Jonathan Mark’s article on the boycott of Richard Wagner in Israel was a suitable and interesting observance of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth (“Before Wagner Was Taboo,” Aug. 2). However, the conundrum as to why Israel boycotts Wagner and not Richard Strauss in light of Theodor Herzl’s celebration of his Zionist congress with a performance of “Tannhauser” is not as strange as Mark portrays it to be.
In Herzl’s time, his desire for a migration of German Jews to Palestine was matched by the German anti-Semites’ wish for Germany to be rid of Jews. The idea that the latter should be accomplished by mass murder had not achieved any visibility. That Herzl should have chosen a Wagner work to celebrate Zionism certainly seems strange to us now, but would not have seemed nearly as strange in his time.
Many factors have intervened since the time of Herzl to make Wagner and his art more problematic for Jews, and Israel’s resistance to the performance of his works understandable — above all, the rise of Hitler and the awareness of the deep connection between what Wagner sought to achieve and what the Nazis actually did achieve. In his prose writings, Wagner not only wrote the most vitriolic screed against Jews in music to have come to light, he also authored a less-publicized article advocating “Fuehrer Prinzip”: state governance by a single man given absolute power and total responsibility. While he was just one in a chain of anti-Semitic writers, he seems to have been the clearest and most persuasive proponent of rule by a single leader’s decree.
There is much evidence that Hitler was devoutly attached to Wagner and all his works. It appears that performances Hitler attended during his vagabond years moved him deeply and did much to influence the development of his political ideas.
Unlike Wagner and his family and successors in the Bayreuth community, Strauss had nothing to do with the formulation of Nazi ideology.
Professor Emeritus of Music
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