Arts & Culture

Wagner’s Anti-Semitism and Me: Struggling with an Artist’s Troubling Legacy

A Jewish millennial comes to terms with his Baby Boomer parent’s aversion to all things German Read More

By / February 7, 2013

Living at home sucks. There’s just no getting around it. It’s the little things that get to you. Like when you bring home a six-pack of Weihenstephaner—yeah, it’s imported—and the first thing your dad says is, “German beer, huh? Not something I usually buy.” That’ll teach you for trying to earn his admiration through alcohol.

My Jewish baby-boomer parents were in the habit of bringing up the Holocaust whenever anything from Germany reared its head, effervescent or otherwise. They grew up in the shadow of the Shoah and were leery of all things German as a result. For me though, the moratorium on Teutonic culture had little pragmatic, or even moral, value. It seemed like collective punishment, nothing more.

Wagner & Me, which recently opened in a limited release, gives this thorny issue a more sophisticated treatment, but only slightly. The documentary follows Stephen Fry, a Jewish Wagnerite struggling with his master’s anti-Semitism. The German composer’s reputation for Jew-hating rests primarily on an 1850 essay titled “Judaism in Music.” In it, the composer lambasts Jews for, among other things, their inherent artistic inferiority.

The events of Wagner & Me constitute Stephen Fry’s preparation for his first ever Bayreuth Festival, an annual celebration of Wagner’s operas held in the theater designed for their performance. At the end of the movie Fry must decide whether he should attend in spite of his ancestry. Unfortunately, Fry, best known to American audiences for supporting roles in Bones and V for Vendetta, has more or less made up his mind about Wagner from the start and despite a few moments’ ambivalence, tells us what we ought to think on top of what we ought to know—that Wagner was a world-historical genius whose work we should revere, even if his anti-Semitism gives us pause. In the end, Wagner & Me is more a monument to Wagner’s music than a struggle with his legacy.

For me, the poise with which the film navigates the Wagner controversy is ultimately its undoing. Fry’s elegant synthesis of Wagnerism and Judaism, his contention that one may hate Wagner’s essay while still loving his music, betrays the fact that we only hear from one side of the debate—the Stephen Fry side. And, insofar as the title of the film is Wagner & Me and not Wagner & The Jews, this seems fair. But if Wagner & Me were really to grapple with the controversy that lies at its heart, the one that (title or not) motivated Fry to make the movie he did, then we would have to reckon with some things the film does not.

What Fry fails to consider is the extent to which Wagner’s hatred of Jews may have sullied his work, and not just its reception. It is one thing to say Wagner was anti-Semitic. It is another to say his operas were. In his book Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, Marc Weiner argues for the latter, exploring Wagner’s perpetuation of Jewish stereotypes onstage. That the word Jew doesn’t appear in Wagner’s libretti is, as Weiner argues, irrelevant given the clarity of Wagner’s anti-Jewish symbolism for 19th-century audiences.

Another thing Fry doesn’t address, or at least not in any great depth, is the extent to which others may not be able to compartmentalize as well as he does. Fry is never viscerally disgusted by Wagner’s anti-Semitism, even if he is opposed to it conceptually. He can get past the nastiness to the music he fell in love with as a small boy.

This is something I can do as well. I can read Judaism in Music and still shiver when the Tristan chord plays. My parents, on the other hand, cannot—or at least not to the same degree. If they ever visited Bayreuth, or even Germany, they would do so with a heavy heart. This sort of German aversion wasn’t something I understood at first, but when I got to college I got an inkling of what it was about, even if I didn’t agree with where it led.

I read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in my junior year and was outraged. These were some of the most inflammatory, vitriolic passages I had ever encountered, and many of them were about the Jews:

All that has been done on earth against “the noble,” “the powerful,” “the masters,” “the rulers,” fades into nothing compared with what the Jews have done against them; the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness. It was the Jews who…dared to invert the aristocratic value equation…and to hang on to this inversion with their teeth, the teeth of the most abysmal hatred (the hatred of impotence), saying “the wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God.

Fighting words—and they were a central part of Nietzsche’s work, not a peripheral part of his biography. The character of Nietzsche’s love-hate relationship with the Jews is the subject of debate, and much ink has been spilled over Nietzsche’s reasons for berating Semites in one breath and anti-Semites in another. But for me, he was tainted.

My Nietzsche prejudice wasn’t about pragmatism or morals, it was, like my parents’, about rage. Compartmentalization simply didn’t do the trick, or at least, not neatly enough for my reverence to emerge unscathed. Sure he was smart, but what an anti-Semitic bastard!

It was then that I began to understand where people like my parents were coming from. The distaste for postwar German culture wasn’t really about what was productive, or what was fair, it was about an emotional association from which they were not yet free. It was all too raw.

I won’t condone my parents’ aversion to German products, but I can’t bring myself to condemn them for it either. To me, their prejudice was precipitated by unprecedented trauma. It was not calculated to victimize a culture, nor was it pursued with any great conviction.

I haven’t felt the effects of mass slaughter or systemic discrimination, so who am I to judge? If I did judge, it would only be by ignoring the pain that had attracted my parents to their prejudice in the first place.

Sure, I drink Weihenstephaner. But if you were raised by survivors, I can appreciate why you might not.