Wagner, Hitler and Anti-Semitism

Ralph Glasgal,

[April 2002.]

The recent criticism of Daniel Barenboim after a performance of Wagner’s music in Israel shows that this controversy is still very much alive. It does seem quite likely that some five million Jews and countless others died to achieve Hitler’s and Wagner’s jointly shared ideal of a world united in its admiration for Wagner’s ethic and art.

While Wagner’s place in musical history is undisputed, his extraordinary, if unwitting, influence on world events is not fully appreciated. In his own lifetime, Richard Wagner’s operas so obsessed the Bavarian King Ludwig that he summoned Wagner to his side immediately upon his accession to the throne. Even after Wagner’s personal excesses and scandalous affairs alienated the bulk of Bavarian officialdom, King Ludwig, still mesmerized, continued his generous, if necessarily surreptitious, support. The Wagner motifs found in all of Ludwig’s castles, including a large excavated grotto with a lake and swan boat, are testimony to the zealous devotion Wagner did and still does inspire in susceptible individuals.

Although the root causes of Hitler’s many prejudices can never be definitively established, the world has intuitively sensed that some sort of relationship existed between the mentor Wagner and the disciple Hitler. That Hitler was fascinated by all things Wagnerian is not difficult to document. Even before coming to power, Hitler was already paying court to Winifred and Cosima Wagner at Bayreuth. Hitler lost little time insinuating himself into the Wahnfried household and often stayed overnight with the Wagners in the 1930s.

In an interview taped in England shortly before her death, Winifred, who was Wagner’s English daughter-in-law, described at great length Hitler’s frequent visits with her and how respectful, and even affectionate, he was with her and Wagner’s grandchildren. Her comments suggest that in Hitler’s mind the Wagners were his real family.

Winifred has portrayed a man who, while not a passionate or critical listener to all forms of classical music, was nevertheless a “thoroughly modern major Wagnerite who could whistle all the tunes from that infernal nonsense Parsifal.” (Actually, in his last years he took a fancy to Franz Lehár.) To Hitler, Bayreuth was sacrosanct and he shielded it from unpleasant realities. Winifred claimed to have successfully interceded directly with Hitler to save the jobs and lives of Jewish members of the Bayreuth Festival, and it is well documented that Bayreuth personnel were exempted from military service. Indeed, Hitler was very upset when Winifred insisted that opera performances finally cease because of insuperable wartime difficulties and the inappropriateness of singing while the Reich burned.

Hitler’s obsession was as strong as King Ludwig’s. But it was expressed in despotism and anti-Semitism rather than in playacting, homosexuality, and castle-decorating. A reading of Cosima Wagner’s diaries shows that any individual or group who did not enthusiastically embrace Wagner’s music was branded as unworthy, contemptible, and probably Jewish. The despised ones included not only real and imagined Jews, but Parisians, Swiss opera impresarios, and hostile music critics. From the diaries and many of Wagner’s own published diatribes, one could make a case that anyone who expressed any doubt as to the perfection of Wagner’s talent, or who stinted in his financial support of the artist, was subject to being characterized as an inferior being, i.e., a Semite.

The genesis of Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism appears to be in his belief that those whose support for Wagner’s cause was less than absolute were justifiable candidates for extermination or enslavement. Thus Hitler set out as best he could to make the European world safe for Wagnerism by first eliminating German anti-Wagner elements, and then those rival artistic cultures such as the Jewish and Slavic, that seemed the most antithetical to Wagnerian ideals.

Because Wagner liked the English, and the Englishwoman Winifred resembled the ideal Wagnerian heroine in appearance, Hitler expressed admiration and even a fondness for Great Britain and especially Ireland, which, after all, was the home of Tristan. Indeed, the invasion of Britain was constantly postponed by Hitler personally for no convincing military reason. Hitler (and Wagner) appeared to have little interest in obliterating black, Oriental, Moslem, or Indian cultures, because their arts, histories and opinions were too far removed from Wagner’s to be relevant or reviled. Wagner’s and Hitler’s obsession was primarily to get at least the Germanic, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon and Latin races irrevocably committed to the Wagnerian cause.

I leave it to professional historians to perfect or disprove the thesis that the seductive power of Wagner’s all-encompassing works of art led directly to the Holocaust and a world war. But Wagnerian rapture has already ensnared two Germanic rulers, and this consuming passion endures and continues to enthrall some people just as strongly as it repels others. The Wagnerian controversy does not endure just in Israel; Wagner’s aesthetic has been a subject of debate for over a century now, with music lovers, conductors, singers, authors, and politicians as polarized today as they were during Wagner’s own lifetime.

The risk the ongoing availability of Wagner’s music and writing poses is that one more deranged despot will come to power inspired to install yet another version of the Wagnerian agenda in the world. I would say that this particular risk is now vanishingly small in our MP-3, multicultural century.


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