RICHARD WAGNER'S ANTI-SEMITISM:
PRELUDE TO THE THIRD REICH
In his widely purchased but seldom read tome Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler paid tribute to those individuals in German history who had achieved what he considered to be the pinnacle of success. Though misunderstood during their lifetimes, these great German "warriors" nevertheless persevered in carrying "the fight for their ideas and ideals to their end."(1) This short list includes but three names: Frederick the Great, Martin Luther, and Richard Wagner. Hitler apparently believed that his name would be added to this list at some future time. The inclusion of Richard Wagner in such select company merits examination--what did Hitler see as Wagner's great accomplishment that elevated him above the likes of Bismarck or Beethoven?
Undoubtedly Wagner's numerous music-dramas had significant impact on Germany and on Hitler. In 1890, an astounding nine hundred performances of Wagner's operas were staged in sixty-seven German cities and towns. The Wagner Society, founded seven years previously on the composer's death, had grown to three hundred chapters with a membership of eight thousand.(2) The society existed not merely to propagate the music but Wagner's ideology as well. The voluminous essays penned by Wagner over a span of nearly fifty years exerted considerable influence. Although Hitler has never been described as a scholar or even a great reader, evidence exists that he did delve deeply into racist compositions. Between 1919 and 1921, Hitler borrowed numerous works from the Nationalsozialistisches Institut, a party lending-library near Munich. Among the titles were the prose works of Wagner and his son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain.(3)
Chamberlain, an expatriate Englishman, quickly became enamored with Wagner, his music, and his ideology. As a member of Wagner's inner circle and his son-in-law, Chamberlain assumed a leading role in propagating the völkish and racial philosophy of the meister. More than any other person, "it was Chamberlain who constructed an ideological bridge between Wagnerism and the broader tradition of nationalist and racist thought. . . ."(4) Indeed, Hitler acknowledged his agreement with Chamberlain's views.(5) After meeting Hitler in September 1923, Chamberlain publicly declared his support for the Führer.(6)
Having seen the influence of Wagner's ideology, it is appropriate to examine the sources of his ideas which later developed into a philosophy of regenerative anti-semitism. Central to Wagner's thinking is the concept of volk, the abstract, truly human, essential Germanic spirit. According to Wagner, "The Volk has always been the essence of all the individuals who constituted a commonality. In the beginning, it was the family and the races; then the races united through linguistic equality as a nation."(7) Volk were further defined by their physiological differences from others, and they shared a commonality of language and purpose. The Jews thus stood apart from the volk, purportedly in their physiology and mother tongue (although German Jews studiously avoided Yiddish for this very reason). The primary cultural metaphor for Jew as Other was the construct of the Wandering Jew, deeply rooted in European history.
Goethe inspired the various interpretations in German ideology of the Wandering Jew (Ahasverus), a manifestation of the Jewish race as a parasitic, ghost race that had outlived its usefulness and could neither die nor be assimilated into the youthful German nation.(8) In his 1838 Plan of a New Ahasverus, Karl Gutzkow (a leader of the Young Germany movement which superseded the Burschenschaften as the main fomenter of revolution in the 1830's) used the character of Ahasverus to illustrate the problem facing Jewish redemption: the Wandering Jew was "nothing but a ghost, a wandering fossilized mummy of a people that had rejected the fruitful dynamic of history, shunning admixture and assimilation with the other peoples of Europe, refusing to abandon their isolated exclusivity." Gutzkow transformed the sin of despising Christ into a state of lovelessness and egoism that must be transformed by love and "the emancipation of the flesh."(9)
Ludwig Börne, whose ideas influenced the Young Germany revolutionary outlook, described the Wandering Jew as a "manifestation of the money-demon, this raised fury of greed, this beautiful devil of gold. . . ."(10) In the 1830's, Börne identified the bourgeois capitalist money-society with Judaism. In the late 1840's, Wagner identified Börne with the figure of the redeemed Ahasverus, the Jew redeemed by his own revolutionary faith into humanity.
Wagner's mythological interpretation of the Wandering Jew saw many transformations, developing as the "perfect plastic expression of both his racist and his revolutionary sensibilities."(11) Characters, such as the Flying Dutchman (his "Ahasverus of the Ocean"), were able to achieve redemption because they were not Jewish. This stressed the incapacity of the Jewish Ahasverus to be redeemed. Wagner's hero-wanderers learn compassion through suffering, earning their redemption. From "Judaism in Music" (1850), arguably the seminal text of Wagner's anti-semitism, Wagner defined the only redemption for the Jews was "the redemption of Ahasverus--Destruction!"(12)
Between 1834-40, Wagner found an affinity for revolutionary ideals through Heinrich Laube who (along with Karl Gutzkow) was leader of Young Germany. Laube, in Young Europe, had given birth to the notion of the revolutionary organization. Wagner shared Laube's vision of a new, free Germany, engineered by new art and literature. They believed that bourgeois restrictions, such as marriage, were the "destroyer of all vital feelings", and that the artist must disdain these restrictions and transcend them in his life.(13) In his early works, notably his first successful opera, Rienzi, love was the agent of personal emancipation. Rienzi also featured ideas that would come to fruition in the Third Reich: mass political movements, extensive use of propaganda, and the Führer-principle. For these reasons, Rienzi has been labelled a fascist opera. Hitler cited a performance of Rienzi as the source of his calling to redeemer of the German people. It was played at his rallies. The autographed score was one of his prize possessions.
In the 1870's-1880's, Wagner's revolutionary anti-semitism was influenced by two contemporary lines of thought. Darwinism brought an optimistic biological insight into his philosophy; as with animals, humans' sexual matings brought about improvements in German society that would allow the development of the redeemer. Joseph Arthur Gobineau, in Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, introduced Wagner to the degenerative tendencies produced by interracial marriage. His work emphasized the inferiority of the black and yellow races with whom the Germans had little experience and thus substituted the Jews. Wagner, however, enthusiastically adopted the term "Aryan" from Gobineau's work.(14)
Wagner's extreme anti-semitism has often been ascribed to the belief, widespread during his lifetime, that he was not a pure Aryan. Many, including Richard Eichenauer, Third Reich music historian, believed that Wagner's real father was the actor Ludwig Geyer who was suspected of being of Jewish descent. Such speculation is historically moot, yet may indeed have troubled Wagner.(15) Similar speculations concerning Hitler are equally fruitless but, nevertheless, have received extensive coverage (e.g. Ralph Waite, The Psychopathic God).
Many of Wagner's defenders in the post-World War II era have pointed to a contradiction between theory and practice. While his written anti-semitism is undeniable, Wagner associated with many Jews in the course of his work. Among them were many Jewish musicians, the conductor Herman Levi, singers Heinrich Porges and Lilli Lehman, and the impresario Angelo Neumann. Neumann was responsible for securing the first performance of the Ring cycle outside Bayreuth. One Jew, the pianist Josef Rubinststein, was a member of Wagner's inner circle living at Wahnfried. Wagner's defenders conclude that, while he held racist beliefs, in his personal relations he could rise above his racism. Others conclude that his anti-semitism was more than "an excusable aberration of genius," and that Wagner had no moral scruples about using an individual to further his own ends.(16) Berthold Auerbach, who was attacked publicly by Wagner, came to recognize that his former friend was a spiritual source of the new anti-semitism in 1880's Germany after receiving much professional support from Jews such as himself, Neumann, Karl Tausig, and Bayreuth patron Alfred Pringsheim.
As John Stuart Mill said, "Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect
of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the
diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences."(17) In his brilliantly written
essay, "Race: Fact or Fiction?," the eminent philosopher and historian Jacques Barzun examines
the entire concept of race. Assuming that one were to explain the concept of race to an alien, he
demolishes all the typical racist responses. In particular, he satirically destroys the "infallible
oracle" of racial distinction espoused so fervently from Wagner's era to the Nazi era--Blood.(18)
Modern medicine disavows blood as an indication of race; but racists use the term
metaphorically rather than literally. Another popular conception of race, common descent or
lineage, leads to the inevitable conclusion in the Judeo-Christian West that there is but one race,
and it is human.
1. Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971), 213.
2. Leon Stein, The Racial Thinking of Richard Wagner (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 116-117. Stein also notes Wagner's influence outside Germany--by 1890 the Wagner Society in Britain had three hundred members and published a quarterly journal, The Meister.
3. George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978), 205. Mosse notes that Hitler's lending card indicates that about half of the works borrowed dealt with race while the remainder concerned medieval German history--the period epitomized in Wagner's operas. Interestingly, Hitler also checked out Emil Zola's D'Argent.
4. Geoffrey G. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 4.
5. Hitler, 269. The translator reports that Alfred Rosenberg supposedly excerpted Foundations of the Nineteenth Century for Hitler.
6. Ibid., 436.
7. Marc A. Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 73-74.
8. Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 13.
9. Ibid., 16.
10. Ibid., 17.
11. Ibid., 5.
12. Ibid., 85.
13. Ibid., 24.
14. Mosse, 56.
15. Stein, 89; Appendix I, 236-237.
16. Ibid., 81-82.
17. John Stuart Mill, Political Economy Vol. I, 390; quoted in Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937), 299.
18. Ibid., 13.