Richard Wagner wanted to learn to feel the Germans with his music, and not just ‘feel’ it, but really feel it, feel the ‘German’. That is the starting point of the exhibition Richard Wagner and the Deutsche Gefuhl in the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The life and work of the composer and theater reformer with the velvet beret is contrasted here with the developments of the 19th century, in particular the German unification and the questions about the German identity that were associated with it. The ‘German feeling’ that Wagner (1813) stood for is unmistakably that of a nascent fascism. To show that ‘German feeling’, the curators use four basic moods that are linked to a period in Wagner’s life: alienation, eros, Zugehorigkeit and disgust.

Alienation suggests broad dissatisfaction with political rulers and industrialization, and zooms in on Wagner’s revolutionary tendencies and his participation in the May 1849 uprising of Dresden for greater democracy. There are pictures of that uprising, as well as photos of Wagner’s sisters with comments about their musical careers. To Wagner’s resentment, one of them worked closely with the famous composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, who in Wagner’s eyes was mainly Jewish.


After the uprising in Dresden, Wagner is in exil in Switzerland. Here the revolutionary and anti-capitalist turns out to be a wasteful hustler who manages to get money from admirers everywhere and yet is constantly in debt because of his taste for silk and velvet, both in his wardrobe and in the decoration of his home. For this period, the exhibition focuses on the theme ‘Eros’ – where the desire here is focused on people and things. Wagner found himself radical in his distaste for bourgeois constructs like marriage, which was nothing compared to the unbridled romantic love of his characters (and between himself and Cosima Wagner, at least in his own depiction). Utopian love brings “redemption” and does not care about common norms, such as the taboo on incest – which is in Die Valkyre is performed by brother and sister Siegmund and Sieglinde.

Wagner’s lifestyle—reflected, among other things, by the master’s embroidered white silk slipper and papers documenting his debts—contrasts quite a bit with his view of art, which sternly rejects any frivolity. The art should be an experience that changes the public and ultimately society as a whole, and not just any entertaining hour. Moreover – and this is where Wagner’s anti-Semitism rears its head – he laments the “commercialization of art” by his Jewish colleagues.

Yet there were few contemporaries who were able to market their work and themselves as well as Wagner himself. In the nineteenth century, for example, a huge Albrecht Dürer veneration arose in Germany, the exhibition documents, and Dürer wore a black velvet beret in a self-portrait. Wagner, who in any case had himself portrayed as often as possible and believed that the distribution of his portrait would also benefit the distribution of his work, staged himself with the same beret, which also immediately related to the black headgear of that other national hero. , Martin Luther. During performances, Wagner had photos sold as souvenirs. His operas are also first published in book form and later as score in new editions.

Wagner’s strategy, and his work, paid off. The Wagner adoration is made clear by the comments of critics of his own time, one of whom claims that only people who know the scores and the lyrics by heart can call themselves “Wagnerianer”. Newspapers across Europe publish Wagner caricatures and critiques. A few years after Wagner’s death in 1883, a stockbroker distributes collector plates depicting scenes from Wagner’s life, and, in a second series, from Wagner’s parsifal


After the unflattering sections on ‘Alienation’ and ‘Eros’, the exhibition continues with the themes ‘Zugehörigkeit’ and ‘Disgust’, which, phrased a little more flatly, are about German nationalism and especially Wagner’s anti-Semitism. More surprising than Wagner’s beret, his slipper and his molar are some apparently arbitrary but well-chosen period documents, such as a lithograph of a ‘Burschenschaft’ from 1851, a nationalist sorority. Student life doesn’t seem to have changed much with about fifty almost identical, precocious, packed drinking young men with too short legs.

Richard Wagner and his friends just before the world premiere of Tristan and Isolde in 1864
Wagner-Sammlung im Thuringian Museum Eisenach

To illustrate ‘Disgust’, a painting by surgeon and bacteriologist Theodor Billroth is used in a dissecting room. The accompanying text points to the new focus on hygiene and cleanliness, and how those categories are also applied to the entire population. It is a rather blunt introduction to Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and to German anti-Semitism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

“Wagner designs a world of mind and feeling, which includes both a return to the supposed origin and the creation of something radically new,” summarizes the introductory exhibition text Wagner’s lamentation about the modern world and, at the same time, his desire for a whole new beginning. It seems more generally a apt description of the promises of contemporary populists. The modern world is, according to Wagner, “fragmented”, too commercial and too capitalistic. Wagner thinks he can counter it with a new truth. Its racism and anti-Semitism are accompanied by pacifism and vegetarianism, which are supposed to “regenerate” humanity.

Also read: ‘Tragic how Wagner’s legacy was hijacked by National Socialism’

In an essay in the catalog, historian Herfried Münkel writes: “Wagner is a seismograph of resentment in Germany in the 19th century, if you understand resentment as rancor and swallowed disgust.” In addition to being a seismograph, Wagner—or at least his ideas about purity, sacrifice, and catharsis—continued to be a source of inspiration for many later fascists. To this extent Wagner fulfilled his ambitions: his work changed his audience and society.

Towards the end of the exhibition you wonder why Wagner hasn’t been canceled long ago. Of course, the music. But it plays a subordinate role in the German Historical Museum, which is perhaps not what the curators are after, but with so little eye for his compositions, his immense ambition and urge to innovate, the desire to read Wagner’s reactionary diary prose gradually fades.

The exhibition closes with a brief overview of the reception of his work. That could have been more extensive, also to give the above more weight. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno wrote volumes about Wagner and his work. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, inspired by the composer, built the kitschy knight’s castle Neuschwanstein. An entire generation of visual artists was influenced by Wagner’s Symbolism.

In Berlin, a typical magazine clipping from a tabloid with prominent figures hangs at the annual Bayreuther Festspiele. Every year politicians, more and less penniless princes, heirs and industrialists in bow ties and in rustling satin gather in Bayreuth. Angela Merkel is still Minister of the Environment in the clipping that can be seen in Berlin. She also attended the Festspiele as chancellor. Bayreuth, and Wagner, is still an undisputed benchmark in German culture.

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