373.
[C17] Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. by Bryan Magee, In: Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 375.
[C18] Ibid., 375-6.
[C19] Daniel Barenboim, “Wagner, Israel and the Palestinians,” op. cit.
[C20] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 374.
[C21] Ibid., 373; 380.
[D1] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Random House, 2002), 101.
[D2] Solomon, “Wagner and Hitler,” op. cit.
[D3] Rubin, Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind, 127.
[D4] Robert S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (London: Thames Mandarin, 1992), 56.
[D5] Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York, Penguin, 2005), 199.
[D6] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 362.
[D7] Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (New York: Vintage, 2010), 50.
[D8] Guido Knopp, Hitler’s Women, trans. by Angus McGeoch (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2003) 158.
[D9] Ibid., 169.
[D10] Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, 134.
[D11] Ibid., 146.
[D12] Ibid., 239.
[D13] Joachim Fest, Hitler (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 56.
[D14] Carr, The Wagner Clan, 187.
[D15] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. by James Murphy (Bottom of the Hill, 2010), 23.
[D16] Ibid., 488.
[D17] David Goldman, “Muted: Performances of Wagner’s music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?” op. cit.
[D18] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 366.
[D19] Ibid., 365.
[D20] Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 201.
[D21] August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), 84.
[D23] Ibid., 118.
[D24] Ibid., 116-8.
[D25] Ibid., 118-9.
[D26] Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, 176.
[D27] Nicholson, Richard and Adolf, 21.
[D28] Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 152.
[D29] Ibid., 181.
[D30] Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 200.
[D31] Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 189.
[D32] Ibid., 193.
[D33] Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 201.
[D35] Knopp, Hitler’s Women, 184.
[D36] Ibid., 182.
[D37] Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 184.
[D39] Quoted in Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 366.
[D40] Jonathan Carr, The Wagner Clan, 184.
[D41] Guido Fackler, “Music in Concentration Camps 1933-1945,” trans. by Peter Logan, Music & Politics, Undated. http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics/archive/2007-1/fackler.html