Wagner--Wagner was an important person both in terms of music and German nationalism of the grand mythological genre. He was a musical genius, but, as Eric Hobsbawm noted, "a towering genius although a very nasty man and cultural phenomenon" (Hobsbawm, Capital, 279). What Wagner created in his grand operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, was a romantic series of characters and adventures that harkened back to the days of the Merovingian kings and served as a back drop to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the high Middle Ages. Der Ring was as a 'creation myth' for the modern German state. For all of the musical brilliance of Wagner these four operas, which took a full twenty years to complete, were devoted to anti-intellectual fables of purity, courage and conquest. They reveled in the simplistic values of the untainted who inhabited Teutonic legends and throughout seethed with a xenophobia which in Wagner's writing was focused on the Jews. Symbolically it attacked modernism and especially materialistic capitalism.
Hans Kohn, one of the most important interpreters of German history and culture (along with George Mosse), holds that Wagner's Nordic myths ran counter to the more cosmopolitan intellectualism of the paragons of German thought. They both argued that Wagner's parochial nationalistic atavism would not have been accepted by the likes of Goethe, Heine and Nietzsche. However on the lower rungs of the socio-cultural ladder--where one finds the more mediocre thinkers as well as the great mass of the population--he was the champion and leading exponent of German superiority. Those lower rungs of the socio-cultural ladder were occupied by the volk in their millions. "Volk" means more than 'folk'--it means a people imbued with the spirit (geist) that makes them self-consciously superior to all other people. In short, the concept of die Volk was wrapped in an ethos of heroic mythology and racism. It reeked of the primordial and sought to find the organic roots of the nation in the medieval forests. The 'soul' of Germany, as you will hear me say again, was rooted in the German 'soil.' And here Wagner found the fertile ground for artistic inspiration--art is essence, it is spiritual.
To put it mildly, Wagner was self absorbed. Eric Hobsbawm wrote that he "expected total subservience from his audience" (Hobsbawm, Capital, 246). He seemed always prowling for some sort of fulfillment and glory. Ultimately his benefactor was King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his majestic theatre and home were built at Bayreuth in 1871. He eventually found his equal in Cosima von Bulow, the illegitimate daughter of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He seduced her away from von Bulow which seemed to have been fairly easy as both Cosima and Wagner had a laissez faire notion about physical love. Hobsbawm wrote that that Wagner showed a faultless sense of the bourgeois public [as] even his scandals became part of the creative image" (Hobsbawm, Capital, 287). She had the same arrogance and rarified tastes as Wagner and, if anything, was more of an anti-Semite. She served as mistress at Bayreuth some 31 years after Wagner's death (1883) and was well into her dotage as she lived to be 93 and died in 1930. Again, Hobsbawm has the final word and it is a body slam:
But, as has already been
suggested, serious music flourished not so much because it
real world, but because it suggested the things of the spirit and thus provided among other things
a surrogate for religion, as it had always provided a powerful adjunct to it. If it wanted to be
performed at all, it had to appeal to patrons or the market. To that extent it could oppose the
bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to
recognize when he was being criticized. He might well feel that his aspirations and the glory
of his culture were being expressed. So music flourished in a more or less romantic idiom.
Its most militant avant gardist Richard Wagner, was also its most celebrated public figure since
he actually succeeded (admittedly thanks to the patronage of the mad king Ludwig of Bavaria)
in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and member of the bourgeois
public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite, high above the philistine masses,
which alone deserved the art of the future (Hobsbawm, Capital, 299).
The ideological line of Wagnerian myth and anti-Semitism was carried on by an expatriate Englishman: Houston Stuart Chamberlain. He married Wagner's daughter and established his home on the holy ground at Bayreuth. Chamberlain, a would be scientist, suffered from various nervous disorders and turned to writing about race. His Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1900), Had an enormous impact on Volkish thought because he told the story of German history as a vicious battle for survival against the the devil in the Jewish race. "Culminating in the message of imminent victory for race, Chamberlain's Foundations became a favorite book in the Volkish movement. In many ways it attained the stature of being the Bible of racial truth, thought and victory" (Mosse, Crisis, 97).
"Emancipation from the yoke of Judaism appears to us to be the foremost necessity," Wagner wrote. "Above all we must prove our strength in the war of liberation. Now we shall never gain strength from abstract concepts, but only . . . from our feeling and instinctive repugnance of the Jewish character" (Kohn, Mind, 203-04). ("Feeling" and "instinctive" are irrational concepts.) And, as Kohn adds, it was not uncommon to hear both the master and his wife say similar things about Roman Catholics. Wagner's arch hero, Siegfried, whom he identified with the Sun God (is there any other?), was also equated with Christ, the Son of God. But Siegfried was a Christ militant and rampant--an action figure determined to take revenge for slights to honor and history. One who would punish the Jews and other weaklings. Although we know that the Russians were especially despised by German racial nationalists, in a cultural sense no country seemed more ideologically opposed to German might and authoritarianism as France. French intellectuals had been the empiricists of the Enlightenment and had made the case for the liberal revolution; and, after Marx, erstwhile German and Jew from the Rhineland, they were the proponents of radical socialism. But, more especially, the French thinkers were the cosmopolitans extraordinaire as they argued for humane standards and inclusivity. Neither Wagner (nor his mini-me), were concerned with such sniveling notions. The French were emasculators. "Richard said," Cosima wrote in her diary in her diary in 1870, "that the French capital, la femme entretenue of the world, would be destroyed. The burning of Paris would be the freeing of the world from the pressure of everything that was evil" (Kohn, Mind, 206). (This burning of Paris idea cropped up again a bit later: "Is Paris Burning?" was Hitler's question as the allies and Free French under De Gaulle retook the city from the Nazi's in 1944. It was not burning because the German general in charge of occupied Paris refused to detonate the charges that would have leveled the exquisite architecture and turned the city into a firestorm.) Indeed, jumping to the 20th century when Hitler had become a devotee who worshipped at the Bayreuth shrine, W. E. Mosse wrote that the tumultuous 1920s followed by the collapse of the Germany economy beginning in 1928, made Wagner the artist of choice for a depressed volk (Mosse, Liberal Europe, 169).