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The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis Hardcover – October 1, 2000
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"Sheffi concludes that the choice of Wagner as the target for all their abhorrance of Nazism and the Holocaust 'both sins against the man and obscures the significance of the Holocaust'." -- Choice. "Does an excellent job of showing the historical evolution of the debate, and linking this to the political and ideological evolution of the State of Israel." -- H-Net; H-Genocide. "The reception of German culture in general and Wagner's music in particular is traced to show how the taboo developed alongside the collective memory of the Holocaust... For Sheffi, the dilemma around Wagner reflects the situation of the state of Israel as a whole... She takes the musical debate... and uses it as a mirror to reflect Israeli society today. [The book] shows a profound understanding of how Israeli society emerged and how it functions today." -- The Jewish Quarterly Review.
About the Author
Na'ama Sheffi is the editor of Zmanim (Time), the historical quarterly of Tel Aviv University. She has researched extensively the reception of German culture in the Israeli society, and the shape of Israeli collective memory of the Holocaust.
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As from Kristallnacht in 1938 when the Palestine Symphony Orchestra cut the prelude to Die Meistersinger from its concerts, the boycotted composer became one of the most prominent and problematic symbols of the Third Reich's legacy. Members of the Yishuv (the small Jewish community in Palestine) were receiving increasingly distressing news of developments in Germany in particular. By the end of the Second World War those who had experienced the death camps or who had lost family members in the horrors of the Holocaust were arguing the impossibility of accepting in Israel the work of anyone who was perceived as inspiring or collaborating with the Nazi regime. As the years passed this became etched upon national memory as a code of conduct and as a response now unrelated to the actual proximity to the Holocaust of individuals in Israeli society.
Sheffi explains: "Since the Wagner affair gave the politicians an axe to grind, its general political features are easily identified. Every sector that pronounced on the issue found Wagner to be a handy vessel in which to pour ideologies with varying aims." She then takes us through the procession of factions exploiting the anti-Wagner emblem in the name of their various causes from the 1950s to the present day. For me this political appropriation of Wagner echoes eerily with the antithetically similar attempts by the likes of the German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to claim Wagner as a proto-Nazi and to encourage a view of him as the spiritual father of National Socialism.
The author puts us straight on all this in no uncertain terms. "Among the wealth of articles seeking to pour Wagner's philosophy into Nazi moulds there were also interpretations focussing on aspects of his work such as his revolutionary tendencies, both as a composer and in the political and social spheres. Wagner's non-conformism, so antithetical to the norms that the totalitarian Nazi party sought to impose, would eventually become a double-edged sword in the hands of Wagner's admirer, Hitler. It is difficult to understand why Hitler, who knew Wagner's works well, ...... did not show greater alertness to the anarchist, even nihilist overtones of Wagner's creations. Failing to understand the Wagnerian microcosm, Hitler actually embraced the composer's radical ideas, proposing perfect order or complete destruction."
No punches are pulled (nor should they be) in setting Wagner's published anti-Semitic polemics in the context of their time. Sheffi argues that the thesis that a measure of conscious, deliberate anti-Semitism is to be found in his work is one which is difficult to verify. She concludes: "However anti-Semitic he may have been, he cannot be classified with aggressors who actually carried out violent acts against Jews, and he should certainly not be turned into the classic symbol of German anti-Semitism."
As one might expect, the book covers the attempts to break the taboo on playing Wagner's music following that first cancellation from the Palestine Symphony Orchestra's programme in 1938 through to the 1950s and 60s when "Wagner" became a concept that bonded Israelis of various cultures and on to the present day. Etching the Holocaust on the consciousness of Israelis, the trial of Adolph Eichmann opened the "composer controversy" even to people who had no personal or historical bias against the "forbidden composers". From this point on people who did not frequent concert halls, but who felt that they had a moral right to shape the characteristics of Israeli culture joined in the debate. This for Sheffi marks the point at which the subject of the "forbidden composers" left the sphere of musical repertoire and moved to the flagrantly political one.
In 1966 Zubin Mehta's support for proposals to play works by such banned composers as Wagner and Richard Strauss created a storm of controversy in some sectors of the Israeli press at a time when, as Sheffi puts it: "the main story was actually the economic problem engendered in Israel by the economic recession of the 1960s. At that stage Wagner provided the only colour in a rather grey landscape of news coverage."
A year later Israelis were celebrating in the streets, "drunk with pride" over their victory in the Six Day War. This self-confidence resulted in a new tolerance of the use of the German language which had previously been so loathsome to them. It did not, however release Wagner and Strauss from their status as forbidden composers. According to Sheffi: "In the 1960s Wagner and Strauss were transformed from real people into the embodiments of the Nazis' iniquity and injustice towards Jews. The mention of their names was enough to arouse feelings that were perceived as the norm: opposition, revulsion and condemnation, all of which were far deeper than the musical issue. In fact the forbidden musicians - particularly these two - had become the most conspicuous symbols of the hatred of the Germans."
In June 1974, eight months after the Yom Kippur War, the management of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) announced its intention to play a work by Richard Wagner. Perhaps now preoccupied by the tragedy brought by the war to thousands of Israeli families and by terrorist attacks, the press this time showed a lack of eagerness for a renewed debate. Nevertheless the IPO had a change of heart and the debate fizzled out. Sheffi declares that in the subsequent decades there has been no direct connection between interest in classical music and the protest against Wagner. She quotes journalist Daniel Bloch that the controversy has been exploited by politicians and publicists who turned it into an ideological tool by sequestering it from its natural place of cultural affairs.
We get the full story in each case of those offers of release from this self-imposed cultural confinement which were provided by Zubin Mehta in 1981, the Israel Symphony Orchestra in 2000, and Daniel Barenboim in 2001 as well as that of Jonathan Livny and Asher Fisch as reported in the July 2012 issue of Wagner News. Needless to say, these were all subject either to cancellation or disruption, the old bloke with his rattle specialising in the latter.
The author's somewhat bleak conclusion is that Israelis hold on to Wagner as a symbol, but they have emptied that symbol of the moral lesson it embodies, which is that of condemning extreme nationalism of any kind.
There can be no more authoritative reporter on this topic than Na'ama Sheffi. Her book is constructed upon a solid foundation of the full academic discipline of her research methodology. She has thus succeeded in endowing it with such integrity at the same time as presenting its credentials so unobtrusively as to avoid impeding what I found to be an unputdownable read.
After that they played some Wagner.
Ironies abounded that night. The concert was planned as an all-Wagner night: a Jewish conductor leading a German orchestra playing German music in Jerusalem would provide fine symbolism for a night of reconciliation. Instead rightwing Israeli politicians intervened: threats were made to Festival funding, pressure was applied. The result? The music of one antisemitic composer was replaced with the music of two antisemitic composers, Schumann and Stravinsky. Schumann, like Wagner, died long before Nazism existed. But the antisemitic Stravinsky met privately with Mussolini, calling him "the hope of Italy and of Europe", wrote to assure the Nazis that he was of pure Aryan stock, and abandoned dealings with Jewish conductors and musicians in order to conform to Nazi sensibilities. Still, it was only when Barenboim played Wagner, after the Stravinsky, that controversy erupted.
Na'ama Sheffi's _The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis_ provides a guide through some of these ironies and puzzles. How, for example, can politicians think that imposing political control on what artists can play is an anti-Nazi act? And why did they select a composer who died long before Nazism existed but despised Nazism's political ancestors, who became a pacifist opposing German military spending and writing that Germany loses its soul when it tries to rule other nations, who condemned slavery and the exploitation of one "race" by another, who wrote works showing that the pursuit of power leads to evil and self-destruction, whose opera _Parsifal_ was banned by the Nazis, who also asked that the _Ring_ not be performed as a cycle, and performances of whose works actually declined under the Nazis?
Sheffi reveals that the ban was a historical accident: in 1938 the Palestine Orchestra (principally made up of Jews from Eastern Europe) protested against Kristallnacht by dropping the _Meistersinger_ overture from their next concert. The gesture was hurried but not unreasonable: the Nazis used _Die Meistersinger_ for propaganda purposes, as they misappropriated other German music and art, Beethoven, Bruckner, Goethe and Rembrandt in particular. But the scheduled concert after Kristalnacht had had Wagner on the program, so it was against Wagner in particular that the gesture was made. The Palestine Orchestra played Wagner again after that one-off cancellation (though in Cairo, not Jerusalem), but with the war's end and the creation of the state of Israel, the precedent of a musical boycott had been set.
Since then, Sheffi argues, Wagner has been built, in Israel, into a symbol of the holocaust, a symbol with little relationship to the actual historical personage, who, she observes, "did not devote his life to denigrating Jews and certainly not to annihilating them." The Israeli ban endorses the Nazi's malicious misreadings of Wagner; thus it remains a homage rather than a repudiation of Nazi cultural thought. A genuine rejection of Nazi ideas necessarily involves dismissing their claim to Wagner, just as the Nazi uses and misreadings of Goethe's _Faust_ (Faust as the German soul; Mephistopheles as corrupting Jew) are now remembered only to be dismissed with contempt.
Sheffi argues that the danger in using Wagner as Holocaust symbol and shorthand for Nazism is not only that it perpetuates a falsehood. Worse, it directs attention away from the individuals, political groups and social forces that really created and operated the Holocaust. The ban on Wagner "facilitated the obliteration of the true essence of the Holocaust from the Israeli collective memory ... From a man of culture and learning, problematic though his views were, [Wagner] became a man identified with the Holocaust; whereas the real threats of the past - not only extremist nationalism, racism, and systematic murder, but the enormous inherent danger to democracy - all became slogans, at best."
The real Wagner and his works, Sheffi argues, is being inappropriately used as a weapon in a cultural war within Israel. "Eventually the musical dispute proved to be only part of the general cultural clash in Israel, a clash reflected primarily in a fierce controversy over the cultural character of the state. Certain sectors - the Orthodox and national-religious Jews - began to perceive the desire to play Wagner's music as an attempt to Westernize Israeli culture while obliterating its original Hebrew Jewish identity."
Sheffi's explication of these themes, and her tracing of the history of this debate, ranges through 60-odd years of Israeli cultural and political history, and is considerably more subtle and nuanced than this review's brief outline can reveal. Israeli politics are both labyrinth and minefield, and the clarity of Sheffi's guidance through the twists and turns is something the reader can both admire and be grateful for.
Sheffi does not know her Wagner quite as well as she knows Israel, however. For example she is too credulous in relation to the various readings of antisemitic meanings into Wagner works, the Wagnerian equivalent of proofs that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. She also commits occasional solecisms like, "Wagner had been on close terms with his son-in-law." That "son-in-law" is Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a man who once saw Wagner from a distance, but who Wagner never met or even heard of. Chamberlain's involvement with Wagner's pathetic offspring began well after Wagner's death. Here Sheffi has fallen into the trap of trusting some of the makers of the "Ring of Myths" of her title, who tend to fudge the distance between Wagner and Chamberlain because Chamberlain really did contribute to Nazi ideology, which makes it tempting to place Chamberlain, falsely, in Wagner's Bayreuth circle. Obviously Sheffi sometimes relied on secondary sources, and in Wagner studies, where certain secondary sources are not exactly committed to truth and accuracy, that's fatal.
But those are quibbles. This is a thoughtful, generally well-researched and referenced book, clearly written, and showing alertness to nuances of meaning in a field where attention to nuance is a rare commodity.