I think too much is made of the fact that Wagner was anti-Semitic, particularly given the times he lived in. When I say too much, I don’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. Of course it should, and I have spent four posts on it, and plan to do several more. What I am talking about is the ludicrous over-reach of modern Wagner scholars. As a topic, it was barely addressed—and this was not a great state of affairs, either—until recent times. But now the floodgates are open, and muddy, foul waters are flowing. For instance, in the 2008 Cambridge Guide to Wagner—which should be a balanced look at his life and works—is inundated with the issue because, as the editor Tom Grey writes in the introduction, “of the indisputable prominence of the topic in Wagner studies and public discussion over the past fifteen or twenty years.” Michael Tanner, a Wagnerian writer who shares my opinion that the subject is both over-pushed and ludicrously analyzed, points out that in this book: “The issue is raised more often than any other single topic. While several chapters are devoted to it and to Wagner’s relationship to the Third Reich, there are six pages devoted to The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin combined.” This is just out of whack.
Yes, he was anti-Semitic, but so was most of Europe for 2,000 years. As well, most Europeans and Americans who endorsed enlightenment ideals—as Wagner did—didn’t extend those past a sub-group of men. I do, indeed, love and honor those truly enlightened people in the 1800s who actually believed, deeply, in equality for all human beings. But they were a very small minority. Try to come up with some names; it’s very hard. (Leslie suggested Mark Twain, and he certainly was far better than most, but, then, read this regarding the Jews and his essay Concerning the Jews. The fact that Twain is quoted approvingly in neo-Nazi publications shows that even the most liberal of men's words can be twisted.)
Wagner wrote his infamous essay Judaism in Music in 1850. First, let me give you a few out-of-context quotes from it, so you understand the worst sorts of things he said in this essay:
We have to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.… The Jew—who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself—in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that....In particular does the purely physical aspect of the Jewish mode of speech repel us. Throughout an intercourse of two millennia with European nations, culture has not succeeded in breaking the remarkable stubbornness of the Jewish nature as regards the peculiarities of Semitic pronunciation. The first thing that strikes our ear as quite outlandish and unpleasant, in the Jew's speech, is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle: add thereto an employment of words in a sense quite foreign to our nation's tongue, and an arbitrary twisting of the structure of our phrases—and this mode of speaking acquires at once the character of an intolerably jumbled blabber; so that when we hear this Jewish talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what.
Clearly, as I have mentioned previously, he found Jews repellent. Certainly, that quote seems mean-spirited and really weird, too. I don’t get it on any level and am glad I don’t. However, as implied by Wagner by using the “we” and as confirmed by many scholars of anti-semitism, these were common views of Jews at that time, and many Jews shared these views about themselves in whole or part. It wasn’t an enlightened time, to say the least. Thankfully—and it certainly means that we have advanced in some good ways—we read that and think: What the fuck? So, Wagner’s publication of this was bad. No doubt at all about that.
But now I want to take a quick survey of the times, mid 19th century, when he wrote the piece. I am concentrating on America, because this blog is focused on an American audience, and this is the history I know intimately. If you are American, you know all this stuff. Skim.
In the United States, slavery was legal. Slaves were the property of slaveholders and could be whipped, raped, and even murdered with legal impunity. Obviously, too, nasty things were said about them as a race. Certainly nastier than what Wagner said about the Jews. There was, of course, an anti-slavery movement but the Great Emancipator himself said, “There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races.” This was said in 1857. In the same year, our Supreme Court confirmed, via the Dred Scott decision, that blacks were not citizens, even freemen. In 1896, the utter racism of America was confirmed in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. As we all know, very bad things continued to be said and done to black people well into the 20th century, and are still being done to this day. (As an aside, Wagner was very anti-slavery.)
Turning to our Native Americans, the 19th century saw the utter decimation of the Indian Nation. The Indian-loathing President Jackson oversaw the expulsion of most tribes from the East via the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. Here is part of Jackson's address to Congress in 1833 on the subject of Native Americans:
They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.
Commonly, they were called, and thought to be, savages. The enmity to Indians didn’t end there, of course. Here's a Wikipedia quote: “After the Civil War, all of the Indians were assigned to reservations; the role of the army was to keep them there.” In 1869, General Sheridan, in charge of keeping Indians in their place, gave voice to the feelings of many: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
And of course, there are women, my people. In that we are necessary, there really couldn’t be the same type of degradation and subjugation as there were with Jews, gays, Blacks, Native Americans and colonized people. However, throughout history—and this was certainly true in Wagner’s time—women were second-class citizens at best. They were often denied basic property and civil rights, education, many professions, and were often the victims of rape and assault—marriage was a near-license for both. Quite awful things were said commonly about women’s abilities and capacities well into the 1970s. I remember a whole lot of them, having not escaped the overwhelming sexism of earlier times.
Then there are my other people, gays (homosexual men got the brunt of the hate then and now, though). In the 1800s, anyone who dared to “come out” who wasn’t extremely wealthy and powerful risked his or her life, livelihood and health. Even a high level of fame and talent didn’t save Oscar Wilde from prison in 1895. Since I grew up at a time when homosexuality was still “the love that dare not speak its name,” I can assure you that through the mid-1970s most people in the US thought gays were disgusting, sick, sad, and degenerate people. To be revealed as gay could lead to jail, institutionalization, loss of job and worse. Oh, and there is the frequently repeated child molester charge. While this has clearly changed of late, there is still a long way to go.
We have to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Gays, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.… The Gay in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what nationality we belong, has something disagreeably alien to it. Instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that....In particular does the purely physical aspect of the Gay mode of speech repel us. The first thing that strikes our ear as quite outlandish and unpleasant in the gay's speech is a shrill, lisping, histrionic prattle: when we hear this Gay talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what.
Ignoring Wagner’s mode of speech (and weird translation), people absolutely thought those sorts of things about gay men and, once the gay rights movement began and politeness went out the window, quite a lot was written along those lines. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I read things like that. It was rather overwhelming for a period of time, and truly disheartening. The vast majority of people did not want gays to be out of the closet, much less to give us civil rights. But I get that was the times and what they grew up with, what they were “carefully taught” as the song says in South Pacific. I am so happy it has changed. As Michael Kinsley says in this article about the Republican politician Ben Carson: “Carson may qualify as a homophobe by today’s standards. But then they don’t make homophobes like they used to.” They really don’t, at least in the Western world (and a growing share of the rest of the world)! And I am pleased and relieved about that.
So for those who remember how it was with gay people just 40 years ago, just realize it was like that regarding Jews in Wagner’s time. Do you forgive the homophobes from 1960? I certainly do. So I would argue you should forgive the anti-Semites from the 1800s—a far less enlightened period—too.
Wagner in his Judaism in Music advocates assimilation: Jews undergoing a transformation to rid themselves of their “Jewishness.” That seems very backward today—what’s the matter with Jews staying Jews? Nothing, of course! But during the 19th century, it was considered the liberal view – virtually nobody was arguing for religious tolerance as we know it today when it came to the Jews. The famous "Jewish Question" was how to deal with this "foreign element" living within Europe. The liberal solution was assimilation; Wagner always publicly supported this solution.1 He didn’t call for expulsion or ghettoization—as we did to our Native Americans in the same time period. He didn’t call for civil rights to be revoked or not extended to Jews—full civil rights that didn’t exist for women, Blacks (many of whom were still slaves, of course), Native people in the United States then, and for gays still, to this day. He didn’t advocate or do violence to Jews—as Americans allowed, sometimes de facto, often de jure, against blacks and Indians and gays and “wayward” women well into the 20th century, and, of course, directed at Jews in numerous incidents in the 19th and 20th century, obviously culminating in the Holocaust. Needless to say, violence is still directed to all these groups on occasion, but the law no longer turns a blind eye, and that is progress.
My problem is that Wagner is singled out as particularly despicable for his public pronouncements about Jews when, as I hope I have clearly pointed out, worse things were being said about various groups—and most crucially—much worse things were being done to these groups throughout the world in the 19th century, and more than half-way into the 20th century.
Wagner’s anti-semitism is invariably described by these synonyms: repellent, revolting, repugnant, odious, malignant, vitriolic, insidious, vile, virulent, etc. For instance, a friend sent me this article written on Wedneday (coinciding with his 200th birth). It begins: “There is little doubt that the great German composer Richard Wagner was one of the most virulent anti-Semites in modern history.” Really??
If that is the case, what of Hitler and the Third Reich? They advocated—and did—every one of the things that I listed above that Wagner did not: civil rights revocation, expulsion, violence, and murder. I think the definition for what constitutes “virulent anti-Semitism” must be aligned to that reality. To throw every anti-Semite in that cesspool is not justified; it is not justified with Wagner. Even a truly despicable anti-Semite like Henry Ford—whose views and political action against Jews were far more severe, direct and influential than Wagner’s—doesn’t deserve to be categorized with Hitler and the Third Reich. But he does deserve to be compared to Wagner, and Wagner comes out much better in that matching, might I add. I think it is fine to use those words to describe Wagner’s anti-Semitism, as long as there is a clear statement that it was not at all akin to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. The trouble is—and this is why I am upset—that is not done, which is why most people have a completely skewed view of who Wagner really was and what he thought.
1 I will admit that I am simplifying Wagner’s position for this post. I will be taking it up in more detail in the future. While what I said about Wagner’s public position is literally true, the fact is that privately he said things that were much less enlightened, as recorded in some letters to friends and in the diaries of Cosima Wagner. However, the German public at the time and through World War II wouldn’t have known what he said. It wasn’t until the 1970s that this material was becoming widely known and reached a large audience. Cosima’s dairies, for instance, weren’t released until 1978. I don’t think it detracts from my central argument. I mean, I don’t believe the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” sentiment. But I do believe it is far worse to be enslaved, beaten, raped, denied civil rights, forced to hide, murdered, etc. than to have mean things said about a group.