The year 2013 marks the bicentennial of Richard Wagner’s birth. Once every several years, the debate ensues in Israel over whether or not this composer’s music should be performed publicly. The last attempt occurred when the Wagner Society in Israel declared it was about to offer a full symphonic concert of works by the composer in Tel Aviv, under the name “A Musical-academic Session: Herzl – Toscanini – Wagner.” This attempt, as was the case with many previous attempts, did not succeed.
After 200 years why does this composer still cause such intense feelings? The main reasons behind resistance to Wagner’s music are the contribution of his writings to the development of modern anti-Semitism, and his influence on Nazi racial ideology, as well as his family’s connections to Hitler. Usually, however, arguments dealing with the ban on Wagner’s work and its influence pervert historical and ideological context, and therefore lose quite a bit of validity and reliability.
Hitler: "Wagner is god, his music my religion. I go to opera as others go to church.”
In order to properly examine the connection between Wagner and Hitler, it is imperative to create order in the time line. Wagner died 50 years before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. However, I argue there is evidence to support the claim that Wagner’s anti-Semitism affected Hitler through indirect channels. What’s more, his anti-Semitism was his own, not due to the influence of others.
The first channel is Franz Liszt, the well-known composer of the Romantic period. Liszt, who was a defender and close friend of Wagner, later became his father-in-law.
Besides being one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of all time, Liszt was notorious for his fierce anti-Semitism, expressed in his book The Gypsies and their Music in Hungary.
Liszt’s daughter, Cosima von Bülow, left her husband, Hans von Bülow, one of the great conductors of the 19th century and a famous composer in his own right, for Wagner, who was married to another woman at the time. Cosima had a dual role; she preserved her father’s legacy through his writing and, following the death of her second husband, managed the hall built in honor of Wagner in the city of Bayreuth, where the annual festival honoring the composer’s creations takes place until this day. Some say Wagner’s anti- Semitism paled in comparison to Cosima’s anti-Semitism, which expressed itself in her promotion, preservation and publication of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings.
Another aspect relates to two figures, the first being Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau. Gobineau’s An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races was a founding document for modern “scientific” racism and anti-Semitism, Hitler’s included. Could it be that both were influenced by this book? The book presented a qualitative ranking of human races, placing the Aryan race at the top.
Two possibilities exist as to when the first meeting between Wagner and Gobineau took place. The first maintains that this meeting took place in 1880, before Wagner read the book (which he did a few months later). The second maintains that the meeting took place in 1876. There’s no doubt that Wagner first published his essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (“Judaism in Music”) in 1850, under the pseudonym K. Freigedenk, or “K. Free-Thought.” (The article was published again in 1869 following the deaths of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, the main Jewish composers slandered by Wagner, and this time his work was published under his real name.)
His alias is quite ironic in light of the fact that he chose anonymity because of his lower musical standing in that period, which denied him the freedom to slander musicians, such as Felix Mendelssohn, who were better known than he. Thus, the year Wagner’s essay was published precedes any possible meeting between Wagner and De Gobineau or his work, first published in 1854.
This detail establishes Wagner as an anti-Semite possessing his own racist views that are not directly dependent upon the writings of Gobineau.
Another personality in the ideological branch connecting Wagner to Hitler is the strange case of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a British man who chose to adopt German culture as his religion. His book, The Foundations of the 19th Century was known to have had a great effect upon Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg, ideologist of the Nazi Party.
This book examines the development of the peoples of Europe, while contemplating how it is possible that while nations rose and fell, empires collapsed, and countries were destroyed, the Jewish people continued to exist in a similar manner for thousands of years.
Chamberlain’s claim is that in order to preserve its eternal existence, the Jew must use the resources of the populations in which he lives, while depleting their sources of vitality. Another argument, in line with Wagner’s claim in his Judaism in Music, is that the Jew is inherently endowed with a lack of creative imagination and limited production capability; therefore his resources are directed to undermining the foundations of the master race. Based on these arguments, Hitler dubbed Chamberlain “the prophet of the Third Reich.”
Chamberlain was not only an ideological anti-Semite whose writings helped consolidate Nazi ideology, but also Richard Wagner’s son-in-law; Wagner’s daughter, Eva, married Chamberlain in 1908.
In 1882, after attending the festival in Bayreuth, Chamberlain corresponded with Cosima via letters and, later, became an enthusiastic admirer of Wagner and his anti-Semitic writings. It was not long before Chamberlain produced a biography of Wagner that interprets and preserves Wagner’s anti-Semitic doctrine.
Chamberlain’s works tailored the national atmosphere spreading throughout Germany in 1914 and after.
When the Wagner Festival was held in 1924 in post-WWI Bayreuth, the swastika was already raised (in the presence of General Erich Ludendorff, the brain behind the Beerhouse Putsch) above the impressive opera building that was founded to glorify the name and legacy of Wagner.
To sum up: While Wagner did not directly cause Hitler’s anti-Semitism, it is undoubted that his social circles, that of Liszt, his wife Cosima, his son-in-law Chamberlain and his acquaintance Gobineau, were important and influential members in the new, “scientific” anti-Semitism of the 19th century, which directly influenced Hitler and the Nazis. What’s more, it is clear that Wagner was not merely a passive recipient of their theories, but actively added to them in his own writings, independently of their work.
One of the main approaches advocating permitting the public playing of Wagner’s music in Israel claims that Wagner’s contribution to consolidating Nazi ideology was marginal and, besides, his views were discarded when the extent of their influence was exposed by the technocrats of Nazi Germany.
It seems that the approach embracing these claims – the marginality of Wagner’s contribution and the fact that after it was satisfactorily understood Wagner’s music was abandoned – is doubly deceiving. Perhaps the advocates of this approach are unaware of Hitler’s proclamation in Mein Kampf that “My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no bounds”; or of the fact that the shrine at Wagner’s Bayreuth was called “the Olympus of German art,” and that the Third Reich, according to Hitler, had its foundations in the German myths of Wagner’s works.
Personality vs. Art
Besides all this, this approach holds that since Hitler apparently abandoned his blind admiration of Wagner and of everything he represented when Wagner’s hostile writings were no longer in line with Nazi ideology, we must rethink the extent of Wagner’s influence over the consolidation of Hitler’s views and alleviate the criticism of Wagner himself.
This claim by advocates of playing Wagner’s music leads us to the focal point of another claim, that there must be a separation between a man’s personality and his art. This view may be applied to a different situation, but within the scope of the discussion at hand: Would it occur to the advocates of this claim to request the performance of Reinhard Heydrich’s musical interpretation of Beethoven? Would the fact that he was a musical avant-garde in violin create a separation between his image as a talented violinist and his image as “the Butcher of Prague”?
What is the future of the ban on Wagner? “Despite what the Israel Festival believes, there are people sitting in the audience for whom Wagner does not spark Nazi associations. I respect those for whom these associations are oppressive. It will be democratic to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it. I am turning to you now and asking whether I can play Wagner.”
Wagner’s anti-Semitism was not incidental to his music, but part of its raison d’etre.
These were the words of conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim in Jerusalem in 2001. Despite Barenboim’s suggestion, it seems listening to Wagner’s music is not the primary reason for the controversy and the escalating emotions, but rather the actual performance of Wagner’s music at public and communal institutions in the State of Israel.
Quite apart from Wagner’s anti-Semitic writing, his music, as mentioned above, was adulated and revered in the Third Reich. While this in itself is not enough to ban him, one needs to remember that Wagner was adored partly because he himself saw his music, and his followers saw his music, as the culmination of everything that is good and holy in music – and in particular, everything that is not Jewish.
If it is discovered that, say, Beethoven or Mozart disliked Jews (as many at the time did), this would not be a reason to ban them since they hardly set their music as an antithesis for “Jewish music.” In Wagner’s case, however, his anti-Semitism was not incidental to his worldview or to his music, but part of its raison d’etre.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine