Wagner Festival Confronts Controversial Past

Bayreuth Looks Back at a History of Music and Politics

Blue Man Group: This year, Wagner gnomes are ubiquitous at the Bayreuth Festival.
A.J. Goldmann
Blue Man Group: This year, Wagner gnomes are ubiquitous at the Bayreuth Festival.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published August 02, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On the occasion of the Bayreuth Festival the Grüner Hügel, or Green Hill, that is home to the Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus was littered with 500 multicolored “mini-Wagners” — garden-gnomelike figurines of the composer, hands raised as if ready to conduct. These cute statuettes share the hill with an outdoor exhibition, “Silenced Voices,” honoring 53 Jewish singers, musicians and conductors who performed at the festival before World War II. One of the earliest was conductor Hermann Levi, who led the premiere of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final, mystical opera, in 1882. To the left and right of the massive bust of Wagner, designed by Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, are the biographies of Bayreuth musicians who perished in the Holocaust. At the top of the hill is the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, the opera house designed by the composer himself both as the perfect performance venue for his operas and as a den of worship for his most ardent admirers.

For much of the festival’s history, the spirit of levity coupled with introspection evidenced by the Wagner-gnomes and the “Silenced Voices” exhibition would have been unthinkable. This mixture of irreverence about the cult of Wagner, alongside the sobriety of the festival and the role it played during the Third Reich speaks volumes about the character of the modern-day festival, which opened on July 25 with a performance of Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”).

Bayreuth is still the most exclusive and prestigious cultural event in Germany, and both Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and its president, Joachim Gauck, attended the opening of the festival. This year’s installment has been especially momentous because of the composer’s bicentennial. The Wagnerjahr, as it is succinctly called here, is being celebrated throughout the country with a seemingly endless spate of operas, concerts, magazine cover stories and newly published books. Bayreuth’s new production of the “Ring” cycle by the controversial Berlin director Frank Castorf is the undisputed climax of the Germany-wide Wagner-rama.

Wagner’s notorious (and notoriously public) anti-Semitism, coupled with the high-ranking Nazis who held his works in great esteem, has left a deep stain on his reputation and that of his music. To this day, Israel still famously observes an unofficial ban on performing Wagner. But the history of the Bayreuth Festival, run exclusively by members of the Wagner family since its opening in 1876, is far more damning of its reputation than either the composer’s racist beliefs or Hitler’s musical tastes.

Though Wagner built the Festspielhaus as a shrine to himself and his music, the festival embraced reactionary politics well before the Nazis took power in 1933. Unlike many other cultural institutions that operated during the Third Reich, the involvement of the Bayreuth Festival went far beyond merely lending cultural prestige to the regime. In the wake of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, the festival became a haven for members of the then-banned Nazi Party and their supporters. The 1924 festival in particular, which General Erich Ludendorff, one of the key players in Hitler’s 1923 putsch, attended as a guest of honor, had the character of a Nazi rally. The festival program that year described Wagner as “The führer of German art.” One could say that Bayreuth supported Hitler long before Hitler supported Bayreuth. Hitler never forgot the Wagner family’s friendship and support, and remained lifelong friends with Winifred — the English-born wife of the composer’s son Siegfried — whom he would visit annually. He would play with the little Wagner children, Wieland and Wolfgang, who called Hitler “Uncle Wolf.”


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!
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • 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.