The Valkyries, the Apocalypse and the Original Sin when it comes to reading Wagner

„Ride of the Valkyries“ is without a doubt the most instantly recognizeable Wagner tune. Even those with the most superficial knowledge of classical music know it’s name and it’s composer. But if the composer could have had his way it would never have happened…


Ever since it first saw the light of day in Munich 1870, the Prelude to Act 3 of „Die Walkure“ as the tune is „officially“ known has been hotly sought after as a standalone piece. Very few people know that Wagner, sensing that the piece could be abused if taken out of context of the drama itself, fought tooth and nail against this. In the entry for Christmas day 1872 we find these words from Cosima’s diaries: “Unsavoury letters arrive for R. – requests for the „Ride of the Valkyries“ and I don’t know what else.” After the financially disastrous first Bayreuth festival of 1876, Wagner relented because he needed the money…


As it turns out, Wagner’s fears were in fact, prophetic. Over the decades, „Ride of the Valkyries“ has been (ab)used as a musical background in more ways then can be sufficiently recounted. Today it stands in the mind of the general public as a quintessential war-like piece. Much of it is a consequence of various WWII German newsreels which had been using it as soundtrack for battle scenes, and in modern times such perception has been reinforced with Francis Ford-Coppola’s „Apocalypse now“ and the classic scene depicting the helicopter attack on the Vietnamese village. More often then not, „Ride of the Valkyries“ was given a sinister conotation when used as musical background.Thus Wagner’s worst fears were realized and the use of the „Ride of the Valkyries“ has become somewhat of a microcosmic symbol of the (mis)use of Wagner’s works.


The main characteristic of Wagner’s works, whether musical or prose, is that one can not take out a soundbite, a tune, a sentence or even an excerpt and present it as the whole message of the work itself. The work as a whole needs to be understood first and only in the context of the work as a whole can it’s parts be used properly. The Original Sin of Wagner interpretationsis precisely that kind of reverse analysis, a generalization of a part to the work as a whole. It is from here that all the myths and legends about Wagner and his works come from, some of which have long since taken a life of their own. Thus we have a situation that the composer who had despised war and militarism like nothing else, is seen as the prime composer of militaristic music.


There are various reasons why such misinterpretations exist. Most are benign, others not so. In the case of „Ride of the Valkyries“ it is, I believe, due to the emotional effect it has on people. It is this sort of emotional effect that Francis Ford-Coppolla attempted to convey to the viewers of his film, and he did it with considerable success. In principle, however, the use of „Ride of the Valkyries“ in „Apocalypse now“ is the prime example of how Wagner’s works should not be used!


Or do I take Wagner a bit too seriously?

In honour of The Master’s 201st birthday



Here is a text from one Deems Taylor, written in 1938 but still relevant:


 He was an undersized little man, with a head too big for his body — a sickly little man. His nerves were     bad. He had skin trouble. It was agony for him to wear anything next to his skin coarser than silk. And he had delusions of grandeur.

He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the world or at people, except in relation to himself. He was not only the most important person in the world, to himself; in his own eyes he was the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk, he was Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant; sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself. What he thought and what he did.

He had a mania for being in the right. The slightest hint of disagreement, from anyone, on the most trivial point, was enough to set him off on a harangue that might last for hours, in which he proved himself right in so many ways, and with such exhausting volubility, that in the end his hearer, stunned and deafened, would agree with him, for the sake of peace.

It never occurred to him that he and his doing were not of the most intense and fascinating interest to anyone with whom he came in contact. He had theories about almost any subject under the sun, including vegetarianism, the drama, politics, and music; and in support of these theories he wrote pamphlets, letters, books  — thousands upon thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of pages. He not only wrote these things, and published them — usually at somebody else’s expense — but he would sit and read them aloud, for hours, to his friends and his family.


He wrote operas, and no sooner did he have the synopsis of a story, but he would invite — or rather summon — a crowed of his friends to his house, and read it aloud to them. Not for criticism. For applause. When the complete poem was written, the friends had to come again, and hear that read aloud. Then he would publish the poem, sometimes years before the music that went with it was written. He played the piano like a composer, in the worst sense of what that implies, and he would sit down at the piano before parties that included some of the finest pianists of his time, and play for them, by the hour, his own music, needless to say. He had a composer’s voice. And he would invite eminent vocalists to his house and sing them his operas, taking all the parts.


He had the emotional stability of a six-year-old child. When he felt out of sorts, he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom and talk darkly of going to the East to end his days as a Buddhist monk. Ten minutes later, when something pleased him, he would rush out of doors and run around the garden, or jump up and down on the sofa, or stand on his head. He could be grief-stricken over the death of a pet dog, and he could be callous and heartless to a degree that would have made a Roman emperor shudder.


He was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. Not only did he seem incapable of supporting himself, but it never occurred to him that he was under any obligation to do so. He was convinced that the world owed him a living. In support of this belief, he borrowed money from everybody who was good for a loan — men, women, friends, or strangers. He wrote begging letters by the score, sometimes groveling without shame, at other loftily offering his intended benefactor the privilege of contributing to his support, and being mortally offended if the recipient declined the honor. I have found no record of his ever paying or repaying money to anyone who did not have a legal claim upon it.


What money he could lay his hands on he spent like an Indian rajah. The mere prospect of a performance of one of his operas was enough to set him to running up bills amounting to ten times the amount of his prospective royalties. No one will ever know — certainly he never knew — how much money he owed. We do know that his greatest benefactor gave him $6,000 to pay the most pressing of his debts in one city, and a year later had to give him $16,000 to enable him to live in another city without being thrown into jail for debt.


He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. An endless procession of women marched through his life. His first wife spent twenty years enduring and forgiving his infidelities. His second wife had been the wife of his most devoted friend and admirer, from whom he stole her. And even while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was writing to a friend to inquire whether he could suggest some wealthy woman — any wealthy woman — whom he could marry for her money.


He was completely selfish in his other personal relationships. His liking for his friends was measured solely by the completeness of their devotion to him, or by their usefulness to him, whether financial or artistic. The minute they failed him — even by so much as refusing dinner invitation — or began to lessen in usefulness, he cast them off without a second thought. At the end of his life he had exactly one friend left whom he had known even in middle age.

The name of this monster was Richard Wagner. Everything that I have said about him you can find on record — in newspapers, in police reports, in the testimony of people who knew him, in his own letters, between the lines of his autobiography. And the curious thing about this record is that it doesn’t matter in the least.


Because this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man was right all the time. The joke was on us. He was one of the world’s greatest dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen. The world did owe him a living.

When you consider what he wrote — thirteen operas and music dramas, eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably worth ranking among the world’s great musico-dramatic masterpieces — when you listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to endure from him don’t seem much of a price. Think of the luxury with which for a time, at least, fate rewarded Napoleon, the man who ruined France and looted Europe; and then perhaps you will agree that a few thousand dollars’ worth of debts were not too heavy a price to pay for the Ring cycle.


What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not for a single moment did he ever compromise with what he believed, with what he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind. Even when he is dull, or downright bad, he is dull in the grand manner. There is greatness about his worst mistakes. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what he may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor brain and body didn’t burst under the torment of the demon of creative energy that lived inside him, struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?

Bashing Wagner is obligatory, telling the truth is optional

The clip above is a documentary about Richard Wagner made by the American network PBS. It has some worthwhile facts about Wagner presented by (half)legitimate scholars and in a fairly agreeable and colourful manner too. Sadly, the film suffers from the usual moralistic waxing about Wagner the man and his legacy all looked through the glass of temporary standards instead of putting it all in the proper context. It could even be overlooked if it wasn’t for patently false and slanderous claims presented along the way.

The film gets off the wrong foot right from the beginning when the first person inteviewed , a survivor from Aushhwitz(who, just like other participants, was not identified which is the film’s major flaw; I recognized some of the people in it but someone not versed into Wagner most certainly could not do so) stated that:”Wagner was the first to preach the separation of races, the first who defined the concept of a master race”. This claim is false, from the first letter to the last! I can vouch with my life that Wagner never said or wrote any such a thing! Even more egregious then the claim itself is it’s treatment by the authors of the film who left it unchallenged and prepared the usually not very knowledgeable average viewer into accepting the distorted picture of Wagner as some sort of a psychpath.

The film then continues in a more or less correct manner up until the last 5-10 minutes when it again abandons any pretense of scholarly standards. At that point, a “debate”, if someone can call it that, begins on whether Wagner’s works contain any antisemitism. It featured various authors, charlatans the lot of them save Barry Millinton, using all sorts of fantastic and ludicrous constructions as proof that Wagner integrated his animosity towards Jews in his musical dramas. Just like at the beginning not one attempt at balancing the views was made. And as an icing to the cake, the film ends just like it begins, with a lie that claims how Wagner hoped that “superior races would rule over inferior ones”. Again, not only is this not true but Wagner in fact called such state of affairs “a fundamentally immoral world order”. ( “Heroism and Christianity”)

This film, sadly, is not an isolated example but rather a template for the vast majority of Wagner-related publications. It’s long past time to set the record straight.


After first learning about “Inside Wagner’s head”, a monodrama by British actor Simon Callow, I thought:” Great. Yet another Wagner-bashing festival by an ignorant historian wannabe!”. Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong. This text on the Daily Mail site shows that Callow, in fact, managed to penetrate the layers of falsehood and reach the real Wagner. Of special significance is the excerpt in the picture below.



Wagner, Levi and „Parsifal“ – The Truth


Hermann Levi in the 1870ies

In this entry I’d like to debunk one of the worst and most oft repeated slanderous claims against Wagner. The story goes that Wagner had an obligation to take the Munich Opera orchestra and  Hermann Levi as a conductor for the premiere of „Parsifal“, that he did not want him because Levi was a Jew and that he only accepted him after King Ludwig II threatened to withdraw the entire orchestra. This was a story that caught on early thanks to memoirs of people close to Wagner in those days such as Felix Weingartner and Engelbert Humperdinck.

The story above is false, from the first letter to the last! No document exchanged between Wagner and king Ludwig is there as much as a trace of Wagner’s dissatisfaction because of Levi, nor is there anything that could be interpreted as an order or a threat on the side of the king. Nor can anything of the sort be found in Wagner’s correspondence with the Royal opera in Munich. Not even Cosima Wagner’s diaries support this version of events save one remark by Wagner recorded a couple of days before the premiere of „Parsifal“, long after the conductor matter was settled, in which he said that „if he were an orchestra member he would not want to be conducted by a Jew“. That remark however was so out of character for Wagner and in contrast with his previous behavior that one must question it’s authenticity and/or context, especially given Cosima’s views on the „Jewish question“. And finally, Levi himself never complained about animosity of such kind on Wagner’s side?

How how did this slander come to be?  How is it possible that people undoubtedly close to Wagner could fall for it? The story is an amalgam of several separate incidents not connected to each other, some of which were interpreted in a most malicious manner by some so-called Wagner biographers and some blown out os proportion. Truth be told, Wagner himself through his cynicism was partially responsible for it’s inception. But let’s start from the beginning…

Initially Wagner did have an obligation to use the orchestra of the Royal Theater of Munch, in accordance with a contract made in late 1880. Besides the specification of instruments and musicians there was a sentence that said „conductor Levi is part of the deal“. This has often been interpreted as an order by king Ludwig but in fact it was a mere specification which of the two conductors of the Royal Theater(the other was Franz Fischer) will be sent to Bayreuth along with the orchestra. Things get even worse for Wagner detractors in March 1881. when king Ludwig, in accordance with Wagner’s wish for „Parsifal“ to be performed only at the Festspielhaus, issued a proclamation making the contract null and void and merely declaring the Royal Theater orchestra „at Wagner’s disposal“ with a remark that Wagner is free to choose additional members as he pleases. As of that date Wagner was under no legal obligation to take Hermann Levi as the conductor for the premiere of „Parsifal“. Levi conducted that premiere because Wagner wanted him to, and for no other reason.

Of course, with Wagner, hardly anything is simple and straightforward. Wagner did want Levi and loved and respected him both as musician and as a man but this was no guarantee that his engagement would be free of controversy. What Wagner detractors often conveniently supress is that Wagner and Levi go back from the late 1860-ties when they began corresponding and first met in 1870. From then on, Levi was a regular and most welcome guest at the Wagner household. Needles to say, he conducted Wagner’s works regularly throughout, much to the Master’s considerable and often expressed delight. „Parsifal“, however, was a special case. Wagner saw it in quasi-religious terms, a „Gospel according to Richard“ of sorts, and suddenly it seemed inappropriate that this „Christian“ work would be conducted by a Jew. Initially, Wagner covertly, but also partially jokingly suggested that Levi should convert to Christianity. Seeing that this tactic was ineffective he suggested it outright. As Cosima was to write in her diary later, Wagner said to  Levi in for him uncharacteristically timid fashion that, „Parsifal“ being a Christian work, it would be appropriate for him to be baptised. According to Cosima’s follow-up „these words caused such an expression on our friend’s face that R. Immediately changed the subject“. Never to bring it up again, I add…

The next incident happened in late June 1881. Wagner received an anonymous letter in which, aside from being criticized for having a Jew conduct a „Christian work“, was an accusation of Cosima having an affair with Levi. As Cosima noted in her diary they both laughed it off as nonsense. Wagner, wanting to play a practical joke on Levi, left the letter on Levi’s desk without any side comment.

The joke, however, went awry. Levi took offense at the letter, and solely because of the second part in which he was accused of wrecking Wagner’s marriage. He thought Wagner was confronting him and immediately left Bayreuth. After Wagner explained himself in a letter(in his own characteristic way, it has to be said) he returned a couple of days later and the misunderstanding was glossed over. This did not prevent malicious authors from giving it the worst possible interpretation according to which the whole thing was a ruse on Wagner’s part so Levi would quit himself since Wagner could not force him out.

The question that now poses itself is how some people close to Wagner came to believe Levi was imposed on him? As I already wrote, Wagner himself is partially to blame since he himself likely is the source of the rumor, seeing it as a way out of a situation where he looked like a hypocrite. Also, the recollections of Weingartner and Humperdinck were written long after the incident(s) actually happened. Lapses of memory, erroneous interpretations and other problems usually connected to memoirs must be taken into account.

Finally, let us see what Hermann Levi himself said about his relationship with Wagner. Levi’s father Benedict was a rabbi and just before the „Parsifal“ premiere Levi received a letter from him in which Benedict expressed satisfaction and pride that his son is a part of something so special and also added „I wish I could like Wagner as well“. To which Levi wrote in reply:

„You certainly could and you should like Wagner. He is the best and noblest of men. Of course our contemporaries misunderstand and slander him. It is the duty of the world to darken those who shine. Goethe did not fare any better. That he bears no petty antisemitism like a country squire or a protestant bigot  is seen by the way he treats me,  Rubinstein, the late Tausig whom he loved dearly…Even his fight against what he calls „Jewishness“ in music and modern literature springs from the noblest of motives. I am convinced that posterity will learn what we who are close to him know already: that in him we had just as great man as a musician. I consider myself very lucky to be working with such a man and I thank God for it every day.“

Hermann Levi was, sadly, horribly wrong in predicting that the world would know the truth about Wagner but he truly believed that it would. His letters, however, are a testimony to that truth and a means to expose the lies of today.

PS For a detailed debunking of the false story on how Levi was imposed on Wagner read „Richard Wagner and the Jews“ by Milton Brenner, chapters „Levi and Parsifal“ and „Lichtenberg and the Knieses“.

Did he really say it? And even if he did, so what? – Part two

In the previous entry I argued that the much-used quote attributed to Hitler „Whoever wants to understand national-socialism must first understand Wagner“ is of dubious authenticity. Nobody who has recorded it has actually himself heard Hitler say it. The quote does not appear in any Hitler’s speech or writing that is known of nor does it show up in any nazi publication of relevance.

Let us, however, assume, for the sake of argument, that Hitler really did say that „in order to understand national-socialism one must understand Wagner“. My answer to this is: so what? Followed by this question: just because Hitler says so, does it mean it is true?

It is rather amazing, in the worst sort of way, that 70 years after the Third Reich has been polverized into oblivion Hitler’s words are taken at face value, without even basic critical scrutiny usually awarded to such blanket assertions made by other historical personalities. Wagner studies are the only field of life where the views of Adolf Hitler are not only considered legitimate, but also mainstream and by some people even as the only correct views. In this entry I will at least partially try to correct this and in fact show that far from being the truth, the assertion that „to understand national-socialism one must understand Wagner“ could not be further from it and is merely yet another one of Hitler’s delusions(assuming, I repeat, he said that at all).

To start I will re-quote on the matter William Shirer’s book „Rise and fall of the Third Reich“, page 104/105 of the fiftieth anniversary edition of the book:

It was not his(Wagner’s: my emphasis) political writings, however, but his towering operas, recalling so vividly the world of German antiquity with its heroic myths, its fighting pagan gods and heroes, its demons and dragons, its blood feuds and primitive tribal codes, its sense of destiny, of the splendor of love and life and the nobility of death, which inspired the myths of modern Germany and gave it a Germanic Weltanschauung which Hitler and the Nazis, with some justification, took over as their own.

Shirer clearly says that, in his view, Wagner’s politics did not inspire Hitler but rather his musical works. In this paragraph Shirer makes two crucial mistakes. First, he equated the medium and the message. He believed that the ancient Germanic gods and the values they espoused were the message of Wagner’s works and not mere means, tools to convey the real message. There is nothing to suggest, even in sources available to Shirer at the time his book was written(early 1960-ties), that Wagner cared for the ancient Germanic gods as such and even less in the sources that were revealed afterwards. To him, they were merely characters of a plot. Shirer also omits the fact that when the „Ring of the Nibelung“ was first concieved Wagner was under the strong influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and his views on religion which argued that god (or gods) are in fact a creation of the archetypal in the man and which are at the core atheist. Wagner’s atheism, notwithstanding occasional lapses into some kind of religiosity, continued even after his „conversion“ to Schopenhauer right up until his death. It is inconcievable that such a person would argue a return to ancient pagan religion. Shirer clearly had little background knowledge on Wagner, far too little for his interpretation of the „Ring“ to be credible. The whole thing looks even more apalling when you consider that a couple of paragraphs later Shirer did in fact get Wagner’s true message:

Wagner, a man of staggering genius, an artist of incredible magnitude, stood for much more than has been set down here. The conflict in the Ring operas often revolves around the theme of greed for gold, which the composer equated with the ”tragedy of modern capitalism,” and which he saw, with horror, wiping out the old virtues which had come down from an earlier day. Despite all his pagan heroes he did not entirely despair of Christianity, as Nietzsche did. And he had great compassion for the erring, warring human race. But Hitler was not entirely wrong in saying that to understand Nazism one must first know Wagner.

The last sentence of this paragraph simply can not logically follow from those before it. Shirer, however, suspends logic and known facts in favour his own personal impressions, essentially inadvertantly doing a leap of faith into nazi interpretations of Wagner’s works.

The other mistake Shirer makes is not elaborating further his original assertion that „it was not Wagner’s political writings that inspired nazis“. Again, I acknowledge the fact that Shirer’s book is more of a personal account, a memoir, then a work of history per se. Nevertheless, it is inexcusable that Shirer doesn’t bother one least bit to explain how could it be that, in his view, Hitler was not inspired by the politics of someone who just in the previous paragraph he described as a person who „harbored a fanatical hatred,as Hitler did, for the Jews, who he was convinced were out to dominate the world with their money, and … scorned parliaments and democracy and the materialism and mediocrity of the bourgeoisie“.

(Digression: one must, in spite of everything, give credit to Shirer that he, unlike many so-called scholars of today, does not make pretenses that Hitler’s interpretation of Wagner is the whole truth and strongly allows the possibility of it being a misinterpretation.)

Perhaps the answer lies in the one single quote from Richard Wagner’s prose works that is actually recorded to have been used by the nazis(you’d think that there would be slightly more from someone who is according to Hitler himself the key to understanding nazi ideology). It is a sentence, or rather, an excerpt from Wagner’s late essay „Know thyself“(„Erkenne dich Selbst“) which calls Jews „plastic demon of man’s fall“. Goebbels used it in a speech he made in 1933. and it was used during the narration of nazi propaganda documentary „Eternal Jew“(„Der ewige Jude“). Do these words really support the notion that Wagner is at the core of understanding of nazism?

One of the characteristics of both Wagner’s musical and prose works is that you can not take a stanza, a monlogue, a soundbite, or a single sentence, even a paragraph and present it as standalone to make a case. This is the original mistake in analysing Wagner. Indeed, one must look at the adjacent sentences, paragraphs, even to the work  as a whole to understand what was meant by this particular part. Hence the same with Wagner’s assertion that „the Jew is the plastic demon of the fall of man“. Here I will give a couple of paragraphs preceding the infamous quote as well as the one following it, with my commentary. Translation is still by William Ashton Ellis, until I can figure out my own…

Q s udX}� 8ߗ g nazi ideology). It is a sentence, or rather, an excerpt from Wagner’s late essay „Know thyself“(„Erkenne dich Selbst“) which calls Jews „plastic demon of man’s fall“. Goebbels used it in a speech he made in 1933. and it was used during the narration of nazi propaganda documentary „Eternal Jew“(„Der ewige Jude“). Do these words really support the notion that Wagner is at the core of understanding of nazism?

Clever though be the many thoughts expressed by mouth or pen about the invention of money and its enormous value as a civiliser, against such praises should be set the curse to which it has always been doomed in song and legend. If gold here figures as the demon strangling manhood’s innocence, our greatest poet shews at last the goblin’s game of paper money. The Nibelung’s fateful ring become a pocket-book, might well complete the eerie picture of the spectral world-controller. By the advocates of our Progressive Civilisation this rulership is indeed regarded as a spiritual, nay, a moral power; for vanished Faith is now replaced by “Credit,” that fiction of our mutual honesty kept upright by the most elaborate safeguards against loss and trickery. What comes to pass beneath the benedictions of this Credit we now are witnessing, and seem inclined to lay all blame upon the Jews. They certainly are virtuosi in an art which we but bungle: only, the coinage of money out of nil was invented by our Civilisation itself; or if the Jews are blamable for that, it is because our entire civilisation is a barbaro-judaic medley, in nowise a Christian creation. [269] A little self-knowledge on this point, methinks, would not come amiss to the representatives of the Church themselves, particularly when combating the seed of Abraham, in whose name they still go on to claim fulfilment of certain promises of his Jehova. A Christianity which has accommodated itself to the brute violence of every ruling power in the world might find itself when turning from the raging to the reckoning beast of prey, outmatched in cleverness and cunning by its foe; wherefore there is little present hope of special welfare from the support of either our Church or our State authorities.

Here, Wagner argues that the source of the man’s downfall is it’s sinking into base materialism and obsession of property. However, he rejects that the notion that the Jews are to blame for this . Their current, as he saw it, dominant position is a symptom, a result, not a cause of German’s problems. The blame, according to Wagner, lays squarely at the door of Germans themselves. They invented money and credit and then to wash their hands of it they gave the handling of it to the Jews who then achieved mastery over that(„They certainly are virtuosi in an art which we but bungle“. The whole argument is more elaborated in „Jewishness in Music“) . Wagner continues:

However, an inner motive plainly lies at bottom of the present movement, little as it may be evinced by the behaviour of its leaders so far. We expressed our belief, above, that this motive was the re-awakening of an instinct lost to the German nation. People speak of an antagonism of races. In this sense we should have fresh cause for self-inspection, as it would necessitate our defining the relation of certain given breeds of man to one another. Here it would probably have to be recognised at the outset that, in talking of a German “race,” it would be very difficult, nay, wellnigh impossible to compare it with a race so strongly pronounced, and still unaltered, as the Jewish. When learned men debate the relative value of mixed or pure-bred races, for the evolution of mankind, the decision must surely hinge on what we mean by man’s developmental progress. The so-called Romanic nations, and the English too, are praised as hybrid stocks that obviously surpass in Culture-progress the peoples of a haply pure Germanic breed. On the other hand, if one declines to be blinded by the glamour of this culture and civilisation, and seeks the welfare of mankind in its bringing-to-birth of great characters, one finds that these far rather come to light—nay, almost solely—in pure-bred races; where it seems that the still unbroken nature-force of Race at first makes up for every higher human virtue yet unformed, and only to be won through life’s sore trials, by that of pride. This peculiar pride of race, that still gave us in the [270] Middle Ages such towering characters as Princes, Kings and Kaisers, may be met even to-day in the old nobility of German origin, although in unmistakable degeneration; and that degeneration we should have to take seriously into account if we wished to explain the fall of the German Folk, now exposed defenceless to the inroads of the Jews. For this, the proper course might be to first recall the unexampled devastation which Germany suffered through the Thirty Years War: after by far the greatest part of the male population had been rooted out of town and country, while the female had been violated to no less a degree by Walloons, Croats, Spaniards, French and Swedes, the relatively little-injured nobles may scarcely have felt themselves one racial body with the remnant of this decimated people. That feeling of community we still find markedly expressed in many a preceding epoch; and then it was the true patrician families, that contrived to re-illume the proper spirit after serious diminution of the nation’s substance. This we may see in the revival of Germanic races by new offshoots from the parent stock, when tribal migration had robbed the home-stayers of their first heroic clans; we see it in the resuscitation of the German language by patrician poets of the Hohenstaufen era, after monkish Latin had become the only medium of gentility, whereas the spirit of their poetry thrust down to the peasant’s hut and shaped one wholly equal speech for Folk alike and Noble; and once again we see it in the stand against the outrage foisted on the Germans by the Church of Rome, when the example of its lords and princes led the Folk to stout defence. ‘Twas otherwise after the Thirty Years War: the nobles found no nation left, to which to feel their kinship; the great monarchic powers shifted from the stricter seat of Germany towards the Slavic east: degenerate Slays, decadent Germans, form the soil of the eighteenth century’s history, a soil to which the Jew might confidently migrate from a Poland and a Hungary sucked dry, since even prince and noble durst no longer be ashamed of doing business with him; for—Pride [271] itself had just been pledged already, exchanged for vanity and greed.

Wagner asserts here that since the Thirty Years War and the depopulation and desolation it has brought to Germany on can no longer speak of a „German race“, let alone of the „pure German race“. In fact, he argues, if one uses the criteria of racial antisemites themselves, the Jews are in fact a far „purer“ race then the Germans, who are, save a thin royal/aristocratic class(which, one has to say, Wagner despised), a mixture of various Germanic, Romanic and Slavic people that have passed through the land during that war. This is in complete, stark contrast with nazi ideology. Now comes the above mentioned quote, in context:

Though in recent days we see these last two traits of character adopted by the Folk itself—our ancient relatives the Swiss can think of us no otherwise!—and though the title “German” has thus been almost coined anew, yet this new-birth still lacks too much, to constitute a real rebirth of racial feeling, a thing that always finds its first expression in a settled instinct. Our nation, one may say, has not the natural instinct for that which suits it, for what becomes it, helps and furthers it; estranged from itself, it dabbles in foreign manners. On none other have great and original spirits been bestowed, as on it, without its having known in time to treasure them: yet if the silliest news-writer or political cheap-jack but brazens out his lying phrases, it chooses him to represent its weightiest interests; whilst if the Jew comes tinkling with his bell of paper, it throws its savings at his feet, and makes him in one night a millionaire.

The Jew, on the contrary, is the most astounding instance of racial congruence ever offered by world-history. Without a fatherland, a mother-tongue midst every people’s land and tongue he finds himself again, in virtue of the unfailing instinct of his absolute and indelible idiosyncrasy: even commixture of blood does not hurt him; let Jew or Jewess intermarry with the most distinct of races, a Jew will always come to birth. Not into the remotest contact is he brought with the religion of any of the civilised (gesittete) nations; for in truth he has no religion at all—merely the belief in certain promises of his god which in nowise extend to a life beyond this temporal life of his, as in every true religion, but simply to this present life on earth, whereon his race is certainly ensured dominion over all that lives and lives not. Thus the Jew has need to neither think nor chatter, not even to calculate, for the hardest calculation lies all cut and dried for him in an instinct shut against all ideality. A wonderful, unparalleled phenomenon: the plastic dæmon of man’s [272] downfall in triumphant surety; and German citizen of State, to boot, with a Mosaic confession; the darling of Liberal princes, and warrant of our national unity!—

d bee9 � oaX}� 8ߗ less a degree by Walloons, Croats, Spaniards, French and Swedes, the relatively little-injured nobles may scarcely have felt themselves one racial body with the remnant of this decimated people. That feeling of community we still find markedly expressed in many a preceding epoch; and then it was the true patrician families, that contrived to re-illume the proper spirit after serious diminution of the nation’s substance. This we may see in the revival of Germanic races by new offshoots from the parent stock, when tribal migration had robbed the home-stayers of their first heroic clans; we see it in the resuscitation of the German language by patrician poets of the Hohenstaufen era, after monkish Latin had become the only medium of gentility, whereas the spirit of their poetry thrust down to the peasant’s hut and shaped one wholly equal speech for Folk alike and Noble; and once again we see it in the stand against the outrage foisted on the Germans by the Church of Rome, when the example of its lords and princes led the Folk to stout defence. ‘Twas otherwise after the Thirty Years War: the nobles found no nation left, to which to feel their kinship; the great monarchic powers shifted from the stricter seat of Germany towards the Slavic east: degenerate Slays, decadent Germans, form the soil of the eighteenth century’s history, a soil to which the Jew might confidently migrate from a Poland and a Hungary sucked dry, since even prince and noble durst no longer be ashamed of doing business with him; for—Pride [271] itself had just been pledged already, exchanged for vanity and greed.

Here Wagner claims that such a mixture of different people’s that the Germans have themselves become has a certain identity crisis, an inability to grasp the German spirit it has inherited through German language. Thus it proclaims material values as the highest on Earth and as such is ripe for being dominated over by „the Jews“. While re-asserting that, according to then-fashionable race theories, the Jews are an exceptionally „pure“ race, in complete contrast to the Germans, Wagner is afterwards, it has to be said, polemical against Judaism as a religion claiming that it inherently promotes worldly materialism. This materialism, however, simply converges with the already existing German decline into this same materialism and thus „the Jew“ merely takes advantage of the situation and becomes a convenient excuse for the German downfall. Hence the expression „plastic demon of man’s downfall“. It seems clear now that the nazis quoted the excerpt out of context and that the essay „Know Thyself“ has far more differences then similarities with the nazi ideology. This becomes even more obvious when one looks at the paragraphs that follow:

Despite the enormous disadvantage at which the German race (if so we still may call it) appears to stand against the Jewish, we yet have ventured to suggest the re-awakening of a German instinct as one factor in the present agitation. As, however, we have been obliged to discard all idea of its being a purely racial instinct, we perhaps might search for something higher: a bent that, merely vaguely (wahnvoll) felt by the Folk of to-day, would at first appear indeed as instinct, though really of far nobler origin and loftier aim, and which might haply be defined as the spirit of the purely-Human.

From the Cosmopolitan proper, if such a man exists in fact, we probably should have little to expect for the solution of our problem. ‘Tis no small thing, to run through the history of the world and yet preserve love for the human species. Here nothing but a rooted feeling of kinship with the immediate nation whence we sprang, can serve to re-knit the strand dissevered by a survey of the whole: here operates the thing we feel ourselves to be; we pity, and strive our best to hope, as for the future of our nearer family. Fatherland, mother-tongue: woe to the man bereft of these! But what unmeasured happiness, to recognise in one’s mother-tongue the speech of one’s ure-fathers! Through such a tongue our feelings and beholdings stretch right back to early Man himself; no fence and pale there hedge our nobles in, and far beyond the fatherland at last assigned us, beyond the landmarks of historic knowledge and all our outer trappings thence derived, we feel ourselves one kin with pristine Man’s creative beauty. Such is our German language, the only heritage retained intact from our forefathers. Do we feel our breath fast quitting us, beneath the pressure of an alien civilisation; do we fall into uncertainty about ourselves: we have only to dig to the roots in the true father-soil of our language, to reap at once a reassuring [273]answer on ourselves, nay, on the truly Human. And this possibility, of always drawing from the pristine fount of our own nature, that makes us feel ourselves no more a race, no mere variety of man, but one of Manhood’s primal branches,—’tis this that ever has bestowed on us great men and spiritual heroes, as to whom we have no need to trouble whether fashioners of foreign fatherless civilisations are able to understand and prize them; whilst we again, inspired by the deeds and gifts of our forefathers, and gazing with unclouded eye, are able to rightly estimate those foreigners, and value them according to the spirit of pure Humanity indwelling in their work. For the sterling German instinct asks and seeks for nothing but this Purely-Human, and through that search alone can it be helpful—not merely to itself, but to all that shews the pure and genuine under never so great disguise.

Whom could it escape, that, suffering from the inability to truly manifest itself in either national or church-religious life, this noble instinct could but lead a feeble, indistinct, misunderstandable and scamped existence hitherto? In not one of those parties which aspire to guide the movements of our political or our intellectual national life, especially at the present day, does it seem to us, alas! to find a voice; even the names they take proclaim them not of German origin, still less inspired by German instinct. What “Conservatives,” “Liberals” and “Conservative-liberals,” and finally “Democrats,” “Socialists,” or even “Social-democrats” etc., have lately uttered on the Jewish Question, must seem to us a trifle foolish; for none of these parties would think of testing that “Know thyself” upon themselves, not even the most indefinite and therefore the only one that styles itself in German, the “Progress”-party. There we see nothing but a clash of interests, whose object is common to all the disputants, common and ignoble: plainly the side most strongly organised, i.e. the most unscrupulous, will bear away the prize.

In short: (1) Wagner utterly rejects the „racial“ aspect of the Jewish problem. (2) Instead of looking to „racial instincts“ one should seek for the spritual in the man, the „purely Human“, which was inherent in the Germans of old. (3) The Germans of old no longer exist. What remained of them is the German spirit transmitted through Geman language. The Germans of today should re-claim that lost spirit. (4) This reclaiming can not be obtained through political movements and parties since ultimately all they are interested in is power which is merely another form of materialism. Rather Germans as individuals and a collective should engage in continual introspection in order to remove their own shortcomings and stop blaming „foreigners“ for their misfortune.

Rejection of German „racial purity“, even denial of the existence of „German race“ itself, as well as admonishment against blaming the Jews for the miseries the Germans inflicted upon themselves…It is by now transparent that even this one Wagner prose excerpt the nazis used in their propaganda is quoted out of context. „Know thyself“ is as a whole a rejection of then nascent racial antisemitism, which came to be the hallmark of the nazi ideology.

Think for a moment, if this one quote had to be used out of context to conform to the nazi ideology, what of the other Wagner prose, even „Jewishness in music“, that the nazis did not use? Do you think it could possibly moulded into what the nazis preached? The only logical answer could be „no“. Far from needing to understand Wagner to understand nazism, the truth is exactly the opposite: if you truly undestood Wagner, you couldn’t possibly accept the nazi ideology!