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Why Defending History is More Important Than Defending Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 30 August 2015 | 7:55:00 pm

Out of the ashes came a very different Wagner & a very different history?
Originally published, at Think Classical 19 August 2015 Slightly modified in our version 

When I first started writing on the Wagner controversy several years ago, I started out as a kind of amateur lawyer acting on his behalf. Part of this was driven by the fact that in retrospect I was rather naive about the sheer complexity of the subject. Things only gained clarity when I started to read major authoritative accounts of the history of the Dritte Reich and the origins of the Final Solution. At that point I literally stopped reading about Wagner, and started to devour just about anything I could get hold of on the subject of the history and origins of the Dritte Reich and Holocaust. I also found myself reading huge volumes devoted to the study of the 1848 pro-democracy revolution as well as the German 1918 revolution. I found myself studying Richard J. Evans's Rereading German History over and over again.

At a certain point I realised that people who blame Wagner for the historical disasters of WWII and the Holocaust have not even the slightest of interest in Wagner or opera. What is happening is that they are advocating a certain interpretation of history for political purposes. What is really being discussed is history, not opera. The controversy really is about the crude politicisation in the public sphere of a particular debate around the origin of the Holocaust.

This debate was one that was fought out amongst different camps of historians during the 1970s, which divided itself into the intentionalist and structural-functionalist camps. For those who find this debate perplexing I cannot recommend this article written by Elly Dlin highly enough:

Please read it several times over, and study it carefully. It should be noted that Elliott Dlin was the former director of the Dallas Holocaust Museum. The website it is posted on is hardly a neo-Nazi website trying to defend Wagner's radicalisation of opera into a medium for turning "Jew hatred into an aesthetic experience", but The Jewish Agency for Israel. You can find other material that covers similar ground about the intentionalist vs structural-functionalist debate on the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center, such as in this interview with Hans Mommsen.

The reason I am continuing to write about the subject of Wagner is simply that in the course of researching my posts on Köhler, I did a huge amount of background research on history. While I put condensed snippets of what I learned into my posts, I realise that I probably need to do a bit more explaining so that non-historians can better understand the all crucial historiographic issues at stake.

The most important thing is that once you learn to understand the origins of the Final Solution as the mainstream of academic historians understand it, you find that the notion that the National Socialist regime came to power with a fully formed premeditated plan to commit genocide engendered by an inherently warmongering and genocidal anti-Semitic psychopathology deeply inherent to the German character, with Wagner as the archetypal case in point, simply fails to hold. Once this concept is grasped, any notion of the existence of a premeditated intentionalist grand Masterplan to "transform the world into a Wagnerian drama" that the young Adolf decided to devote his life to realising when he was just a schoolboy starts to look rather ridiculous.

Dlin summarises the fundamental claim of the intentionalist school:
The intentionalist school is made up of those who are convinced that the Nazis/Hitler "intended" to kill the Jews at some relatively early point in time (here historians may differ as to exactly when that point was reached) and that he proceeded along the road to Auschwitz in a carefully planned and premeditated fashion.
The further back the time the point at which the premeditated plan for genocide is posited as having been hatched, the more extreme the intentionalism. When this plan for genocide predates Hitler, who is claimed to have reached the point of genocidal operatic anti-Semitism as a schoolboy, then we are dealing with a form of radical intentionalism far too extreme for any genuine scholar to take seriously.

Dlin quotes Gerald Fleming in summarising the core assumption inherent to the intentionalist argument which makes claims about an "unbroken continuity of specific utterances...a straight path...a single, unbroken, and fatal the liquidation orders that Hitler personally issued during the war". All Köhler does is elaborate on this by extending this "straight path...a single unbroken, and fatal continuum" from Hitler back to Wagner. While professional historians, even those on the moderate intentionalist camp, struggle to find a clear straight path going from Mein Kampf to Auschwitz, non-historians set themselves up as experts claiming to have discovered clear "straight paths" going from Judaism in Music (1850) through to Mein Kampf (1925) and Auschwitz.

The main counterargument that blurs such extremely simplistic clean lines of a straight path of history that runs from A to B, is the structural-functionalist camp arguments that presents a far more complex picture of a "twisted road to Auschwitz".
The structural-functionalist school debunked the command-response (also prophet-disciple) paradigm
of a Leader in masterful command of the Reich's minions, and replaced it with a messy polycratic jungle 
in which ad hoc decisions were improvised by those "working towards the Führer", anticipating 
what they assumed would be approved action, thus inadvertently engendering a "cumulative radicalisation". 

This camp, referred to as either the functionalist or structuralist camp, consists of highly reputable academic scholars, some of whom were themselves Holocaust survivors. Let nobody attempt to dismiss scholars such as Hans Mommsen, Goetz Aly, Christopher Browning, or Raul Hilberg as being neo-Nazis for their failure to press arguments conducive to the demonisation of all Germans before Hitler as proto-Nazis, because nothing could be further from the truth. This camp has left an indelible mark on Holocaust studies, and even those who were formerly on the intentionalist side such as Yehuda Bauer now advocate for a more moderate synthetic approach between the two camps.

The structural-functionalist methodological approach is also a much more academic approach to the study of history. It puts the blame for the rise of the Dritte Reich on the catastrophes of WWI, followed by the crippling reparation payments imposed upon Germany by the treaty of Versailles, setting the stage for Weimar democracy to be undermined to the point that it was soon put onto life support following the body blow of hyperinflation before the Great Depression delivered its coup de grace. The Holocaust is seen more in terms of the ad hoc system of decision making in the power structures of the Dritte Reich, a messy polycratic jungle, which left the system utterly bereft of humanitarian decision making during a war of attrition even more catastrophic than the first world war.

The idea first found in Allied war propaganda that Germans were always Nazis, and that German culture could be characterised by a uniquely psychopathic Nazi mentality since the time of Martin Luther has long ago been left behind by mainstream historians. The reason is that this way of thinking represents "cultural historicism" which claims that culture and psychology exclusively drives events in history. History is seen as being driven by the genius of the Great Man, such as poets, philosophers and opera composers. In the driving seat of German history is placed various Great Men steering German history to the crematoria of Auschwitz. The choice of the Great Man who conditioned the German mind to brainwash them all into becoming "Hitler's Willing Executioners" is always dictated by the political prejudice of the writer.

Paul Hinlicky puts things rather well about those self-serving polemicists who draw such neat and clean "straight lines" running wherever they want to run by claiming that:
There is, say, a straight line running “Luther-Bismarck-Hitler”, or rather “Darwin-Nietzsche-Hitler”. Unsurprisingly these facile characterizations correspond to contemporary culture wars...  

Hinlicky is right to say that these furious debates ultimately tell us nothing about history, but inform us only about "contemporary culture wars", wars waged along political battle lines. As Israeli historian Na'ama Sheffi says, Wagner is merely being manipulated as a pawn in the battle of these contemporary culture wars.

The same can be said for a straight line allegedly running Wagner-Hitler or even Darwin-Marx-Wagner-Hitler, as has been argued before during the 1940s by Allied war propagandists using the fog of war to launch an attack on the left:

For some on the right, Wagner's admiration for the proto-Marxist thinker, Feuerbach, has been reason to insinuate that National Socialism was a post-Marxist left wing revolutionary movement, the ultimate evolution of radical left wing thought. On the cover of Barzun's book, Richard Wagner's face merges into the heads of Darwin and Marx, as though to suggest they are different faces of the same proto-fascist ideology.

For the reactionary Christian right (usually American anti-abortion creationists and intelligent design proponents) the Great Man who invented Kraut think was Charles Darwin, and his German advocate, Ernst Haeckel. Right wing American Christian universities often publish this literature arguing Nazism was the ultimate expression of a Godless Social Darwinism. The crowd devoted exclusively to discrediting evolution mostly seem to have forgotten the idea that World War II and the Holocaust were really caused by a nineteenth century opera composer.

However, there have been those who have blamed Martin Luther, and singled him out as the Great Man who steered Germany to Auschwitz. The best example here is William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a liberal who turned to writing this populist book after losing his job during the McCarthy era. Since his time, the number of left-wing polemicists to point the finger of blame at Luther have been few and far between, because this type of "cultural historicism" is more of a right-wing ideological tradition, one which finds that demonising an iconic religious figure like Luther is simply inconvenient. The left generally tends to feel contented to accept that socio-economic structural conditions and socio-political power tensions engendered WWII, while functional conditions of the political power structures within the Dritte Reich at war colluded to precipitate the Shoah. From this standpoint, the left feels no need to "discover" in the figure of Martin Luther the "real" Great Man who steered Germany down the road to Auschwitz.

In this new mini series of shorter explanatory posts about the main post on this blog critically analysing Joachim Köhler's book Wagner's Hitler—the Prophet and his Disciple, the major emphasis has been a plea for anyone who wants to grapple with the Wagner controversy to first come to grips with mainstream academic historiographic research on the origins of the Holocaust. Modern researchers in this field universally fail to even bother mentioning Wagner (or Luther) as being even remotely relevant to the origins of the Final Solution. Once you understand history properly, the Wagner controversy melts away into a rather irrelevant non-issue.

In summary, it is immeasurably more important to defend history than to defend Wagner, because history is the truly important thing at stake in Wagner controversies. Once you have successfully done that, Wagner merely defends himself. All of the "gross exaggeration and distortion" accompanying the controversy around Wagner increasingly starts to look like a ridiculously overblown storm in a tea cup. Put simply, Wagner controversies have got nothing to do with Wagner at all.