The Rienzi Effect

On February 19, 2011 by admin


Hans Rudolf Vaget

Joachim Köhler, in his Wagners Hitler: Der Prophet und sein Vollstrecker, goes so far as to suggest that the German dictator was “merely” the executioner of Wagner’s ideas. Köhler argues that Hitler’s entire political program was essentially an attempt to turn the mythologically coded world of Wagnerian opera into a social and political reality. “The achievement of the Wagnerian world of the ‘work of art of the future’.” In everything he did, Hitler acted as the “agent” of the Bayreuth Circle, accomplishing the task originally set by that great prophet of the Third Reich and of the Holocaust: Richard Wagner.

Recently, Frederic Spotts, the author of a fine history of the Bayreuth Festival, took up the whole vexed matter and re-examined Hitler’s multifarious meddling with the arts – primarily architecture and music. In a thought-provoking and useful new study, boldly entitled Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, Spotts laudably ignores those endless speculations about psychic and sexual abnormalities – the most eagerly pursued red herrings in Hitler studies – and proposes instead that the Führer’s social, racial, and geopolitical agenda was ancillary and subordinate to the realization of what was fundamentally an aesthetic project, namely, to create “the greatest culture state since ancient times, or perhaps of all time.”

What was the role of aesthetic experience in general and of Wagnerian opera in particular in the identity formation of Adolf Hitler? For the conscientious historian, however, the task is not to construct “Wagner’s Hitler”, despite that clever titular reversal, but rather to reconstruct Hitler’s Wagner. This is a far more difficult matter.

Some of the difficulties were duly noted by Joachim Fest in his 1973 biography. Striking as the affinities between Hitler and Wagner may at first sight appear – the outsider’s resentment against the bourgeoisie; the bohemian affect of an artistic existence; the basically non-political relationship to the world; the uncertainty about their ancestry; the morbid hatred of Jews – none can be simply attributed to the so-called influence of a widely idolized cultural figure. Much of what we find in young Hitler represents a constellation of phenomena perfectly typical of the era in which he grew up. The most characteristic elements of his Weltanschauung – nationalism, Darwinism, anti-Semitism – were in the air in Vienna at the time, which he could not help but breathe. Still, in Fest’s view, the Meister emerges both as the young man’s ideological mentor and as Hitler’s great exemplar.

Fest’s own assessment of the matter, though, is not free from contradiction. On the one hand he argues correctly that no direct succession from Wagner to Hitler can be established; on the other, he identifies Wagner as the Führer’s decisive teacher. He disputes the claim that Hitler’s murderous anti-Semitism can and must be traced back to Wagner: the Führer’s racial anti-Semitism was uncompromising, he argues, whereas Wagner’s hostility towards Jews was selective and inconsistent.

Saul Friedländer, who noted (at the Schloss Elmau Symposium of 1999 on Richard Wagner im Dritten Reich) that Hitler, in all his speechmaking, never once invoked Wagner’s well-known hostility towards das Judentum. Why not? He could easily have argued that if the great Richard Wagner called for the elimination of Jews from German culture, then how could our current anti-Jewish laws and policies be wrong? We are simply carrying out what Wagner intended. But Hitler never said anything of the sort. Friedländer offers two explanations.

First, perhaps Hitler considered Wagner’s position insufficiently radical since both Das Judentum in der Musik and Parsifal leave open the possibility that Jews can find redemption by shedding their Jewish identity, as Ludwig Börne had done, and as the figure of Kundry implies. Second, perhaps the Führer’s very adulation of Wagner simply “did not allow for any disclaimers or any ambiguity”, so as not to call into question the lofty standing of Richard Wagner as one of the patron saints of the Third Reich. Third, if we may add a reason of our own, perhaps Hitler was astute enough to realize that mining Wagner for proto-Nazi ideas, and exploiting Wagner for crude propaganda, might have diminished his standing as the supreme example of the creator of an art that was thoroughly German, heroic, sublime, and highly auratic. A non political cult could be more effective than any propagandist exploitation.

This, then, throws into relief the crucial methodological problem and underlines the need for a new way of looking at the entire Hitler-Wagner complex. The crux of the matter, it seems to me, lies in the fixation of historians on the notion of influence. We can no longer use this term as trustingly as Viereck, Fest, Köhler, and a host of others have done. In reception theory, “influence” has given way to notions of reception and appropriation, denoting a more complex and indirect mode of intellectual transfer, and shifting attention from the source to the recipient. Thus, what may look to the untrained eye like a direct line from Wagner to Hitler could in fact be an optical illusion – the result of multiple refractions. For what we call influence accrues from an entire constellation of factors involving language, media, cultural practices of remembering, and the various ways in which these factors interact within a sharply defined historical space. As in all cases of intellectual precursorship, the basic tenet of reception theory fully applies to the case of Hitler and Wagner: a tradition does not perpetuate itself; rather, it is appropriated and adapted to the needs of the recipient and, in the process, bent and deformed.

As with “influence”, then, the very notion of mentor seems incongruous with Hitler’s study habits, which were those of an autodidact and dilettante. Furthermore, from what we know about young Hitler, the experience of Lohengrin and of Rienzi preceded his reading of Wagner’s prose tracts. And that adolescent aesthetic experience – more irrational and thus more idiosyncratically formative than the traditional master-disciple relationship – was by no means solitary or unique: Hitler shared it with great numbers of his contemporaries.

Wagner’s “grand tragic opera”, Rienzi, an early work that never became part of the Bayreuth canon, offers the most promising starting point for accessing the peculiar nature of Hitler’s Wagnerianism. As we know from the memoir of August Kubizek, a budding musician and Hitler’s boyhood friend, the two youths attended a performance at the Linz Landestheater early in 1905, when Hitler was fifteen, that appears to have had the impact of an epiphany. “In that hour”, he is reported to have said later on several occasions, “it all began.” But what, precisely, began in that hour?

His enthusiasm for Wagner? This is improbable, since he had earlier seen Lohengrin, at age thirteen. No, what more likely began was the elaboration of a particular fantasy triggered by Wagner’s opera – the fantasy of becoming the leader of the Germans and of restoring Germany’s greatness, just as Rienzi, the last tribune in medieval Rome, had attempted to do for Rome. As we shall see, Rienzi set one of the fundamental patterns of Hitler’s life. The significance of this youthful experience, then, can hardly be exaggerated. It shows, to begin with, that to young Hitler, as for untold numbers of Germans (and not only Germans), Wagner was primarily a great purveyer of overwhelming emotions, and only secondarily a purveyer of political ideas. Hitler’s youthful experience is furthermore crucial as much for the psychological pattern it reveals as for its content.

 Indications are that we no longer cringe when Hitler and art are discussed together in a serious fashion. This is terribly important. Much is to be gained from looking at young Hitler through the lense of a typology of the artist, for strictly speaking, as Otto Werckmeister has argued in “Hitler the Artist” (Critical Inquiry, Winter 1997), he was “a professional artist”, though clearly one “at the lowest level of the artistic proletariat”.

Once we look closely at the peculiar complexion of Hitler’s shaky status as an artist, a psychologically portentous aspect of the structure of his personality begins to come into focus. We see that two very dissimilar artistic sensibilities co-existed. In painting and architecture, his artistic impulse had but a modest potency. In music, on the other hand, he appears to have possessed an unlimited capacity for emotional transport, albeit of a purely receptive nature, as evidenced by his youthful Rienzi experience. Hitler may thus be regarded as a fairly typical dilettante in the sense that this term had acquired at the turn of the century, denoting as it did, one who led an inauthentic life based, in the last analysis, on imitation. Dilettantes populate the work of Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, of Heinrich and Thomas Mann.

In Hitler, the interaction of those two different artistic dispositions – one excessive, the other deficient – was controlled by no intellectual discipline. This appears to have led to a blockage and, eventually, a re-routing of his artistic ambitions to the field of politics, where he then was able to indulge his architectural fantasies on a much grander scale. As a budding painter, he was unable to imagine himself rising to the lofty level to which, the example of Wagner in mind, he secretly aspired. In music, however, where he had no practical skills, he seems to have had unlimited powers of emotional involvement which he would have had to invest in something altogether different – by becoming a populist leader like Rienzi. Such a realization seems to have dawned on him in 1919, when he discovered his talent as a political orator.

By reinventing himself as a politician in the image of Wagner’s operatic hero, Hitler the thwarted artist followed to perfection the typical psychological pattern of the dilettante – a stock figure of German literature since Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Indeed, it was Goethe who provided the classic definition of the dilettante as a would-be artist who “attempts to produce effects with the effects that affected him.” This was precisely Hitler’s case. Having failed as an artist, Hitler hitched his fate to a cultural icon whose national standing and international renown were beyond question. He began to practice a demonstratively non-political cult of Wagner, referring to the composer in public as the greatest genius that Germany had yet produced. This proved to be highly effective in the political arena: perceived as a devoted admirer of Wagner, Hitler was able to win respectability and cultural legitimacy and, eventually, to create a charismatic aura of genius for himself.

 In all of this, a key role must be attributed to the metapolitical notion of Erbe. It represents a privileged, even auratic form of reception in which the inheritor masks its basic character of appropriation by pretending merely to heed a call from the past. The importance of the notion of cultural inheritance to our understanding of the Hitler-Wagner nexus becomes immediately clear as we cast a brief comparative glance at the case of Anton Bruckner, who in June 1937, in a pompous induction ceremony at Walhalla, was inducted in the German Hall of Fame. The case of Bruckner, unlike Wagner, is one of wilful appropriation in the narrowest sense of the word.

Wagner had thematized again and again, from Rienzi to Parsifal, the idea of Erbe, even of Welterbe – world dominion. German Wagnerians thus grew up with the expectation that the Master’s heritage would one day be claimed. After Wagner’s death, the Bayreuth Circle, especially Houston Stewart Chamberlain, proceeded to radicalize the notion of a Wagnerian heritage by linking it to the hegemonic ambitions of Wilhelminian Germany. And throughout that post-Wagnerian era, a diffuse but vaguely appealing expectation was kept alive that one day a Parsifal-like savior would appear when Germany needed it most. Thus, when Hitler claimed that he was now wielding the sword that had been forged by Wagner and Chamberlain (as he did in his 5 May 1924 letter to Siegfried Wagner), he was in effect claiming to be Wagner’s political heir. The reference to Nothung, the magic sword handed down from Wotan to Siegmund and on to Siegfried, resonated not only for Hitler but also for his followers with powerful mythological and cultural overtones that lent him the aura of a potential savior in the manner of a Lohengrin, a Siegfried, or a Parsifal and, with that, the glamorous semblance of historical legitimacy.

Perhaps the most potent side-effect of Hitler’s cult of Wagner was something altogether different – the setting in motion of a messianic anticipation of the coming of a savior. The link to Wagner needed no explanation since the creator of Die Meistersinger, through the figure of Hans Sachs, had portrayed himself as a new John the Baptist – as someone who was merely preparing the way for the One who would not only sing, ‘Wach auf’, but who would truly awaken all Germany.

 Ian Kershaw, in his monumental biography of Hitler, has identified the widespread efforts to “work towards the Führer” – “dem Führer entgegenarbeiten” – as the key to understand precisely “how the Third Reich operated”. Hitler’s highly personalized charismatic rule “invited radical initiatives from below” and offered them backing as long as they stayed in line with his Weltanschauung.In other words, his followers were encouraged to tap into their own emotional reserves, their Wagnerian dreams, to help Hitler become the heroic leader and saviour that he wanted to be.

Against this background, then, we can now gauge more realistically the extent to which Wagnerian opera contributed to the identity formation of Hitler and his rise to power. I shall attempt, in this concluding section, to shed some additional light on this nexus by briefly assessing Hitler’s response to the three Wagnerian works that meant the most to him: Rienzi, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Parsifal. I hope to show that the psychological as well as the political significance of the Hitlerian cult of Wagner derived primarily not from Hitler’s engagement with these works but from that engagement’s interaction with other forces within the cultural space in which he chose to operate.

At crucial stages in his apprenticeship – in Karl Luegers Vienna and in the post-war Germany of l9l8/l9 – Hitler seems to have read history through the looking glass provided by Wagner’s Rienzi. It was evidently this opera that enabled him to see in Karl Lueger, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, the prototype of the modern popular tribune, “den gewaltigsten deutschen Bürgermeister aller Zeiten”. Historical reality seemed to validate Wagner’s vision of the charismatic Volkstribun and convince him of its viability as a political ideal. There are intriguing indications that, as he took his first steps in the political arena of post-war Munich, Hitler looked to Rienzi for guidance, as though this opera were his metapolitical compass. As Brigitte Hamann tells us in Hitlers Wien, he had observed that at the meetings of the Pan-German groups the overture to Rienzi was played. He adopted this custom for his political rallies in Munich and made it a ritual element of the massive Party rallies in the Third Reich. That piece – both military and solemn in character – served as a kind of signature tune of the Hitler movement and of the political liturgy celebrated annually at Nuremberg. So attached was Hitler to this music that, as Albert Speer reports in his reminiscences, he refused to replace it with any of the laudable pieces composed for the occasion by eager Nazi musicians.

In a particularly revealing conversation of 1930 (reported by Otto Wagner in Heny A. Turner’s Hitler Memoirs of a Confidant), Hitler pointed out that he had learned an important lesson from Rienzi. Wagner’s hero fails, he observed, because he has no political party behind him and because he neglects to destroy his enemies. And indeed, from the outset of his career we see Hitler determined not to repeat the “mistakes” of his operatic model For his fiftieth birthday, Hitler requested and received, among other Wagnerian treasures, the autograph manuscript of Rienzi. What may at first strike the observer as a whim was surely motivated by his emotional bond to this particular work. Far from being capricious, his request breathes the air of inevitability. Eerily, having refused several urgent entreaties to allow the precious documents to be taken out of Berlin to a safe place, he apparently took all his Wagner autographs with him to the Führerbunker, the final stop of his catastrophe bound life, where all further traces of them vanish. Even his pathetic end in the Bunker is reminiscent of Rienzi’s demise in the burning ruins of the Roman Capitol.

But the most striking similarity is that between Rienzi’s turn against Rome and Hitler’s turn against Germany. The end in sight, Hitler, in his Political Testament, cold-bloodedly dismissed his own people as the loser in a historic struggle, undeserving of the greatness he had intended for it. Given all the echoes of Rienzi in Hitler’s career, it was almost inevitable that his end would point back to the concluding lines from Wagner’s tragic grand opera: “The last Roman curses you. / Cursed be this city! / Decay and wither, Rome! / That is the will of your degenerate people.”

The political repercussions of the historical Cola di Rienzi upon the 19th and 20th centuries are today often overlooked. It seems indicative of the intellectual milieu that sparked Wagner’s interest in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Rienzi. The Last of the Tribunes (1835), the book from which he culled his libretto, that approximately at the same time the twenty year old Friedrich Engels drafted a play on the same subject, also based on Bulwer-Lytton and intended as libretto for an opera. Not only Hitler but also Benito Mussolini chose Rienzi as a model. This is presumably the reason why in some early analyses of National Socialism, such as Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), Cola di Rienzi, rather than Cesar, is identified as the true historical prototype of modern fascism.

It is not difficult to see why Die Meistersinger also occupied a special place in Hitler’s mind. The community Wagner imagined and glorified in that opera comes close to the völkisch ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft, as opposed to a modern society. The corporate principles on which Wagner’s Nuremberg functions, the emphasis on community with its concomitant rejection of universalist values, clearly appealed to Hitler. Nor is it too obvious to mention that Wagner’s Volksgemeinschaft is led by a charismatic artist who enjoys the affection of the people. Unlike Parsifal, with its two momentous scenes of disarming and its message of compassion, Die Meistersinger contained nothing that could be perceived as undermining the war effort, which is probably the reason that this opera was played during the so-called “Kriegsfestspiele” of 1943 and 1944 almost to the bitter end.

The “Day of Potsdam” culminated, in a specially arranged, festive performance of Die Meistersinger in the Prussian State Opera. Wagner was to provide the capstone to this most successful propaganda effort of the new regime. At that performance on 21 March 1933, the people of Nuremberg were instructed, during the “Wach auf” chorus, to turn to Hitler’s box, thereby transferring their homage from Hans Sachs to Adolf Hitler. Perhaps no other moment better encapsulates the political uses of Wagner in the Third Reich than this unashamedly operatic gesture. The identification with Prussian tradition in Potsdam during the day and with Wagner at the opera at night achieved for the new regime an incalculable strengthening of its claims to historical and cultural legitimacy. It almost goes without saying that at the Bayreuth Festival that year, this theme was repeated in full orchestration and in deafening fortissimo: “As we listened to the conclusion of Die Meistersinger today”, wrote Hans Alfred Grunsky, “it seems to us as though we were hearing in our in- Parsifal provides the most illuminating example of the way in which the Wagner cult catapulted Hitler into the role of designated saviour of Germany. After Hitler’s first visit to Wahnfried, 30 September l923, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Winifred Wagner provided open letters which the aspiring politician gratefully used for his own purposes. It was the first time that Hitler received an enthusiastic endorsement from a widely respected cultural institution in Germany. Of particular interest are Chamberlain’s letters of 7 October l923 and of l January l924. Ailing and suffering since l9l4, he casts himself in the role of Amfortas who now feels comforted and relieved knowing that the new Parsifal has appeared on the scene: “Germany in the hour of her greatest need gave birth to a person such as Hitler.” Like Wagner’s Parsifal, Hitler is called upon to perform a “Heiltat”, but this time for Germany as a whole. His mission is to rid Germany of the lethal influence of Judaism – the “todbringendem Einfluß des Judentums auf das Leben des deutschen Volkes”. Chamberlain pointed out to the faithful that no one in Germany had the courage and the determination to carry out that necessary task – no one, that is, except Hitler.

Whereupon he virtually anoints the new Parsifal. In fact, Chamberlain gave Hitler a double role, that of Parsifal, the healer, and that of Siegfried, the liberating hero. When Hitler famously wrote that the spiritual sword with which he was fighting was forged in Bayreuth, he was actually taking a cue from Chamberlain. Apparently, Hitler had no difficulty imagining himself both as Parsifal and as Siegfried and encouraged his followers to see him in those mythical roles.

Those familiar with the Wagnerian code understood the implications of Hitler’s endorsement by Wahnfried. Hitler did not need to give explanations, nor did the public need them. From that moment on, Hitler could be certain that he was the bearer of a mission and that he could present himself as the political heir to Wagner. No transgression or misappropriation was required here. The role of the guardian of the Wagnerian legacy and of the future savior of Germany, as defined by Chamberlain, was offered to him, the devout, ostensibly non-political admirer of the Meister, on a silver platter.

Hans Rudolf Vaget, Helen and Laura Shedd Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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