Why Jews Stood Up for Richard Wagner

Anti-Semitic Composer Inspired Both Hitler and Herzl

Austria or Bust: The exhibit shows how Jewish Wagnerism existed in Vienna until the Third Reich.
Getty Images
Austria or Bust: The exhibit shows how Jewish Wagnerism existed in Vienna until the Third Reich.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published February 27, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

There’s an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Larry David is caught whistling Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” to his wife in front of a movie theater. A hysterical and unhinged nudnik accosts him, spouting the common litany of charges against Wagner (“history’s biggest anti-Semite,” “millions of Jews marched to the gas chambers with Wagner’s music playing”). While clearly satirical in intent, the “Curb” moment does illustrate the polarizing effect of Wagner’s music on Jewish listeners (and non-listeners).

Perhaps the best-known example of this is in Israel, where musicians uphold a boycott on performances of the composer’s music despite some recent attempts to break it. (It will be interesting to see how Israel marks Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday later this year. Although a less public anti-Semite than Wagner, Strauss had uncomfortably close relations to the Third Reich, both lending his cultural prestige to the Third Reich and profiting from its patronage.)

While it is well known that there are many Jewish Wagnerians — including two of today’s leading Wagner interpreters, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim — one might not be aware of just how far back the Jewish fascination with Wagner’s music and, at times, even his ideology, goes. The role played by Jews in the establishment and furthering of the Wagner cult in late 19th and early 20th century Vienna is the topic of a “Euphoria and Unease: Jewish Vienna and Richard Wagner,” on view at the Vienna Jewish Museum until March 16.

As curated by Andrea Winklber, the exhibit deals with many of Wagner’s well-known Jewish enthusiasts, including Gustav Mahler and Theodor Herzl (both avid Wagnerians) as well as figures less remembered today, like Victor Adler, founder of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. While Wagner was being harnessed by right-wing ideologues, Adler read socialist messages into Wagner’s operas, in which he found an outpouring of sympathy for the proletariat.

As one of the most musically important German-speaking cities in Europe, Vienna quickly became one of the foremost centers of Wagner adulation. The Wagner Societies that sprung up in the city as early as 1871 (in other words, during the composer’s own lifetime) had numerous Jewish members and patrons.

Figures like composer Karl Goldmark, poet Siegfried Lipiner, and industrialist Friedrich Eckstein would meet at a vegetarian restaurant (in deference to the composer’s dietary preferences) to discuss the Master. Eckstein even made a pilgrimage on foot to Bayreuth for the 1882 premiere of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final and arguably most ideologically suspect opera.


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!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • 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.