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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2011

14 - Wagner and the Third Reich: myths and realities

from PART IV - After Wagner: influence and interpretation


The subject of music in Nazi Germany invariably elicits the name Wagner, whether as a reference to Hitler's legendary adulation of the composer, to the notorious admiration for Hitler on the part of the composer's (posthumous) daughter-in-law and Bayreuth festival director, Winifred Wagner, to the presumed prominence of Wagner's music in the Third Reich, or to Wagner's anti-Semitism as a harbinger of the extermination of European Jewry. Yet the multiple roles of “Wagner” – the man, the family, the works, and the cultural-ideological legacy – in the Third Reich cannot be understood without peeling away several layers of myth. While some of these myths arose in Hitler's Germany, most were inspired by German expatriates and developed from postwar debates resulting from the desperate attempts to explain how a highly cultured people could carry out such atrocities. scholars have only recently begun to sort the myth from the reality in assessing the functions of Wagner and Bayreuth in Nazi culture, politics, and musical life. The following exploration will examine the many roles of the phenomenon of “Wagner” in the Nazi state, considering Nazi-era realities as well as their postwar historical interpretations and, sometimes, distortions.