Friday, April 19, 2013

Wagner's Anti-Semitism, Part 1

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania here; sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer – part 1 here, part 2 here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is here; the issue of his morality, hypocrisy and lying here. The first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

There is no doubt in this modern age, particularly post-holocaust, that the most troubling aspect of Wagner’s character revolves around his anti-Semitism. There are many ways in which to view it, and much has been written on it.1 I have thought, and read, about this issue more than any other, and I will be writing a number of posts to try to articulate my position and view it from a variety of lenses. I suspect these sections will get reworked and reordered as I write and reflect back on the posts as they emerge.

Since I am in the midst of my “character study” of Wagner, to write about the Jewish issue now would interrupt that effort. But I obviously need to acknowledge for these character posts that Wagner was, in fact, anti-Semitic. Even in this area, though, people exaggerate the claims about his anti-Semitism and assert things about his views that are simply untrue. I will write about all that later, but for now I want to make some broad points, many of which I will return to in more detail and with more—I hope—finesse.

To start off, let me just give a very brief background of Wagner’s milieu. In mid-19th century Germany, most people—no matter if they were friend or foe of Jews civil rights and integration into society—had views that in our present age would be considered stereotypical and anti-Semitic, to wit: that Jews were vulgar and shady characters who were adept at making money through unsavory means, plus they were foreign and, as their culture was perceived at the time, undesirable in the society.  That said, a large number—perhaps a majority—felt these perceived traits of their culture developed due to the legal barriers erected against the Jews and would go away or greatly diminish with the advancement of Jewish civil rights and assimilation into the larger culture. Thus, it was a tolerant period, as a historian of the period, Jacob Katz, reports, “rooted in the more or less emphatic hope that the Jewish minority, in its economic, social, cultural, and perhaps even religious particularity, would in the course of time disappear.”2

Wagner held the ubiquitous stereotypes about the Jews, which was unremarkable given the zeitgeist. What was different—and considered rather shocking and impolite at the time—was that he disseminated these views via his writings, most particularly Das Judenthum in der Musik. 3 It was published anonymously in 1850 and reprinted under his name in 1869.  In this essay, in a nutshell, he makes these arguments about the Jews: first, he claimed that since Jews were a foreign element within Germany that they, therefore, could not write authentic and deeply passionate German music; secondly, that Jews made a business out of art, degrading it; thirdly, that Jews gave Germans—he assumed all would agree—the creeps because they were, in fact, creepy. It was the last point that people most strenuously objected to then and now. He concluded his essay with the pro-assimilation position, which was in-line with the times, but his airing of his animus to Jews was decidedly not.

Pre-holocaust, his writings about Jews views were treated as, essentially, not in good taste and part of his general character of being unable to hold his tongue about anything. At that point, it was still relatively socially acceptable to be anti-Semitic, so the urge to write about it critically didn’t exist as it does now. However, post-holocaust, there has been a profusion of literature on the subject, particularly in the last several decades. According to Wagner scholar Thomas Grey, the focus of scholarly inquiry now “has to do with the consequences of these facts, either for our understanding of the operas or for any possible consensus regarding Wagner’s implication in the murderous anti-Semitic polices of the Nazi regime that came into power fifty years after this death.”4

Beyond the serious, but often biased, academic inquiries into the role of Wagner in inspiring or otherwise abetting the Nazi movement that emerged about 50 years after his death, Wagner has been demonized and mythologized within Israel—and to a lesser extent, the rest of the West—and used as lightening rod for the anger against Nazi Germany.  In her book, The Ring of Myths: Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis, the Israeli historian Na’ama Sheffi explores the process of the rerouting of the righteous Jewish anger towards Germany through the scapegoating of Wagner. She explores how this process helped smooth the path for Israel to create political and economic ties with West Germany in the 60s. Consequently, as Terry Kinney summarized in this review of Sheffi's book:  

By the 1980s and 1990s the Wagner controversy had reached such a level that Wagner had been completely disassociated from his historical context. Indeed, proponents of Wagner performances frequently had to remind their readers that Wagner was not actually alive during the Nazi era, such was the level of knowledge concerning the real Richard Wagner.

As quoted in the Amazon summary, Sheffi concludes that the choice of Wagner as the target for all their abhorrence of Nazism and the Holocaust both sins against the man and obscures the significance of the Holocaust.5

To point towards Wagner as an architect of the holocaust seriously misdirects the locus of historical culpability. My belief is that, historically and morally, the responsibility should be directed to Christianity and Christians. They created the ocean of anti-Semitism, with Wagner simply a small tributary contributing to the major, and overwhelming, volume.

Of course, Christians did not begin anti-Jewish thought and action.  As modern anti-Semitism was built on Christian anti-Semitism,  Christian animosity was built on existing pagan animosity, so the blame for the Holocaust can reach even farther back in history. In any case, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment is embedded into the New Testament, which seems clearly to me to be an anti-Semitic text. Many passages within it put forward the Jewish stereotypes that still exist today, particularly about Jews and their greed for money.  As well, the imfamous line from Matthew 27:24–25 in which the crowd says at Jesus' cruxification “his blood be upon us, and on our children,” was widely interpreted as a curse on the Jews.6 

While Christians have this or that excuse—all lame to my reading—for what the New Testament seems to say, they can have no excuse for what they did, or encouraged, or ignored, for 2000 years, stemming directly from their sacred text. The Jews were granted tolerance—that is, they weren’t killed systematically—because, as Katz summarized, “of the hope that they would convert and step forward as witnesses of the Christian truth, by the latest at the End of Days.” 7 David Vital, in his book A People Apart, the Jews in Europe 1789-1939, states the case clearly: “The lesson of Exile in Europe was that as much by the sword as the word the masters of Christendom had sought to bring about if not the death of Jewry, at any rate its decimation; and, failing that, they had sought to ensure that Jews lived out their lives in the greatest possible moral and material squalor and degradation.”8 

The Catholic Church, of course, was the central persecutor of the Jews for most of the time. The reformation brought no improvement. In fact, Martin Luther was a truly fanatical and despicable anti-Semite. To take a piece from Wikipedia: “Luther advocated setting synagogues on fire, destroying Jewish prayerbook, forbidding rabbis from preaching, seizing Jews property and money, and smashing up their homes, so that these poisonous envenomed worms would be forced into labour or expelled for all time. In Robert Michael's view, Luther's words, We are at fault in not slaying them amounted to a sanction for murder.9

I agree wholeheartedly with Hyam Maccoby who considered “Hitler the ‘the boil’ in which the poisons of ‘Christian society’ came to a head.” 10 

Now, to my mind, Christians have not in any significant or real way taken responsibility for their dominant role in the persecution of Jews throughout the last two millennium, which clearly was the central source of animus that Hilter manipulated to attempt his ultimate destruction of the Jews.  Typical is this Catholic's attempt to shift the central blame to neo-pagan sources.

Look, I do believe that Wagner had some, though limited, culpability for setting the stage that led to the rise of the Nazi’s. When I have finished these posts the extent of his culpability should be clear.  But, to give him any fundamental blame is just asinine, particularly in the context of the overwhelming anti-Semitism—among many other calamities—of Western Civilization.

More on some of those calamities—like slavery, genocide or the subjugation of Native peoples, the Inquistion—down the line (but I need to finish the character section!) But let me leave with this, which pretty much accords with my thoughts:
Question to Gandhi on a trip to London: “What do you think of Western Civilization?
His answer: “I think it would be a good idea.”

End Notes

1 For this section, I am drawing on these sources regarding Wagner’s anti-semitism. I consider them fair and intellectually honest—though not necessarily correct in their conclusions or emphasis, which is notoriously difficult with someone like Wagner, who said and did so many contradictory things. Searching for the true Wagner is truly challenging, but these authors were diligent in their quest for balance. Katz, The Darker Side of Genius; Magee, The Tristan ChordAppendix 343-380 and Aspects of Wagner, pages 19-28; Grey,  The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, pages 203-218; Brener, Richard Wagner and the Jews; from Deathridge, Muller, Wapnewski, the Wagner Handbook, the article "The Question of Anti-Semitism" by Dieter Borchmeyer, Millington, the Wagner Compendium, pages 161-164. If you read German, I have read very good things about Dieter David Scholz's Richard Wagners Antiseitismus. 
2 Katz, 5
3 Full text of the article is here. Warning though: the translator Ellis is considered to be horrible and makes the job of understanding what Wagner means much more difficult than it should be.  Here is a post from the blog Think Classical  that makes that point very well. This blogger’s interpretation of Wagner's article—he translated it himself and it is much clearer and less offensive—is here.  This translation problem is compounded by the fact that Wagner is normally an obtuse writer. Bryan Magee says of his lack of skill—on page 4 of Aspects of Wagner—“One forms the conviction that the prose was improvised, poured out without forethought or discipline—that when Wagner embarked on each individual sentence he had no idea how it was going to end. Many passages are intolerably boring. Some do not mean anything at all. It always calls for sustained effort from the reader to pick out meaning in the cloud of words. Often one has to go on reading for several pages before beginning to descry what, like a solid figure emerging from a mist, it is he is saying.” He is so unclear that people have come to diametrically opposed opinions about what his words actually mean. That said, the ending of Wagner's article, quoted out of context, has been intentionally misinterpreted in horrific ways that are clearly wrong if you actually read the article.
4 Grey, The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, page 203
5 I don’t have the book here in Hawaii, so this quote from the book description will have to do.   
6 Here and here are some sources if you want to read more.
7 Katz, page 6.  Katz also wrote From Prejudice to Destruction 1700-1933  if you want to read a full survey of the rise of the so-called "modern" anti-semitism.
8 Vital, 108
9 From Wikipedia.  Defenders of Martin Luther point to his tolerance for Jews in his younger years, but his tolerance ended when Jews—those stubborn cusses—didn't convert to his reform version of Christianity.  This is hardly a defense in my view.

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