In 1933, the year of Hitler's accession to power, the fiftieth anniversary of the composer Richard Wagner’s death was celebrated at the Bayreuth festival under the theme ‘Wagner and the new Germany’. The links between the 19th century opera composer and the 20th century dictator existed from the Nazi Party’s beginnings, and were to be strengthened and developed throughout the years of Hitler’s reign. Perhaps no other musician is as closely linked with Nazism as is Wagner, and no composer’s music is as tainted with the ideological associations of the Third Reich.
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on 22 May 1813, one of nine children in a working-class family. Soon after his birth the family moved to Dresden, and later to Prague. As a youth, Wagner was drawn to the theatre, and saw music as an expansion of his interest in the stage. By the time he was ready to begin his studies, he had decided to commit himself to composition, and he entered the University of Leipzig to study music. An early marriage to the actress Minna Planer was undermined by infidelity on both sides, and the struggling musician moved to Riga, Paris, and then back to Dresden, seeking both artistic success and to avoid his creditors. He had his first real success with the staging of his opera Rienzi. He also, however, became involved with the underground nationalist movement, an involvement that was to force him into exile after the revolution of 1848. In 1850, he wrote his infamous treatise Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), in which he denied that Jews were capable of true creativity. According to Wagner, the Jewish artist can only 'speak in imitation of others, make art in imitation of others, he cannot really speak, write, or create art on his own'.
Wagner suffered years of financial hardship in Zürich, but his slow rise to fame and wealth began with the ascendancy of Ludwig II to the Bavarian throne in 1864. With the king’s financial support, he returned to Germany (this time to Munich) with his wife; he also began an affair with Cosima von Bülow. The affair, along with his controversial operas, injured Wagner’s reputation, and he was pressured to leave Munich. He did, however, marry Cosima, with whom he had three children. The family settled in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, where Wagner constructed a special opera house for the premiere of his epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. During these later years, as his popularity grew, so too did his public commitment to antisemitism. Despite his hatred for ‘Jewry’, however, Wagner maintained close personal friendships with many Jews, and did not seem to espouse a clearly developed racial theory.
He died of a heart attack while on an Italian vacation, on 13 February 1883. Almost exactly 50 years later, on 30 January 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. Some days later, the German-Nordic Richard Wagner Society for Germanic Art and Culture released a statement inaugurating the Bayreuth celebrations. Claiming that Wagner had 'wrought for the Germans a self-reliant national art, by having created Bayreuth', it declared that
just as Richard Wagner created Der Ring des Nibelungen out of faith in the German spirit, it is the mission of the German people ... to reflect upon themselves and to complete the organisation of the German people, through which, in addition, all the ideal aspirations of the German-Nordic Richard Wagner Society will maintain a real political impact on the state, the nation, and the world around us in the national Germanic spirit of Richard Wagner.
With the support of industrial lobbies and the German military, the Wagner Society promoted its idol’s music as symbolizing a solution to the threat of bolshevism and Jewry, as well as being the purest representation of the glory of the Germanic race. Many members of the Society were also involved with the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture).
The Society’s success in promoting Wagner’s music was due as much to its propaganda efforts as to Hitler’s personal predilections. Hitler felt a deep connection to Wagner, and as early as 1924 claimed that his vision of a future Germany was manifest in the composer’s music. Hitler was also influenced by the writings of Wagner’s son-in-law, the ‘race theorist’ Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and became a friend of his children, particularly his daughter-in-law Winifred. After Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the fascination with Wagner was turned into a kind of national cult. The Bayreuth festival was used as an opportunity to publicise Nazi propaganda. Nazi Party events prominently featured Wagner’s music, including excerpts from Rienzi and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.
The precise nature of the relationship between Wagner and Nazism, however, is difficult to pin down. Hitler seldom mentioned Wagner in his writings, and rarely in public; when he did make reference to Wagner, it was not in relation to antisemitism, but rather as a German leader and visionary. Furthermore, Wagner’s music and ideology was not appropriated wholesale, but only where it accorded with Nazi concerns: works like Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, for example, were ignored. Although Wagner’s operas reflect a nationalistic world view that echoes that of Nazism, they cannot legitimately be described as ‘Nazi music’. At the same time, the impact of the composer and his works on the dictator cannot be denied. According to Hitler's memoirs, it was his teenage viewing of Rienzi that made him understand for the first time his destiny: to strengthen and unite the German Reich. For his 50th birthday, he requested the originals of several Wagner operas, and, against the wishes of Wagner's family, took them with him into his bunker. This legacy hangs over the music, which for many can never be freed from the taint of Hitler’s adoration. Wagner’s work is still regarded as controversial today, and is rarely played in Israel.
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