Is Israel ready for Wagner?

Eugene Blum

January 16, 1992|By Eugene Blum

THE DISPUTE between Arabs and Israelis isn't the only Mideast controversy unlikely to be resolved soon. There is also the long-standing and no less intense battle over whether Richard Wagner's music should be played in Israel.

In essence, the debate is over the extent of Wagner's anti-Semitism and its influence on the 20th century.

The consensus seems to be that although Wagner was a licentious heel and a vile anti-Semite, the man should be separated from his music.

Remarkably, it now appears that Wagner has even been cast as a "victim" of the Nazi movement. Where once Wagner was perceived as a major influence on the thinking of the Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich, the argument today is that Wagner was shamefully exploited by the Nazis for their own purposes. This reversal of roles couldn't be further from the truth.

But do Wagner supporters really want to separate the man from his music? Ironically, Wagner's academic supporters have worked diligently to suppress examination of the composer's life apart from music, since that would interfere with his acceptance as an artist.

Thus Wagner's tract "Judaism in Music," which denigrates all Jews and calls for their burial, has been reduced to a cultural cliche among critics, historians, music lovers and even many Jews. And almost no attention is given to the composer's "Bayreuther Blatter," the opinion journal he published and that survived him by nearly half a century.

This latter outlet for Wagner's views and philosophies on virtually every conceivable subject was a forerunner of Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher's notorious "Der Sturmer" tabloid. Those who compare the two publications are often surprised to find that Wagner is at times even more extreme than Streicher in approaching the "Jewish question."

Wagner's racist theories fascinated Hitler, who often told close friends that he agreed with everything he read of Wagner's and that this "did not mean simply the music, but the whole revolutionary doctrine of civilization, down to details that might seem trifling and immaterial." Hitler often boasted that he had the most intimate familiarity with Wagner's mental processes and once said, "at every stage of my life I come back to him."

Toward the end of Wagner's life, the composer's anti-Semitism became an all-consuming passion. He continually called for the extermination of the Jews. Ultimately, Hitler accepted Wagner's "great solution" as his own "final solution" for the mass murder of the European Jews. He even borrowed the slogan "Germany Awake," which became a rallying cry for accomplishing the deed, from Wagner's "Bayreuther Blatter."

The one thing supporters of performing Wagner in Israel do not want is to separate the man from his art. Better for them that Wagner remain clothed in -- and, in fact, hidden by -- the acceptance granted his music

Eugene Blum, who writes from Baltimore, is presently at work on a political biography of Richard Wagner.

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