Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust?

By Filler, Susan M. | Shofar, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust?


Filler, Susan M., Shofar


Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust? by Christopher Nicholson. Jerusalem & New York: Gefen, 2007. 474 pp. $35.00.

The title of this book, a joint biography of Richard Wagner and Adolf Hitler, raises a rhetorical question. The simple answer to that question is that the antisemitism expressed by Richard Wagner did indeed influence Adolf Hitler's political career. But this answer does not take into account many qualifying variables. Christopher Nicholson, a South African lawyer, is an educated man, but this book shows that he is an amateur with interesting theories but not the means of effectively supporting them.

The association of these two men as partners, so to speak, is a risky premise. Many biographers of Hitler note his knowledge and admiration of the work of Wagner, but to consider these two men equally in a historical continuum is, at best, only a fraction of the story of antisemitism in the Germanspeaking countries. Furthermore, although the pairing of Wagner and Hitler is supposed to be political, the author attempts to document antisemitism through discussion of music. This is an uncertain method in the case of Wagner, and it is essentially impossible in the case of Hitler, who has not been the subject of musicological research because he was not a musician or composer.

It is difficult to define the authence Nicholson had in mind for this book, which tells a story suitable for nonspecialist readers (complete with soap-opera conflicts and sexual hangups), yet occupies almost every page with footnotes intended presumably for the benefit of scholarly specialists. Except for the cover design, which includes several staves of the piano-vocal score of the overture to Wagner's opera Tannhäuser, there are no musical examples in this book. This weakens the author's arguments in favor of manifestations of Wagner's antisemitism in his operatic works. Such arguments are speculative, at best, compared to those based on the antisemitism Wagner expressed in his prose essays.

The references listed by Nicholson in his footnotes and bibliography are instructive because they demonstrate his purpose in writing this book, and also his limitations. It is self-evident that first-hand accounts constitute the most reliable documentation of history, and both Wagner and Hitler contributed more than their share of such sources to posterity; yet, in Nicholson's bibliography (pp. 451-57), such references are few, and almost all are in English translations rather than the German originals and represent secondary rather than eyewitness accounts. In fact, this bibliography largely comprises books and articles in English, either original to the language or translations of German editions (and even when Nicholson does cite German sources, errors show that his grasp of the German language appears to be limited); this is a serious problem in a book devoted to subjects who recorded their lives in German. It would have been helpful if Nicholson had consulted Richard Wagner: A Guide to Research of Michael Saffle (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), or the bibliographies in some of the books about Hitler he lists (notably those of John Toland and Ian Kershaw), which include extensive listings of eyewitness accounts and scholarly assessmenrs without being pedantic.

The substance of this book is further compromised by second-hand accounts of personal relationships between the two subjects and others in their lives, in which Nicholson takes refuge without careful study of sources related to the other parties. A very unfortunate example of this is the author's assessment of the relationship between Wagner and Giacomo Meyerbeer, the German-Jewish composer who greatly influenced Wagner's career in Paris and Berlin. Nicholson dismisses Meyerbeer as a composer, giving no consideration to the quality of his work or its influence on Wagner's own, and also as a man (without taking the trouble to consult the eight-volume critical edition of Meyerbeer's correspondence and diaries). …

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