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.”

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Baffler

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

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform