Richard Wagner in Dritten Reich: Ein Schlof Elmanu-Symposium

By M, James | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Richard Wagner in Dritten Reich: Ein Schlof Elmanu-Symposium


M, James, Shofar


edited by Saul Friedländer and Jörn Rüsen. Beck'sche Reihe, 1356. Munich: C. H. Beck Verlag, 2000. 373 pp. DM 28.

That Richard Wagner, as ideologue and creative artist, occupied a special place in the context of Adolf Hitler's National Socialism is well known, or at least has been the subject of much discussion and debate, especially in recent years. The aim of this volume, which derives from an international symposium at Elmau Castle in Germany in July of 1999, is to provide a broad range of perspectives and well founded analysis to the relationship between Wagner's ideological and artistic legacy and the Nazi movement and its origins. Central to the nature of that relationship was of course Wagner's self-proclaimed antisemitism, which is the focus of several of the seventeen essays here and to which reference is made in most of the others as well.

The first two essays, by Jörn Rüsen and Joachim Fest, address the issue in a general, introductory way, analyzing the methodological questions as to how one is able to perceive historical contexts and connections and how one determines the effect of ideologies. Rüsen raises the question whether Wagner's art can be understood as part of the Nazi culture or foreign to and incompatible with it, while Fest is concerned more specifically with Hitler's personal idolization of Wagner and suggests that in the latter's operatic heroes and essays Hitler found poetic representations of his own battle with society. There follow then three essays on parallels between Wagner's and the Nazi movement's use of liturgical elements (Udo Bermbach), myth (Dieter Borchmeyer), and otherness (David Levin). Bermbach argues that whereas Wagner sought to replace the political with the artistic, Hitler used art to render the Nazi worldview sacred. Borchmeyer finds that like Ludwig II of Bavaria before him, Hitler interpreted myth in Wagner in a political, pseudo-sacred way, while Wagner, rather more like Goethe and Schiller before him and Thomas Mann later, conserved the poetic tradition of myth as expressive of an ironic, jovial gaiety. Levin contends that National Socialism's use of antisemitism to promote a sense of community is prefigured in the Nurembergers' rejection of the figure of Beckmesser in Wagner's Meistersinger.

The next five essays deal rather specifically with the reception of Wagner in the Third Reich. The National Socialist appropriation of the aesthetic category of the sublime for purposes of political power, notes Reinhold Brinkmann, meant that Wagner for them could be revered along with Beethoven. Along similar lines, Jens Malte Fischer observes that under the National Socialists performance of classical music at the highest level continued, including of course that by Wagner. The affinity between Wagner's operatic theme of release in death and the murderous passion for destruction and obliteration exhibited by Hitler and conveyed by him as their Führer to the German people is underscored by Saul Friedländer in the second of his two contributions to the volume. Nike Wagner then analyzes in turn her grandmother Winifred's relationship to Hitler, which she suggests had mystical, religious, erotic, and childlike dimensions that the grandmother could not possibly have fathomed or understood as such and that her enthusiasm for National Socialism had its origins in the antisemitic nationalism of her adoptive parents and in her subsequent marriage into the Wagner family with its inward arrogant elitism and its outwardly directed chauvinistic Wagnerism. David Clay Large, in his essay, traces the parallel rise in National Socialist fervor in Bayreuth and in Munich, with the Wagners as intermediaries aiding Hitler to gain social acceptance in the Bavarian capital in the early days of the movement.

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