Parsifal and the Nazis
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t is difficult to believe that the National Socialists could find any
sympathy with Wagner's Parsifal, a work that tells
of enlightenment through fellow-suffering. A
number of writers have claimed that Parsifal found favour with the Nazis.
Some Nazi ideologues expressed serious doubts about this opera but the party was led
by Wagner enthusiast Adolf Hitler, who was as fanatical about Wagner's music as he
was in his beliefs about Aryan superiority and his destiny to rid the world of
At the age of twelve, I saw ... the first opera of my
life, Lohengrin. In one instant I was addicted. My youthful enthusiasm for
the Bayreuth Master knew no bounds.
[Mein Kampf, Volume 1, Adolf Hitler.]
Hitler on Parsifal
dolf Hitler first visited Haus Wahnfried in September 1923. After visiting the
grave of Richard and Cosima Wagner, the future Führer said,
If I should ever
succeed in exerting any influence on Germany's destiny, I will see that
Parsifal is given back to Bayreuth. He was referring here to the Lex
Parsifal for which the Wagner family and their supporters had campaigned a
decade earlier, i.e. a special copyright law that would restrict performances of
Parsifal to Bayreuth. However, when German copyright law was being revised
in 1934, Hitler decided that he could not honour his earlier promise to the Wagners;
in November 1941 he told Goebbels that the opera was not to be reserved for Bayreuth
Left: Adolf Hitler portrayed as Parsifal. In place of the Holy Spear, the German
leader carries a Nazi standard. As in the closing scene of Wagner's opera, a white
dove descends from the sky. This is in accordance with the identification of Hitler
with Parsifal by the musicologist Alfred Lorenz.
Right: the Spear of Destiny, to be seen in the Hofberg museum in Vienna. This
is one of several spearheads that have been claimed as the spear of Longinus.
The Spear of Destiny was carried into battle by, amongst others, Henry the
Fowler and Frederick Barbarossa. It has been claimed (Trevor Ravenscroft,
Spear of Destiny
, 1973) that it held a special significance for
At the end of Syberberg's Parsifal
it is a reproduction of the Spear of Destiny that the boy Parsifal brings
into the Grail temple.
ccording to Hermann Rauschning, Hitler interpreted Wagner's Parsifal as a member of a master race,
noble by virtue of his blood:
"What is celebrated is not the Christian
Schopenhauerian [sic] religion of compassion, but pure and noble blood, blood whose purity the brotherhood
of initiates has come together to guard. The king then suffers an incurable
sickness, caused by his tainted blood. Then the
unknowing but pure human being is led into temptation, either to submit to the
frenzy and to the delights of a corrupt civilisation in Klingsor's magic garden, or to join the
select band of knights who guard the secret of life, which is pure blood itself.
All of us suffer the sickness of miscegenated, corrupted blood. How can we purify
ourselves and atone? Note how the compassion that leads to knowledge applies only
to the man who is inwardly corrupt, to the man of contradictions. And that this
compassion admits of only one outcome, to allow the sick to die. Eternal life, as
vouchsafed by the Grail, to those who are truly pure and
"Wagner's line of thought is intimately familiar to
me", Hitler continued more animatedly. "At every stage of my life I come back to
him. Only a new nobility can bring about the new culture. If we discount everything
to do with poetry, it is clear that elitism and renewal exist only in the
continuing strain of a lasting struggle. A divisive process is taking place in
terms of world history. The man who sees the meaning of life in conflict
will gradually mount the stairs of a new aristocracy. He who desires the dependent
joys of peace and order will sink back down to the unhistorical mass, no matter
what his provenance. But the mass is prey to decay and self-disintegration. At this
turning- point in the world's revolution the mass is the sum of declining culture
and its moribund representatives. They should be left to die, together with all
kings like Amfortas." Hitler hummed
the motif, Durch Mitleid wissend.
[Gespräche mit Hitler, Hermann Rauschning, 1939; translated into
English as Hitler Speaks, 1940.²]
interpretation seems to stand Wagner's poem on its head. In Parsifal, as
Hitler knew, the sick are not allowed to die. If we are to believe Rauschning's
account, then Hitler's interpretation might have been based upon a misreading of
Wagner's late essays on Religion and Art.
However, there is no reliable evidence that Hitler had read any of Wagner's prose
writings³. If he had read the late essays, then it would seem
that Hitler chose to disregard Wagner's belief in the
pure blood of Christ as the cure.
Charles Lawrie has
demonstrated that Ravenscroft's book contains not only fact but also fiction.
There are elements of historical truth in his The Spear of Destiny ...
but central things claimed as historically true were not
. Ravenscroft's book
together with Rauschning's book (see below) has been the inspiration and source for
an entire literature concerning Hitler and the occult, with very little (if any)
basis in historical facts.
In the early 1930s Hermann
Rauschning was the leader of the Nazi party in Danzig. After he defected from the
party and from Germany, Rauschning claimed to have been a close personal friend of
Hitler, and he wrote the book from which the above quotation has been taken. His
book contains the only "record" of Hitler speaking at length about his relationship
with Wagner, and the only account of Hitler discussing Wagner's ideas rather than
his music. As was often the case with defectors of later decades, Hermann
Rauschning tried to satisfy the curiosity of his new masters even when his
information was very limited; and like other defectors, he exaggerated his own
importance and the extent of his high-level contacts. In recent years it has been
shown that passages in this book were compiled, by Rauschning and his ghost-writer,
from Hitler's speeches or other sources; not recalled from conversations with
Hitler. As far as it has been established, Rauschning only met Hitler on a few
occasions at Nazi party functions and their conversations consisted of small-talk.
Although there is no direct evidence that the passage quoted above is Rauschning's
invention, like everything in his book that is not corroborated by other sources,
it might not be genuine. The balance of probability is that this quotation (often
quoted as evidence of Wagner's influence on Hitler) was made up by Rauschning. In
his acclaimed biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw wrote:
I have on no single
occasion cited Hermann Rauschning's Hitler Speaks, a work now regarded to
have so little authenticity that it is best to disregard it altogether
In his recent book Hitler and
the Power of Aesthetics
, Frederic Spotts is sceptical concerning Kubizek's
claim that the young Hitler read Wagner's prose writings and letters. Even more so
concerning Joachim Fest's claim that Wagner's prose was Hitler's favourite reading
matter. There is no corroborative evidence for either of these claims.
never ascribed any of his views to Wagner, not in Mein Kampf, his
speeches, articles or recorded private conversations... Indeed, there is no
evidence that Hitler ever read Wagner's collected writings, much less that they
were "his favourite reading". The origin of the myth is probably Kubizek's book
[Adolf Hitler Mein Jugendfreund, 1953; translated into English as
Young Hitler: The Story of Our Friendship, 1955], where the youthful
Hitler was said to have read every biography, letter, essay, diary and other scrap
by and about his hero that he could lay his hands on. But Kubizek himself
contradicted that story in his wartime Reminiscences, which he later
expanded into the more marketable, post-war book Young Hitler.