THE JEWS IN WAGNER'S REVOLUTIONARY PHILOSOPHY
THE JEWS IN WAGNER'S REVOLUTIONARY PHILOSOPHY
Having looked at Wagner’s revolutionary ideas, let us move onto his antisemitic thought during this period. It is very largely contained in his article Judaism in Music. Here Wagner talks about its genesis:
"You ask me about the Judenthum [Judaism in Music]. You must know the article is by me. Why do you ask?...I felt a long-repressed hatred for this Jewry, and this hatred is as necessary to my nature as gall is to blood. An opportunity arose when their damnable scribbling annoyed me most, and so I broke forth at last. It seems to have made a tremendous impression, and that pleases me, for I really wanted only to frighten them in this manner; that they will remain our masters is as certain as that not our princes, but the bankers and Philistines, are nowadays our masters..."/Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt Vol. I p145 18/4/1851
What Wagner suggests here is that he needs to hate Jews(1). That is, for him, his antisemitism is something essential. One can see this "need" indirectly. In one of the few extant letters from the Wagner's first wife, Minna, she asserts that the break-up of their marriage begun when she opposed his racism:
"You speak of the earliest scenes between us, frequent and ugly; you credit me with a good memory for things like that, and for that very reason those which you repeatedly brought on with a terrible jealousy; after these were overcome, both of us got along so well and lived together more happily than is often the case with married people. Only in the last two years, ever since you turned to miserable politics, which have destroyed many a happy relationship, have I been unwise enough not to avoid violent scenes with you; I just simply could not understand you in this matter....I was happy in the knowledge that you were close to me while you created all the beautiful things, and that shows I understood you completely; you always made me so happy, sang and played almost every new scene for me. But since two years ago, when you wanted to read me that essay in which you slander whole races which have been fundamentally helpful to you, I could not force myself to listen; ever since that time you have borne a grudge against me, and punished me so severely for it that you never again let me hear anything from your works."/Letters of Richard Wagner, Burrell Collection p289-90, p291 8/5/1850
The way Minna tells it, Wagner was so antagonised by her refusal to listen to his racism that he denied her the chance of listening to his music. He rejected her rather than forgo his antisemitism. This was the beginning of a break that was to last till Minna’s death. As Professor Rose points out, the only two races that could have been considered helpful to Wagner were the French and the Jews. There is only one article from 1848 (pub. 1849) in which Wagner attacks these races - The Wibelungen. It contains this statement:
“....we still avenge Christ on the Jews of today...”
This is probably a reference to the anti-Jewish riots of Easter 1848, when the revolutionary atmosphere in Germany facilitated the expression of the tradional anti-Jewish feeling associated with the crucifixion of Christ. The particants in such Easter riots regularly justified their actions as vengeance on the Jews for killing Jesus. In using the word “we”, Wagner aligns himself with this sort of physical violence against Jews. The Jewish composer Meyerbeer had been substantially responsible for the first performances of Wagner’s operas - and one supposes this was one of the things on Minna’s mind when she took exception. When it appeared in 1849, this is Wagner’s first published antisemitic statement.
In line with Wagner’s view that his “hatred for this Jewry” is healthy, Judaism in Music contains the message: "People/The Volk instinctively hate the Jews". That this is a core message can be seen by the number of times Wagner repeats it (skip to the end of the quotes when you get fed up):
"... that unconscious feeling which proclaims itself among the people as a rooted dislike of the Jewish nature ... the popular dislike of the Jewish nature ..."/Judaism in Music 1850 PW3 p79
"... we always felt instinctively repelled by actual, operative contact with them ... the involuntary repellence (italics last two words) possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews ... that instinctive dislike ..."/Ibid p80
our natural repugnance against the Jewish nature ..."/Ibid p81
"... that involuntary feeling of ours which utters itself as instinctive repugnance against the Jews prime essence ... through this unconquerable feeling - if we avow it quite without ado - must there become plain to us what (italics) we hate in that essence ..."/Ibid p82
"... something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing to do with a man who looks like that."/Ibid p83
Further, when "the cultivated Jew" "clambers down to Society's foundations", "... the instinctive ill-will of the Volk confronts him ... in all its wounding nakedness." (Ibid p90)
And he talks about:
"... our indomitable objection to the Jewish nature."/Ibid p98
There are two aspects to this. Firstly, and underpinning the whole thing, is the view that the Jews are hateful in themselves(2). Wagner might act with "forbearance" towards certain exceptional Jews when it suited him. But this was henceforth his basic position. Jews are hateful in themselves and it is right that one should hate them. Secondly, these statements constantly refer to "we", "us" or "our" loathing for the Jews. They set up the Volk as "Us as distinct from "Them", the Jews. 29 years later Wagner asserted that Judaism in Music had been the beginning of the “struggle” against the Jews:
" I read a very good speech by the preacher Stoecker about the Jews. R [Wagner] is in favour of expelling them entirely. We laugh to think that it really seems as if his article on the Jews [ Judaism in Music] marked the beginning of this struggle. /CWDII 11/10/1879
This Us versus Them attitude was not restricted to Germany. Beginning a few weeks after the assassination of Alexander II, a wave of pogroms swept Russia:
"On Wednesday, April 27, 1881, a dispute about the Blood Accusation in a tavern in Elisaveygrad, in the government of Kherson, served as pretext for the outbreak of a riot. All that next day and the next the fury raged unabated. Deeds of incredibly barbarity were perpetuated under the eyes of impassive officials, and in some cases even with the co-operation of the soldiers of the garrison. The example spread like wildfire, being followed on an especially large scale in Kiev (May 8th -9th) and Odessa (May 5th - 19th). By the autumn, outbreaks had occurred in no fewer than one hundred and sixty places in South Russia."/A History of the Jews Cecil Roth p351
Wagner discussed these pogroms in August 1881
"An article about anti-Jewish demonstrations makes him remark, "That is the only way it can be done - by throwing these fellows out and giving them a thrashing."/CWDII 11/8/1881
"In the newspaper there are again reports of Jew-baiting in Russia, and R. [Wagner] observes that is all that is left, expression of a people's strength."/CWDII 14/8/1881
Wagner thought people should hate the Jews - But he was also positive towards physical violence against the Jews - advocating it during the 1881 Russian pogroms and, probably, aligning himself with it following the 1848 German riots.
Does Wagner have any such views at the time of Judaism in Music? On the surface it appears not. He asserts that the "main inquiry" of the article (i.e the reason he wrote it) is to:
"...explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognise as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof."/Ibid p80
In order to do this, Wagner follows the "cultured Jew...to the taproot of his native stem". This Wagner locates in the Synagogue. Unfortunately the result is not good. Wagner asserts that because the Jewish service has remained unchanged for "thousands of years", the result is decay. The content and form of the service have grown "senseless and distorted", its purity "terribly sullied". The whole has "fall[en] to bits" and is without a "breath of feeling". He finds the service "repugnant"(ibid p90-1).
"[In the Synagogue]...for thousands of years nothing has unfolded itself through an inner life-fill, but, just as with Judaism at large, everything has kept its fixity of form and substance. But a form which is never quickened through renewal of its substance, must fall to bits in the end, an expression whose content has long-since ceased to be the breadth of feeling, grows senseless and distorted. Who has not had occasion to convince himself of the travesty of a divine service of song, presented in a real Folk-synagogue? Who has not been seized with a feeling of the greatest revulsion, of horror mingled with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound confounding gurgle, jodel and cackle, which no intentional caricature can make more repugnant than as offered here in full, in naive seriousness?"/Ibid p90-1
Here Wagner says the Synagogue service is a travesty of decay. It suffers from a “fixity of form and substance”. But, Wagner implies, that "Judaism at large" is also static and decayed. His idea is that the decay he perceives in the synagogue, the taproot of Judaism, is likewise to be seen in Judaism as a whole. So Judaism is rotten to the core. Antisemitism is the instinctive response to the sensing of the rot and stagnation of Jewish existence and repugnance is basic to it.
This “lack of renewal” in Judaism fits with another element in Wagner’s revolutionary antisemitism. In the composer’s mind, Jews deny Nature. Wagner had dedicated The Artwork of the Future to Feuerbach - and in his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had said:
"Utility is the supreme principle of Judaism...The Jew's principle - their God - is the most practical principle, namely egoism, which takes the form of religion...The Jew makes Nature merely the servant of his will...God is the ego of Israel which regards itself as the end and the aim, the Lord of Nature."/Quoted in Rose p20
In the only references to the Jews in The Artwork of the Future, Wagner follows this line, contrasting enjoyment of the "endless charm" of Nature with "our modern Judaistic Utilism" (p177). He repeats his idea as "the Judao-oriental theory of [Nature's] subservience to human use" (p179). This suggests that applying Nature for Man's use is archetypally Jewish. It further implies that the Jews utilise Nature rather than intuitively respond to it. That is they make Nature serve their ends rather than themselves follow Nature's ends. Although Wagner does not state it explicitly it seems fair to say that, as all creativity comes from Nature the Jews will necessarily be barren. It seems, therefore, that it is the Jews’ antagonism to Nature that underlies the fixity of form and substance in the Synagogue. And, in one of the key messages of Judaism in Music Wagner asserts that you can see barreness in Jewish Art also:
"What issues from the Jews' attempts at making Art, must necessarily..bear the attributes of coldness and indifference, even to triviality and absurdity; and in the history of Modern Music we can class the Judaic period as that of final unproductivity, of stability gone to ruin."/Judaism in Music p93
Another of Wagner's messages (a related one) in Judaism in Music was that the Jews controlled Art. For "the public Art-taste of our time [has been brought] between the busy fingers of the Jew" (Ibid p81). Indeed:
"We have no need to first substantiate the be-Jewing of modern art; it springs to the eye, and thrusts upon the senses, of itself."/Ibid p82
In finding that what repels him about the Jews is the decay at their core, Wagner perceives their lack of creativity. And towards the end of the article, Wagner says:
"...by getting to the bottom of our indomitable objection to the Jewish nature - there more especially results for us a proof of the ineptitude of the present musical epoch."/Ibid p98
The Jews currently control Music, as they control all Art. In following the repulsiveness of the Jews to the synagogue, Wagner has found that the Jews do not create. Accordingly the present musical epoch (the Judaic period) must be one of final unproductivity. It must be one of ineptitude. This parallels the lack of creativity of the Jew. But Wagner has worse in store. He compares Jewish composers to worms:
"The Jews could never take possession of [Music], until...its inner capacity for life [was exposed]. So long as the separate art of Music had a real organic life-need in it, down to...Mozart and Beethoven, there was nowhere to be found a Jew composer; it was impossible for an element entirely foreign to that living organism to take part in the formative stages of that life. Only when a body's inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it - yet merely to destroy it. Then indeed that body's flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect-life...In genuine Life alone can we...find again the ghost [?= Spirit] of Art, and not within its worm-befretted carcass."/Ibid p99
The image of Jews as worms comes from medieval Christian sources. Not only do the Jews have decay at their heart, they are themselves thrive on it. A disgusting image that concretizes the repugnance at the heart of Wagner’s antisemitism. We have already seen Wagner drawing on Christian antisemitism in the quote from The Wibelungen. He seems to have been keen to evoke a link between his brand of Jew-hatred and the age-old Jew-hatred to be found in the Volk.
We know that Wagner used to Judaism in Music to say that the Volk hates the Jews. But he also suggests that the ill-will felt by the Volk for the Jew is reciprocated. Thus Wagner makes the Jew hostile to European civilisation:
"Our whole European art and civilisation...have remained to the Jew a foreign tongue; at most the homeless wight has been a cold, nay more, a hostile looker on."/Ibid p84-5
Having directed the hostility of the Volk at the Jew, Wagner now says, essentially, that the Jew is hostile to it - as it is to the rest of European civilisation. And, indeed, there are specific reasons to think that the Volk and the Jews are going to hostile to one another. For, while the Volk are at heart communal, the Jews are egoistic:
"Never does the Jew excite himself in mutual interchange of feelings with us, but - so far as we are concerned - only in the altogether special egoistic interest of his vanity or profit..."/Ibid p85
The Volk are bound together by Love. The assimilated Jew's connection with the Volk is "entirely loveless"(ibid p90)(assimilated Jews are the only Jews who are going to be interested in the Volk), in line with their egoism. Indeed, for Wagner, the cultured Jew (who he equates to assimilated Jew) is “the most heartless of all human beings” (ibid p87). This is close to making the cultured Jew into an anti-person.
The Volk produce "Poets" but the Jews only produce "Thinkers" (Ibid p88) . For the "reflective Jewish intellect [,] is just a fruitless effort from Above" (Ibid p91). Effectively the Jew is cut-off from intuitive contact with the Volk. He is bound to be an outsider.
This also suggests that the Jew cannot get in touch with Nature. For this can only be done via one's intuition. This supposition is borne out by Wagner's contrast of Nature with "our modern Judaistic Utilism".
As we saw, Wagner considered that Society was decayed as a result of its denial of Nature. These ideas suggest that such a denial of Nature was archetypally "Jewish". As though Society, like Art, had become "Jewified" (to use his word). There is good evidence that he thought this - In an addition to a previously published article, he described the Jews as "the centre of our civilisation"(3).
This statement has two meanings. First Wagner implies that "Jewish" cultural values have overwhelmed Volkish ones. There is no doubt that Wagner did believe this, for he said so periodically throughout his career. But he also meant something else. In one of the most pickled statements in Judaism in Music, he says:
"According to the present constitution of the world, the Jew in truth ... rules and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and dealings lose their force. That [historical circumstance]..has brought this power within the hands of Israel's sons - this needs no argument of ours to prove..."/Judaism in Music 1850 PW3 p81
Here Wagner repeats his idea the Money rules the world(4). That is it is at the centre of civilisation as it is presently constituted. However he goes on to say that "this power [is] within the hands of Israel's sons". So the Jews are in control of the power at the centre of civilisation, Money. That is the Jews are at the centre of civilisation. There is a corollary to this. As the Jews are at the centre of civilisation, it is logical that civilisation should itself be "Judaized". As the Jews themselves are egoistic, deny Nature and are rotten at the core - it is logical that Society, which they control, is too.
Wagner has constructed an anti-ideal. The Jew is all the things the Volk shouldn't be. Further he is hostile to the Volk and the Volk hates him. And to cap it all, the Jew is at the centre of the Society which the Volk is destined to destroy. For, as we know, Money is THE enemy of Wagner's idealised society. But the Jews rule the world through it(5). The long and short of it is that THE enemy of the Volk is The Jew.
Wagner was writing his revolutionary articles until 1851, with A Communication to my Friends(6). So Wagner's attacks on the Jews in Judaism in Music fall within the revolutionary time frame. Moreover, as I have shown they fit in with his revolutionary ideas. So Wagner's attacks against the Jews must be considered an integral part of his revolutionary theory(7). Given his view that the Jews rule the world, it could hardly be otherwise.
As the Jews rule the world, and moreover rule it through that paradigm of evil, Money(8), they must be prime targets of the Revolution.
Let us look at the concluding line of the article, which is addressed to the Jews in general:
"But bethink ye, that only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus - Going under!"/Ibid p100
Ahasuerus is "The Wandering Jew", a mythological figure who was supposed to have refused Christ rest on his way to Calvary. As a result Christ cursed him to a life without rest. He was condemned to eternal life (with bad luck like that who needs good luck). His curse was only to be removed by Christ's second coming, when he would be allowed to die.
Over time (the legend first appeared in the Middle Ages - another example of Wagner tapping on medieval antisemitism) Ahasuerus became something of a symbol for the Jewish race as a whole. Wagner was using him in this sense - The only rest, or home, the Jewish race will find is in death.
This statement thus calls for the disappearance of the Jewish race. In the context of this chapter this shouldn't be a surprise. For as the Jew represents Wagner's anti-ideal, he can hardly take part in Wagner's post-Revolutionary Utopia
Wagner's statement, which is well known, has always been defended on the grounds that what he meant was a disappearance of the Jewish race via assimilation. Thus the statement is preceded by a sentence which calls for the Jews to:
"...take ye part in the regenerative work of deliverance through self-annulment."/Ibid p100
"Self-annulment" seems to be a reference to a destruction of one's own personal nature. In a contemporary letter he suggests that Beethoven had "annihilated his own most personal nature" "in order to rise to the universality of a higher life"(9). We know that it is the Jew's nature in general that Wagner finds repugnant - that he finds Jews intrinsically hateful. So the statement calls for the destruction of this intrinsically hateful Jewishness. This is the only way out for the Jew. He must stop being a Jew.
Once this has been done away with one can, in theory, join the true Volkish mould and become a member of the community.
It is worth noting that there are flaws to this argument. Wagner may say that he wants the Jew to assimilate. But when the cultured Jew, who is involved in precisely this process of assimilation, strips away his Jewishness he is revealed as "the most heartless of all human beings" (PW3 p87). This is not the sort of person one wants in one's post-Revolutionary Utopia.
There are also other, less direct reasons for considering that assimilation does not work. In the test case of Art, when the Jew tries to make "contact with the Folk", he is "completely powerless to seize its spirit". When the Jewish Artist reaches "Society's foundations" "the instinctive ill-will of the Folk confronts him in all its wounding nakedness". He is "thrust back with contumely from any contact with the Folk". This Jewish Artist is involved in an attempt at assimilation, the Folk do not want him.
It is also not clear to me how one can destroy something that is already dead. As we know Wagner considers Judaism to be dead at the heart. Jewish repugnance is said to originate from the decay that has set in as a result of lack of renewal and change in Jewish culture. So one either has to kill off this death or revivify it. In Judaism in Music (p91), Wagner says that Jewish attempts to revivify this culture have been "fruitless" and can "never" succeed. So one is left with killing something that is already dead.
These considerations lead to the suspicion that Wagner did not sincerely want to see the Jews assimilated. That, in fact, Wagner is merely attempting to deflect attention from his hatred by holding out the possibility of an assimilation he does not believe in. I think he is being disingenuous.
Well, then, what is Wagner’s true intention for the Jews during his revolutionary period? In his revolution, the Volk was to draw on its instinctive feelings. As he puts it:
"We need but know what we don't want, and of instinctive natural-necessity we attain quite clearly to what we do want, which never grows quite clear to our consciousness until we have attained it: for the state in which we have removed what we don't want, is the very one at which we wanted to arrive. Thus deals the Volk, and therefore it alone deals rightly...Only that which the Volk has brought to pass, can ye know; till then let it content you to perceive quite plainly what ye do not want, to deny what calls for denial, annul what merits annulment."/Notes for the Artisthood of the Future PW8 1849-51 p346
In this recipe for revolution, which calls on the Volk to remove what it doesn't want. Whatever else the Volk doesn't want, it doesn't want the Jews. They are the very archetype of the anti-Volk. It hates them. They are a central hate-object. Effectively, then, the quotation calls for the removal of the Jews.
Some of Wagner's language suggests that this removal is to be ruthless:"... deny what calls for denial, annul what merits annulment". This "annulment" is to occur in the context of "the most terrible and destructive revolution" whose success is to "be attained by downright murder". It is to be driven by the instinctive feelings of the Volk. Yet the instinctive feeling of the Volk for the Jew is one of hatred. There is not the slightest doubt that Jews are going to die in this revolution. Moreover the revolution is to be in the hands of men who "blustered their way through the streets of the town - which they might have set fire to ... had it only been granted them to act in accord with the fury they felt in their hearts." The revolution is in the hands of the mob. What we are looking at is a nation-wide pogrom. We have already seen that later in his life Wagner treated reports of pogroms with approbation.
He would defend himself by offering his alternative version of his "deny what calls for denial, annul what merits annulment quotation" from The Artwork of the Future. It begins:
"The Volk will ... fulfil its mission of redemption, the while it satisfies itself and at like time rescues its own foes." The continuation is a paraphrase of the quote we have already seen ending with the assertion that the Volk has "only to annihilate what is fit for nothing but annihilation and the ... Future will stand before it ..."/PW1 p81.
This suggests that Wagner's revolution is not going to be so bad - For its foes are going to be rescued. It is rather hard to square this with the idea of murdering them, however. One has to bear in mind that The Artwork of the Future was meant for publication (and indeed was published). The notes for The Artisthood of the Future never got that far. All our concrete ideas of what the revolution was actually going to be like come from Wagner's private letters (That is to say a medium in which he can say what he feels without consideration of public effect). It looks, therefore, that he conducted a form of self-censorship in his public utterances. This is why the passage in The Artisthood of the Future differs from that in The Artwork of the Future. Wagner is softening his idea of revolution for public consumption. Accordingly he leaves out all references to murder, burning of cities and terrible wrath. He suggests instead that foes are to be rescued.
There is one final piece of evidence for the view that Jews are going to die in Wagner's revolution. In April 1852,Wagner's admits that he had been having:
"...thoughts of robbery and murder against Rothschild and Co..."/Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt Vol. 1 13/4/1852 p200
As we know Wagner considered murder necessary as part of the revolution (he asserted this only a month or so after making the above statement). We know that the centre of the society which Wagner wants to destroy are the Jews. They owe this position to their control of Money. The Rothschilds are course the very archetype of the financial Jew. Of all the people who Wagner would want murdered in his revolution, they would have to come top of the list. In all probability, then, Wagner's fantasies of murdering "Rothschild and Co" are to be taken seriously. One might argue that all this stuff - all Wagner’s revolutionary theorising - remained just that: fantasy. That therefore it somehow wasn’t that bad. After all it was a revolutionary period and he just got caught up and no-one was ever in any danger of seeing his theories come true. Maybe so. But the fact is, the Wagner revealed here is a very violent man, who in his fantasies saw large numbers of people being killed - included specifically and in a targetted way, Jews. And he went on thinking just the same way.
1 “I felt a long-repressed hatred for this Jewry, and this hatred is as necessary to me as gall is to blood."
2 I have this formulation from David Pryce-Jones' review of The Controversy of Zion by Geoffrey Wheatcroft (Financial Times 13-14/7/1996 III, XII)
3 He certainly thought it later in his life. See Chapter 10
4 “Money [is] the power before which all our doings and dealings lose their force”
5 We have seen how he uses a Jew, Kaskel, as the archetypal money man
6 When he saw A Communication to my Friends in print Wagner wrote: "Surely I now have the right to think I have done with my pen! What can I say if my now my friends do not clearly understand...I have left nothing undone in order to make myself perfectly intelligible." Letters to Uhlig etc. 1/1/1852 p165. In the preface to Volumes 3 and 4 of his Collected Writings, Wagner says that the period of Art and Revolution was concluded with A Communication (PW1 p24-5 1872)
7 He asserts that it "needs no arguement of ours to prove" that history "has brought this power [Money] within the hands of Israel's sons" (ibid p81).
8 He asserts that it "needs no arguement of ours to prove" that history "has brought this power [Money] within the hands of Israel's sons" (ibid p81).
9 Letters to Uhlig etc. Letter 14 August to September 1850. Judaism in Music
was written in August 1850
Source: WagnerBuch by Simon Weil