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

March 4, 2021 | Nathan Shields
About the author: Nathan Shields, a composer whose works have been performed by various orchestras and chamber ensembles, is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He earned his doctorate at the Juilliard School in New York, and has received fellowships from Tanglewood and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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.”

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