Music can have a decisive influence in a person’s life and in a nation’s history. Were it not for a brief passage in the second volume of Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler, I would never have learned of the direct connection between Wagner’s Siegfried and the first crucial victory of Franco’s army during the uprising that set off the Spanish Civil War. On July 25, 1936, as Kershaw recounts, Adolf Hitler attended a production of Siegfried in Bayreuth, which brought him to the state of exaltation that Wagner’s music had always caused in him from early youth. From the age of 17, to be precise, when he first heard Rienzi in Linz—as August Kubizek, friend, countryman and companion during his early years in his native city and then in Vienna, would reverently record years later. On that day in 1906, a young Hitler left the opera house in a fevered state of musical and patriotic excitement, rapt in a sense of kinship with the figure of the Roman tribune who in the fourteenth century tried to revive the glories of imperial Rome, only to meet, in Wagner’s opera, an heroic, glorious end at the hands of his betrayers. In June of 1936, exactly thirty years later, Hitler’s deranged dream was being fulfilled. He was a triumphant Cola di Rienzi lifting Germany to its redemption; a Lohengrin in silver armor, rescuing the nation from dishonor; a Siegfried, forging once again the Notung sword, which had been shattered by Germany’s defeat in 1918 but was now whole, and battle-sharp, and shining. In the summer of 1936, three years after his rise to Chancellor of Germany, Hitler enjoyed a mythical stature heightened even more by the dramatic entry of German troops into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland earlier that year, a first act of international self-assertion by the Nazis that the allied French and British powers were unwilling or unable to confront.
That day in late July of 1936, when the opera ended, Hitler retired to the rooms that the Wagner family reserved for him in the Wahnfried villa. Their hospitality was a personal triumph for him, a measure of all he had accomplished since the beginnings of his passion for Wagner in his adolescence, when he went hungry in Vienna with his friend Kubizek, spending a portion of the little money he got from selling watercolors to buy the cheapest tickets to the opera so he could watch, enraptured, high up on a distant seat, productions of Wagner conducted by Gustav Mahler and staged on stark, modern sets by Alfred Roller. Nor did the generosity of the Wagner family toward Germany’s new dictator arise from servile expediency. Bayreuth had been one of the first places to welcome him when he was the obscure leader of a rather preposterous party with a small number of followers. It was partly in the parlors and reception rooms of Wahnfried that his social rise began. Though Siegfried and Winifred Wagner were among his earliest followers, it was perhaps the family’s most disturbing member, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who first openly invested Hitler with the honorific mantle of Wagnerian myth, declaring him a new Siegfried and a Parsifal come to redeem a German land broken by defeat and corrupted by Judaism.
Stewart Chamberlain was one of Hitler’s intellectual heroes. By mingling Romantic myths, pseudoscientific notions of disparities between the races, and the anti-Semitic verbiage of Wagner’s essays, he had written a few books that enjoyed great success in Europe and gained entry into his idol’s family by marrying Eva Wagner. He was a favorite as well with Cosima, fabled widow and high priestess of the rather nefarious cult of Bayreuth, where “immortal laughter and Siegfried’s hammer blows,” as Marcel Proust described it, had occasionally produced stronger and more harmful fits of passion than those of a purely musical nature. In late July of 1914, during the feverish spell of nationalist euphoria and suicidal militarism that led to the outbreak of World War I, the entire audience at a performance of Siegfried in Bayreuth was seized by a wave of collective hysteria during the rhythmic crescendo when the hero forges the Notung sword anew. Joachim Köhler, in his book on Hitler and Wagner, cites an eyewitness account: “The audience as a whole jumped to its feet, and the Festspielhaus was caught in a tempest in which the soul of the German people rose to the heavenly abode of its noblest heroes . . . Young Siegfried had turned into Germany: it was Germany that was brandishing its sword in the air, Germany that would come out victorious in its struggle against its enemies all over the world.”
There is, of course, a terrible power in that section of the opera, something that seems to reach beyond the limits of music to embody a primeval earthly force, as in a primitive dance, or in the brutal hydraulic rhythm of factories and engines. In the summer of 1914, the figure of Siegfried raising a sword and chanting like an incantation the twin syllables of its name had provided a symbol for Germany’s militaristic fervor. Four years later, in November of 1918, as a terrible winter of hunger and chaos approached, Wagner’s hero would once again fulfill a decisive symbolic task. Just as Siegfried—the youthful, innocent, conquering hero of fear and fire—is defeated not by an honorable enemy but by Hagen’s cowardly and resentful betrayal, so too was Germany said to have been defeated neither by the depletion of its armies nor by the incompetence of its Kaiser and its generals, but by being “stabbed in the back.” The heavy fumes of Wagner’s archetypes were readily adapted to political paranoia: while soldiers fought bravely in the front lines, facing daunting enemies as boldly as Siegfried faced Fafner the dragon, weasels and turncoats like Mime, Alberich and their followers (the Jewish and socialist politicians who signed an armistice with the Allied powers, established the Weimar Republic, and accepted the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty) were plotting their betrayal. Comparisons between Siegfried’s death and Germany’s situation at the end of 1918 were frequent and explicit. The news of the armistice, wrote one general, “put me in mind of Siegfried stabbed by Hagen in the back.” And Field Marshal Hindenburg, who would appoint Hitler Chancellor in January 1933, found solace in the same obtuse application of the Wagnerian archetype: “Just as Siegfried fell to the treacherous spear of terrible Hagen, so did our exhausted front lines collapse. They tried in vain to draw new life from the dried-up wellspring of the home front.”
If military men employed such rhetoric, what could be expected of mystical philosophers and men of letters? Houston Stewart Chamberlain, though British-born, had renounced his country for what he considered a betrayal of the ideals of the Aryan race under the corrupting influence of commerce, money-lending and mercantilism. Cosima had made similar disdainful observations in her diary during a trip to England in Wagner’s company: the fog, the smoke of factories, the squalor of the working-class neighborhoods reminded her of the underground realm of the Nibelungs. Chamberlain’s most famous book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century—a crude racist manual in the guise of a supposedly philosophical and even scientific argument—found an enthusiastic reader in Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ordered that at least one copy be made available in the library of every German school. The Germanic race, Chamberlain declared, had been involved for centuries in an eternal fight against parasitical and treacherous Jews, just as the Walsungs fought against the Nibelungs in the Tetralogy. A young Adolf Hitler, already under the influence of the anti-Semitic poison running through turn-of-the-century Vienna, grew as passionate about Chamberlain’s ideas as about Wagner’s operas, whose repertoire of mythical episodes and characters furnished him with a fantasy of heroism, triumph, defeat and redemption that could explain his own life and the fate of Germany. In the 1930s, the French ambassador to Berlin was able to observe this closely: “He was not merely fascinated by Wagner’s music; he also believed that Wagner was a prophet, the prophet of National Socialism. He ‘lived’ Wagner’s operas, and saw himself as a Wagnerian hero; he was Lohengrin, Siegfried, Walther von Stolzing, and especially Parsifal, able to heal the bleeding wound in Amfortas’ side and to restore the Holy Grail’s magical powers.”
Confined to his bed by sickness and terrible pain, in a dark room in Wahnfried that smelled of illness and of medications, Stewart Chamberlain received a visit by Hitler in September of 1923. He saw himself then as a new Amfortas, the dying king who in his woe and on the verge of death is granted at least to see young Parsifal: a pure, courageous knight miraculously sent by destiny to break the spell that holds enthralled the twilight realm of the knights of the Holy Grail, just as defeat, chaos, devastating economic ruin and hyperinflation held Germany prostrate and humiliated. Nothing like the thick vapors of Wagnerian myth to feed a sense of paranoia, or an ennobling, exculpating, intoxicating fantasy of heroism and betrayal. When Hitler left the room, Chamberlain, who could barely speak, whispered a single word in his wife’s ear: “Siegfried.” Less than two months after his visit, Hitler made his first public attempt to wield the sword Notung as the leader of a failed, incompetently organized putsch that ended as a complete fiasco and landed him in jail for a few months. He made use of that time to write Mein Kampf in notebooks that were kindly sent to him by Siegfried and Winifred Wagner, as eager to help their imprisoned friend as were members of another prominent musical family, the Bechsteins, owners of the namesake piano factory.
Hitler was held for only nine months, but it prevented him from attending the reopening of the Bayreuth festival in July of 1924, a decade after the days of patriotic hysteria of 1914. Apparently, he took solace in reading out loud the libretto for Siegfried in a new edition that was sent to him by Winifred and in listening to selections of the Master’s works on a gramophone with which his comfortable cell was also furnished.
In 1923, during his first awestruck visit to Wahnfried, Hitler was still a clumsy and rather extravagant prospective hero, with little savoir-faire and no ability to control his powers. An upstart, who spoke in a provincial Austrian accent, lacked manners and was rather poorly dressed, although the hypnotic gaze of his blue eyes could already enchant the high-class women who welcomed him into their houses, and especially Winifred Wagner. In July of 1936, he presided over a production of Siegfried from a box at the Festspielhaus and later wandered perfectly at ease through his hosts’ adjacent villa, where the children, Wieland and Wolfgang, affectionately called him “Uncle Wolf,” remembering the stories he used to tell them in their bedrooms when they were small and the thrill of getting a glimpse of the butt of Uncle Wolf’s pistol inside his jacket.
That night in July there was a man waiting to see Hitler, a businessman named Bernhardt, who had interests in Spain and had traveled to Berlin and then to Bayreuth with a message from the rebel Nationalist army asking urgently for help. The Army of Africa had risen against the Republic, but it was unable to cross into Spain because the Navy, loyal to the government, patrolled the Strait of Gibraltar. If the rebels did not manage to get their troops into Spain within the next few days, the uprising would fail. Bernhardt had spoken in Berlin to Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister, who was not in favor of involving Germany in an action that would upset the frail political balance of Europe. But the messenger was determined, had good contacts and was undeterred: he traveled from Berlin to Bayreuth and waited for Hitler to come out of the performance of Siegfried.
Against everyone’s advice, against the views of his Foreign Minister and of his military and political advisors (just as he had planned the entry of German troops into the Rhineland a few months earlier on his own), Hitler offered Bernhardt as many airplanes as he needed to help the Spanish rebels. It would be the first military airlift of troops in history. In a few days, the Army of Africa was on mainland Spain, and what had been a precarious attempt at a coup had turned into a civil war. Was Hitler’s decision influenced, as Ian Kershaw suggests, by the state of feverish enthusiasm that Siegfried had once again instilled in him? What is certain is that the airlift of troops across the Strait had a Wagnerian code name: Unternehmen Feuerzauber, Operation Magic Fire. Brutal actions were once again interpreted as heroic myths. The soldiers of the Spanish Legion and the Moroccan mercenaries who flew in German planes over the Republican blockade were just like Siegfried, bravely crossing the wall of fire to reach a sleeping Brunhilda.
Nine years later the cycle would close again, and the language of myth would combine with the splendor of music to exalt the fall of Nazi Germany into a Walhalla. On April 12, 1945, with Berlin in ruins, the Berlin Philharmonic held its last performance in a concert hall shaken by Allied aerial bombing and the echoing sounds of Russian artillery. The program was carefully chosen by Albert Speer, the architect of National Socialism’s brutal public spectacles. It consisted of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, and the Funeral March from Siegfried. As soon as the music ended, the lights were turned off and the musicians and the audience fled to take cover from the bombs.
[Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar]
“El linaje de Siegfried” by Antonio Muñoz Molina first appeared in the program for the December 2003 performances of the opera Siegfried by Wagner at the Teatro Real of Madrid.