Joachim Köhler & Why Wagner Did Not Cause The Holocaust.

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 29 June 2014 | 7:50:00 pm

"Wagner always considered himself a spiritual revolutionary whose concern was the liberation of human beings, including the Jews, from their so-called 'curse'. Joachim Köhler. The Wagner Journal

While there is much of interest in the July issue of the Wagner Journal, perhaps Joachim Köhler's reversal on the centrality of Wagner's antisemitism in his work, his influence on the the Third Reich and the persecution of the Jews; is one of the most interesting, extraordinary and "brave" "turn-a-rounds" in Wagner research. But first a little background:

Köhler first came to prominence  with his much discussed Wagner's Hitler - the Prophet and his Disciple - first published in German in 1997 and translated into English in 2011. In this, he put forward the argument that Wagner should be seen as having "created" Hitler and that he (Hitler) was simply carrying out Wagner's desires. Indeed , this was a task Hitler perceived as being given to him alone and directly from Wagner. To quote Köhler at that time;

"The nature of this task was certainly not to pursue a set of political aims, that is, to arrange the political and social realities of the time in the interests of the nation whose Chancellor he was. Reality meant for him the task of transforming the world into a Wagnerian drama..."

Not only did Wagner's antisemitism influence the Third Reich's antisemitism but lead directly to the Holocaust.

This was followed by Köhler's next book, Richard Wagner: Last Of The Titans which is perhaps one of the most detailed Wagner biographies (or certainly the largest) so far this century. Although this work began to shift responsibility onto Cosima Wagner -  and while perhaps not as "radical" in its views as his first Wagner book -  it continued similar themes.  Indeed, both books are often cited, especially in the press (and often academically),  by those that see Hitler and the Third Reich as being direct "successors" to Wagner and  who wish to place his antisemitism centrally within his work. To recognize quite how popular Köhler's theories have  become it is worth mentioning that he appeared in Stephen Fry's documentary "Wagner And Me", an event that brought his views firmly into the popular imagination.

Wagner had many faces, wore many masks, switched so quickly between solemnity and irony, and between irony and self-mockery, that you never really knew where you stood with him. Joachim Köhler. The Wagner Journal. 
With this in mind, Köhler's essay in the July issue of the Wagner Journal is surely a must. This is especially so given how difficult it can be for anyone involved in the industry (both commercial and academic) that has grown-up around Wagner to revisit a theory that brought them to prominence and, seeing it wanting, revise it completely - or at least when they feel it is in need of revising.

To use Köhler's words, "The latter crime (Wagner's influence upon the Third Reich) was alleged by me, amongst others, and since then by a large and constantly growing number of Wagner experts. When a ‘moral sledgehammer’ is being wielded,contradiction is difficult. I risk it nevertheless." 

He goes on, "This charge was supported by the unquestionable fact that Bayreuth and the Wagner family encouraged Hitler's rise and had virtually adopted him into the family. But - as I see it today - this elective affinity [Wahlverwandtschaft] occurred decades after Wagner's death. It is historically incorrect to equate the Bayreuth clan, including the heavyweight propagandist of anti-Semitism, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, with Richard Wagner. Wagner was never a narrow-minded sectarian, unlike his wife Cosima."

Indeed, Kohler points out, "Wagner always considered himself a spiritual revolutionary whose concern was the liberation of human beings, including the Jews, from their so-called 'curse'. 

Not that Kohler denies Wagner's antisemitism. As he says, "It remains the case, however, that Wagner was a malicious anti-Semite throughout his life and made no secret of his aversion. Of course this is unworthy of any civilised individual and even more of a creative genius. Today it is also punishable. But there is a difference between the offence of disseminating a prejudice, which applies in his case, 
and the crime of inciting mass murder."

"The idea of  torturing or killing human beings for the sake of this goal would have been foreign to him. He would have opposed it vehemently."

But this of course does not explain the amount of evidence that he originally - and others still do - brought to the "prosecution", as he calls it. Says Kohler, "The magic bullet always chosen by Wagner’s prosecutors is to quote relevant ‘passages’ from his books. Simply quoting is good enough for writing new books, but it is not sufficient to establish whether a defendant has actually committed the crime with  which he has been charged. No phrase is intelligible by itself. It changes its meaning depending on the context in which it was spoken or written.

Indeed, he notes that not only is it not enough to quote passages from Wagner's voluminous and varied writings - especially without context -  but that we should take great care when relying upon, "...tendentious diary entries penned by his anti-Jewish wife.... Cosima’s diaries also contain disparaging remarks – what share she herself had in these ‘Wagner quotations’ will never be resolved. That she worked with him on his late writings coloured by anti-Semitism, indeed intensified’ them, is well known. On 11 February 1881, she wrote in her diary that, at her instigation, Wagner had changed his infamous essay ‘Know Thyself’. 

If then, antisemitism was not central to Wagner's life and work what was?

"As deduced from his dramas and voluminous writings, his main interests were theatre and philosophy. In both his most significant literary works, Oper und Drama and Mein Leben, anti-Semitism plays practically no role. If at all, it is found in the philosophical works, and there, too, it is never pivotal. Wagner’s preoccupation was the rebirth of ancient drama and the Athenian art-as-religion which he expected.

The great adversaries of the new, free and loving human beings created by this art-as-religion were in the first instance not the Jews, but greed and egoism. The fact that he enlisted the Jews as the embodiment of these vices stemmed not from his diseased imagination, but belonged, alas, to the Christian tradition and the philosophical Zeitgeistof Germany’s post-Napoleonic era, the period known as ‘Nationales Erwachen’ (national awakening)".


The essay is a fascinating - and brave - work and one that deserves to be read in its entirety.  It is certain that the few quotations here do not do it justice or investigate its detailed argument for the "defense" in anywhere enough detail. A must read.

To find out how to read in full please visit: The Wagner Journal