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On the Future of Wagnerism, Part 5: The Wagner Family and Questions of Forgiveness

05/12/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

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Wagner's grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, with Hitler

Richard Wagner's grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, who led the postwar Bayreuth Fesitval, were Nazis. Wolfgang fought on the front lines of the war. Wieland was a director of the Flossenberg Concentration Camp near Bayreuth, 30,000 of whose 90,000 inmates were murdered. Neither was criminally prosecuted. Neither ever publicly repented or asked for forgiveness.

"On the Future of Wagnerism" is a series on Huffington Post by Lawrence D. Mass. As we demarcate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which Pope Francis called "the first genocide of the twentieth century," Mass looks at questions of disclosure and forgiveness surrounding Wagnerism. "Concealing or denying evil," said Francis, who was inspired by Parsifal's journey from ignorance to knowledge, "is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it."

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In 1998 the New Yorker published an essay about Wagner and the Jews called "The Unforgiven" by Alex Ross. Ross had met with Wagner's great grandson, the writer and musicologist Gottfried Wagner, whose autobiographical account of the Wagner family, Bayreuth's collaborations with Hitler and Nazism, and their aftermath, Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family's Legacy, had been published in 1997.

I read Ross's essay when it came out. At that time, I was so impressed with what seemed to be its scope, insights and caring that I wondered whether the title had been chosen by an editor rather than by Ross himself. Calling it "The Unforgiven" seemed to raise questions of who were the unforgiving and who the unforgiven, and why. Since forgiveness is, after all, widely held to be a virtue, criticism seemed implicit not of the unforgiven but of the unforgiving. As it turns out, the essay does make clarifying reference to "The Unforgiven." Reviewing the situation in Israel, Ross noted that the music of Richard Strauss was being played there following years of banishment and that "it is now only Wagner -- The Unforgiven -- who has an asterisk next to his name."

What Ross was saying is that among leading cultural figures tainted by anti-Semitism and/or Nazism, only Wagner has remained persona non grata, "unforgiven," and only in Israel. At first, any reservations I might have had about this statement and the essay's title were offset by Ross's notable inventory of Wagner's anti-Semitism and his acknowledgment of Wagner's having been what Ross, quoting Auden, called "an absolute shit." Indeed, Ross's essay concludes with the respectful, sensitive observation that if there's a shrine like Bayreuth where Wagner can still be contemplated with religious singularity and fervor, perhaps it's right that there also be a place (Israel) where his presence is absent, unheard.

But what does it say about Israel and Jews that some among us seem not to have forgiven Wagner? Isn't forgiveness one of the most fundamental of all religious, philosophical and spiritual precepts? Didn't Pope John Paul II make a special point of visiting and forgiving his attempted assassin? Didn't Jesus on the cross ask that his persecutors be forgiven? And wasn't it Shylock's eye-for-an-eye inability to forgive his Christian adversaries that provoked their anti-Semitic retaliations?

Inevitably, it's difficult not to conclude that some version of such thinking underlies Ross' viewpoint about what he senses to be the ongoing animus of some Jews against Wagner and his music, and the tension still felt by many more. Isn't it, as Ross otherwise has repeatedly suggested, finally time to move on, acknowledging, but also accepting the past and forgiving its sins and sinners? Isn't it time that we accept Ross's challenge to forgive Wagner more thoroughly, with fewer reservations and with greater unanimity among us than we ever have before?

Let's take a closer look at the issue of forgiveness as it has played out among Jews and Germans in music and culture thus far. How many famous Jews have expressed their admiration and appreciation of Wagner, notwithstanding his being genocidally anti-Semitic, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust? Hundreds? Easily. And what of the countless other Jews, many of whom unselfconsciously self-identify as Wagnerites, who so ardently admire the Ring cycle, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal, despite their anti-Semitic stereotypes? In fact, I believe I may be the only self-designated Jewish Wagnerite who has ever rescinded that identity -- of being a Wagnerite -- in the wake of the ever-worsening revelations of Wagner's anti-Semitism and its influence on his family, Hitler and Nazism.

Whatever qualifiers about separating the composer from his art they may acknowledge when pressed, virtually all leading Jewish figures in music -- from Hermann Levi, who conducted the world premiere of Parsifal and was a pall bearer at Wagner's funeral, to others of the inner circle of Wagner's admirers who are sometimes referred to as "Wagner's Jews," to Gustav Mahler, to Bruno Walter, Leo Blech, Otto Klemperer, Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and even Leonard Bernstein -- have resolutely refused to further qualify their love of Wagner's music and operas or their commitment to preserving his legacy. In fact, the question that needs to be asked is exactly the opposite of that earlier posed: Except for what is doubtless at this point a very small minority of survivors of concentration camps in Israel, how rare is it to find a prominent Jewish opera commentator or cultural arbiter who has not forgiven Wagner, to the extent of having no objections to his being performed everywhere, including in Israel? Can even one such prominent musician or cultural spokesperson be identified?

On the other hand, how common is it for any Wagner family member, or for that matter any leading German musical or cultural figure, ever to have asked for forgiveness? Over a recent dinner a German friend and I shared memories of favorite singers. Elizabeth Schwartzkopf was high up on both our lists. He opined that despite the greatness of her art and career, she was never forgiven for having been a Hitlerjugend. I rejoined that while it's true that her reputation was thus tarnished, the problem that persisted for her and likewise with Herbert von Karajan and so many others, including Richard Strauss and Wagner himself, isn't quite so simply that she wasn't forgiven. Schwartzkopf was married to Jewish musical culture mogul Walter Legge and was greatly admired by many Jewish music and opera people, including me. The surpassing problem is that neither she nor von Karajan nor virtually any of the other German artists, including Strauss and Wagner, who were Nazis or who in varying degrees contributed to or collaborated with Nazism, ever admitted to any wrongdoing, ever expressed any regrets or ever asked anyone, and certainly not Jews, for forgiveness.

Instead of asking for forgiveness or otherwise expressing regret for the past, or even honestly and clearly acknowledging it, what most of these Nazi-tainted German artists have done at best, individually or collectively, is what might be called gestures of redress -- e.g., Schwartzkopf's marrying Walter Legge (a career move that reflected her explicit defense and credo of "Vissi d'arte"), von Karajan's conducting of Mahler, Bayreuth's engagement of Jewish conductors and the Villa Wahnfried's 1985 exhibit on "Wagner and the Jews" that Gottfried Wagner dismissed as a whitewash.

Let's look at Bayreuth. When I was coming of age as a young Jewish Wagnerite, we knew of Wagner's anti-Semitism and Hitler's adoration of Wagner. We knew that Winifred Wagner, who succeeded Siegfried Wagner (her gay husband, the composer's son, Gottfried's grandfather) had befriended Hitler to the extent of welcoming him as family at Bayreuth. We knew that she remained unwaveringly loyal to "Wolf" (Hitler) even after the war, as a result of which she was officially interdicted from participating in the postwar administration of the Bayreuth Festival. We knew that her sons Wieland and Wolfgang likewise embraced "Onkel Wolf." But they were young adults at that time, and after the war, with Jews back on Bayreuth's rosters and with Bayreuth's alliances with the cultural institutions of former enemies restored, Bayreuth and the Wagner family, ostensibly sans Winifred, seemed to be making credible efforts to move beyond the past.

And of course, there was the shining beacon of credibility and trust that was Wagner's granddaughter, Friedelind, who became outspokenly anti-Hitler and fled Nazi Germany for America during the war. As an exemplar of German resistance to Hitler, she lent unparalleled credibility to our wishful thinking that the whole business of Nazism's embrace of Wagner was pretty much an aberration, a distortion of the composer's art that would have been as disturbing to Wagner himself as it was alleged to be to the majority of educated and enlightened Germans. We Wagnerites so wanted to believe that most Germans were overwhelmed by Hitler and Nazism and that their collaborations were increasingly, if not initially, involuntary and reluctant.

In addition to Friedelind, there were many examples of leading Wagner singers and conductors who denounced Hitler and refused to appear in Nazi Germany, including Arturo Toscanini, Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior (the greatest of heldentenors) and Erich Kleiber, as well as those who were Jewish, such as Friederich Schorr and Bruno Walter. These exceptions notwithstanding, we simply did not know the extent of Bayreuth's collusions with Hitler and Nazism, in sync with the extent and enthusiasm of collaboration of the vast majority of Germans. Nor did we have any real sense of the scale of unexpressed and otherwise nonexistent remorse and regret following the war by the Wagner family, Bayreuth and Hitler's willing executioners, the German Volk.

Beyond our credulity and denial about the silence surrounding the Nazizeit at Bayreuth, we Wagnerites were left to accept that what was there could be interpreted at least indirectly as addressing the past. Ostensibly, we had an all new and de-Nazified Bayreuth Festival under the auspices of Wieland Wagner and Wolfgang Wagner that seemed to look boldly to the future, with international and multi-racial casting and with stagings that were variously described as modernist, Freudian, minimalist and progressive, and which, in the case of Wieland's productions, held the once again international audiences in a thrall has yet to be matched.

So innovative were the stagings of Wieland Wagner that they seemed effortlessly to at once acknowledge and transcend the past and its controversies. Wagner the racist? Then why not toy with that concept by provacatively casting the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth, Grace Bumbry, in the role of Venus in Tannhauser? Thus was the stage set by Wieland Wagner, one of opera history's most acclaimed directors, for Wagner's art to subsume every Wagner controversy and challenge, to establish an artistic legacy that would eventually take on even the composer's anti-Semitism and the war he enkindled against the Jews.

Following Wieland's death from lung cancer in 1966, Bayreuth staged many such productions by a variety of leading directors, peaking with the Bayreuth centennial production, set in the Industrial Age, of the Ring cycle by Patrice Chereau, in which the Nibelungs were overtly depicted as Jews, and including a Meistersinger by Wagner's great granddaughter Katherina that evoked the Nurnberg of Adolf Hitler. Clearly, it seemed, whatever happened in the past, Wagner and Bayreuth were greater than that past, than "the Nazi rut" of Hitler and WW2. With those biggest of controversies increasingly subsumed within endlessly imaginative, deconstructive stagings, it seemed that Wagner's art was well on its way, perhaps moreso than ever, to becoming the great art of the future it was intended and declaimed by Wagner to be.

(To be continued with On The Future of Wagnerism, Part 6: The Wagner Family and Questions of Forgiveness (Conclusion)