An inquiry into just how important Wagner’s antisemitism really is

Wagner’s Art, Wagner’s Anti-Semitism

In his recent book, Sorcerer of Bayreuth, Wagner expert Barry Millington comes down hard on Wagner the anti-Semite.  He rejects the “misapprehension that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is like a superfluous integument that can be peeled away from his oeuvre without leaving a trace, when in fact it is so intrinsic to his aesthetic that it is no exaggeration to say that without it, Wagner would not have been the composer he was — and his works would certainly not have taken the form they did.”

Millington also condemns the “untenable position that there is no connection between Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the fanatical eruption of racial prejudice that ended in Auschwitz.”

On the first question — whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism was so pronounced as to infect his musical or dramatic imagination — there can be reasoned debate, and I offer it here.  On the second question — whether there is a “connection” between Wagner and Hitler — there can be no doubt; but the “connection” reflects on Hitler and the rise of virulent racism along with wounded nationalism after World War I, not on Wagner, and the observation belongs in a study of Hitler, not a study of Wagner.

It seems well-established, though seldom remarked, that Wagner’s expressions of anti-Semitism were unexceptional in his day, and totally in keeping with the attitudes of his contemporaries.  Indeed, Millington notes that the view expressed in On Judaism in Music were “parroted” from his friend Theodor Uhlig.  Millington features a cartoon dated 1882, showing an audience peopled by caricatured Jews — a reflection, one would have to admit, that Jews were commonly ridiculed in German society during Wagner’s lifetime.

Contrary to many of his generation, however, Wagner was a Nationalist, and that urgent belief  did in fact influence his artistic imagination.  He believed that German culture was something distinct, honorable, and persistent in the instincts of the German people — something that Wagner felt it was his destiny to serve and advance.  That’s what the setting and plot of Lohengrin is and that’s what Meistersinger is about.  German mythology and history is imbued in all of his mature works.  Wagner’s take on Jews was not based on the orthodox attitude of European anti-Semites.  Wagner disdained Jews not because they crucified Our Lord, but because they lacked an indigenous culture that was distinct from other cultures.  His concern was not the same as Christian inquisitions or other flamboyant examples of virulent hatred of Jews — it was of an artist concerned to protect German art from dilution, or even what he considered “infection,” by non-German influences that lived in Germany and threatened what Wagner regarded as the great German cultural achievements.

So much for theory, however.  When it came to his own art, Wagner never distanced himself from Jews.  He was a close friend and constant collaborator with such Jewish luminaries as Jacques Halévy, Karl Tausig, Karl Ritter, Heinrich Porges, Lilli Lehmann, Angelo Neumann, Hermann Levi and Josef Rubinstein.

(Indeed, contrary to accepted views in many quarters, neither Wagner nor Winifred Wagner ever permitted socially accepted anti-Semitism to influence the work at Bayreuth.  As Millington concedes, “the Festival was never under [Nazi] party control, and the Nazis did not interfere consistently with artistic policy as they did elsewhere.”  The shattering outdoor exhibit of “Silenced Voices” at this year’s Festival featured scores of Bayreuth artists whose careers — and sometimes lives — were shortened from bigotry, but in every case it was because of the hateful intolerance of Cosima (the real villain of so many ugly Wagner-related tales), or the legal effect of the despicable racial laws enacted by the Nazis in 1933-35.)

In short, anti-Semitism was a prominent attribute of German culture since  at least the time of Martin Luther, and grew ever more virulent during the late 19th century and early 20th century.  Germany was increasingly anti-Semitic, and its anti-Semiticism was increasingly accepted by all classes of Germans and increasingly violent in its public and political expression after Wagner’s death.  See this article for more detail.

For Millington to go further, and suggest that Beckmesser in Meistersinger and Kundry in Parsifal are depictions of the influence of Jews on otherwise pure German art, is a very difficult stretch and leads one to untenable logical and artistic dead-ends.  It all depends on where one starts, of course.  But if we look at Meistersinger as a study of the role of art in society, and the tension between artistic innovation and tradition (and we would not be way off the mark if we did), then Beckmesser’s role in the drama is that of the well-respected, extreme traditionalist, not a Jew.  He extols German art, he criticizes innovation, and he is ultimately found to be not in keeping with the sentiments of the volk themselves who intuitively affirm that, in art, truth and beauty are more important than adherence to rules.  According to Wagner’s essay, a Jew would be incapable of even gleaning German artistic tradition, much less defending it.  And if that were true, then the plot of Meistersinger could not work.

More to the point, if Beckmesser were a Jew, he would not be the Town Clerk, he would not be entrusted with the role of the Merker, and he would not be an acceptable suitor to the daughter of the town’s most prominent guildsman.  While the work has benefited from (certain) modern productions that have wrested it from the comfortable familiarity of tights and codpieces, when this drama was new and unfamiliar the author set it very firmly in the period of the great German artist Hans Sachs (1494-1576).  And from Shakespeare we know how Jews were treated by merchants in that period of Europe. Says Shakespeare’s Jew to a character similar to Wagner’s Pogner:

You call me a misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine.  […] [You] void your rheum upon my beard and foot me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold. […] Shall I bend low, and say this: ‘Sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last, you spurned me on such a day, another time you called me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much monies’?

And speaking to others of the well-regarded Antonio/Pogner, Shylock the Jew expostulates:

He hath disgraced me and hinder’d me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies — and what’s his reason?  I am a Jew.

If he were a Jew, Beckmesser could not be the personification of German tradition, as he indeed must be.  He could not have such an influential place among the Guildsmen, who clearly defer to (or perhaps only tolerate) his pedantry.  He could not even enter Sachs’ home.  Wagner the anti-Semite was a theorist.  Wagner the performer was inclusive and exploitative of any who could advance his goals.  Wagner the artist was just that — an artist to whom nothing mattered but the truth and beauty of the art.

As for the link between Wagner and Hitler, it has never influenced my understanding of Wagner, and I have never understood how others have allowed it to.  The evil was committed by those demons who followed him, such as the malevolent Cosima, the ignorant and bloviating Stewart Chamberlain, and the silly, infatuated Winifred.  Wagner’s anti-vivisectionism, his opinions of the importance of water cures, his vegetarianism and his hatred of the French could all have had an impact on animal rights, aquaphiles, vegans and Francophobes if they had been championed by a charismatic despot in the way that Hitler championed Wagner.

Moreover, those who have read Ian Kershaw’s definitive two-volume  biography may reasonably question whether Hitler’s admiration of Wagner had anything at all to do with anti-Semitism, but rather with (a) Wagner’s nationalistic vision for the German people; (b) Wagner’s early depiction of self-sacrificial public leadership, which young Hitler encountered when attending a performance of Rienzi, or (c) the fact that Wagner’s loud, pompous music, attracts young students of undeveloped artistic taste.

In sum: It is logically and historically impossible to lay at Wagner’s feet the moral blame for the crimes of German history that were committed half a century after his death.  And it is difficult to conclude that Wagner’s anti-Semitism either distinguished him from his contemporaries or was reflected in his dramas.  Both conclusions are seriously flawed examples of “presentism” and, with complete respect for Mr. Millington, I firmly disagree with his views.

3 Comments

  • I have to quibble on one part of this, otherwise sound, article, the one about “Beckmesser not being able to become town clerk if he had been Jewish”. I believe that the argument is beside the point. The proponents of “Beckmesser the Jew” theory acknowledge that the character is nowhere identified specifically as a Jew but is in fact an allegory of one, and base this on a host of Beckmesser’s “characteristics” that they blow out of proportion. Millington is a particular case-in-point: he developed his theory on basis of one word in one verse that he took out of the context of the stanza. (continued)

  • David B. Dennis’ study “The Most German of all Operas” which is part of Nicholas Vazsonyi study of “Die Meistersinger” shows that not only that the Nazis never saw Beckmesser as an antisemitic allegory but not even their precursors around Cosima Wagner looked at this character as such. In light of this Millington et al end up, in a manner of speaking, being bigger Catholics then the Pope.

  • […] find this point attractive, probably because I have espoused it myself.  But then we get to the real fruits of this extraordinary […]

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *