I had hoped when I started this blog that the year after the Wagner bi-centenary would bring some badly needed more sober views on Wagner. While the first half of the year was fairly quiet, as I expected it to be after the storm of the previous year, the begining of the second half is promising indeed.
First there was a statement by Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, as part of an interview he gave to Huffington Post concerning the controversy over the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” (I will not deal with this subject here since it is not the theme of the blog):
- So why object to this opera, and not to performances of others in the canon, such as Richard Wager’s “Der Meistersinger,” which some say embraces common anti-Semitic stereotypes once prevalent in 19th Century Germany?
Wagner’s operas are undeniable masterpieces. He was a flawed genius whose anti-Semitism came through in his voluminous writings and may have been woven into the ideological framework of some of his operas. But Wagner’s opera are fictional and modern performances are contextualized with commentary, and his operas are no longer controversial or contentious.
Foxman clearly not only doesn’t accept claims of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s musical works as fact but also claims that in the modern era they are in no way “controversial or contentious”.
But the real bombshell of the summer came in the form of Joachim Kohler’s article for The Wagner Journal. For those not familiar with his work, Joachim Kohler wrote in the late 1990s a book called “Wagner’s Hitler”, in which he outlined a thesis that Hitler had in fact through his career only implemented a plan Wagner had layed out in his musical and prose works. This made him a hero of the anti-Wagner cottege industry but recognized authorities on both Hitler and Wagner often derided his book. Over the years, Kohler continued to write on the subject of Wagner and added to his opus “Wagner: The last of the Titans”, a biographical book. Though not without some highly questionable claims, the book was an improvement over the previous one and signaled that, perhaps, the author was changing his attitude. Last year, in an interview for Der Spiegel Kohler laconically acknowledged the error of his previous ways:
As he sits there, Köhler comes across as a non-believer, a critic who became a disciple, and he clearly rejects the thesis of his book, when he says: “I no longer see Hitler being directly influenced by Wagner. Hitler didn’t become Hitler because he listened to ‘Rienzi’.”
With the aforementioned article in “The Wagner Journal” titled “Wagner’s Acquittal” Kohler’s Road to Damascus is complete. He now holds an opinion diametrically opposite of the one he held in the 1990s. Here are excerpts from the article (via The Wagnerian and Think Classical):
“The latter crime (Wagner’s influence upon the Third Reich) was alleged by me, amongst others, and since then by a large and constantly growing number of Wagner experts. When a ‘moral sledgehammer’ is being wielded,contradiction is difficult. I risk it nevertheless. This charge was supported by the unquestionable fact that Bayreuth and the Wagner family encouraged Hitler’s rise and had virtually adopted him into the family. But – as I see it today – this elective affinity [Wahlverwandtschaft] occurred decades after Wagner’s death. It is historically incorrect to equate the Bayreuth clan, including the heavyweight propagandist of anti-Semitism, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, with Richard Wagner. Wagner was never a narrow-minded sectarian, unlike his wife Cosima.“
“Wagner always considered himself a spiritual revolutionary whose concern was the liberation of human beings, including the Jews, from their so-called ‘curse’.
Generally, the term ‘Jewry’ was not understood as referring to the sum total of Jewish persons, as is taken for granted today, but rather to the alleged ‘Jewish essence’—that is, egoism and greed—with which, of course, non-Jews could also be imbued. Vice versa, Jews infected by the Christian ideal of love could become free human beings—what Wagner believed to have discovered in the case of Ludwig Börne, for instance.
Anti-Semitism, allegedly Wagner’s most important concern, did not stand at the centre of his life. As deduced from his dramas and voluminous writings, his main interests were theatre and philosophy. In both his most significant literary works,Oper und Drama and Mein Leben, anti-Semitism plays practically no role. If at all, it is found in the philosophical works, and there, too, it is never pivotal. … No, anti-Semitism was not the theme of his life, as the prosecution claims. It was one theme among indescribably many, including an avowed liking for Jewish friends and associates.
“Cosima’s diaries also contain disparaging remarks – what share she herself had in these ‘Wagner quotations’ will never be resolved. That she worked with him on his late writings coloured by anti-Semitism, indeed intensified’ them, is well known. On 11 February 1881, she wrote in her diary that, at her instigation, Wagner had changed his infamous essay ‘Know Thyself’.
The magic bullet always chosen by Wagner’s prosecutors is to quote relevant ‘passages’ from his books. Simply quoting is good enough for writing new books, but it is not sufficient to establish whether a defendant has actually committed the crime with which he has been charged. No phrase is intelligible by itself. It changes its meaning depending on the context in which it was spoken or written. In order to be able to understand Wagner, it is not enough to quote short extracts from his books or tendentious diary entries penned by his anti-Jewish wife. You must know Wagner’s context. But it should also be evident that one cannot speak about a single context. There is, to name just a few, the artistic, the philosophical, the political, the financial, also the private context.