How Opera, Fairy Tales, Trees, and Lullabies Led to Nazism

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Sea of Ice (Das Eismeer), Caspar David Friedrich, 1823-1824.

Midnight in Paris–a film that takes us back to Jazz Age Paris and the Lost Generation. And then the city in the Belle Epoque. It could just as well have been turn-of-the-century Vienna, 1950s New York, Victorian London, Hollywood in the silver screen era, or the Silicon Valley in the 70s.  Today, I want to share part one of a favorite, and often overlooked, example of this idea–the idea that a time and a place so captures and consumes an age, it changes history so utterly, for better or worse or both. Germany in the mid-19th century “Romantic” period did just that, with beautiful, and sometimes terrifying, ideas.

German Romantics and the Road to Nazism

Romanticism as a movement gathered a great many leaders and followers of varying artistic trades. As with most movements, it was reactionary in origin. It rejected the pure rationalism of the Enlightenment in favor of emotion, feeling, and helplessness at the hands of nature. One can see how such ideas could be both wonderful and dangerous. Romantic ideas, in fact, influenced democratic and totalitarian governments alike. One of the leading–often considered the leading–figure of Romanticism was Richard Wagner, and he directly represents how this movement’s ideas could lead to something as horrifying as the Holocaust.

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A page from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, with notes to his publisher, c. 1843.

Wagner was a composer most widely known for his operas, like The Valkyrie, Tristan and Isolde, The Ring of the Nibelung, and Götterdämmerung. He remains a controversial figure even today because of the themes explored in his works, including the idea of an “eternal” German nation represented by its people and land (ethnocentric nationalism), antisemitism, and racism. He created a folk culture for the German volk that inspired Nazi ideas of Volksgemeinschaft and Lebensraum–a racially-unified nation and “living room” for that nation, respectively. Hitler gave these ideas to the German people as the principal reasons for invading surrounding areas.

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Amalia Materna as Brünhilde in The Ring of the Nibelung with her horse, Cocotte, as Grane. August 1876, Bayreuth.

Hitler so admired Wagner, he “acquired” many of Wagner’s original compositions, which he actually took to his bunker in the end; there, they were, rather symbolically, destroyed along with the man. Supposedly, according to Reich architect Albert Speer, the Berlin Philharmonic performed the scene of Brünhilde’s fiery death from Götterdämmerung just before the city had to be evacuated–a seriously ironic last performance, if what Speer related is true. Due to Wagner’s known influence on Nazism, Israel has never held any stage performances of his operas.

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Whether or not the Berlin Philarmonic played Wagner for its last performance in the Third Reich, a Wagner opera was one of the last performances at the Vienna Opera House before the end of World War II, as shown by this playbill.
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An image of the interior of the “Nibelungenhalle” in Königswinter, Germany–the supposed place where Wagnerian hero Siegfried slayed a dragon. It was erected as a monument/museum in 1913, one year prior to World War I. In 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany (one year before his rise to dictatorship), a “dragon’s lair” was added outside. Now, it also has a “reptile zoo” component.

One should not leave his legacy totally unqualified, however; Wagner was popular not just for controversial ideas. He was a very talented composer who had considerable influence on his field, especially in the exploration of tonality that led to the atonal music of the New German School–much to its chagrin–and the Impressionists.

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A 1910 Arthur Rackham illustration of a scene from an English-text version of two Wagnerian operas, The Rheingold and The Valkyrie.
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Brünhilde’s immolation, by Arthur Rackham, 1910.

Other members of the Romantic movement are not to be eclipsed by the infamous Wagner. The Brothers Grimm can certainly be classed as Romantic, as well. Like Wagner, they created folklore for the German people. They also explored themes of nationalism, claiming “Little Red Riding Hood” as a uniquely German tale (though similar stories exist in other cultures), and antisemitism (see “A Jew Among Thorns” for one particular example). They often fell into the camp of “dark romantics,” where fear and the grotesque dominated much of their writing. Disney’s reproductions in no way represent these masters of–pardoning the phrase–“grim.”

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Rotkäppchenhaus (Little Red Riding Hood House) in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau.
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An Arthur Rackham illustration from a 1909 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
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Another Rackham illustration from 1909 Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Writer and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was perhaps the first romantic to take Europe by storm (or Sturm und Drang, for the witty). His impact proved a direct, cataclysmic one. His novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, relates a story of unrequited love which ultimately drives the main character to suicide. People all across Europe read the work and followed suit, committing suicide in outrageous numbers. The German Romantics seemed to explore the much darker side of the movement, with some seriously disastrous consequences.

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First edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther.
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Werther, expressing his sorrows, in an illustration by Jean-Baptiste Simonet.

Unfortunately for most of Germany’s famous romantics, including the painter Caspar David Friedrich, the Nazis appropriated their works and legacies. This means that their connection to the Third Reich (of which they had no physical part) completely overshadowed their skills and achievements for quite a long time (and for Wagner, it still does). This happened to Friedrich, a brilliant landscape painter of the movement. He gloried in nature’s spirituality and its crushing expanse. The Austen quotation springs to mind: “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

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The Nazis classed Friedrich’s paintings and other landscapes as cultural artifacts in support of the Blut-und-Boden idea–that true Germans were unified as a nation by blood and soil. One can see why Friedrich’s works represented this ideal; he toed the line of sacrilege, with tableaux that almost declare a worship of German land, or at least that seem to imply that God favored Germany above all. He painted several scenes with the crucifix or cross depicted on recognizable German landscapes. He also created many works that depicted monks worshiping in nature, with or without a church. If a church is depicted, it is in ruins.

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In my own opinion, I do not think Friedrich intended this as sacrilegious; rather he meant to say, “What better church exists than God’s magnificent world? What could man create for God that would be enough to compare with His awesome universe?” To appreciate nature, was to worship God. He once said, “The divine is everywhere, even in a grain of sand.” The Reich took it another way, seeing his work as worship of the nation above all, of which it approved, as it preferred absolute devotion to country to loyalty divided by Christian faith. Nazi Germany was not atheistic; the nation was God and, to some degree, so was Hitler. So Friedrich’s Christian spirituality was swept aside and re-imagined.

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Easter Sunday. They’re not depicted at church, but in nature.

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Wagner’s was not the only music appropriated by the Nazis. The Reich created a specific governmental bureau for music called the Reichsmusikkammer, through which the Nazis promoted “good” works and banned the “bad.” Brahms, most widely known for his “Wiegenlied” (known to the English world as “Brahms’ Lullaby”), fell under the good category. His Lullaby represented some of the best–a pure, romantic melody with lyrics from German folk poems

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Four Compositions for Choir and Piano, Brahms.

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Ironically, and perhaps unbeknownst to the antisemitic government, many Jewish families often sung (and still sing) the Lullaby in Hebrew with alternate lyrics–Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim and Menashe in Genesis. Other great romantic German musicians did not make it into the accepted camp, based purely on their identity. Mendelssohn is one such example; were it not for his Jewish ancestry, his works certainly would have qualified as nationalist, musical gold.

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View of Lucerne, Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn painted watercolors and drew, as a hobby. Many of his works are landscape paintings–popular during the Romantic period.
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A statue of Mendelssohn was erected in his honor in Leipzig in 1892. The Nazis tore it down in 1936, and the current statue is a replacement erected in 2012.
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Elijah, arranged for a duet, Mendelssohn.

To quote a cliche, they say art imitates life. To some degree, it might be the other way around, or at least in the case of the German Romantics. But then again, the Nazis reshaped that art to make it fit the life they envisioned, for the nation they imagined. And how clever–to make the population truly believe in the cause, they shaped the things they consumed every day, the things they read, listened to, and viewed, the things they enjoyed. They made national loyalty a pleasurable past-time. But because Romanticism is not Nazism, it lives beyond its past life as Third Reich propaganda. It still has a lot to say about spirituality, morality, and love–much more than the Nazis would have liked to admit.

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