WAGNER'S Influence on HITLER -- and HITLER'S on WAGNER

By Rosefield, Jayne | History Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

WAGNER'S Influence on HITLER -- and HITLER'S on WAGNER


Rosefield, Jayne, History Review


Hitler claimed that his Weltanschauung was derived from Wagner. His youthful reaction to Rienzi led him to exclaim 30 years later: `It began at that hour'. In Mein Kampf, he praised Wagner as a great revolutionary and claimed to have no forerunner except Wagner. Fest suggests that Wagner had an immense effect upon Hitler. `The Master of Bayreuth was not only Hitler's great exemplar; he was also the young man's ideological mentor. Wagner's political writing ... together with the operas, form the entire framework for Hitler's ideology.... Here he found the granite foundations for his view of the world'. To Davidowicz, racial imperialism and the fanatic plan to destroy the Jews were the dominant passions behind Hitler's drive for power, `forming the matrix of his ideology and the ineradicable core of Nationalist Socialist doctrine'. It was Hitler himself who placed responsibility for these ideas upon Wagner: `Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner'. Clearly Wagner and his works were adopted as cultural symbols by Hitler and the Third Reich, but was his output misused by the Nazis, or does it contain elements that made appropriation possible?

Wagner's Operas and Written Works

Wagner's operatic works reflect the complexity of his genius, being `many layered, not without loose ends, puzzles and internal contradictions' (Arblaster). It is this that gives those who wish to see elements of racial nationalism in his operas their opportunity. In Der Ring des Nibelungen, the hero is Siegfried, Wagner's `man of the future'. In the contrast between Siegfried and Mime, Brearley sees thinly disguised racism. To her, Mime represents the Jewish people -- his very name indicates his mimetic Jewish barrenness. Siegfried is carefree and fearless, while Mime is a scheming hypocrite. The dwarf Alberich is shown to possess unpleasant stereotypical characteristics of the Jew, hoarding gold, choosing power over love, and controlling those working for him. Blood purity also features in The Ring. When Siegfried and Gunther swear their oath of blood-brotherhood, Hagen, another representative of Jewry, does not join in, explaining:

   `My blood would spoil all you drink my blood's not pure and noble like
   yours'.

If these analogies were intended by Wagner, Mime's murder may be seen as a symbol of the ousting of all traces of Judaism from German music and society.

To Gutman, Wagner in Parsifal `set forth a religion of racism under the cover of Christian legend'. It is undeniable that ideas of blood purity play a role or that the opera may be seen as a fable about racial degeneration and regeneration. The Jew is shown in the guise of Kundry and Klingsor to have poisoned Aryan blood, personified by Amfortas, whose sin was to have sexual contact with a racial inferior. His blood is thus corrupted, and he can no longer act as leader of a male community committed to preserving Christ's sacred blood. Parsifal's rejection of Kundry's blandishments is an affirmation of racial purity, which then enables him to rescue the beleaguered Grail community from its degeneration. That community becomes a metaphor for the Aryan race, threatened with decline by interbreeding but saved by a reassertion of the principle of racial exclusivity.

Wagner's detractors seek to corroborate interpretations of his operas with analysis of his letters and many essays. In a letter to Liszt, he admitted that his `long suppressed resentment against this Jewish business' was as necessary to his nature `as gall is to the blood'. Most commonly quoted is Wagner's essay `Judaism in Music', where he sought to explain why `actual physical contact' with the Jew remained for the non-Jew `instinctively repugnant'. He inveighed against Jewish artists, who, motivated solely by commercial instincts and lacking a culture of their own, could only imitate the art produced by the host culture. True Germans could only be repelled by the alien physical appearance of the Jews and by the offensive sibilant sound of their voices. …

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