Wagner's Dark Shadow Can We Separate the Man from His Works?

Born 200 years ago, Germany's most controversial composer's music is cherished around the world, though it will always be clouded by his anti-Semitism and posthumous association with Adolf Hitler. Richard Wagner's legacy prompts the question: Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?


Stephan Balkenhol is not deeply moved, overwhelmed or delighted. He doesn't brood over the myth and the evil. It doesn't bother him and he isn't disgusted. He rolls a cigarette, gets up, digs around in his record cabinet and pulls out an old "Tannhäuser" by Richard Wagner, a Hungarian recording he bought at a flee market. He puts on the record, and the somewhat crackling music of the prelude begins to play. Balkenhol sits down again and smokes as slowly as he speaks. He doesn't mention the music, and he still doesn't feel deeply moved, overwhelmed or delighted. For him, it's just music.

That makes Balkenhol, 56, an exception, an absolute one among those who concern themselves with Wagner. Balkenhol remains unruffled. He drops two steaks into a pan, and as they sizzle, "Tannhäuser" fades into the background.

Balkenhol is a sculptor who was commissioned to create a sculpture of Wagner. He has until May 22, the composer's 200th birthday, when the new monument will be unveiled in Wagner's native Leipzig. This is the year of Wagner, but Balkenhol is keeping his cool. He isn't worried about creating a realistic likeness of the composer, with his distinctive face, high forehead, large nose and strong chin. Wagner was somewhat ugly, and Balkenhol won't try to portray him any differently.

The Composer Who Influenced Hitler

He won't need a great deal of bronze. Wagner was 1.66 meters (5'3") tall, and Balkenhol doesn't intend to make the statue much taller. He wants to give the sculpture a human dimension, avoiding exaggeration and pathos: a short man on a pedestal. But that wouldn't have been enough, because it would have belied Wagner's importance, so Balkenhol is placing an enormous shadow behind the sculpture. People can interpret it as they wish, says Balkenhol: as a symbol of a work that is larger than the man who created it, or as the dark shadow Wagner still casts today.

Music and the Holocaust come together in that shadow: one of the most beautiful things created by man, and one of the worst things human beings have ever done. Wagner, the mad genius, was more than a composer. He also influenced Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, even though he was already dead when the 12-year-old Hitler heard his music live for the first time, when he attended a production of "Lohengrin" in the Austrian city of Linz in 1901. Describing the experience, during which he stood in a standing-room only section of the theater, Hitler wrote: "I was captivated immediately."

Many others feel the same way. They listen to Wagner and are captivated, overwhelmed, smitten and delighted. Nike Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, puts the question that this raises in these terms: "Should we allow ourselves to listen to his works with pleasure, even though we know that he was an anti-Semite?" There's a bigger issue behind this question: Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?

The Nazi years lie like a bolt over the memory of a good Germany, of the composers, poets and philosophers who gave the world so much beauty and enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries: Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Wagner and the Romantics. Nevertheless, the Germans elected a man like Hitler and, under his leadership, unleashed an inferno. In only a few years, a nation of culture was turned into one of modern barbarians. Is it not also possible that Germany's illustrious past in fact led it irrevocably towards the rise of the Nazis? Could the philosophical abstraction, artistic elation and yearning for collective salvation that drove the country also have contributed to its ultimate derailing into the kind of mania that defined the years of National Socialism? After all, it wasn't just the dull masses that followed the Führer. Members of the cultural elite were also on their knees.

Some were later shunned as a result, at least temporarily, like writer Ernst Jünger, poet Gottfried Benn and philosopher Martin Heidegger. But the situation is more complicated with Wagner, because he wasn't even alive during the Nazi years. Nevertheless, Hitler was able to learn from him. There was a bit of Wagner in Hitler, which is why the fascist leader also figures prominently in our memory of the composer.

It also explains why the shadow over the composer's legacy is so big. Any discussion of Wagner is also a discussion of denatured history, and of the inability of Germans to fully appreciate themselves and the beautiful, noble sides of their own history. Anyone who studies Wagner can perceive two strong forces, the light force of music and the dark force of the Nazi era. There are many people who cannot and do not wish to ignore this effect. They are at the mercy of Wagner's power. These are the types of people at issue here, people whose lives have fallen under Wagner's spell and who don't know what to make of their fascination.

Hitler as Wagner's Creation

Journalist Joachim Köhler, 60, described the dark side of Wagner in an especially drastic manner in his 1997 book "Wagner's Hitler -- The Prophet and His Disciple." In the 500-page work, published in German, Köhler portrays Hitler as Wagner's creation. When Hitler heard the opera "Rienzi," Köhler writes, quoting the Nazi leader, it occurred to him for the first time that he too could become a tribune of the people or a politician.

Wagner's hateful essay "Judaism in Music" offered Hitler an idea of how far one could go with anti-Semitism. The composer invokes the downfall of the Jews. Köhler detected plenty of anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas. Characters like Mime in "Siegfried" and Kundry in "Parsifal," he argued, are evil caricatures of the supposedly inferior Jews. Köhler felt that "Parsifal" anticipated the racial theories of the Nazis, quoting propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as saying: "Richard Wagner taught us what the Jew is."

In the 1920s, Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred invited the young Hitler to attend the Bayreuth Festival on the Green Hill in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth. When he was in prison writing "Mein Kampf," she sent him ink, pencils and erasers. According to Köhler's interpretation in 1997, the Green Hill was a fortress of evil and Wagner the forefather of the Holocaust.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Jakespeare 04/13/2013
1. Wagner
Wagner was first and foremost an Artist... and as an artist he portrayed the world he lived in with musical tones, daunting silence and thundering crescendos. True Art is totally subjective... and Wagner wasn't making musical statements of his antisemitism... he was playing back the deep and disturbing state of affairs of a Germany at war with herself and the world. If you were Wagner, the Industrial Age was stepping in and demolishing all established order. Christians in Germany had no love for the Semite either at that time. He captured chaos in his music... and it is unfair to lay National Socialism over him and his music. Germany was at the time, at the forefront of Science, Medicine, Art, Psychology and Technology. You can hear that all in his music... and the tragedy of the Titans fall from grace. Lighten Up Germany!
golestan 04/13/2013
The German obsession with post-Nazi guilt borders on the absurd. Anybody who could possibly have been in a position of decision making in 1945 (say of age 21) is now at least 89 years old. Not many of them left and of those who are still there 95% had nothing to do with the horrendous crimes committed in that era. Germany's conduct ever since the founding of the Federal Republic has been exemplary on the international scene. Now you are tainting the reputation of a great composer, who was dead 6 years before Hitler was even born, just because Hitler liked his works? I have news for you: Hitler also liked Berchtesgaden and he was a teetotaller. Are now all the teetotallers and Berchtesgaden also tainted??? ... just the opinion of a Canadian bystander.
sylvesterthecat 04/13/2013
3. Angst, angst and yet more angst
Sometimes I really despair about our German cousins. Germany manages to produce a towering genius like Richard Wagner, after giving the world the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and still worry about the fact that Wagner didn't like Jews very much. Would you have preffered a man who loved everything Jewish but couldn't write music? As he seems to be such an embarrassment to you, can I suggest that you ' find ',(perhaps under the floorboards at Wahnfried), a dusty old Birth certificate in the name of 'Dickie Wainwright' born 1813 in Felixstowe? We'll be delighted to adopt him especially as genius is in short supply these days. Incidentally, the most fanatical Wagnerians I know of, are both Jewish.
dorbarn 04/14/2013
4. How about the United States and Slavery
Slavery was upheld in our constitution... etcetc, we all know the history... can the good things that came to US history and culture through people and institutions, churches, courts, that upheld slavery be separated from this dark history?
Kurnewal 04/14/2013
I think the German emphasis on obedience, respect for authority and discipline historically fostered a society where emotion was repressed. In the arts, especially music, this huge reservoir of repressed emotion could be released. This is why Germany produced a successon of composers who have no equals in musical history: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. The idea of any composer from another nation being measured against any one of these giants is ludicrous.
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