Richard Wagner's Bicentennial Sparks Effort to Split Music and Anti-Semitism

Hitler's Favorite Composer Gave Himself Black Eye With Bias

Hateful Genius: German composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but a giant of the music world. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are more efforts to disentangle those two facts.
getty images
Hateful Genius: German composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but a giant of the music world. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are more efforts to disentangle those two facts.

By Reuters

Published January 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Former German infantryman Hans Himsel lived through scenes in 1944 at the Bayreuth opera house worthy of the finale of Richard Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” when Valhalla goes up in flames.

In this bicentenary year of Wagner’s birth, Himsel, 90, recalled the last wartime production at Bayreuth. It was August 9, 1944 and the cast performed “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg”, which contains the command “honour your German masters”. The Nazis had turned the piece into a propaganda pageant.

Although malnutrition was rampant, and Paris was to be liberated two weeks later, Himsel, a butcher’s apprentice who was wounded five times and survived the Russian front, said for the last performance the backstage and catering crews were feted with a band, half a duck each and all the wine they could drink.

Adolf Hitler considered Wagner his favourite composer. History’s problem, compounded by Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism, has been disentangling the two.

“We danced at the feast while the soldiers died,” Himsel said in an interview at a Bayreuth restaurant and hotel where Wagner stayed when he was building his Bavarian opera house in the late 19th century.

Hitler was a Bayreuth regular and kept it going during the war by buying up tickets for soldiers to attend. Hitler’s use of Bayreuth for propaganda purposes, rivaled only by his manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, resonates still.

“Of course Wagner’s reputation is terrible, I understand why people have the feelings they do about his music,” American soprano Deborah Voigt, who sings Wagner’s “Ring”-cycle heroine Brunnhilde, said in a telephone interview from Florida.

“It’s odd to me because as someone who is spiritual, and has a lot of faith, it feels like the music he wrote was divinely inspired and in such contrast to what his personal views were.”

“Wagner is a genius, the sound is extraordinary,” said Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer, who runs a Wagner festival in Budapest and is Jewish. “The music is not the person,” he added, saying what was important was “the intensity of Wagner’s music”.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.