15 October 2010
The controversy over Wagner

A debate over whether it is appropriate for an Israeli orchestra to play the music of the notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner has again been resurrected.

The Jewish boycott of Wagner’s music was initiated in 1938 following Kristallnacht when the Nazis burned synagogues and instituted massive nationwide pogroms against Jews. In 2001 during the Israel Festival in Jerusalem Daniel Barenboim conducted a selection of Wagner’s music which led to demonstrations and the then mayor Ehud Olmert condemned Barenboim’s initiative as “brazen, arrogant uncivilized and insensitive.”

A few weeks ago Katherina Wagner, the German composer’s great granddaughter, sought to visit Israel to formally invite the Cameri Israeli Chamber Orchestra to inaugurate the forthcoming session of the Bayreuth Festival in Germany – an annual event promoting Wagner’s music. Her intentions were leaked to the media and created such a maelstrom, that she canceled the visit. But Cameri announced that it still intended to perform at the festival, although it undertook not to play or even rehearse Wagner’s music in Israel.

There certainly is a case to be made that if we were to boycott all anti-Semitic writers, artists and composers, we would be isolating ourselves from a very substantial proportion of the culture of the Western world. Besides, many pose the question “What has music got to do with politics?” Moreover, why should there be so much fuss over the music of a lone anti-Semitic composer who died nearly 130 years ago? And if we are going to ban Wagner, why not also ban music created by other anti-Semitic composers such as Richard Strauss, Sibelius and Chopin?

Yet if one drew a red line in the gradation of anti-Semites, identifying those who had a real impact on events leading up to the mass murder of Jews, Wagner would certainly stand out far beyond “traditional” anti-Semites.

Richard Wagner in fact became a central pillar in the anti-Semitic character of Nazism. In fact Wagner even coined the terms “Jewish problem” and “final solution,” which subsequently became central to the Nazi vocabulary of Jew hatred.

In his notorious essay titled “Judaism in Music” first published in 1851, Wagner expressed his fervent revulsion for what he described as “cursed Jewish scum” and referring to Jews said that the “only thing [that] can redeem you from the burden of your curse:[is] the redemption of Ahasverus – total destruction” – a code term for expelling Jews from society. In this essay Wagner described Jews as “hostile to European civilization” and “ruling the world through money.” He said that “Judaism is rotten at the core and is a religion of hatred,” described the cultured Jew as “the most heartless of all human beings” and referred to Jewish composers as being “comparable to worms feeding on the body of art.”

Wagner’s family continued to promote his vile anti-Semitic ideology, and became a central focus for Jew baiters and radical right wing Germans. His daughter Eva married Houston Chamberlain, an Englishman who crafted the ideology for Nazi racism in his notorious book “The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.” After his death, Wagner’s family became a central attraction for anti-Semitic and radical right wing Germans.

Although Wagner died 50 years before the Nazis came to power, Hitler absolutely venerated him, saying, “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.” He was so enraptured with him that he is quoted as having said “Richard Wagner is my religion.”

Hitler also became a friend to Wagner’s son Siegfried. After his death in 1930 Hitler remained very close to his English born widow Winifred, a passionate Nazi and anti-Semite who had befriended him early in his career.

Wagner’s great-grandson Gottfried visited Israel in 1996 giving lectures condemning his great grandfather’s obsessive hatred of Jews, stressing that Wagner’s anti-Semitic views were far more important to him than even his music. He was regarded as the black sheep of the family who disowned him and came under attack from neo-Nazi groups.

For Jews and, in particular for survivors, Wagner is not just another anti-Semite. He is bracketed with Nazism and can be said to have been a forerunner of those who paved the way for the Shoa. On top of this, Bayreuth, the location of the festival was renowned as a center for Nazi “cultural” activity.

Under such circumstances it is surely shameful for Jews to be associated with activity that can be linked to such an evil person. It truly requires a person to act in a schizophrenic manner to say that they can enjoy this man’s music and close their eyes to his evil actions. But even more so, the heartlessness of Israelis ignoring the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors represents a stain on our dignity and national identity.

But for an Israeli orchestra to actually go to Germany to perform his works in Bayreuth where he was glorified by the Nazis is truly a national disgrace. It should be cancelled.


This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post

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Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler is a veteran international Jewish leader with a distinguished record of contributions to the Jewish world and the cause of human rights, including the struggle for Soviet Jewry. He was head of the Jewish community in Australia for many years and made aliya in 1999. Leibler has held senior roles in the World Jewish Congress, including chairman of the governing board and senior vice president. Today, he writes prolifically and is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Yisrael Hayom.

(2) Readers Comments

  1. I never liked Wagner, and now I know why.

  2. Dear Isi

    Thanks for your informed opinion about Wagner.

    I am a good friend of Gottfried Wagner and first met him at Limmud Oz. I also gave a lecture at Limmud Oz on the History and Development of Jewish Music (from pre Temple to modernity)

    In the 1970,s as part of my duties as a concert violinist in South Africa, I had to play ‘Tristan und Isolde’ his great opera. Wagner (Gottfried’s father and son of Siegfried) flew from Germany for the premiere. I met him briefly and I remarked to my Jewish colleagues (the concert master, principal cellist and other fellow Jews “what on earth are we doing here?!!)

    Gottfried has been a guest at my home and we have had long discussions about the Wagner Question( I use that term with irony!) He has gone through a very difficult time. Gottfried went to live in Italy where he married an Italian) He told me that his family always had nostalgic feelings to Hitler, that his grandmother supplied the stationery to Hitler in jail to write Mein Kampf, that they still had contact with Hitler just 2-3 months before Hitler suicided.

    More importantly Gottfried told me that the themes of the operas are anti semitic. The despised, ugly little Nibelungs in Das Rheingold are metaphors for Jews.

    The last opera, Parsifal, has as its theme, the replacement of Christianity by German Nationalism (hallo!!) and you do not have to be a genius to realise that Wagner promoted his anti semitic politics through opera. (Mozart also promoted politics in opera, but the politics of embracing humanity withy enlightenment, equality and respect for women and minorities as equals) Wagner, who had been promoted and helped as a young composer, by Mendelssohn, trashed his reputation as a Jew when he died.

    Gottfried told me that Jews were the biggest supporters of Wagner. Of course I know of Hermann Levi the conductor and contemporary of Wagner, but today it is Barenboim and James Levine. Other great Jewish conductors such as Sir George Solti made superb performances and recordings of R Wagner. These people maintain you must separate the music from his ideology. Gottfried maintains that the opera IS the ideology. Gottfried acknowledges that R Wagner wrote great music. His Leitmotiv development and chromaticism is a major contribution to music. But Gottfried maintains that performances MUST contain explanations of their true meaning, and educate audiences.

    While I originally was a concert violinist, I am now a clinical psychologist and understood more the symbolism behind his hatred and the death cult of R Wagner as in Tristan und Isolde, his clash with Brahms ( part of the Mendelssohn, Schumann, and (Jewish) Joseph Joachim group) and so on.

    Gottfried is up against a powerful political and artistic establishment. Despite health problems, he organizes Holocaust reconciliation work in second generation, and promotes Jewish artists/composers who were murdered in the camps.

    People do not seem to want to understand that Wagner was no mere anti semite like Moussorsgky or Chopin, but called for the expulsion of Jews from Europe, that his writings were not dissimilar from Streicher’s in Der Sturmer, that Hitler regarded Wagner,s ideas as his “religion” and laid the foundations of Nazism.

    Realistically, Wagner is not going to be vilified. Bayreuth attracts the cream of German and European society. The Bayreuth Festival is with the Salzburg Festival, the most prestigious music festival in Europe. But Gottfried Wagner deserves and needs our support. His work is invaluable and he should give his lectures on the real aspects of R Wagner at the Festival in Bayreuth. His sister Katharina then would show real sincerity and reconciliation.

    Gottfried was often in Israel, last time in July this year. He also works with academics and artists in Germany and USA.

    He really does need our support. Perhaps you can speak to the Israel Chamber Orchestra about Gottfried giving his lectures in Bayreuth.

    Kind regards

    Name withheld

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