German art of course wagner thought the greatest art

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“German art.” Of course Wagner thought the greatest art in the world was necessarily German — that was a commonplace in those days. Germans, Japanese, Americans — people of every nation profoundly believed in their innate cultural superiority. Wagner was wholly typical of Germans, for instance, in his loathing of the French: he was enraged during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 that the German army didn’t burn Paris to the ground. Then too he was contemptuous, like most German intellectuals, of what he thought of as a Mediterranean contamination of the true, Teutonic soul of Europe — ”Mediterranean” encompassing everything from Italian opera to Christianity. And he was typical of Germans, and of Europeans generally, in his furious detestation of Jews. Back then, cultured men in Europe and America, from Degas to Kipling to Henry Adams, all took particular pleasure in cultivating lurid varieties of anti-Semitism. The curse of the ring, which Wagner himself couldn’t see, included hatred and cultural paranoia. But in the feverish atmosphere of the war years nobody could have remained blind to what was really at stake. The country was swarming with secret police, there were mass arrests and deportations of everybody thought even remotely undesirable, there were daily triumphant announcements of the latest spectacular military victory obliterating all those decades of national humiliation, and there were an awful lot of patriotic parades. The Bayreuth festival was typical of those years in its frenzied glorification of the Nazi state. Every public occasion, no matter how trivial, was turned into a riot of patriotic enthusiasm. Every week brought a new stadium-filling rally, a lurid night of bonfires, a solemn torchlight procession. The Nazis could make the groundbreaking for a new highway an excuse for another spectacular searchlight-swarming, band-thundering all-Hitler gala event. The message was everywhere: the war was about the survival of Germany itself. Either there would be a victory so great that its rule over its enemies would last a thousand years or there would be a defeat so bottomless that nothing, no hope or joy or scrap of song, would survive. This was the message that was seeping through Wagner’s dream of happiness on those summer afternoons in 1943. It was a stronger dose of the message that has always hurried nations into war. Our land is more precious than that of our enemies, our joys are sweeter than theirs, our losses are more deeply felt. The soldiers in that auditorium apparently believed — or almost believed — in the rightness of their cause and the urgency of victory, to the point of anguish. And the performance told them that this was what the music had always been intended to say: if only the ecstasy of song lasts we will be saved; if only we can hold on to this heartbreakingly beautiful vision of our true heritage, then everything we are doing in its name will be redeemed.
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