The Reading Room
Wagner and Nazism
The Nazis made Richard Wagner a national hero. Hitler loved his music, and Germany made the Bayreuth Music Festival a center of Nazi propaganda. Goebbels called Die Meistersinger “the most German of all German operas.” Today, many consider Wagner inseparable from Nazism and avoid his music dramas.
Is this judgment fair? Wagner never advocated a totalitarian state or concentration camps. Even so, there are real reasons he appealed to Hitler’s crowd. Wagner was a fervent German nationalist. At the end of his music drama Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs declares that German artists must honor their German masters and that holy German art will live on even if the Holy Roman Empire vaporizes. The core of Wagner’s nationalism was German culture and art, not political unification.
He wrote many essays, yet it’s hard to find a coherent political philosophy in his writings. He opposed aristocratic privileges, supported the democratic uprisings of 1848 and 1849, and had to flee Germany to avoid arrest. His associates included the anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin and the revolutionary publisher August Röckel. In 1849 he wrote Art and Revolution, which expresses revolutionary sentiments in politics and music but fails to present any clear idea of what socioeconomic system he favored. He made repeated references to the “slaves of money” but said little about how a non-money economy would work.
A paper which he published pseudonymously in 1848 gives some indications. He envisioned “a state in which as many active men as Mother Earth can supply with food will join in the well-ordered republic, supporting it by a fair exchange of labor, mutually supplying each other’s wants, and contributing to the universal happiness.” An economy where the “exchange of labor” replaced “the demon money” would make savings impossible, denying people the ability to prepare for hard times and old age. It’s questionable whether he thought this through.
Perhaps he considered specifics unnecessary. Art and Revolution cites Jesus saying “Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What will we wear?’ For your heavenly Father has himself given you all these things.” The essay continues, “This heavenly Father will then be none other than the social reason of humanity, which makes nature and its abundance its own for the good of all.”
In 1850 he wrote the essay for which he is most held in disdain: Jewishness and Music, revised and expanded in 1869. Here he argued that Jews cannot be great composers, not for religious or racial reasons but cultural ones. Wagner disclaimed religious hostility to Jews, considering it something of the past. The Jew, he said, speaks the language of the nation in which he lives, but as a foreigner. Without strong national ties, Wagner claimed, Jews cannot create truly great art. He applied this claim even to Felix Mendelssohn, who came from a prominent Jewish family but had been raised as a Christian and wrote a symphony commemorating Martin Luther.
Wagner’s political ideas have little depth, but calling him a proto-Nazi is unfair. He opposed autocracy and any but the most limited kind of monarchy. He supported voting rights for all adults (whether this included women is unclear) and opposed standing armies.
His operas are set in a legendary past and offer no clues about his preferred system of governance. George Bernard Shaw regarded the Ring as a socialist work, but he granted too much coherence to Wagner’s political ideas. The Ring, which drives the story, is an enhanced version of the Andvaranaut in the Volsunga Saga. It brings wealth and power to its holder, but a curse on it brings doom to everyone who holds it. Treating it as a symbol of the market economy requires serious mental gymnastics.
However, it’s plausible that he would have gone along with the Nazi movement if he had lived a century later. His emotion-driven thinking, his love of nationalism, and his hostility to Jews made him the kind of person Hitler appealed to. Richard Strauss was the president of the Reichsmusikkammer, an official institution for promoting “Aryan” music, from 1933 to 1935. The famous conductor Herbert von Karajan joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Would Wagner’s opposition to autocracy have been enough to make him hold out? There’s no way to know.
Whatever Wagner’s ideas meant, he was often mean-spirited. Das Judentum in der Musik prominently shows his hostility to Giacomo Meyerbeer, who helped him to get his career started. He was repeatedly unfaithful to his first wife, Minna. For someone who claimed to hate money, he liked having it; he made frequent financial demands on his friends and sometimes had to run away from his creditors.
How should knowing all this affect our response to his music? Some people find antisemitic symbolism in Alberich and Mime in Der Ring der Nibelungen and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. If you look hard enough for veiled references, though, you’re going to start seeing them everywhere. Anticapitalism and antisemitism were heavily intertwined in nineteenth-century Germany, and supposed symbols for wealth could also be symbols for Jews. Regardless, there are no overt references to Jews or Judaism, nor any clear political statements, in his musical works.
Wagner’s works ultimately have to stand or fall on their own merits. Performing them in a reputable venue will not benefit him or any pernicious cause. His musical output shouldn’t excuse his irresponsible behavior or bigoted ideas, but it can be set apart from them.