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How much Hitler is there in Wagner?

Rick Fulker
July 31, 2017

Hitler loved the music of Richard Wagner and was a special guest in Bayreuth. While much has been said about Wagner in the Nazi era, the Bayreuth Festival has launched a new lecture series to dig deeper.

Hitler in Bayreuth
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

A handsome, polite, relaxed and tuxedo-clad guest chats amiably with the festival director and Richard Wagner's descendants. Then a voice calls out: "Stop the film! Turn off the cell phone! Recording strictly prohibited!" After a few seconds, the silent film without subtitles or commentary continues.

The screening in the movie room of the Richard Wagner Museum in Villa Wahnfried was exclusively for those attending the symposium "Wagner in National Socialism - On the Question of Art's Fall from Grace."

An illicit recording and possible dissemination would have violated the rights of one of the persons filmed: Verena Wagner, Richard Wagner's last surviving grandchild.

Images of Hitler at Bayreuth

The moving pictures belong to the estate of another grandchild, the late Wolfgang Wagner, who filmed them himself as a 16-year-old. 

Depicted are scenes on and offstage at the 1936 Bayreuth Festival. We see a motorcade, director Heinz Tietjen, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, a beaming Winifred Wagner (festival co-director and Wolfgang Wagner's mother) and, after the performance, the "Führer" is shown onstage sharing the applause with choristers and soloists.

The Hitler salute with outstretched arms is offered and reciprocated.

For just a moment, Hitler looks like a rather pleasant person. But that feeling is quickly followed by queasiness. 

Read more: Rediscovered films show a 'friendly' Hitler in Bayreuth

Read more: How Wieland Wagner, once Hitler's friend, lifted the Nazi shadow from Bayreuth

Hitler and Wagner? It's not that simple

Those expecting sensational new revelations at the symposium were disappointed, however. The complex subject is to be illuminated in its various aspects in coming seasons of the lecture and discussion series titled "Discourse Bayreuth," a new corollary program of the annual month-long Bayreuth Festival.

Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler
Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler in 1934Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Historical discussion on Wagner in the Nazi era isn't new to the city, as Wagner Museum director Sven Friedrich pointed out. "Hitler and the Jews" was the subject of an exhibition in the 1980s and a symposium in the 90s.

On the so-called Green Hill, just below Wagner's Festspielhaus theater, current visitors can view the exhibition "Silenced Voices", which describes Jewish artists in earlier decades of the Bayreuth Festival and their fates. (It surrounds the bust of the composer created in the 1980s by sculptor Arno Breker, who was sometimes dubbed "The Michelangelo of the Third Reich.")

Furthermore, the Richard Wagner Museum reopened in 2015 with a permanent exhibition on the ideological history of the composer's music.

That the subject is far from exhausted becomes clear when statements come up like "Poor Wagner isn't to blame" or "All the dirt piled up around Wagner - better to just ignore it." Friedrich points to a "metapolitical dimension in Wagner's works that made it adaptable to the National Socialists."

Thomas Mann's demand heeded

The symposium began with a lively discussion of the current staging of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" by Barrie Kosky. The Australian director with Jewish roots has Richard Wagner himself appear onstage as an anti-Semite - the first time that had ever been done in Bayreuth.

Read more: Nazi-abused Wagner opera staged by Jewish director Barrie Kosky in Bayreuth

His mise-en-scene including the iconic hearing room of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials points to an unpleasant chapter in the work's history decades after the composer's death. The "Mastersingers," with its invocation of "Holy German art," was particularly favored by the Nazis and was the sole opera on the program in Bayreuth during the war years 1943 and 1944. 

For German author and professor emeritus Irmela von der Lühe, Kosky's stage presentation delivers on a demand made by German writer Thomas Mann back in 1947.

In her lecture "'Hitler's Court Theater': Thomas Mann's Confrontation With Bayreuth," she explained that the author, then in American exile, had turned down a request to serve as honorary president of a proposed foundation for the re-establishment of the politically discredited Bayreuth Festival, at least "until everything regarding Bayreuth's sins is on the table."

Is everything on the table now in 2017? Wolfgang Wagner's vast estate was turned over to the Bavarian State Archive in 2013 and will take years to analyze. Other sources are perhaps missing.

Would a staging like Kosky's have been possible just after the war? Rather than confronting Wagner's works and their troubled history aesthetically by means of sets and stage action, the Bayreuth Festival reopened in 1951 with the nondescript, pure-myth interpretations of the operas by Wieland Wagner.

Some have called that just another way of forgetting the past. Whatever the style of its stagings, "New Bayreuth" attracted interest worldwide and visitors from abroad, notably from France, including Jews who had survived the Holocaust and remained passionate Wagner fans. 

Winifred Wagner, Adolf Hitler and Wieland Wagner at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival 1938. In the background: Wolfgang Wagner
Winifred Wagner, Adolf Hitler and Wieland Wagner at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival 1938. In the background: Wolfgang WagnerImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Wagner: a 'pre-Nazi'?

In a letter in 1949, Thomas Mann wrote, "It's all there, in Wagner's boasting, his constant lecturing, his desire to deliver monologues on every possible subject, an unspeakable immodesty - all that a role model for Hitler - certainly there is plenty of 'Hitler' in Wagner."

Nonetheless, Mann viewed Wagner more as a European cosmopolite than as a Nazi prototype. And long before the catastophe of World War II and the Holocaust, that early critic of Hitler wrote, "The thought of this idiotic scoundrel reveling in sweet, heroic romanticism is endlessly nauseating." 

It is often claimed that the spirit in which Wagner wrote his works was folk-driven and anti-Semitic from the start. This issue was addressed at the symposium in the lecture titled "Despite Hitler and his Bayreuth: Richard Wagner as the Analyst of the 20th Century," delivered by the Swiss publicist Micha Brumlik.

Read more: The hateful side of Wagner's musical genius

In a creative artist, said Brumlik, exist "pre- and subconscious processes that enter into his work, whereby more is expressed than its creator intended."

Just how much of a work of art is consciously intended and how much of it is unconscious would be impossible to prove even in the present day - much less in an artist who lived over a century ago. 

The Nazis' appropriation of Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival's ingratiation of Hitler are often described as a historical misunderstanding, or having been relativized by the passage of time.

Wagner died in 1883, and it was 40 years later, in 1923, that Richard Wagner's son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain and his daughter-in-law Winifred Wagner hailed Hitler as a modern-day Parsifal and Germany's savior. Two years later, in 1925 - a full eight years before the Nazis assumed power - the Bayreuth Festival became a political event with Hitler in attendance.

The historian and rabid German nationalist Chamberlain has been described as Hitler's prophet and mentor. His racist theories were grounded in a purported superiority of German music. In principle, his line of argumentation was that because the Germans are so great in their music, they should now aspire to political greatness.

Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann, an early critic of Hitler, was an life-long lover of the music of Wagner, but a sceptical one Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The core issue

Was it Wagner's style, his monomaniacal rhetorics, perhaps, or his hatred of Jews that inspired Hitler? This central question was only skirted at the symposium, which in its first year seemed to give a preview of the many issues that need to be explored in the future.

It is known that Wagner's pamphlet "Judaism in Music" helped to make anti-Semitism acceptable in intellectual circles in the 19th century. It is also known, though, that the composer sometimes praised and admired Jews, once remarking to his wife Cosima, "They are the noblest of us all."

Cosima survived her husband by nearly half a century. In continuing the Wagner tradition, how selective was her memory?

Why did she choose some of his many contradictory statements and ignore others? When she made Bayreuth a breeding-ground for German nationalists and xenophobes in the name of Richard Wagner, had that been his express wish and his goal? Are the characters Alberich, Mime and Beckmesser in his operas deliberate Jewish caricatures, stereotypes - or has that been read into them?

All these are subjects that will hopefully be addressed in symposiums to come at the Bayreuth Festival.