Anti-Semitic Letter From Wagner to Be Auctioned in Jerusalem

In the letter, the composer asserts that ‘Jewish assimilation into French society prevents the French from distinguishing the corroding influence of the Jewish spirit on modern culture’

Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel
From left: the letter to be auctioned, and the composer Richard Wagner.
From left: the letter to be auctioned, and the composer Richard Wagner.Credit: Courtesy of Kedem auction house and DPA/AP
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel

A letter with anti-Semitic content, handwritten by composer Richard Wagner, will be presented this week at a public auction in Jerusalem of rare historical items.

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The letter was sent on April 25, 1869 from Lucerne to France, apparently to the French writer, philosopher and musicologist Édouard Schuré, who not long before had published an essay in a French journal about Wagner’s works, titled “Richard Wagner et le Drame Musical” (“Richard Wagner and the Musical Drama”). The first part of the letter refers to an essay about Wagner that appeared in that journal, therefore Schuré is the presumed addressee.

From Richard Wagner's anti-Semitic letter. Credit: Courtesy of Kedem auction house in Jerusalem

The letter goes on to discuss Wagner’s thoughts about the Jews and their influence on French and German culture. The discussion appears to pertain to the most well-known essay regarding the composer’s attitude toward Jews and art. Entitled “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”), it was published in Zurich in 1850 under the pen name K. Freigedank (K. Freethought).

In 1869, Wagner republished the polemical essay under his real name, drawing much more public attention to it.

That article contains most of the hallmarks of modern anti-Semitism that is based on the doctrine of racial superiority, with foundations from classical, religious anti-Semitism: Judaism is a religion of hate, but even when the Jew forsakes his religion and culturally assimilates, he still bears within him the racial elements of impurity and degeneration. When he is allowed to assimilate, the culture of the superior race that is hosting him is in danger of “Judaization” and corruption by the inferior elements of the Jewish being. The article is written in blunt language, and concludes that all composers of Jewish descent are to be rejected, for their music must by definition be hollow and lacking in depth.

In the letter to be shown this week at the Kedem auction house in Jerusalem, Wagner elaborates on the parts of the article that had caused such an uproar that same year. He argues that “Jewish assimilation into French society prevents the French from distinguishing the corroding influence of the Jewish spirit on modern culture”; stresses the importance of differentiating between German Jews and other Germans, saying, “To lump together Heine, Goethe, Meyerbeer, and perhaps myself, that ends in the kind of confusion suffered by the French conception of the German character.” In the letter, Wagner also makes the very familiar anti-Semitic claim that “the German press is entirely in Jewish hands.”

The presentation of this letter for auction in Israel shines a light once more on the long-running debate here over public performances of Wagner’s works. While there are no official regulations or directives concerning the content of concerts in Israel, an unofficial ban on public performances of Wagner’s music is still the norm heeded by all the orchestras here when programming their series for the general public. In 1981, the Israel Philharmonic tried to defy this norm, and the intensity of the public response was so great that no further attempts have been made since then.

The arguments made in this public debate keep being repeated.

Supporters of the ban cite concern for the feelings of Holocaust survivors, emphasizing Wagner’s unique symbolic standing as the favorite composer of Hitler and his regime. Wagner’s blunt rhetoric that is revealed in this letter certainly won’t help.

Opponents point out that Wagner died long before the Nazis’ rise to power, that composers who worked in Nazi Germany are played here, that many German products are sold here and that one has to separate the artist – and his flaws as a person – from his work, which in this case is of noted importance and had a major impact on all the music that followed it.

The racist letter being revealed now will not encourage supporters of the ban to change their minds. The debate may rage on, but the status quo remains stable: Israelis who love Wagner’s operas listen to them at home and at concerts abroad.

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