The "Ban" on Parsifal
The Gospel of National Socialism
ccording to the controversial biography of Wagner by Robert W. Gutman 1,
Parsifal, more than the Ring, was the gospel of National Socialism. Gutman interpreted this work in
terms of Wagner's later writings, the so-called regeneration essays. He writes,
surveying the world from the heights of Monsalvat, the Grail community in
Parsifal was alarmed to observe natural selection working against its distinctive Aryanism... The knights were confronted with an enemy gaining upon
them every day. Here was the decisive racial crisis that grew into an uncompromising struggle for power.... Parsifal is an enactment of the Aryan's
plight, struggle and hope for redemption...
utman probably found the clue to this analysis in the writings of Theodor Adorno
2, who also saw in Parsifal a master-race agenda. As members of the "Bayreuth Circle" 3 had done in the 1880s and 1890s, Adorno saw the work in the context set by Wagner's regeneration essays, as published
in the Bayreuther Blätter 4. Gutman might also have been influenced by the claim that Adolf Hitler took a very narrow view of
the work in terms of blood, regeneration and selective compassion (see Rauschning's Conversations with Adolf Hitler or
Gespräche mit Hitler, 1939, while keeping in mind that modern historians, such as Hitler's biographer Ian Kershaw, regard this book as unreliable).
Objections to Gutman's Interpretation
he first problem with Gutman's interpretation that has been
pointed out in the wake of his book, and in the venomous debate surrounding the subsequent articles by Hartmut Zelinsky and books by his followers such as Marc
Weiner, is the lengthy gestation of the work. The story of Parsifal was worked out in detail already in the Prose Draft of 1865.
This was thirteen years before the appearance of the first of the so-called "regeneration" articles (Religion and Art). Although we can speculate that some
of Wagner's ideas about regeneration and blood had begun to form before 1865, these speculations cannot be proven; although there is a clear development in Wagner's
thought from an emphasis on redemption, as evidenced in his earlier operas and associated prose writings, to an emphasis on regeneration in the articles that he
wrote during his last years, which the "Bayreuth Circle" related (in various ways) to his last opera. It is hard to find any specific evidence of ideas about
regeneration, rather than redemption, in the Prose Draft, and it is unlikely that anyone could have predicted the regeneration essays, or
indeed anything that Wagner would be writing in the late 1870's, on the basis of what he wrote in the 1860's. Consistency was not one of Wagner's characteristics and
his views on many subjects changed, and some of his attitudes softened, during his last decades.
nlike the Bayreuth circle of the late 19th century, today we are less likely to see
the work in terms of the regeneration essays; although it was often seen against this background during the 20th century. With better
knowledge of how the work actually developed, from its genesis in the late 1850's to the completion of the poem (libretto) on 19 April
1877, it seems highly unlikely that the influences that Wagner absorbed, digested and finally presented in the essays of his last years, were significant in
determining the ideal content of the work, which had been almost entirely defined by August 1865. For example, Wagner first met Count
Gobineau in 1876 (Cosima's Diary, entry for 30 November) and only after meeting Gobineau again in 1880 did Wagner begin to study his
writings5. Therefore it is not possible, as Gutman asserted, that Gobineau's racist ideas could have
influenced Wagner before he wrote the detailed Prose Draft of 1865, or even the second one of 1877. Nor is it likely that Wagner had
independently developed ideas similar to those of Count Gobineau, since there is evidence both in Cosima's Diaries and in her correspondence with Gobineau,
that Wagner had violently disagreed with his racial theories.
herefore it seems, to this writer at least, that much debate about
Parsifal -- from Adorno (writing in the 1930's) through Gutman (writing in the 1960's) to some of the more hysterical commentators of recent decades -- has
been mistakenly concerned with the ideas about regeneration that preoccupied Wagner while he was finishing an opera that had been worked out in some detail decades
earlier. It can be argued that the theme of regeneration is incidental to Parsifal -- arguably less central than it is to Lohengrin, which also
ends with a restoration -- and that Wagner's last opera is actually about redemption and compassion. Most of the criticism and commentary concerning
Parsifal in recent decades has taken for granted that the work was inspired by the ideas of Darwin and Gobineau (both unknown to Wagner when he wrote his
original Prose Draft) and that (as also has been claimed for Die Meistersinger), the opera contains a hidden anti-Semitic subtext;
so well hidden, in fact, that it never occurred to the Nazi's that such a subtext might be present.
Rejection by the Nazi Regime?
he second problem is the ban on Parsifal that Robert R.
Gibson has proposed was enforced during war years in the 3rd Reich. If as Gutman asserts, this work was
the gospel of National Socialism, why should it have
been suppressed or discouraged by the Nazi's? Was it because the ideologues of the Nazi party did not share Hitler's enthusiasm for this work? Or was it perhaps that
they found messages in the work that they disliked, and this dislike outweighed the regeneration message -- which might have been of interest to them -- that
recently (1937) had been abhorred by their opponent Adorno?
ncidentally, it was another work entirely that the Völkischer Beobachter
had hailed as
the gospel of the Nazi movement: the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1897-98) by Houston Stewart Chamberlain — at that time a
central figure in the "Bayreuth Circle" during its second (Wilhelminist) stage, who married Eva Wagner in 1907, thus becoming the posthumous son-in-law of Richard.
(H.S. Chamberlain never met Richard Wagner; the nearest he came was to see Wagner across a Bayreuth restaurant).
Possible Ideological Objections to the Opera
o what are the messages carried by Wagner's opera that might have led to a ban on
performances of Parsifal in the period 1939-1945, and its absence in these years from Hitler's Bayreuth? Which of these messages could have been the real
problem and which secondary objections? It is even possible that the arguments with which the Nazi ideologues persuaded Hitler -- if in fact they were able to do so
-- were not the real reasons for them wanting to forbid wartime performances of the work. In a paper delivered at the Wagner symposium in Adelaide last year 6, Robert R. Gibson suggested the following.
Underlying Message of Pacifism
irstly, although it portrays a warrior caste of Grail Knights, there is in
Parsifal an underlying message of pacifism. At key moments in the work, the protagonist is disarmed. In the first act, Parsifal is upbraided for killing a
swan, and as a sign of his growing awareness, breaks his bow and throws away his arrows. In the third act, he arrives as an armed knight, but allows his armour to be
removed, to be replaced by the mantle of the Grail brotherhood, on which appears the emblem of the dove, a symbol of peace. Only then can he return to the shrine of
ven in the second act, which ends in a violent conflict between Parsifal and the domain of Klingsor, the only destructive act in that
conflict on the part of the hero, is to grasp the spear and to make the sign of the cross. (In fact, his passivity throughout the opera does not commend him as an
Aryan hero — in contrast to Siegfried). The spear itself, a holy relic, will not allow itself to be used as a weapon: when Klingsor throws it at Parsifal, the spear pauses above his head. Parsifal then shows himself more worthy than Amfortas to be guardian of the holy relic by not bearing
it as a weapon (
denn nicht ihn selberdurft' ich führen im Streite). This pacifist message alone would be sufficient reason, the Nazi ideologues
could have argued, to suppress the work at least until the end of the war.
Dominant Theme of Compassion
econdly, the primary message of the opera is about
compassion, scarcely an element of Nazi ideology. It has been regarded as a feminine attribute, not as belonging to the masculine ideal of the Aryan male. One of
principal ideologues of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg, compared Wagner's works as follows:
The essence of all Nordic western art has been
revealed in Richard Wagner. It shows that the Nordic soul is not contemplative, that it does not lose itself in an individualistic psychology. Rather, it
experiences the willed, cosmic, spiritual laws, and shapes our art spiritually and architectonically. Richard Wagner is one of those artists in whom three factors
coincide, each of which form a part of our entire artistic life: the Nordic ideal of beauty as it appears outwardly in Lohengrin and
Siegfried, linked to deepest feeling for nature; the inner will of man in Tristan und Isolde; and the struggle for the highest
value of Nordic western man: heroic honour, linked with inner truthfulness. This inner ideal of beauty is realised in Wotan, in King Mark and in Hans Sachs.
Conversely, Parsifal is a strongly emphasized weakening of the will in favour of an adoptive value.
[Mythus des XX. Jahrhunderts, 1930]
Role Models for the Reich
hirdly, the women portrayed in the opera are no better role models for the women of
the 3rd Reich, than Parsifal is exemplary of the Aryan male ideal. His mother Herzeleide is a war widow who attempts to shield her son from weapons and fighting, and dies of a broken heart when he leaves her in pursuit of a band
of knights. Kundry is obviously a foreign element but (despite the subsequent analysis of Weiner in which she becomes
an anti-Semitic stereotype), Wagner's sympathetic treatment of this degenerate, predatory female might not have appealed to the ideologues.
ourthly, the ban occurred at a time when the National Socialist party was
attempting to suppress homosexuality. The SS were forbidden to touch one another, but in the opera we see a community of male warriors who embrace during their
rom 1934 to 1937 there was a series of cloister trials in which the monks
of German monasteries were tried for alleged homosexual activities. In a broadcast speech in May 1937, Joseph Goebbels denounced the unnatural life of unmarried
priests and monks, and he described monasteries as
breeding places of vile homosexuality. Given the Nazi campaign against the Church and in particular the
attempts to discredit monasteries and other religious communities, it is not surprising that an opera in which an all-male religious community triumphs over
adversity through the recovery of a phallic symbol would be unwanted.
The Antithesis of Totalitarian Art
inally, although Parsifal is less complex than the Ring, it is
still a multilayered, multidimensional, opaque work that allows of many different interpretations. In that respect, it is the antithesis of totalitarian art. The
latter is characterized by simple messages, unambiguous images and uncomplicated archetypes. Even if Parsifal can be interpreted as a homage to Aryan
supremacy, this objective is obscured by other, more obvious messages that would have disturbed Nazi ideologues. We see a youth destroy his weapons, renounce sexual
union with a woman and join an enclosed, all-male, religious community. In short, doing everything that a good Aryan youth of the 1930's was not supposed to do.
esearch into the records of opera houses within the 3rd Reich carried out by
Katherine R. Syer has shown that there were, in fact, both staged and concert performances of Parsifal during the war years. There is a recording (issued on
CD by Preiser Records, 90261) of the third act of the opera in a concert performance given in Berlin on 31st March 1942.
Parsifal was not performed in Munich during
the war but it was in von Schirach's Vienna. In Hamburg, Parsifal was performed annually from the 1929/30 season until that of 1942/43, on average three
times per season; in 1936, a new production directed by Oscar Fritz Schuh and designed by Emil Preetorius ran for seven performances. In Frankfurt, which fell
within Goebbels' sphere [as head of the Reich Chamber of Culture], Parsifal had been performed annually in the period between the wars, invariably around
Easter time. Parsifal suddenly disappeared from the Frankfurt program in 1940, only to resurface in 1941, 1942 and 1943. In Dresden, Parsifal was
performed every season from 1914 to 1944 inclusive, with the number of annual performances fixed at four from 1933 to 1944.
[Parsifal on Stage, William Kinderman and Katherine R. Syer, Camden House 2005, page 305.]
yer goes on to state that Wolfgang Wagner had a conversation with Hitler in 1940 in
which, reportedly, the Führer stated his wish for a more abstract and indeterminate approach in future stagings of Parsifal. However, in the passage that
Syer quotes from Spotts' Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, an entry from Goebbels' diary is inaccurately reported. This error has been corrected by John
What Goebbels actually dictated for his diary on 22
November 1941 was this: "Contrary to what has been reported to me, the Führer does not want Parsifal to be performed solely in Bayreuth again; he only
means that one should modernize the décor and costumes of Parsifal somewhat. Either we have to get away from this Christian mystical style, or
Parsifal in the long run won't be able to retain its place in the modern repertory. The Führer gives me several suggestions, which I will immediately put
[Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, John Deathridge, Univ. of California Press 2008, pages 173-4.]
herefore we must conclude that, even though some Nazi idealogues had reservations
about Parsifal and despite Hitler's dislike of the "Christian mystical style" in which it had until then always been presented on stage, both Hitler and
Goebbels were looking forward to new productions of the opera after the war. Nike Wagner's suggestion (The Wagners, page 139), that Hitler wanted Alfred
Rosenberg to rewrite the text should not be taken as hard fact, although we can assume that Rosenberg would have done so if asked. She reports her father, Wieland,
as saying, "Hitler virtually prohibited Parsifal". Like much else in Nike Wagner's book, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Virtually or otherwise,
there is no evidence that Hitler prohibited Parsifal at any time. It is possible that certain of his subordinates, on the basis of some hint from Hitler,
discouraged performances of Parsifal because its pacifistic message was considered unsuitable for the war years. But that would be speculation and in the
absence of evidence for a ban, and in the presence of evidence of some performances during the war, we can only conclude that there was no ban on
Footnote 1: Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind and His Music
; Robert Gutman, 1968.
Footnote 2: Versuch über Wagner
; Theodor Adorno, 1952; English translation by Rodney Livingstone, In Search of Wagner
The definitive work on the "Bayreuth Circle" is Der Bayreuther Kreis von seiner Entstehung bis zum Ausgang der
Wilhelminischen Ära. Wagnerkult und Kulturreform im Geiste völkischer Weltanschauung
; Winfried Schüler, Aschendorff, Münster 1971. To the extent that the
"Bayreuth Circle" had any influence, it was exerted through a publication that Richard Wagner had established in his last years, the Bayreuther Blätter
Wagner appointed Hans von Wolzogen as editor, in which post he remained until his death in 1938, at which the journal ceased to be published. The Bayreuther
has been described as the publication forum for the "Bayreuth Circle"; although it might be more accurate to regard the list of authors, whose
articles were selected by von Wolzogen for publication in the Blätter
, as defining
the membership of the otherwise insubstantial group
known as the "Bayreuth Circle". Although the continuity of the editorship maintained a certain continuity also in the content of the journal, Schüler was able to
distinguish three distinct stages or generations in the "Circle".
Schüler pointed out that Richard Wagner's ideas about redemption and regeneration culminated in Parsifal
. It was
therefore natural that, after the publication of Wagner's Religion and Art
and a series of related articles in the Blätter
, other authors should
take up Wagner's ideas about redemption and regeneration in later issues of the journal. Their articles almost invariably related those ideas to Parsifal
The subsequent history of articles relating to Parsifal
and the theme of mankind's potential regeneration has been documented by Mary A. Cicora in
Parsifal Reception in the Bayreuther Blätter
. In this study, based on Dr. Cicora's doctoral dissertation, the subtly different perspectives of the
"Bayreuth Circle" (that is, the authors who published in the Blätter
) are illustrated by selections from articles in each of the three stages of the
This subject is discussed in depth by the editor of the Wagner- Gobineau correspondence, Eric Eugène, in Wagner et
Gobineau: Existe-t-il un racisme wagnérien?
; Le Cherche midi, Paris, 1998.
Published in Wagner
vol.20, number 2, pages 78-87. The paper was originally given at the "Wagner at the Millenium"
symposium held at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, 25-27 November 1998.