Wagner's grandsons with Hitler..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The year 2013 marks the bicentennial of Richard Wagner’s birth. Once every
several years, the debate ensues in Israel over whether or not this composer’s
music should be performed publicly. The last attempt occurred when the Wagner
Society in Israel declared it was about to offer a full symphonic concert of
works by the composer in Tel Aviv, under the name “A musical-academic session:
Herzl – Toscanini – Wagner.” This attempt, as was the case with many previous
attempts, did not succeed. Why is it, then, that after 200 years this composer
still causes such intense feelings? The main reasons behind resistance to
Wagner’s music are the contribution of his writings to the development of modern
anti-Semitism, and his influence on Nazi racial ideology, as well as his
family’s connections to Hitler. Usually, however, arguments dealing with the ban
on Wagner’s work and its influence pervert historical and ideological context,
and therefore lose quite a bit of validity and reliability.
So, in order
to properly examine the connection between Wagner and Hitler, it is imperative
to create order in the time line. Wagner died 50 years before Hitler’s rise to
power in 1933. However, I argue there is evidence to support the claim that
Wagner’s anti-Semitism affected Hitler through indirect channels. What’s more,
his anti-Semitism was his own, not due to the influence of others.
first channel is Franz Liszt, the well known composer of the Romantic period.
Liszt, who was a defender and close friend of Wagner, later became his
Besides being one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of all
time, Liszt was notorious for his fierce anti-Semitism, expressed in his book
The Gypsies and their Music in Hungary.
Liszt’s daughter, Cosima von
Bülow, left her husband, Hans von Bülow, one of the great conductors of the 19th
century and a famous composer in his own right, for Wagner, who was married to
another woman at the time. Cosima, therefore, had a dual role; she preserved her
father’s legacy through his writing and, following the death of her second
husband, managed the hall built in honor of Wagner in the city of Bayreuth,
where the annual festival honoring the composer’s creations takes place until
this day. Some say Wagner’s anti- Semitism paled in comparison to Cosima’s
anti-Semitism, which expressed itself in her promotion, preservation and
publication of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings.
Another aspect relates to
two figures, the first being Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau. Gobineau’s An
Essay on the Inequality of Human Races was a founding document for modern
“scientific” racism and anti-Semitism, Hitler’s included. Could it be that both
were influenced by this book? The book presented a qualitative ranking of human
races, placing the Aryan race at the top.
Two possibilities exist as to
when the first meeting between Wagner and Gobineau took place. The first
maintains that this meeting took place in 1880, before Wagner read the book
(which he did a few months later). The second maintains that the meeting took
place in 1876. There’s no doubt that Wagner first published his essay Das
Judenthum in der Musik (“Judaism in Music”) in 1850, under the pseudonym K.
Freigedenk, or “K. Free-Thought” (the article was published again in 1869
following the deaths of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, the main Jewish composers
slandered by Wagner, and this time his work was published under his real
His alias is quite ironic in light of the fact that he chose
anonymity because of his lower musical standing in that period, which denied him
the freedom to slander musicians, such as Felix Mendelssohn, who were better
known than he. Thus, the year Wagner’s essay was published precedes any possible
meeting between Wagner and De Gobineau or his work, first published in
This detail establishes Wagner as an anti-Semite possessing his own
racist views that are not directly dependent upon the writings of
ANOTHER PERSONALITY in the ideological branch connecting Wagner
to Hitler is the strange case of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a British man who
chose to adopt German culture as his religion. His book, The Foundations of the
19th Century was known to have had a great effect upon Hitler and Alfred
Rosenberg, ideologist of the Nazi Party.
This book examines the
development of the peoples of Europe, while contemplating how it is possible
that while nations rose and fell, empires collapsed, and countries were
destroyed, the Jewish people continued to exist in a similar manner for
thousands of years.
Chamberlain’s claim is that in order to preserve its
eternal existence, the Jew must use the resources of the populations in which he
lives, while depleting their sources of vitality. Another argument, in line with
Wagner’s claim in his Judaism in Music, is that the Jew is inherently endowed
with a lack of creative imagination and limited production capability; therefore
his resources are directed to undermining the foundations of the master race.
Based on these arguments, Hitler dubbed Chamberlain “the prophet of the Third
Chamberlain was not only an ideological anti-Semite whose
writings helped consolidate Nazi ideology, but also Richard Wagner’s son-in-law;
Wagner’s daughter, Eva, married Chamberlain in 1908.
In 1882, after
attending the festival in Bayreuth, Chamberlain corresponded with Cosima via
letters and, later, became an enthusiastic admirer of Wagner and his
anti-Semitic writings. It was not long before Chamberlain produced a biography
of Wagner that interprets and preserves Wagner’s anti-Semitic
Chamberlain’s works tailored the national atmosphere spreading
throughout Germany in 1914 and after.
When the Wagner Festival was held
in 1924 in post- WWI Bayreuth, the swastika was already raised (in the presence
of General Erich Ludendorff, the brain behind the Beerhouse Putsch) above the
impressive opera building that was founded to glorify the name and legacy of
To sum up: While Wagner did not directly cause Hitler’s
anti-Semitism, it is undoubted that his social circles, that of Liszt, his wife
Cosima, his son-in-law Chamberlain and his acquaintance Gobineau, were important
and influential members in the new, “scientific” anti-Semitism of the 19th
century, which directly influenced Hitler and the Nazis. What’s more, it is
clear that Wagner was not merely a passive recipient of their theories, but
actively added to them in his own writings, independently of their
One of the main approaches advocating permitting the public playing
of Wagner’s music in Israel claims that Wagner’s contribution to consolidating
Nazi ideology was marginal and, besides, his views were discarded when the
extent of their influence was exposed by the technocrats of Nazi
It seems that the approach embracing these claims – the
marginality of Wagner’s contribution and the fact that after it was
satisfactorily understood Wagner’s music was abandoned – is doubly deceiving.
Perhaps the advocates of this approach are unaware of Hitler’s proclamation in
Mein Kampf that “My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no bounds”;
or of the fact that the shrine at Wagner’s Bayreuth was called “the Olympus of
German art,” and that the Third Reich, according to Hitler, had its foundations
in the German myths of Wagner’s works.
But besides all this, this
approach holds that since Hitler apparently abandoned his blind admiration of
Wagner and of everything he represented when Wagner’s hostile writings were no
longer in line with Nazi ideology, we must rethink the extent of Wagner’s
influence over the consolidation of Hitler’s views and alleviate the criticism
of Wagner himself.
This claim by advocates of playing Wagner’s music
leads us to the focal point of another claim, that there must be a separation
between a man’s personality and his art. This view may be applied to a different
situation, but within the scope of the discussion at hand: Would it occur to the
advocates of this claim to request the performance of Reinhard Heydrich’s
musical interpretation of Beethoven? Would the fact that he was a musical
avant-garde in violin create a separation between his image as a talented
violinist and his image as “the Butcher of Prague”? SO WHAT is the future of the
ban on Wagner? “Despite what the Israel Festival believes, there are people
sitting in the audience for whom Wagner does not spark Nazi associations. I
respect those for whom these associations are oppressive. It will be democratic
to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it. I am turning to you now
and asking whether I can play Wagner.”
These were the words of conductor
and pianist Daniel Barenboim in Jerusalem in 2001. Despite Barenboim’s
suggestion, it seems listening to Wagner’s music is not the primary reason for
the controversy and the escalating emotions, but rather the actual performance
of Wagner’s music at public and communal institutions in the State of
Quite apart from Wagner’s anti-Semitic writing, his music, as
mentioned above, was adulated and revered in the Third Reich. While this in
itself is not enough to ban him, one needs to remember that Wagner was adored
partly because he himself saw his music, and his followers saw his music, as the
culmination of everything that is good and holy in music – and in particular,
everything that is not Jewish.
If it is discovered that, say, Beethoven
or Mozart disliked Jews (as many at the time did), this would not be a reason to
ban them since they hardly set their music as an antithesis for “Jewish music.”
In Wagner’s case, however, his anti-Semitism was not incidental to his worldview
or to his music, but part of its raison d’etre.
The author is a jurist
and conducts research in business law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
He writes about law, culture and music. [email protected]