Wagner was not an Anti-Semite

This article should have been entitled “Wagner Was Not an Anti-Semite As Far As Individuals Were Concerned.” A new article called “How the Jews Saved The Ring,” along with a related article to be posted soon should set the record straight. I apologize for any misunderstanding. GH


Richard Wagner has a notorious reputation for being an anti-Semite, the inspiration for Hitler’s atrocities, and the symbol of the Nazi era. Many Jews throughout the world, especially holocaust survivors, find the mention of Wagner’s name or the sounds of Wagner’s music traumatizing, but the association is unjust. It burdens Wagner with a label which is inaccurate, and it prevents many from hearing the sublime messages in his music. There is ample evidence that Wagner was not an anti-Semite.

I have addressed elsewhere how Hitler misinterpreted and co-opted Wagner’s musical themes. That there was an association between the music and the holocaust cannot be denied, but it was not of Wagner’s doing. Wagner refused to sign documents condemning Jews and Judaism. Why then, is wrath focused more highly on him than on Carl Orff, who was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party?

The 1968 publication of Robert Gutman’s book Richard Wagner: the Man, his Mind and his Music, which describes Wagner as a horrible, psychopathic anti-Semite is one reason. The book became a best seller and was especially influential in the United States. Although Gutman’s arguments were completely ludicrous, many people took them seriously. Perhaps fear of being labelled a supporter of human atrocities, is one reason that it wasn’t until 2002 that a sufficient rebuttal to Gutman’s arguments was published, when Dieter David Scholz wrote the Berlin Staatsoper program book for the opera Parsifal.

One example of Gutman’s claims is that in Parisval the protagonist’s purity was the result of ‘pure’ breading, meaning there was no mixture of ‘inferior races’ in his Aryan bloodline. However, even a cursory reading of the libretto or viewing of the opera will clearly show that Parsival achieved a state of moral purity through his own extraordinary efforts, not because of his genes.Early in the opera Parsival stumbles upon the Grail Castle, but he is rudely rejected by the Grail knights. Clearly he is not one of them, and ‘pure’ bloodlines are not an issue. Parsival is forced to wander. He purifies himself by facing evil while refusing to use the Spear of Destiny to harm others. After decades of this he again finds the Grail Castle. This time, purified, he becomes King of the Grail. In a letter Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk, he made this same point; that Parsival’s purity was not given to him through his genes, it was earned. Race had nothing to do with it.
Gutman stated that Wagner was in full agreement with the racist beliefs of Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-82). Wagner was interested in Gobineau’s ideas, but that does not mean he was in agreement with them. Gobineau believed there was a superior race. Wagner’s operas indicate he believed in the unity of the entire human race, and that it was humanity’s task of to re-establish our unity. Gobineau condemned the Celtic/Irish race for not being subservient to the English, a Germanic race. Wagner sided with the Irish. Gobineau believed in enslaving members of ‘inferior’ races. Wagner wanted slavery abolished. Wagner made these views clear in his article “Herodom and Christendom.” Unfortunately, a good translation of this article is unavailable in English. The Ellis translation has been widely discredited.

“Judaism in Music,” is another article by Wagner that has been cited to bolster accusations of anti-Semitism. But when examined objectively, as Scholz emphasizes, the article isn’t even about Judaism. It is about the Jewish poet or composer in a non-Jewish culture.

Because Wagner coined the term ‘the Jewish problem’ he has been accused of being the inspiration behind Hitler’s holocaust. Such a conclusion was far from Wagner’s thoughts. The problem was that the Jewish people were not being incorporated into the arts and society in general, when they had so much to offer. Raising the arts to new heights was an obsession with Wagner. Wagner was a perfectionist, and his operas required musicians, conductors, arrangers, stage hands, ticket sellers, and janitors. He sought the best people for the job, regardless of race or religion.

Wagner had a lot of Jewish friends and colleagues, including his favorite conductor Hermann Levi; one of his arrangers, Joseph Rubinstein; pianist Carl Tausig; writer and choirmaster Heinrich Porges; his public relations man Herr Neumann; and French writer Judith Gautier, with whom he had what might be called a long-distance love affair. Wagner said in his autobiography one of the most beautiful friendships of his life was with Samuel Lehrs, a Jew. He had a deep appreciation for Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn. He was asked several times but always refused to sign any public declarations against the Jews.

Wagner considered himself a philosopher first and a composer second. He was a prolific writer, but his concepts of human consciousness were so far ahead of the general population that he had trouble expressing himself in writing. His ideas were further muddied by translators who failed to understand him, as well as critics with questionable agendas. It is no wonder to me that Wagner has been misunderstood. And yet, despite his communication problems, Wagner’s message of humanity uniting in spirit comes through in his operas, in his writings, and in his choice of friends and professional associates.

We live at a time when the accuracy of history lessons is being challenged. Wagner’s history has made that list, but just barely. The sooner he is generally recognized for the man he was and the values he held, the sooner appreciation of him will extend beyond his music and operas to his greatest gift of all, his wisdom.

Partial List of References:
1 http://www.monsalvat.no/racism.htm (Supporting the idea that Wagner was not anti-Semitic)
2 http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Wagner.html (Supporting the idea that Wagner was anti-Semitic)


Comments on: "Wagner was not an Anti-Semite" (1)

  1. Margaret Bartley said:

    Thank you. It’s good to see some thoughtful research being done!

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