“I am the most German being. I am the German spirit.” — Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner (1813–1883) is today universally celebrated as the consummate exponent of nineteenth century German opera, whose developed Romantic idiom helped to usher in the musical innovations of Modernism in the early twentieth century. Most people, besides, have a general notion that he was a controversial figure on account of his pronounced anti-Semitic views. Few, however, take care to peruse his several prose works to understand the consistent ethical system, based on Schopenhauer and Proudhon, which accompanied the great musical dramas of Wagner.
Since it is impossible to divorce the musician’s mind from his music, especially when it is the exceptionally developed one of a genius such as Wagner, it would benefit us to have a clear idea of Wagner’s racial-Christian doctrines of social and political regeneration alongside our easier appreciation of his overwhelmingly powerful music. Although there have been a few serious studies of Wagner’s political thought in recent years, these are, understandably, of varying quality.
It would, in general, be advisable to avoid classifying Wagner — as well as the more rhapsodic and unsystematic Nietzsche — under any of the modern “isms,” and so I shall endeavor here to elucidate Wagner’s philosophy by merely pointing to pivotal passages in his major prose works that illuminate the religious and political dimensions of his thought.
It may at the outset be stated that Wagner considers in his work only the history and culture of the Indo-European race since he considers it to be the most highly developed spiritually. Wagner tends to relate the strength of this spiritual faculty to the dietary habits of the original stock, that is, to what he believed to have been its original vegetarianism.
In his late essay, “Religion and Art,” written in 1880 under the influence of his reading of Arthur, Comte de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853), Wagner traces the history of the Aryans from what he considers to have been their original home in India and posits a gradual migration westwards through Iran, Greece, and Rome. In the course of these migrations, Wagner observes that the race has undergone a weakening of its spiritual force through a gradual conversion from vegetarianism to meat-eating, which latter custom has made the western peoples increasingly more violent in their social and historical conduct.
Christianity is considered by Wagner to be a reversal of this trend in that Christ enjoined the peaceful cohabitation of peoples devoted to the cultivation of inner spirituality. Unfortunately, its intimate connection to Judaism has transformed original Christianity into a creed of belligerent rapacity and conquest which does not reflect the teachings of Christ so much as the exhortations of the old Israelite prophets to annihilate the enemies of Jehovah.
Wagner’s account of the progress of the Aryans is perhaps not entirely accurate since there is no certainty that the Aryans were first settled in India rather than in the regions around the Black Sea, along with the other branches of the Indo-Europeans.
Also, he tends to interpret the peculiarities of Zoroastrian religion and Greek as being due to the sociological conditions in which the Iranians and Greeks found themselves in antiquity. For example, he explains the dualism of the Zoroastrian religion as being due to the fact that the Aryans who had moved into Iran as conquerors after having become meat-eaters on the way from the gentler climate of India, “could still express their consternation at the depths to which they had sunk” and thus developed a religion based on a vivid conscience of “sin,” which forced an opposition between “Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, Ormuzd and Ahriman.” This is of course false, since all the ancient religions, including Zoroastrianism, were based on cosmological insight and were not developed to explain the historical conditions of any particular nation.
Only Judaism may be explained in such sociological terms since it represents a revolt of one particular ancient Near Eastern ethnic group – the Arameans and Hebrews — against the cosmological religion of their neighbors in Mesopotamia. This is indeed made clear in the passages in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities I, 157, and Philo the Jew’s De mutatione nominum, 72-6, which expose the mundane materialistic and nationalistic ambitions of the Hebrew, Abraham, who instituted the tribal cult of Jehovah.
According to Wagner, the first manifestation of a recognition of the deterioration of racial strength among the western Indo-Europeans was among the Pythagoreans who founded “silent fellowships . . . remote from the turmoil of the world . . . as a sanctification from sin and misery.” The fullest exemplification of the need for world-renunciation, however, was that offered by Christ, who gave his own flesh and blood “as last and highest expiation for all the sin of outpoured blood and slaughtered flesh.”
Again, Wagner seems unaware of the fact that the Christian story itself borrows heavily from Babylonian and Dionysiac prototypes (Marduk, Dionysus) whose death and resurrection were mere mythological representations of the primal drama of the cosmic solar force that was forced into the underworld before it could be revived in our universe as the sun.
Wagner understands the Christian story literally and maintains that the problems of Christianity stem from the appropriation of the administration of the rites of Communion by the priests, so that the people in general failed to understand the injunction to abstinence from all flesh contained in Christ’s offering of his own flesh and blood to his disciples. Besides, the Church as an institution could maintain itself and propagate itself politically only by supporting the violence and rapine of the emperors which contributed to the eventual ruin of the race’s inner strength. In these international adventures the Church was gradually forced to revert to its Judaic roots since
wherever Christian hosts fared forth to robbery and bloodshed, even beneath the banner of the Cross, it was not the All-Sufferer whose name was invoked, but Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and all the other captains of Jehova who fought for the people of Israel, were the names in request to fire the heart of slaughter; whereof the history of England at the time of the Puritan wars supplies a plain example, throwing a light on the Old Testament evolution of the Church.
With the adoption of this quasi-Judaic aggression, the Christian Church began to act as the herald of Judaism itself, which, though characterised by a fanatic desire to rule the world, had hitherto been forced to live an oppressed life among the other nations in which it found itself during the Diaspora:
Despised and hated equally by every race . . . without inherent productivity and only battening on the general downfall, in course of violent revolutions this folk would very probably have been extinguished as completely as the greatest and noblest stems before them; Islam in particular seemed called to carry out the act of extirpation, for it took to itself the Jewish god, as creator of heaven and earth, to raise him by fire and sword as one and only god of all that breathes. But the Jews, so it seems, could fling away all share in this world-rulership of their Jehovah, for they had won a share in a development of the Christian religion well fitted to deliver it itself into their hands in time, with all its increments of culture, sovereignty and civilization.
In Europe, the Jews as money-lenders viewed all European civilization as a mere instrument of their own gradual rise to power: “To the Jew who works the sum out, the outcome of this culture is simply the necessity of waging wars, together with greater one–of having money for them” (“Know Thyself,” supplement to Religion and Art). The undue power that the Jews have achieved as a result of this clever procedure, as well as due to their emancipation in the middle of the nineteenth century, is thus based on what Wagner considers the basis of all wars, namely “property.” Internationally, the protection of property entails the maintenance of “the weaponed host” and “the astounding success of our resident Jews in the gaining and amassing of huge store of money has always filled our Military State authorities with nothing but respect and joyful admiration.”
The socialist and democratic revolutions mounted in Germany were also inadequate solutions of the problems resulting from property since they were totally un-German imitations of Franco-Judaic upheavals. Indeed, “democracy” itself is in Germany “purely a translated thing” which exists merely in “the press” (“What is German?,” 1865). Party politics is altogether a vicious circle that obscures the real conflict between Germans and Jews under a confusion of names that are themselves wholly un-German, such as “Liberal,” “Conservative,” “Social Democrat,” and “Liberal Conservative.” Only when the “fiend who keeps those ravers in the mania of their party-strife no more can find a where or when to lurk among us, will there also be no longer — any Jews.”
What is worse is that the Jewish agitators used German nationalist catch-words such as “Deutschtum” and “German freedom” to deceive the German folk and lull it into a false sense of superiority:
Whilst Goethe and Schiller had shed the German spirit on the world without so much as talking of the ‘German’ spirit, these democratic speculators fill every book- and print-shop, every so-called joint-stock theater, with vulgar, utterly vapid dummies, forever plastered with the puff of ‘deutsch’ and ‘deutsch’ again, to decoy the easygoing crowd.
In developing the German spirit therefore one should take care to avoid the temptation of self-complacency, of believing that every German is “quite of oneself . . . something great and needs to take no sort of pains to first become it.” Indeed the fact that
Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven have issued from the German people’s womb far too easily tempts the bulk of middling talents to consider the great minds their own by right of birth, to persuade the mass with demagogic flatulence that they themselves are Goethes and Schillers.
Wagner’s remedy to the problem of international conflicts based on Jewish finance, or rather credit — which has indeed replaced religion as “a spiritual, nay, a moral power” (“Know Thyself”) — is the reawakening of the genuinely German character. The proof of the racial strength of the Germans is the “pride of race” which, in the Middle Ages, supplied princes, kings and emperors throughout Europe and which can still be encountered in the old nobility of Germanic origin. One obvious sign of the truly German is the language itself:
Do we feel our breath fast quitting us beneath the pressure of an alien civilization; do we fall into uncertainty about ourselves: we have only to dig to the roots in the true father-soil of our language to reap at once a reassuring answer on ourselves, nay on the truly human. And this possibility of always drawing from the pristine fount of our own nature that makes us feel ourselves no more a race, no mere variety of man, but one of manhood’s primal branches — tis this that ever has bestowed on us great men and spiritual heroes.
This strength of character is indeed the only defense that the Germans have against the wiles of the Jewish race, which manages to preserve its own racial character easily on account of the unique nature of its “religion,” which is indeed not a religion at all but “merely the belief in certain promises of [the Jewish god] which in nowise extend beyond this temporal life . . . , as in every true religion, but simply to this present life on earth, whereon [the Jewish] race is certainly ensured dominion over all that lives and lives not.” This inhuman ambition of the Jew is embodied in Wagner’s Parsifal by the character of Klingsor, who cuts himself off from all human love by castrating himself in order to acquire power over others. As Wagner put it, trapped in “an instinct shut against all ideality,” the Jew remains always “the plastic demon of man’s downfall.”
The liberation from the constrictions of Judaism can begin only with an effort to understand the nature of the instinctive repugnance that one feels towards the Jew’s “prime essence” in spite of his emancipation (“Jewry in Music,” 1850): “with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews’ emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any, actual operative conduct with them.” Unlike the true poet, who gains his inspiration “from nothing but a faithful, loving contemplation of instinctive life, of that life which greets his sight amid the Folk,” the educated Jew stands “alien and apathetic . . . in the midst of a society he does not understand, with whose tastes and aspirations he does not sympathize, whose history and evolution have always been indifferent to him.”
The Jew “stands in correlation with none but those who need his money: and never yet has money thriven to the point of knitting a goodly bond ’twixt man and man.” Thus the Jew only considers art-works as so many objects to be bought and sold: “What the heroes of the arts, with untold strain consuming lief and life, have wrested from the art-fiend of two millennia of misery, today the Jew converts into an art-bazaar.” The tolerance of Jews in German society would thus mean the substitution of genuine German culture with a simulacrum.
In the “‘Appendix’ to ‘Jewry in Music’” published in 1869, Wagner adds, “Whether the downfall of our culture can be arrested by a violent ejection of the destructive foreign element, I am unable to decide, since that would require forces with whose existence I am unacquainted.” And all attempts to assimilate the Jews into German society should take care to fully appreciate the real difficulties of such an assimilation before any measures are passed that recommend it.
To those who may think that Wagner is just a Hitler in sheep’s clothing, it may indeed be surprising that he was in fact a deeply philosophical Christian, whose Christianity was infused with the spirit of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which he first read in 1852. The first requisite for a true Christian, according to Wagner, is to divorce his conception of Christ from the Jehovah of the Jews. Indeed, if Jesus is proclaimed the son of Jehovah, “then every Jewish rabbi can triumphantly confute all Christian theology, as has happened indeed in every age” (“Public and Popularity,” 1878). Thus it is not surprising that most of the population have become atheistic:
That the God of our Savior should have been identified with the tribal god of Israel is one of the most terrible confusions in all world-history . . . We have seen the Christian God condemned to empty churches while ever more imposing temples are reared among us to Jehovah.
The reason the Jews remain Jewish, the people of Jehovah, in spite of every change, is that, as we have noted above, Judaism is not a religion but a financial political ambition.
Wagner’s Schopenhauerian Christianity, on the other hand, demands the recognition of the “moral meaning of the world,” the recognition of the root of all human suffering, namely the will and its concomitant passions. “Only the love that springs from pity, and carries its compassion to the utmost breaking of the self-will, is the redeeming Christian Love, in which Faith and Hope are both included of themselves” (“What boots this Knowledge?,” supplement to Religion and Art, 1880). Here again Wagner harks back to the natural constitution of the Indo-Europeans, who alone possess “the faculty of conscious suffering” in a highly developed form.
In another supplement to Religion and Art, ‘Hero-dom and Christendom’ (1881), Wagner maintained that the superiority of the white race is proven by the very fact while “the yellow races have viewed themselves as sprung from monkeys, the white traced back their origin to gods, and deemed themselves marked out for rulership.” Although Wagner believed that the substitution of animal food for vegetable was one of the prime causes of man’s degeneration (“a change in the fundamental substance of our body”), his reading of Gobineau’s Essai led him to consider racial mixture, especially with Jews, as another cause of the corruption of the blood:
It certainly may be right to charge this purblind dullness of our public spirit to a vitiation of our blood – not only by departure from the natural food of man, but above all by the tainting of the hero-blood of noblest races with that of former cannibals now trained to be the business-agents of society.
Although the highly developed psychic constitution of the Indo-Europeans is their distinguishing feature, the excellence of Christ as an individual is due to the fact that he alone represents “the quintessence of free-willed suffering itself, that godlike Pity which streams through all the human species, its font and origin.” Wagner even pauses to consider whether Christ could have been of the white race at all since the blood of the latter was in the process of “paling and congealing.” Uncertain as to the answer, Wagner goes on to suggest that the blood of the Redeemer may have been “the divine sublimate of the species itself” springing from “the redemptive Will’s supreme endeavor to save mankind at death-throes in its noblest races.” We recognize in this statement the message of Wagner’s last and most intensely religious music drama, Parsifal.
However, Wagner also takes care to stress that, although the blood of the Savior was shed to redeem all of humanity, the latter is not destined to achieve a universal equality as a result, since racial differences will persist. And if the system of world rulership by the white race was marked by immoral exploitation, the uniting of mankind can be achieved only through “a universal moral concord, such as we can but deem true Christianity elect to bring about.”
In addition to these insights into the redemptive grace of Christ to be found in this 1881 essay, Wagner had already outlined the ethics of his own version of Christianity earlier, in his 1849 sketch to the projected opera “Jesus of Nazareth.” According to this work, the first solution of the problem of evil in the world had been the institution of the Law. However, this static Law, when incorporated as the State, stood in opposition to the ever-changing rhythm of Nature, and man came invariably into conflict with the artificial Law. The faults of the Law were indeed principally due to man’s original selfishness, which sought to protect his personal property, including his wife and family, through man-made laws. Wagner, in a Proudhonian manner, rejects these laws and insists on Love as the basis of all familial as well as social relationships.
Man can achieve a oneness with God only through a oneness with Nature and this oneness is possible only through the substitution of the Law with Love. In expounding his version of the Christian doctrine of Love, Wagner has recourse to a quasi-Schopenhauerian theory of the Will and its egoistic striving:
the process of putting off my Me in favor of the universal is Love, is active Life itself; the non-active life, in which I abide by myself is egoism. This becoming conscious of ourselves through self-abnegation results in a creative life, because by abandoning our self we enrich the generality, as well as ourselves.
The opposite, or “non-becoming conscious of ourselves in the universal brings forth sin.” An egoist who does not give anything to the universal will be robbed in the end of all by the latter against his will and he will die without finding himself again in the universal.
In this context, Wagner pauses to identify the nature of women and children as being essentially egoistic. A woman can get rid of her natural egoism only through the travail of birth and the love imparted to her children. Thus the woman can find salvation only through her love for a man, though a man too is enriched by his love for a woman since it is the most basic selfless act that he is capable of. Indeed, for a man, the sexual act itself entails a shedding of his life-substance.
Beyond this love for a woman, however, a man can divest his ego also through love of a greater fellowship than the merely personal and sexual. This is the love for one’s fatherland, which impels men to sacrifice their life for the “weal of the community.”
However, Christ pointed a higher path than even patriotic self-sacrifice, and that is the giving up of oneself for the sake of humanity at large. Every sacrifice is at the same time a creative act, that of sexual love as well as patriotic, since the former results in the multiplication of oneself in children and the latter in the preservation of the many lives that constitute one’s nation. The sacrifice of oneself for all mankind, however, is the most complete “parting with the emptied casket of that generative force, and thus a last creation in itself, to wit the upheaval of all unproductive egoism, a making place for life.” Such a death is the “most perfect deed of love.” Wagner thus identifies the transfiguration achieved through death as the “enthralling power of the Christian myth” (Opera and Drama, 1850). But we may note that this is equally the import of all classical tragedy, and that Wagner was merely interpreting the Christian story in traditional Indo-European terms.
Although the redemption that one achieves through self-sacrifice is a personal one, Wagner had also considered the government of nations from the point of view of Schopenhauerian ethics. In his essay, “On State and Religion” (1864-5), dedicated to his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner expounded his religio-political ideal of the philosopher-king using the categories of Schopenhauer’s philosophical system. He begins by admitting the folly of his earlier participation in the Socialist revolutions of 1848 and recognises the state as the guarantor of the stability of the nation. However, the state is most authentically and fully represented not by constitutional democratic or socialist governments but rather by the monarch. For the monarch
has naught in common with the interests of parties, but his sole concern is that the conflict of these interests should be adjusted precisely for the safety of the whole . . . Thus, as against the party interests, he is the representative of purely human interests, and in the eyes of the party-seeking citizen he therefore occupies in truth a position well-nigh superhuman.
In the monarch thus the ideal of the state is finally achieved, an ideal which is neither perceived nor cultivated by the egoistic intellect but only by the supra-egoistic “Wahn,” or irrational “vision.” Wagner associates this Wahn with the “spirit of the race” and of the species that Schopenhauer had pointed to in his analysis of the group behavior of insects, such as bees and ants, which build societies with an apparently unconscious concern for the welfare of the whole regardless of the individuals within it. In human societies this altruistic instinct is indeed manifest as patriotism. However, the self-sacrifice that patriotism demands is often so strenuous that it cannot hold out indefinitely and is, further, likely to be contaminated by the natural egoism of the individual, who may see in the state too only a safeguard of his own interests along with those of his fellow men. In order to sustain the patriotic Wahn therefore is required a lasting symbol and this symbol is indeed the monarch.
A monarch has “no personal choice, may allow no sanction to his purely human leanings, and needs must fill a great position for which nothing but great natural parts can qualify.” If his vision of his own patriotic duty is marked by ambition and passion, he will be a warrior and conqueror. On the other hand, if he is high-minded and compassionate by nature, he will realize that patriotism itself is inadequate for the purpose of satisfying the highest aspirations of mankind which indeed require the vehicle not of the state but of religion. Patriotism cannot be the final human political goal since it turns too easily into violence and injustice against other states.
The particular instrument whereby the patriotic Wahn is distorted into international strife is the so-called “public opinion” which is created and maintained by the press. Unlike the king, who is the genuinely disinterested representative of the welfare of the state, the public opinion created by the press is a travesty of the king in that it fosters patriotism through the flattery of the “vulgar egoism of the mass.” Thus the press is “the most implacable tyrant” from whose despotism the king, who is preoccupied with “purely human considerations lying far above mere patriotism,” suffers most. Thus it is that “in the fortunes and the fate of kings the tragic import of the world can first be brought completely to our knowledge.”
Since perfect justice can never be attainable in this world, the religious person naturally finds the patriotic Wahn inadequate and follows instead a religious or divine one which demands of him “voluntary suffering and renunciation” of this entire world to which egoistic man clings. The inward happiness, or revelation, which fills a man (or “saint”) who undertakes such renunciation cannot be transmitted to the ordinary people except through religious dogma and the cultivation of “sincere, undoubting and unconditional” faith. True religion is preserved only in the individual who perceives beyond the diversity of sense-perception “the basic oneness of all being.” This inner beatific vision can be transmitted to ordinary men not by the exhortations of a vain clergy but only through the edifying example of saintly figures:
Hence there lies a deep and pregnant meaning behind the folk’s addressing itself to God through the medium of its heart-loved saints; and it says little for the vaunted enlightenment of our era that every English shopkeeper for instance, so soon as he has donned his Sunday coat and taken the right book with him, opines that he is entering into immediate personal intercourse with God.
Once religion turned to the state for its maintenance and propagation, it too was forced to become an institution of the state and serve the imperfect justice of the state. Hence the abhorrent religious strifes which have marked the political conduct of modern nations.
Since true religiosity can never be conveyed through religious disputation or even by philosophical sophistry, only the king can, if he be endowed with a particularly elevated spiritual nature, or Wahn, unite the two essentially different realms of state and religion into a harmonious whole. The mark of a truly noble mind is that “to it every, often the seemingly most trivial, incident of life and world intercourse is capable of swiftly displaying its widest correlation with the essential root of all existence, thus of showing life and the world themselves in their true, their terribly earnest meaning.” And only the king’s “exalted, well-nigh superhuman situation” allows him also the superior vantage point from which to view the tragedy of “mundane passions” and grants him the “grace” which marks the exercise of perfect equity.
We see therefore that Wagner’s philosophical ideals revive Platonic, Schopenhauerian and Proudhonian Socialistic ones in a message of Christian Love that is as exalted as his music. To those who object today to Christianity as a Judaic monotheistic religion that must be abjured in favour of nebulous neo-pagan revivals, Wagner’s writings reveal the true Indo-European virtue of a religion that was certainly Indo-European in its origins and has, when divorced from its later immersion into the history of the Jewish people, continued to possess a deep spiritual value for the elevation of mankind. As for Wagner’s criticisms of the Jews for their domination of states through credit and their degradation of the populace through the press, these have indeed become more compelling today than they must have been in his own day, since the Jewish forms of “Socialism” and “Communism” and “Democracy” that have dominated the post-war era have indeed succeeded in robbing the world not only of monarchy but also of all true philosophy and religion.
1. Diary of Richard Wagner 1865–1888: The Brown Book, ed. J. Bergfeld, tr. G. Bird (London: Gollancz, 1980), p. 73.
2. After M. Boucher’s Les idées politiques de Richard Wagner (Paris: Aubier, 1947), the recent studies of Wagner’s political thought include E. Eugène, Les idées politiques de Richard Wagner et leur influence sur l’idéologie allemande (1870–1845) (Paris: Les Publications Universitaires, 1978), F. B. Josserand, Richard Wagner: Patriot and Politician (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), A. D. Aberbach, The Ideas of Richard Wagner: An Examination and Analysis of his Major Aesthetic, Political, Economic, Social and Religious Thought (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1984). P. L. Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution (London: Faber, 1992), and H. Salmi, Imagined Germany: Richard Wagner’s National Utopia (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).
3. See A. Jacob, Ātman: A Reconstruction of the Solar Cosmology of the Indo-Europeans (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 2005), “Introduction – Historical.” I distinguish the Aryans as one branch of Indo-Europeans, the Japhetic, whereas the generic Indo-European stock includes the Semites and Hamites as well.
4. All translations from Wagner are from W. A. Ellis, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works (London, 1897).
5. See A. Jacob, op. cit.
6. Wagner’s focus on language as the essential expression of the racial-national spirit is borrowed from Fichte’s Reden an die deutsche Nation (1807).
7. See M. Boucher, op. cit., p. 18. Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung was first published in 1818.
8. For the various similarities between the philosophy of Proudhon and that of Wagner, especially their veneration of Christ, their denunciation of the Jews, and their anti-Communist socialism based on the genius of “le peuple” (or “-”), see M. Boucher, op. cit., p. 160ff). Proudhon’s abhorrence of Communism is evident in his description of this system as “l’exaltation de l’Etat, la glorification de la police” (ibid., p. 161).