Richard Wagner’s Jewish Problem—and Everybody Else’s

March 4 2021

Alex Ross’s recent book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is not so much a study of the great composer himself, but of the various ways he has influenced, and been understood by, his interpreters, admirers, and critics—a group that includes Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, and Adolf Hitler. In his review, Nathan Shields writes:

At the turn of the century, [Wagner] was idolized by both the decadent Italian novelist (and future proto-fascist politician) Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. Three decades later, his music introduced the Nuremberg Rallies.

It is this last Wagner that we know best, or think we do. He has gone down in popular history as a raging anti-Semite (true) and Hitler’s favorite composer (not entirely true); his music is thought to have provided the soundtrack for the death camps (in fact, it was mostly light waltzes and operetta). Wagner’s role in the iconography of German imperialism was real enough. When Paul von Hindenburg, [the German generalissimo who lost World War I and later made Hitler chancellor of Germany], claimed Germany was stabbed in the back by the treaty of Versailles, he was invoking Siegfried’s assassination by the villainous half-breed Hagen [in Wagner’s Ring cycle]. And when Hitler died, Siegfried’s funeral march was played to commemorate him.

But Wagner was less popular in Nazi Germany than this might suggest, and his appeal was more complex. For one thing, Hitler’s Wagnermania was not shared by rank-and-file Nazis, who scalped the opera tickets he gave them. Besides, Siegfried’s funeral march had first been played to mark Lenin’s death. In 1933, at the dawn of the Third Reich, Thomas Mann could still find in Wagner the spirit of a very different Germany than Hitler’s. Wagner’s real meaning, Mann insisted, was “entirely revolutionary.” He would “assuredly be branded a Kultur-Bolshevist today.”

Since the Second World War, there has been endless discussion about whether Wagner’s highly public art, alongside his equally public statements of bigotry, influenced or prefigured the rise of 20th-century fascism. There are several traditional positions, best understood as points along a continuum. [One] could be called the Wagner-to-Hitler-pipeline theory, which casts Wagner as an ideological prophet of Nazism. . . . For [others], Wagner’s music floats majestically free of his ideology. “Richard Wagner, I hate you,” as Leonard Bernstein famously put it. “But I hate you on my knees.”

Read more at Baffler

More about: Anti-Semitism, Music, Nazism, Richard Wagner, Theodor Herzl

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad