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Wagner’s Anti-Semitism

Wagner’s Anti-Semitism

Not your garden-variety Jew hater.


There is little doubt that the great German composer Richard Wagner was one of the most virulent anti-Semites in modern history as well as being Adolf Hitler’s most revered cultural role-model. Nor can it be seriously disputed that his music arouses the most painful associations in many Holocaust survivors still living in Israel.

Hence, admirers of Wagner’s music, despite their strenuous efforts to separate the man and his racist beliefs from the sublimity of his art, have never been entirely successful in shaking off the indelible taint of Nazism and the death camps attached (rightly or wrongly) to his name.

At first sight, this might seem unfair given that Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago (May 22, 1813) and died 50 years before Hitler came to power in Germany. Not only that, but Wagner was far from being the only leading European composer or prominent artist of his time to exhibit antipathy toward Jews. One thinks of Liszt and Chopin or painters like Degas and Renoir, not to mention renowned writers such as Dostoevsky.

Moreover, Theodor Herzl, the visionary founder of the Jewish State, was himself powerfully impressed by Wagner’s creations precisely at the time he laid the conceptual basis for political Zionism.

Richard Wagner, anti-semiteSo, what is it about Wagner’s attitude to the Jews, or his music and personality, that can explain the deep resistance to public rendition of his works in Israel? And is it, in fact, correct to see in Wagner a kind of proto-Nazi before his time? Or should we be more forgiving along with Thomas Mann (a passionate Wagnerian who became an astute critic of the Master)? What, indeed, we might ask, would modern music be without Wagner’s aesthetic revolution, his universal artwork (Gesammtkunstwerk) of the future, his dramatic expressiveness or masterful merging of text and music? Even the legendary Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein had to admit: “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees.”

The Wagner debate is not an easy one to resolve, least of all at a time of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe. Already in his notorious early tract Jewry in Music (1850), Wagner had identified the Jews as “the plastic demon of the decline of mankind” – decadent symbols of the corrupt, money-making new world that the composer loathed.

In 1881, he wrote to his infatuated patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria: “I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it.” Wagner even suggested that he was “the last German who knows how to hold himself upright in the face of Jewry, which already rules everything.” No wonder that the young Adolf Hitler could see in Wagner a true soul-mate and remained to the end a fanatical worshipper of his boyhood idol.

What the two shared, however, was far more than simply visceral Jew-hatred. Hitler was enchanted by the ecstatic appeal of the great Wagnerian themes of heroic sacrifice and betrayal, redemption and death, the restored world of Germanic myths, of titanic passions and the twilight of the gods. Hitler, like so many Wagner addicts, felt transported by Wagner’s music into a mystical trance, plunged into a mesmeric spectacle of heroic beings like Rienzi, Tannhäuser or Siegfried who appeared to challenge the established bourgeois order; or ascetic saviors like Lohengrin and Parsifal come to redeem a corrupt and degenerate world. In Hitler’s twisted imagination, Parsifal was ultimately a drama about “blood purity” and racial regeneration: a distortion perhaps, but these ideas certainly preoccupied Wagner in his last years.

There is also a sense in which Hitler may indeed have seen himself as the political consummator of Wagner’s artistic genius and the Nazi Reich which he founded as a grandiose fulfillment of the Wagnerian Gesammtkunstwerk. Purging Germany (and Europe) of its Jews fit perfectly into this broader world-view oriented towards “racial cleansing.”

It might, of course, be objected that Wagner can hardly be held responsible for the monstrous way in which the Nazis implemented some parts of his vision half a century later. Moreover, many Wagnerians – then and now – were utterly remote from Nazism. Indeed, some were self-proclaimed humanists, socialists, feminists, vegetarians and free-thinkers.

Nevertheless, there were perceptive critics such as the German philosopher Nietzsche, who divined as early as 1888 the possible consequences of the Wagner-cult at Bayreuth. Nietzsche (a former admirer himself) shrilly denounced Wagner’s art as diseased, narcotic, morbid, hysterical and brutal. His scathing portrait of Wagner as a master of hypnotic trickery, a neurotic tyrant with an actor’s genius, an incomparable histrionic personality – seems at some points to uncannily prefigure Hitler.

It is also worth noting in this anniversary year that it was Nietzsche’s break with Wagner that finally freed him from the incubus of Bayreuth’s anti-Semitic tradition. Nietzsche himself was of course used and abused by the Nazis, no less than Wagner. Nevertheless, there was an important difference. The manipulation of Wagner’s legacy in the Third Reich really had solid roots in the art and ideology of the “master of Bayreuth.

May 25, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 39

(25) Clabbogadringham, November 28, 2017 6:43 AM

By the 19th century, there had been so much racial mixing between Jews and Germans for centuries that it was very hard to separate Jews and Germans from each other as distinct entities. Wagner himself exhibits very strong Jewish traits, especially in the way that he hated Jews, for he hated Jews as only a Jew can. Wagner also evinced a desperate need to distance himself from Jews as if he were aware of his own Jewishness and was at great pains to deny it by declaring war on Jewish characteristics in chapter and verse. In view of which, it would not be surprising for a Jew-hater to hate Wagner for acting like a Jew.

(24) Mike, November 25, 2014 3:11 PM

It's character that counts.

My uncle (may he rest in piece) refused to drive a Ford car his whole life. It didn't matter that Henry Ford was long dead or that his built great cars. It didn't matter that Henry Ford was famous or much beloved for his contribution to the American economy. What mattered was Henry Ford's flawed character. Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite. In Uncle Bernie's eyes, Ford's hatred of Jews rendered his accomplishments meaningless. I believe that the same standards can be applied to Wagner. He wrote great music, but he was filled with hate. My Uncle drove all kinds of cars, including roadsters and sports cars. He never missed driving a Ford car. There are plenty options available for those who love music. Nobody needs Wagner.

(23) Anonymous, December 1, 2013 8:02 PM

Why not boycott Mendelssohn's music, while you're at it?

I'm more disgusted by Felix Mendelssohn, whose parents refused to circumcise their son, converted the family to Christianity, and changed the family name to "Mendelssohn-Bartholdy." Felix married a Christian minister's daughter. His grandfather was Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn, the so-called "Father of the Reform Movement," who caused as much of a holocaust as Hitler that continues to today. But no one talks about boycotting Felix Mendelssohn's music.

(22) Saul, December 1, 2013 12:23 PM

Twain on Wagner

Mark Twain had ir right: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Clabbogadringham, December 1, 2017 5:40 AM

Sanitized Music

Most of it is a dead bore, and it is fully as bad as it sounds. There is a self-consciously washed, sanitized, antiseptic, sterilized quality to Wagner's music that reflects the composer's fanatical determination to debarras it of everything emotional that might identify it with Judaïsm. Most of it sounds like a little boy playing with his toy fire engines.

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