Skip to content Skip to navigation

Wagner & Hitler

Book Review
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

Hitler’s Wagner by Monte Stone. Steinberg Press. 128 pages.

Have historians overplayed the concept that Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism is related to Adolph Hitler’s Holocaust? This is a deep and troubling question. Wagner’s anti-Semitism, as expressed in his essay on Jewishness, remains a troubling specter. On the one hand, Wagner always wanted the best musicians to play for him, even if they were Jewish, yet it is clear that Wagner did not approve of Jews, and he created a Romantic Medieval world of pure German myth and sensibility, an imaginary world before any Jews emigrated to Germany.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism, unlike Hitler’s, was not a controlling, psychotic bigotry. Psychologically speaking, Wagner’s more mild anti-Semitism may very well have been in origin an anxiety concerning his Jewish stepfather, whom Wagner’s mother married when he was six months old. There is not a trace of anti-Semitism in Tristan und Isolde, yet there is anxiety in the theme of the Wandering Jew in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Jewish music critics have a penchant for unearthing more troubling signs of anti-Semitic coding by analyzing subtle attacks on Jewish music in Wagner’s work.

Monte Stone’s book Hitler’s Wagner debunks the popular myth that Hitler often cited Wagner, although Stone admits that “Hitler was a knowledgeable devotee of Wagner’s music.” The main point is that some scholars have carelessly linked mythical Hitler quotations about Wagner, especially relying on a Nazi ghost-rewritten memoir by August Kubizek, a teenage friend of Hitler, who was a musician, although he later gave up music to become a minor bureaucrat. Stone’s discussion of the Kubizek memoir, which I have read, is fascinating and the most stimulating chapter of the book.

Stone rigorously debunks interpretations of Parsifal as being anti-Semitic, especially the work of Alfred Lorenz. I agree that Parsifal is not anti-Semitic, yet I admit that I am not a fan of that opera for two reasons: I find the music overly formulaic and massaged; I think it to be a travesty of von Eschenbach’s epic, which centers on the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam, as well as skin-color racism. Von Eschenbach argues for peace and communion between these two religions rather than war as he persuasively argues that racism is childish.

Wagner may have feared to antagonize the Jewish community by following the epic’s plot. He avoided this problem by making the argument that Christianity and Buddhism are compatible religions, although these religions don’t have a long history of religious-based war between them. Here Wagner attempted to address the East/West divide in the world, offering universal didacticism for peace. But that dogmatic, didactic appeal doesn’t provide compelling drama—or, for me, inspired music.

Hitler’s Wagner is provocative, amusing, clear, concise, trenchant in attacks on gossip, loose rumor, and shady “scholarship” while being knowledgeable about Hitler’s involvement with Bayreuth and Hitler’s own memoir. Stone is a recognized Wagner expert, and his computer program The Ring Disc: An Interactive Guide to Wagner’s Ring Cycle received a glowing review in the New York Times, as well as other publications. If you have a friend who a is Wagnerian, this book might be the right Christmas gift.