Nuremberg Used and Abused: The true and imagined Nuremberg of Wagner and others

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 25 June 2011 | 8:33:00 am


Thomas Stewart "Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!"

"Wahn! Wahn!
Uberall Wahn!
Madness! Madness!
Everywhere madness" Han Sachs
Had it ...(not)... been forced to serve the imaginative needs of others for so many years, the history of a city (Nuremberg), a country, perhaps even a world, might have shared more of the benevolent humanism of Wagner's Hans Sachs, and less of the Wahn of his confused compatriots" - David Littlejohn: The Ultimate Art. Essays around and about Opera

This is a chapter from David Littlejohn's "The Ultimate Art. Essays around and about Opera". It describes the history of Nuremberg - both real and imagined - in the context of Wagner's opera, the rise of the Nazies and after. I present it in anticipation of tomorrows broadcast of Glyndebourne's Meistersinger. Think of it as part of an unofficial program note. Images and audio added by The Wagnerian


The whole of" David Littlejohn's: "The Ultimate Art. Essays around and about Opera" is available (as is this chapter) to read, completely free,as part of the generosity that is the UC Press E-Books Collection. To read the entire book follow the link at the end of this article.


Chapter Ten — Nuremberg Used and Abused

The imagination of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has burdened the mastersingers' city of Nuremberg with an almost unbearable weight of symbolism. Like other of the world's dream cities (Alexandria, Istanbul, Paris, Venice), Nuremberg has been seized on by people living elsewhere to represent one thing or another, because of either real or imaginary qualities in its history and nature.

But few other cities have paid so heavy a price for the dream images of them that non-natives have created and maintained. The story of Nuremberg is unique and impressive—particularly its story in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the period that most of its idealizers choose to idealize. But that story has been rewritten and misread, used and abused many times since then.

The first people to invest the old imperial city with their own fantasies were German Romantic writers and painters of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They half-discovered, half-invented a stage-set image of quaint old Nuremberg, which continues to work well in opera. These men were followed by Baedeker-toting tourists, who followed their predecessors' directions in search of the authentic altdeutsch picturesque: crumbling riverside castles, steep dormered roofs, high half-timbered buildings projecting over narrow cobbled lanes. For better and worse, Nuremberg has also been chosen to serve private symbolic functions by Teutonic chauvinists from Richard Wagner to Adolf Hitler, men who were trying to rewrite European history in order to prove that Germania was and always had been number one.

Hans Sachs
Reconstructing the "real" Nuremberg of its own Golden Age (from the birth of Albrecht Dürer, say, to the death of Hans Sachs, 1471–1576) requires that one abandon all subsequent images of the city. Independent since 1219, Nuremberg grew in prosperity mainly because it was, for most of that one century, at the crossroads of a dozen trade routes. With a population of about 25,000 citizens behind its walls (and perhaps another 20,000 dependents outside), it was one of the largest and richest cities in the German-speaking empire. Since 1422, even the imperial castle on the hill, about which it had grown, had been the property of the all-powerful city council.

The forty-two members of the council had sole and absolute power over virtually every activity in the city. They kept Nuremberg as tightly self-contained and rulebound a little beehive as Europe has ever known. The councilmen, almost all wealthy patrician merchants from the top forty families—those stout fellows one sees in paintings and engravings, with their fur-trimmed robes and velvet berets—established an intricate set of laws and all extensive civic bureaucracy to govern wages and prices, weights and measures, foreign relations, dance steps, the length of jackets, the quality of herring, and the texts of poems.

Wagner to the contrary, they forbade the town craftsmen to form guilds, so as not to risk protest demonstrations or a dispersal of their own power. A street not like that of Die Meistersinger , Act II they would have put down in no time. Not only had they no emperor, prince, viceroy, or bishop to tell them what to do; the council actually ran the town's thirteen Catholic churches, convents, and monasteries. It appointed their pastors, administered their finances, legislated their morals. When Luther came along in the 1520s, this puritanical and fiercely independent city slipped from Catholic to Protestant with scarcely a ripple. Both Sachs and Dürer publicly welcomed the new dispensation. The council happily took over the rich monastic properties in the name of the city. Unfortunately, the Lutheran distrust of sacred images marked the end of rich commissions for many of Nuremberg's celebrated artists.

"Celebrated" may be overstating the case. Nuremberg of 1470–1570 was almost as famous for its fine craftsmanship as it was for its stable government, its mercantile prosperity, and its thick double circuit of walls. But what we think of as "art" was rarely taken with any special seriousness, despite the modern aesthetic assertions of Wagner's Pogner and Sachs. In sixteenth-century Nuremberg, Dürer was certainly respected, but primarily for his magical-realist technique and his popular woodcuts. For all of his 3,848 songs, 133 comedies, and 530 poems (by his own count)—or perhaps because of them—Hans Sachs was regarded as a kind of droll civic father figure. But he was no more considered a serious "artist" than were the other versifying Rotarians who attended the weekly meetings of his Shopkeepers' Singing Club.

Durer
To mystical Germans looking at the city through the rose-stained glasses of a later generation, Nuremberg appeared as "the Florence of the North." But take away Dürer—who probably preferred Italy anyway—and one is left with a few highly skilled wood and stone carvers, glaziers, engravers, and goldsmiths, whose workshops were judged by the city fathers no more important than those that turned out Nuremberg's excellent (and profitable) bells, cannons, scissors, toys, clocks, trumpets, and locks.

After his Italian travels, Dürer became part of a small Nuremberg cenacle of humanists—one or two of them genuine scholars, the rest fascinated dilettantes. But their private readings, their translations from the Greek and Latin, and their heady conversazioni had no effect whatever on the hard-working, penny-counting habits of their townsfolk, who—like Wagner's mastersingers—resisted every effort at innovation. As Gerald Strauss writes in Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century:

From the mastersingers with their mass of punctilious rules guarded by official watchdogs, to the small band of humanists who dissected and criticized each other's books, from the physicians, so vain of their professional reputations, to the Protestant theologians who knew truth when they saw it, men spoke and acted by codes according to which they approved and censured.

The new, the different was everywhere regarded with suspicion. Nuremberg was emphatically an unintellectual society. . . . Not a single thinker, poet, or scholar was able to impress his mind upon the city's civic personality. Nuremberg would have been exactly what she was had no one written a book there or, for that matter, read one.

For a short while—as long as prosperity maintained, as long as churches and rich merchants needed new buildings and decorations, as long as costly wars could be avoided and powerful nation-states had not rendered them obsolete—cities like Nuremberg could at least feel contented, secure, and self-righteous. With the shift of trade routes to Atlantic ports, the emergence of Protestantism and the trauma of the Thirty Years' War, and the consolidation of power in the united kingdoms of Spain, France, and England, snug and prosperous little cities like Nuremberg lost much of their energy, their spirit, their very reason to exist. This lack of continued prosperity helps to explain why Nuremberg remained frozen in its sixteenth-century form. It was like an ancient ship caught in the ice, waiting to be discovered.

After three decades of religious wars, the city slept in its economic and cultural decline for the better part of two centuries. Educated Germans of the Enlightenment saw nothing but dark, clumsy Gothic crudeness in the native art and traditions it embodied. Passing through en route to Frankfurt in September 1790, Mozart (who rarely noticed the scenic attractions of the cities in which he performed) only "breakfasted in Nuremberg, a hideous town," as he wrote to his wife. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more progressive German cities had adopted new and sophisticated French or Italian models, or had turned to ancient Greece and Rome for their inspiration.

Goethe
It was Goethe himself, in an outburst of youthful enthusiasm for Strasbourg Cathedral in 1770, who gave the first notable German stamp of approval to the old native style. He went on to praise Hans Sachs, the almost forgotten cobbler-poet. Most historians attribute the cultural rediscovery of Nuremberg itself to two Berlin University students, Ludwig Tieck and Heinrich Wackenroder, who took a walking tour of the South during their spring break in 1796. They loved what they saw of Italy and the Rhine valley; but Nuremberg was a revelation. "Nuremberg, thou once world-famous city!" wrote Wackenroder. "How gladly did I wander through thy crooked alleys; with what childlike love I contemplated thy old-world houses and churches, which so firmly bear the stamp of our old native art! How deeply do I love the products of that age, which bear so racy, strong, and genuine a character!"

Wackenroder and Tieck helped persuade a whole generation to "honor the German masters" (as Wagner's Sachs commands). At an exhibition on "the Romantic discovery of Nuremberg," held at the city's German National Museum in 1967, misty, past-evoking paintings and drawings of the city by twenty-five Romantic artists were displayed, along with rapturous, loving descriptions of the city by many of Germany's most famous early nineteenth-century writers. The tricentennial of Dürer's death was celebrated in Nuremberg in 1828 with all embarrassing excess of fervor. Longfellow—a great admirer of Goethe, the German lyrists, and German culture generally—celebrated his visit to Nuremberg in 1836 with one of his drippier poems ("Through these streets so broad and stately, / These obscure and dismal lanes, / Walked of yore the Mastersingers, / Chanting rude poetic strains").

Wackenroder
After the poets and painters came the tourists. From 1883 on, the indispensable Baedeker guides to southern Germany led the seeker-after-art dutifully past every even marginally noteworthy building, sculpture, and painting in the city. While declaring "there is probably no town in Germany so medieval in appearance," they also reminded their English-speaking readers that "great care should be taken to ensure that the sanitary arrangements are in proper order, including a strong flush of water and proper toilette paper."

"Year by year," began a guidebook of 1907, "many a traveller on his way to Bayreuth, many a seeker after health at German baths, many an artist and lover of the old world, finds his way to Nuremberg." It was "a city of the soul," with "a flavour indefinable, exquisite."

By the mid-nineteenth century, a proper grand tour would have been unthinkable without a wistful pause at Nuremberg. The only qualms expressed by the Victorian and Edwardian guidebook writers were over the recent, almost too exact imitation-old Gothic buildings in the city, which tourists had a hard time distinguishing from the genuine article; and over the increasing number of factory smokestacks that were beginning to surround the jewel-casket of Germania.

Die romantische Entdeckung Nürnbergs —the Romantic discovery of Nuremberg—was more than just a local version of a European cultural craze, a trendy taste for the picturesque past. Unlike comparable "Romantic discoveries" in England or France, it was also part of an aggressively antiforeign movement, part of a defensive, irrational, even monomaniac chauvinism.

Ludwig Tieck
Nuremberg satisfied the needs of romantic travelers, poets, and painters because it offered a virtually "unspoiled" image of a fourteenth-to-sixteenth-century town. But it also satisfied the needs of Germany-firsters, because they thought it the purest possible representation of just how wonderful German culture could be, with no alien admixture of anything French or Italian.

This is one of the most important reasons Richard Wagner chose Hans Sachs, the burgher-mastersingers, and the common Volk of sixteenth-century Nuremberg to serve as both background and (much of the time) foreground for his most accessible and most popular opera. Sachs, he declared, was "the last embodiment of the artistically productive national spirit . . . something different from the Latin type." Wagner carefully studied historical accounts for his text, then incorporated into it actual verses of Sachs's, folk songs, and a Lutheran congregational chorale. He consciously strove for a musical style more simple and old-fashioned than his own norm at the time.

In 1867, he had published a long essay entitled "German Art and German Politics," which has been called "his commentary on Die Meistersinger ." In it, he wrote, "Ever since the regeneration of European folk-blood, considered strictly, the German has been the creator and inventor, the Romantic the modeller and exploiter; the true fountain of continual revolution has remained the German nature. In this sense, the dissolution of the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation' gave voice to nothing but a temporary preponderance of the practical-realistic tendency in European culture"—which had now, he insisted, reached a nadir of spiritless decadence. The Thirty Years' War, he declared, had utterly destroyed German civic culture. It left all German art, for two barren centuries, in the hands of the petty princes. They, unfortunately, had simply imported or imitated spineless Latin art: tinny Italian operas, insipid ballets from France (a vain and light-minded nation").

Late in the eighteenth century, a few prescient Germans, led by Lessing and Winckelmann, recognized their "Ur-kinsmen in the divine Hellenes." (Wagner, like Hitler, regarded the ancient Greeks' as the only culture equal to the pure German.) Then the sublime Goethe symbolically wed Greek Helen to German Faust. Next, Schiller inspired a generation of patriotic German youth to an ideal of Volk und Vaterland , around the time of the 1814 Wars of Liberation.

Schiller
But since then, Wagner insisted, there had been nothing; or at least nothing better, in German theatre, than Rossini and Spontini, Dumas and Scribe, the penny-dreadful melodramas of Kotzebue ("the corrupter of German youth, the betrayer of the German folk"), fatuous actors and singers. Worst of all were the operatic travesties that Rossini had made out of Schiller's William Tell and Gounod out of Goethe's Faust —"a repellent, sugary-vulgar patchwork, with all the airs and graces of a lorette, wedded to the music of a second-rate talent." Somehow, Wagner declared, German art had to find its folk roots again; and particularly German theatre, the folk art par excellence.

And where were German writers and composers to find their ideal inspiration? Not, surely, in the decadent, Paris-aping court theatres. Certainly not in the soulless, Jew-dominated commercial theatre. No—look to "the Mastersingers of Nuremberg, [who] in the prime of classic humanism, preserved for the eye of genius the old-German mode of poetry."

Many observers have stressed the elements of historical authenticity in Die Meistersinger , from the correct architectural settings Wagner demanded for the 1868 première to David's recital of the mastersingers' rules and tones and modes. But more important than the opera's historicity, I believe, are the uses to which Wagner put it.

Most of what Wagner wants to say is communicated musically of course, and can never be reduced to a prose statement. He is "saying" things in this opera about true love and true art that have nothing specifically to do with German art or German culture. But in addition to his conscious choice of setting and subject, Wagner does from time to time repeat in the opera the ideas of his essay.

Viet Pogner (who has traveled far in deutschen Landen ) is distressed that the courtiers of other provinces make so little of the solid burghers of Nuremberg—who, after all, alone in the wide German Reich still care for art. When he learns that Walther von Stolzing—a knight, after all—wants to gain entry into their guild, he feels that the "good old days" have returned. Hans Sachs argues with his fellow masters that, if they genuinely want to show the people how highly they honor art, they will let the people themselves judge their work; that way Volk und Kunst will bloom and thrive together. All of this comes close to Wagner's own prose prescription, published the year before the opera's première, for a popularly based revival of true German art.

But nowhere in the opera are Wagner's own cultural and political opinions more clearly voiced than in Hans Sachs's final exhortation ("Habt Acht!") to the people, who then take it up en masse as the opera's closing chorus.


Beware! Evil tricks threaten us:—
If the Deutsches Volk und Reich  should once decay
Under false foreign rulers
Soon no prince would understand his people any more,
And foreign mists, with foreign trifles,
They will plant in our German land;
No one would know any more what is German and true,
If it did not live in the honor of the German masters.
Therefore I say to you:
Honor your German masters! . . .
And if you favor their endeavors,
Even if the Holy Roman Empire should dissolve into dust
For us there would still remain—Holy German Art!

The link between Wagnerism and National Socialism, between the muddled social thinking of Richard Wagner and that of Adolf Hitler, has been written about too much already. Although the two men shared certain noxious racial and German-nationalist notions, Wagner did also create works of art that even the most scrupulous humanitarian can enjoy without guilt. Wagner cannot be blamed for the fact that Hitler enjoyed Wagner's works even more than some of us do—and no work more than Die Meistersinger , which the Führer is reported as having seen more than two hundred times.

 H. S. Chamberlain
Long before Hitler, Die Meistersinger 's vision of Nuremberg and Old Germany, and especially Hans Sachs's notorious "curtain speech," had made this work a special favorite of the newly unified German empire. It was adopted as a kind of propaganda piece by those who wanted to assert not only German national unity, but also German superiority over "false foreign rulers."

Under the guiding spirit of H. S. Chamberlain, the dogmatic English anti-Semite who had married Wagner's daughter Eva in 1908 (and who first met Adolf Hitler in 1923), the annual Wagner Festival at Bayreuth became more and more an Aryan-nationalist celebration. When, after a ten-year wartime hiatus, the festival reopened (with Die Meistersinger ) in 1924, it was firmly committed to the new National Socialist cause. At the opening performance that year, the audience rose to its feet at Sachs's "Habt acht!" and remained standing to sing "Deutschland fiber Alles" at the close.

Nine months before, in September 1923, Adolf Hitler had personally chosen the city of Dürer, Sachs, and Die Meistersinger to be the site of his National Socialist German Day—the first of nine increasingly spectacular Nazi Party rallies to be held in Nuremberg. Flowers and flags were laid on, the imperial castle was illuminated, and the market square was roped off for speeches.

Hitler liked the visual image of the city, its symbolic fortress-castle, the islanded river that ran through it, its surrounding walls with their sturdy gates and round towers, the hill-forest of steep roofs and church spires within. It seemed to give ancient Germanic roots, and thereby a spurious authenticity, to his movement. After 1933, it also asserted a connection between the Third Reich and the First—that loose federation of more than three hundred German states and independent cities, called (for no good reason) the Holy Roman Empire, which had begun to offer some form of allegiance to a German "Kaiser" (i.e., Caesar) in the year 962.

For almost two hundred years (1355–1523), Nuremberg had been the city in which every new emperor held his first Reichstag, or parliament, of German leaders. For more than three hundred years (1424–1796), Nuremberg had the honor of serving as the civic safety-deposit box for the sacred imperial relics and regalia.

These two distinctions, in Hitler's view, made Nuremberg the symbolic holy city of the First Reich; so he determined to make it his as well. In a folio of photographs of old Nuremberg, published in Bremen in 1940 for American readers, the author made explicit the connection between the old city and the new: "From the Heidenturm of Kaiser Freidrich Barbarossa, in the Burg, float the colours of the new Reich, and over the Market Place which bears the Fuhrer's name Young Germany marches every year. The Old City gives the proud consciousness of a great imperial and civic tradition, the town of the Reichsparteitag faith in the future."

Today, thanks to old newsreels and Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 film Triumph of the Will , most people probably identify the Nuremberg rallies of 1927–1938 with the immense parade ground and arena southeast of the city. But the old city of Dürer and Sachs played its role as well, in these morale-building propaganda rituals.

Hitler was always officially received in Nuremberg at the 1618 Town Hall, with its great vaulted chamber dating from 1332. Each year the mayor of Nuremberg offered him some splendid and symbolic gift: one year an engraving of Dürer's "Knight, Death, and the Devil"; the next year, copies of Charlemagne's crown, orb, and scepter. Before Hitler's arrival, all of the church bells of the city were ordered to ring for half an hour. The roads were hung with Nazi banners; the window boxes were filled with flowers. Hitler received visiting foreign diplomats in the old imperial castle, where he expounded on the beauties of old Nuremberg. (He had tried, he explained, to clear the medieval sector of all "trashy imitations," and to restore its ancient charm.)

Day after day, the wide, winding streets of the city were filled with marchers (from 500,000 to 1,000,000 party members descended on Nuremberg in September for the 1930s rallies), parading twelve abreast: first the Hitler Youth with drums and banners; then a torchlight parade of up to 180,000 party leaders; and finally the "march-past" of the Führer in "Adolf-Hitler-Platz" by 100,000 SA and SS men, and a closing serenade under his hotel window.

A highlight of the 1935 and 1936 rallies was a gala performance for the party elite at the Nuremberg Opera House of Die Meistersinger . For these performances, Hitler himself commissioned new sets and costumes, which were reproduced for almost every subsequent production of the opera during the Third Reich. The Festival Meadow set for Act III was backed by a long row of banners in perspective, exactly like those at the Parteitag rallies.

One is tempted to believe that the next two nightmares in the life of this much put-upon city were visited on it as punishments for its symbolic role as what Allied reporters liked to call the "birthplace" or the "nursery" of Nazism; "the heart of the world's enemy," in Rebecca West's phrase. But this may not have been the case.

Nuremberg was bombed eleven times between September 1944 and April 1945, most devastatingly on January 2, when a thousand RAF planes all but obliterated the historic center in one twenty-minute raid. This was done not because it was Hitler's favorite city, not because of the Nuremberg laws or the Nuremberg rallies; but because it was an "important industrial and communications center" (something the romantic guidebooks rarely mentioned), manufacturing aircraft engines as well as pencils and toys. It was besieged and shelled for five straight days by the U.S. Seventh Army in the last days of the war, not because it was "quintessentially German," but because the two SS-Panzer divisions remaining within its walls put up such a ferocious resistance.


At the end, three-fourths of the buildings in the old town were destroyed. What was left for the Allied armies of occupation were piles of rubble stinking faintly of disinfectant, under which lay at least 2,000 dead Germans. Half the population had fled; the remaining half lived on as best they could, many without food, in cellars and bomb shelters. The city's total wartime toll was estimated at 8,000 dead, 12,000 missing, and 350,000 homeless. No German city except Dresden had been so totally wiped out.

On April 28, 1945, the London Times correspondent inventoried the incredible damage done to what he called "the finest medieval city in Germany." " 'The best thing would be for the citizens to go and find a vacant piece of ground and build a new town,' " he quoted one Allied officer as saying. "This cannot be rebuilt," declared a member of the U.S. prosecution team in the fall of 1945.

But it was rebuilt. The "old city" tourists visit today is in great part a reconstruction. The pale stonework in the facade of St. Sebaldus's Church is all new; the darker stones inserted here and there were recovered from the ruins. Again and again, guidebooks and placards note, "Destroyed in 1945." The more important buildings, beginning with the castle, the two great churches, and the Dürer house, were rebuilt to look more or less as they did in the sixteenth century; the ruins of others were simply cleared. A few—including St. Catherine's, the mastersingers' church—were left as ruins. A little Disneyland imitation of an Old Nuremberg street was built for quick-stop tourists behind the Frauentor gate.

In On Trial at Nuremberg , Airey Neave wrote in 1978, "There are many reasons why Nuremberg in that October after the war was a most hated city. It had given its name in 1935 to the laws by which Jews were deprived of their rights as citizens. . . . If the highest Nazis were to be tried what better place could there be than Nuremberg? . . . Was it not here that Hitler's oratory had turned Germans into savage hordes calling for blood?"

In fact, Nuremberg was chosen for the international trials of Nazi war criminals because—as General Lucius Clay told Justice Robert Jackson, who was to head the tribunal—it had the only law court building still standing in any German city: the 1877 Palace of Justice, which Rebecca West called "an extreme example of the German tendency to overbuild. . . . Its mass could not be excused, for much of it was a waste of masonry and an expense of shame, in obese walls and distended corridors."

Twenty-one Nazi leaders were lodged in the prison behind this building, while U.S., English, French, and Soviet judges heard testimony from them, their attorneys, and their adversaries six hours a day, five days a week in Courtroom B. After nine months of hearings, sentences were passed. On October 17, 1946, eleven of the Nazi leaders were hanged in the gymnasium of the prison.

The most famous of Hans Sachs's utterances in Die Meistersinger is his nationalistic exhortation, often misread and exploited during the Third Reich. But to my ears, his profoundly moving Act III soliloquy is Wagner's definition of the best possible symbolic role that this ancient city could have played in the heart of its tormented, sometimes dangerous, even barbarous land. Reflecting on both the history of humankind and the mindless riots of the night before, the old man begins to despair of his city, his land, his century.

Wahn! Wahn!
Uberall Wahn!

Madness! Madness!
Everywhere madness![1]

Everywhere he sees people tormenting and beating one another, even themselves—"the old madness without which nothing can happen."
Midway in his reflections, Sachs pauses. The satisfying, stately, steplike "Nuremberg" motif breaks like sunlight through the melancholy clouds:
Wie friedsam treuer Sitten
Getrost in Tat und Werk,
Liegt nicht in Deutschlands Mitten
Mein liebes Nürenberg!

How peacefully with its faithful customs,
Contented in deed and work,
Lies in the middle of Germany
My beloved Nuremberg.




More than any subsequent fantasy of altdeutsch charm, volkisch art, or Teutonic superiority, this winning quatrain of Sachs's does describe the actuality of sixteenth-century Nuremberg—a solid, stolid, unified, hardworking, and contentedly conservative community. Had it been allowed to retain this image, and not been forced to serve the imaginative needs of others for so many years, the history of a city, a country, perhaps even a world, might have shared more of the benevolent humanism of Wagner's Hans Sachs, and less of the Wahn of his confused compatriots.

To read this and more from  David Littlejohn: The Ultimate Art. Essays around and about Opera