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.
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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.
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“I wanted people to discover how many Jewish Wagnerians there were in Vienna and the types of contradictions this entailed for being a Jewish Wagnerian. Everyone was aware [even back then] of the fact that Wagner was a nasty anti-Semite. And despite this, I find it astounding when you look at so many composers and artists who built their own work on his foundation,” Winkelbauer said.

Mahler’s appointment as director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 ushered in a new age of Wagner productions. For the first time, Wagner’s operas were performed there uncut. He also brought the Secessionist artist Alfred Roller onboard to furnish startlingly modern designs.

The museum displays the composer-conductor’s heavily marked full score of “Tristan,” one of the most impressive objects on display. (In a particularly satisfying irony, Adolf Hitler, an avid Wagnerian who credited the city with making him a confirmed anti-Semite, saw his first “Tristan,” in the legendary Roller production, conducted by Mahler.)

Herzl had his eureka moment during a performance of “Tannhäuser” and dashed home afterwards to start writing “Der Judenstaat.” What exactly the link was in Herzl’s excitable mind between the medieval minnesinger and the necessity of a Jewish home in Palestine is anyone’s guess. For whatever reason, the portrait of a closed community of artist-statesmen in this early, less nationalistic Wagner opera, fired Herzl’s vision.

A more disturbing case was the self-loathing Otto Weininger, whose twisted gender theories as outlined in the tome “Sex and Character” were fashionable throughout fin-de-siècle Europe. Arguing that the Jews were inherently weak and effeminate people, he famously wrote, “The most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan.” Himself Jewish, he committed suicide in 1903, an act that seems, at least in part, to have been inspired by seeing “Parsifal” at Bayreuth.

By placing Herzl and Weininger side-by-side, the exhibit argues that very different Jews in Vienna drew from Wagner’s “operas, writing and status as a political artist, both inspiration and justification for their actions,” to quote from an exhibition sign.


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