Theodor Herzl's Secret Love

Herzl liked Wagner as much as Hitler did. So what's wrong with playing Wagner's music at the Israel Festival?

The Wagner-Barenboim affair just won't go away. On Friday, August 3, a large paid announcement was published in Ha'aretz that severely condemned the boycott imposed on Daniel Barenboim by four members of the Knesset Education Committee. In the following days, many letters opposing this decision were also published.

Uri Avnery, in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir, wrote on July 12 about Theodor Herzl's "secret love" for the music of Richard Wagner, and claimed that the book "The Jewish State" "would not have been written and the Zionist movement would not have arisen the way it did were it not for Wagner's music," which elevated and strengthened Herzl's spirit as he was writing. However, Herzl also stalked out of the students' organization to which he belonged because at a memorial it held for Wagner, anti-Semitic speeches were delivered. That is, Herzl - whom no one can accuse of not having been a Zionist - was well aware of Wagner's anti-Semitism, yet the composer's music was a source of inspiration for him.

Thus, the question has become a Zionist-Israeli question, one that reflects on the image of the visionary of the state and its legislature. But it would seem that the basic question, the question of Hitler's attitude toward Richard Wagner, has yet to be exhausted.

Should Wagner not be heard on official communications channels - for in other contexts, his music has long been played because he was an anti-Semite? After all, there have been many people, philosophers and artists, who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments; if we boycott them all, we will miss out on much of the world's culture.

Should Wagner not be played simply because his anti-Semitic opinions influenced Hitler? But Hitler was well-endowed with anti-Semitism, apocalyptic and total, in any case, and did not need any help. Indeed, if you read the sources for Hitler's statements and opinions, you will not find a single instance in which Hitler made a connection between Wagner, anti-Semitism and racism. He never even mentioned "The Jews in Music," Wagner's most anti-Semitic publication, which ends with what he sees as the only solution for the Jews - Untegang - that is, destruction.

So Hitler did not relate to Wagner's writings, but rather to his music, and above all, to his enormous admiration for him. He listened to every one of Wagner's operas over and over again, from the age of 12. He would go to Bayreuth, to the opera house, the Festspielhaus that Wagner had built there on the top of a hill, as if going to a temple at which there was a special place reserved for him. He often visited Wagner's grave, alone, as if to commune with him, and during the war, at the difficult Russian front, he expressed his desire to spend the rest of his life there once the war was over.

"Wagner was something divine, and his music is my religion. I go to his operas the way people go to church," said Hitler. Wagner's autobiography, "Mein Leben," ("My Life") turned into his Hitler's "Mein Kampf." Hitler brought Wagner into the life of the Third Reich in every way he could: Nazi Party events opened mostly to the strains of "Das Rheingold," and when Hitler committed suicide in the bunker in Berlin on the eve of Germany's surrender, he was holding the score of the opera. He spent entire nights planning sets for "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and designs for parties that became, through the use of lights and torches and colors and music, a kind of opera in their own right.

"Hitler," wrote biographer Robert Fein, "tried to turn Germany into a Wagner opera." At his trial after the failed putsch (coup) of 1923, Hitler testified that the first time he made a pilgrimage to Wagner's grave, he realized what his destiny was. And when he heard "Das Rheingold" for the first time, and identified with the hero of the opera - a common tribune who rose from the lowest ranks of society, united his people and led them to greatness - "Then, at that moment, it began."

Can music shape a political ideology, asks Avnery, and what does this say about Herzl's book, which was written under its influence? The answer is - nothing. Herzl did write under its influence, but this has nothing to do with Hitler's profound and intimate admiration of Wagner. Hitler derived from such Wagner motifs as the unification of the German people, its historical continuity and its characteristics, and viewed National Socialism as the natural continuation of German history. It is possible that this music elevates the soul and causes its listeners to feel that everything is possible; Herzl built the Jewish state out of it, and Hitler - the Third Reich.

And this, in my opinion, is why Wagner should not be played in official channels (the Israel Festival, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Reshet Aleph on Israel Radio and Channel One). Culture is not just listening to music; culture is first and foremost consideration for the other. And who is more worthy of consideration than Holocaust survivors - who are not at all a small minority? Today there are about 280,000 of them living in Israel, and with their families they number about a million, one-fifth of the Jewish population.

Wagner is the last symbol of the attitude toward Germany after the Holocaust, and playing his music will snap the last thin filament that remains. And finally, a thought: Avnery writes against the "total blackout" imposed by Zionists who are well-versed in Herzl's writings on the fact that he listened to Wagner during the time he was writing "The Jewish State." Go gently - How many people these days are well-versed in Herzl's writings at all?

Professor Dina Porat is Head of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University.