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Parsifal and the Nazis

It 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 communism.

open quotes 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. close quotes
[Mein Kampf, Volume 1, Adolf Hitler.]

Hitler on Parsifal

Adolf 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 alone.

Hitler as Parsifal

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 (or it might be an eagle) 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 Adolf Hitler.¹
At the end of Syberberg's Parsifal film, it is a reproduction of the Spear of Destiny that the boy Parsifal brings into the Grail temple.

According to Hermann Rauschning in his controversial wartime book Hitler Speaks, Hitler interpreted Wagner's Parsifal as a member of a master race, noble by virtue of his blood:

Spear of Destiny
open quotes "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 noble!" close quotes
open quotes "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. close quotes
[Gespräche mit Hitler, Hermann Rauschning, 1939; translated into English as Hitler Speaks, 1940.²]

This 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.

Footnote 1: 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.

Footnote 2: 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.

Footnote 3: 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. Hitler 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.

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