Another Tack: Free to love Wagner

Wagner's extreme hatred of Jews: what does it mean for Israelis and Jews today?

August 5, 2011 16:21
Wagner's grandsons with Hitler.

Wagner's grandsons with Hitler.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Negligible reports tucked away below the fold of forgotten inside pages oftentimes signify much more than the scant attention accorded them. So it was with news that the Israel Chamber Orchestra played Wagner in Germany at the Bayreuth Festival dedicated to his veneration. This perhaps constituted the greatest break yet of Israel’s unofficial, socially accepted taboo on public performances of Richard Wagner’s music (as distinct from listening in private).

Nonetheless, easygoing apathy greeted a story that yesteryear would have instigated riots. Classical music is anyhow the preserve of shrinking clusters of cultural aesthetes, once numerous and influential in our midst. Today, they’re judged esoteric and hardly anyone cares.

Moreover, several false premises paint Wagner aversion as ludicrous and outdated. Wagner’s music, we’re told, shouldn’t suffer because Hitler appropriated it. The composer, after all, died half a century before the Third Reich.

Another premise is that our loathing for Wagner is insular and generation-based. Hear ICO chairwoman Erela Talmi: “The atmosphere has changed, and those people who were at the concentration camps are either weaker or no longer with us, and those who voiced their [anti-Wagner] opinions are only a few and it’s hard for them to be heard now.”

Subtext: The dead and dying survivors’ eccentricities sprang from exaggerated, no-longer-relevant emotionalism. Presumably we’re now free to love Wagner.

New outlooks signify the enlightenment of the new postmodern Israeli, fashionably unfettered by unpleasant Jewish history.

The vogue today is altogether to downplay anti-Semitism and view Israel-bashing as just deserts for the Jewish state’s policies. Indeed, post-Holocaust political correctness spawns cleverly camouflaged anti-Semitism – not less dangerous, but less in-your-face. No such sanctimonious constraints prevailed prewar, not even among the artistic elite, whom some of us misguidedly credit with a higher moral stature.

A cursory cyber-search will yield a nauseating bounty of gut-churning Jew-revulsion by a veritable pantheon of cultural icons. Most of us would be knocked for a loop to discover who contributed to it.

Yet we don’t blacklist the output of T.S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, H.G. Wells, Pushkin, Rodin, Renoir, Cezanne, Liszt, Brahms and many other cult giants, just because they viscerally abhorred the likes of us. It was bon ton in their milieu. We can separate their art from their odious pronouncements.

Wagner’s sinister underside, though, sets him far apart from the garden-variety creative anti-Semite, who merely did the acceptable thing when vilifying Jews with virulence that would send today’s incredulous Israelis reeling.

Unlike his contemporaries, Wagner literally put his money where his mouth was. He was consciously and actively Judeophobia’s standard-bearer. He avidly financed and abetted Jew-hating societies in mid-19thcentury Germany, and fervently propagated the thennew racial anti-Semitism.

He was a leader, not a follower.

He attracted and took under his wing Europe’s most obnoxious anti-Semites, rescuing them from oblivion by publishing and disseminating their repulsive theories. He gave them resonance and respectability.

The list of his protégés is long and loathsome.

History would have largely overlooked French aristocrat Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau had he not sought Wagner out in 1876, and with good reason. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was legend by then. Wagner’s 1850 treatise, Judaism in Music, rendered him the Judeophobes’ idol. His thesis was that while Jewish lucre lubricates European culture, racially inferior Jews are unoriginal, incapable of innovation.

Wagner’s patronage made Gobineau the guru of Aryan-supremacy adherents, while Gobineau’s concepts fueled Wagner’s own relentless anti-Jewish crusade. The collaboration earned Gobineau renown in Germany and spread his fame back to France.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, another Wagner groupie, combined Gobineau’s Aryan supremacy with his own notions of Jewish inferiority. This concoction made Chamberlain the preeminent progenitor of Nazi ideology. He married Wagner’s daughter Eva and eventually became Hitler’s personal mentor.

The direct line from Wagner to Hitler isn’t incidental. Wagner preached long and loud that Jews are intrinsically incorrigible. Conversion and assimilation only enable their bad seed to contaminate pure Germans.

His logical conclusion was that the one final solution was annihilation. In 1881, Wagner cheered Czarist pogroms by asserting that the Russians were doing “what’s left to be done. Their laudable action genuinely expresses the people’s power.”

The ultimate remedy, Wagner insisted, would come when “the Jews are finished off, when there are no more Jews.”

The people, he wrote, “instinctively and justifiably hate the Jew. His personality and essence are repugnant… Judaism is rotten to the core. Anti-Semitism is a natural reaction.”

Wagner reserved particular venom for urbane Jews, dubbing them “civilized Jews” and “parasitic Jews.” He wrote that “plutocratic Jews are the most heartless of all humanoids. I see in the Jew the innate enemy of everything noble in man. He can only be demanding, coveting and cunning.”

The outstanding proponent of “the renascent Germanic spirit,” Wagner regarded Jewish pluralistic liberalism as Germanism’s inherently inimical antithesis. He therefore advocated that Jews be physically exterminated.

Hitler knew whereof he spoke when he maintained that “anyone who wishes to understand National- Socialist Germany must study Wagner.”

That’s why Wagner was boycotted here since 1938 – before the Holocaust. This transcends Hitler’s patronage of Bayreuth’s festival, images of frenzied Bayreuth crowds saluting their fuehrer, or Hitler’s abiding chumminess with Wagner’s British daughter-in-law, zealous Nazi Winifred (son Siegfried’s wife), who presided over the festival.

Germany’s American occupiers banned the festival until 1951, when Winifred’s sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, revived it.

From 1933, celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini refused to appear in Bayreuth and never returned – not even postwar. He, however, conducted the inaugural concerts of the fledgling Palestine Symphony Orchestra, later renamed the Israel Philharmonic. That ensemble starred many Jewish talents banned by Hitler. Sadly their torchbearers haven’t the refugee virtuosi’s resolve and tenacity, to say nothing of Toscanini’s strength of character.

They fail to grasp that the issue extends far beyond obscure concerns and goes to the core of our Jewish solidarity, to our disappearing reserves of collective pride, to the ethos of our national rebirth, to our ability to hold on to principle, not to sell out, not to hanker after false accolades and alluring international popularity.

Imagine a prestigious state-sponsored visual arts extravaganza whose pretentious promoters provocatively propose exhibiting Hitler’s paintings. Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that the fuehrer wasn’t merely a mediocre dilettante. It’s not outrageously inconceivable. Creative genius doesn’t preclude the hideous. Would we still countenance a Hitler retrospective?

Highly unlikely. Hitler, most would agree, is a special case. He was no ordinary run-of-the-mill anti-Semite of the sort we’ve always tolerated – like Degas, Kipling or Chopin.

Would our attitude to Degas’s delicate ballerinas remain unaffected if these pastels had been drawn by Hitler? What if Goebbels had penned The Jungle Book? Would there be no second thoughts if Eichmann had composed the Barcarole in F sharp?

Wagner is likewise a special case, incontrovertibly in the above malignant monster league. Refusing to pay him public homage at our concert halls isn’t about memories of his tunes accompanying condemned Jews to the gas chambers. It’s not the pet peeve of an elderly, dwindling sector of our population. Wagner aspired to see us all dead.

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