Friday, July 09, 2010

Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi

(This is a sequel to my previous post Suppose Wagner Had Been a Jew)

When Richard Wagner and his Ring of the Nibelungs is discussed these days (as it has been repeatedly in Los Angeles because of L.A. Opera's production and county-wide Ring Festival) there is an elephant in the room.   Wagner fans do not want to talk about that elephant.  The elephant is Adolf Hitler.


Hitler, who was inspired to dictatorship by Wagner's opera Rienzi, who failed in his attempt to write a Wagnerian opera, who carried Wagner scores in his backpack during World War I, who began Nazi rallies with Wagner's music, who ordered his officers to attend Wagner operas, who sent wounded soldiers to the Bayreuth Festival for spiritual recovery, who was a groupie of Wagner's family and used that connection as a legitimization of his own right to power over Germany,  said:

Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.
Conversely, whoever wants to understand Wagner must confront Hitler's negative influence over the composer's legacy.  This legacy takes two forms: musical and political.  Wagner wrote both operas and essays.

Even today Hitler exerts real and pernicious influence over our views about Wagner.  At least it should.  Some people try to forget that these two guys are linked together in hell for all eternity.

We must never forget that the destruction which Hitler brought to Europe, and to the Jews, stains Wagner's memory and artistic creations.  Hitler used Wagner in a way which no other composer has ever been used.  In this respect Wagner is unique.  When Wagner is performed or discussed, Hitler must be mentioned. 

Here's a picture of Adolf dedicating a German national monument to Wagner on March 6, 1934 in Leipzig. The little kid in uniform is a nice touch.  Hermann Goebbels, on the right, looks bored.  Not all Nazis liked Wagner but all Nazis did what Hitler told them to do.  He told them to listen to Wagner.


At the mention of Hitler, fans of Wagner's music bristle and quickly respond with stock, pre-scripted disclaimers intended to absolve Wagner.

They say "Wagner died before Hitler was born."  True enough.  Today we need to remember not only the effect Wagner had on Hitler, but also how Hitler influenced the general perception of Wagner, as a person, as a writer, as a musician.  To make the point yet again: the important issue is remembering how Hitler used Wagner to further hatred and destruction.

They say "Some of Wagner's best friends were Jewish." Equally accurate.  Of course Wagner tried to convert those Jewish friends to Christianity.  That was not friendly.  Later, Nazis used Wagner's vile essay about Jewishness In Music as a study text for school children.  Nothing that the Nazis did to the Jews was friendly.

They say "There are no specific references to Jews or anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas."  I tend to agree.  Others have pointed out anti-Semitism in the operas.  In his writings -- the second pillar of Wagner's patrimony -- there is a great deal of anti-Semitism which should make us sensitive to even the most obscure anti-Semitic reference in the operas.  And with certain audiences, such as those during Wagner's or Hitler's lifetimes when anti-Semitism was rife, even an obscure reference would have been enough to make a strong anti-Semitic point.

They say "Lots of other famous artists were anti-Semitic."  Again, this is correct.  Those other artists did not repeatedly author essays of political hatred to accompany their art and did not inspire insane military dictators.  Wagner is an exclusive case in that he was influential both as composer and as political commentator.  It is improper to excuse Wagner because of our feelings about other artists.

They say "Wagner is not responsible for the Jewish Holocaust."   Of course Wagner was not directly responsible for the Holocaust.  Even Hitler never issued a written order to kill all the Jews.  However, Wagner was one of many foot soldiers in the long crusade of hostility which ended with an entire supposedly civilized European nation simply winking as their government murdered millions of innocent people.  All German anti-Semites who lived before 1945 bear some responsibility for the Holocaust, if only indirectly.  Wagner, through his written suggestions that the Jews should be gotten rid of, deserves a larger share than many others.

They say "The Nazis chose only those ideas of Wagner with which they agreed and ignored the rest."  And I say "How is that different from what you do?"  We all interpret Wagner's writings and music so that they best support our personal opinions and aesthetics.  The Nazis did it and now both supporters and detractors of Wagner do it. 

They say "We love Wagner's music so much that we don't care about all the bad stuff."  And I say "That could be a problem for you."  Ignoring the facts is not a good life strategy.

They say "You can't tell me what not to listen to."  You're right, I can't.  And I won't because censorship is bad.  What I am telling you is that there are lots of required program notes to read before you decide to listen to Wagner.  One important topic in those notes is how and why the Nazis censored music.

They say "We can separate the man from the music."  To which I respond "Living with your head in the sand is a bad way to listen to music."

They say "Wagner's music is about universal themes of love and redemption."   If you say so.  I doubt it matters.  In any case Wagner does not hold a monopoly over that subject.  You might try searching out some other artworks on the same theme.  Maybe attend a movie.   Movies love love and redemption.

Here's a picture of Hitler kissing Winifred Wagner's hand at Bayreuth.  Were they lovers or redeemers?


They say "Wagner would have not supported National Socialism."

Over 35 years passed between Wagner's death and the creation of the Nazi party so of course there's no way Wagner could have formally supported it. But I suspect Wagner would have joined the party if it had been around early enough.   Wagner liked attention.  The Nazis, especially the most important Nazi, Hitler, paid lots of attention to Wagner.

Some in Wagner's family actively supported Hitler.  This is most especially true of his daughter-in-law Winifred, who might have slept with Hitler, and his son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who joined the party and wrote extensively in support of it.  Hitler visited Chamberlain on his deathbed. Maybe he attended Chamberlain's funeral - I've read both.   Wagner's grandson Wolfgang, who went on to run Bayreuth, was a Nazi officer.

To be fair, Wagner's granddaughter Friedelind (in the hat) supported the Allies during World War II by helping create a psychological profile of Hitler.  And Wagner's great-grandson Gottfried has been excommunicated from the family for suggesting that they come clean about their connections to Hitler.  I suspect lots of juicy details are still secret.


Let's do an easy thought experiment about the importance of Richard Wagner's failure to support National Socialism.  Ask yourself: how would history have changed if Wagner had in fact joined the Nazi party?

This thought experiment involves the use of alternative history, similar to what I did in my last post Suppose Wagner Had Been a Jew.  Alternative History means positing a slight revamping of actual events and then asking how history would have been changed because of it. 

The alterations I'm suggesting are small.   We must only move the founding of the Nazi party several decades earlier so Richard Wagner can formally join during his last years.   The party would likely remain a fringe crackpot group until after World War I when the loss of the war, political strife and economic disaster allowed them to seize control of Germany.  As a Nazi member Wagner, both famous and controversial, would have given the party much higher standing.

Meanwhile, the philosophical bases of Nazism were already in place during Wagner's life and some were well known to him.  For example, Arthur de Gobineau wrote about racial theory and strongly influenced the Nazis.   Gobineau met with Wagner.  As the Rush Limbaugh of his time Wagner wrote a positive essay about Gobineau.  Wagner's future son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose writings would also strongly affect Nazi attitudes, attended Bayreuth the year before Wagner died.  It is not unreasonable to assume that he met Wagner and that they talked politics.

But who would have been a plausible founder of the Nazi party?   Many people around Wagner could have done the job.  Even his wife Cosima.  She was quite the anti-Semite.  There were many German politicians who we could pick. 

I have a different suggestion based less rigidly on history.  My candidate is more volkish than any politician.  I think that the original founder of the National Socialist party in the early 1880s should have been Hitler's father Alois.  He wasn't really a politician but, judging by his picture, he certainly looks like a demagogue.  So much so that Adolf Hitler might have gotten his oratorical style via heredity.   Once Alois passes on, Adolf would rise to become "leader" in place of his father - like another Kim Jong-Il.

 (Here's a picture of Alois Hitler, fun guy.)


Once Adolf Hitler himself assumes leadership of the Nazis it doesn't matter much whether the party has already existed forty years or one year.   Either way Hitler would still claim that the best way to understand his politics is to understand Wagner.  His statement was true then and it's true today.

So save yourself the trouble of denying that Richard Wagner would have supported National Socialism.  It's a moot question.  It doesn't matter whether Wagner would have joined the Nazis and worn a red swastika on his arm.  Things would turn out very badly either way.

Today in 2010 Los Angeles, now that cheering for the Ring has stopped and Placido Domingo has flown to his next gig, and even in the future after the Opera's deficit is paid off, the responsibility to remember the victims of Wagner's greatest fan will remain.  It is too soon to forget so great an evil.  Remembering Nazi history should remain an essential duty for anyone who chooses to listen to Wagner.

Adoring Wagner does not allow you to ignore Hitler. 



Here's an interesting essay about Wagner's role in late 19th-century German anti-semitism.

The pictures of the Wagner monument dedication and of Wini with Wolf came from YadVashem.org photo archive

Wagner with an Asterisk: a Mixed Meters post suggesting a simple method Los Angeles Opera could have used to make the Wagner-Hitler connection obvious to everyone.

Hitler was mostly called just "Der F├╝hrer", the leader.  Here's a list of Kim Jong-il's titles.  Very amusing.

The picture of the elephant wearing a swastika comes from here. It may not be a Nazi elephant, only an Aryan one.

Before the LA Opera Ring performances, Rabbi Harold Shulweis wrote this article suggesting that Wagner's music be heard and Wagner's writings be read

Here's a fun comment by Elise, a fan of Wagner.


Love and Redemption Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

3 comments:

Monte Stone said...

Do you have a source for your claim that Hitler carried Wagner scores in his backpack during WWI?

David Ocker said...

Monte, yes I do. It's from The Twisted Muse, Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich, by Michael H. Kater (fascinating book). Page 36: "As a Bavarian soldier during World War I, Hitler would keep the piano score of Tristan in his knapsack as others kept their Nietzsche."

This is the opening sentence in a long paragraph detailing Wagner's influences on Hitler for which Kater gives a single footnote that lists 5 different books (including Mein Kampf) all in German. I have no idea which one contains the reference to the backpack, but you could check those out.

Monte Stone said...

I have that book. I'll check it out. Thanks.