The Aryan Myth: Richard WagnerIcon by Paul Benivedes

Richard Wagner was the most politically incorrect composer in history and also was one of the worst anti-Semites of the 19th Century. The German composer's behavior and religious views were off the charts of civilized society. In many ways he was a monster. Wagner believed that all Jews should be burned up.

Wagner lost no opportunity, year in and year out, of fretting the life out of his Jewish friends and collaborators about their Judaism. When Levi, a Jewish conductor, conducted the world premiere of his opera, Wagner remarked that if he were playing in the orchestra he wouldn't like to be directed by a Jew. Richard Wagner was the unofficial court composer of the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler said that "Whoever wants to understand National Socialistic Germany must know Wagner." Hitler's appropriation of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival was to serve his own cultural propaganda purposes. Wagner was a cultural hero for Hitler and his Nazis. The strains of Wagner were played during the Nazis' book-burning ceremonies and when concentration camp prisoners were about to be put to death. Nazi Germany's main defense fortification was called the "Siegfried Line," after the mythic hero in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung.
Elderly Jews walking down street during final liquidation of Warsaw ghetto.

Elderly Jews walking down street during liquidation of Krakow ghetto. Photo from USHMM Archives.

Wagner had many Jewish friends, although he thought of Jews as formal cannibals. Wagner hated Jews because Jewish financiers and impresarios failed to support him at the start of his career; and Jewish competitors such as the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose operas in the 1840s were far more successful than Wagner's early efforts. In some of his more levelheaded moments, Wagner was tolerant of the Jews, and said "If I wrote about the Jews again, I would say there is nothing to be held against them, only they came to us Germans too soon; we were not stable enough to absorb this element."

His music and attitude had a great influence on Hitler and the Nazis, even though he died in 1883, 50 years before Hitler rose to power. Wagner is an example of the Aryan myth (the belief of the superiority of some races over others) is expressed through music. Von Bulow was among the first of more than a century of music lovers who would face the challenge of bridging what Gordon Craig calls "the gulf between the tremendous music and the mean-spirited man."