Written by Vladimir Moss



     The shift in German politics from the liberalism of 1848 to the conservatism of Bismarck's era can be seen in the writings of the famous composer Richard Wagner. Wagner had manned the barricades in 1848; but he was far from being a typical liberal - or nationalist. In fact, his writings contain one of the best statements of an anti-capitalist religious monarchism that are to be found in western philosophy.

     Let us first look at his anti-capitalism – which was combined with an equally fervent anti-communism. In his celebrated "Fatherland Club Speech", delivered on June 14, 1848 in Dresden, Wagner declared that his aim is that the "demoniac idea of Money vanish from us, with all its loathsome retinue of open and secret usury, paper-juggling, percentage and bankers' speculations. That will be the full emancipation of the human race; that will be the fulfilment of Christ's pure teaching, which enviously they hide from us behind parading dogmas, invented to bind the simple world of raw barbarians, to prepare them for a development towards whose higher consummation we now must march in lucid consciousness. Or does this smack to you of Communism? Are ye foolish or ill-disposed enough to declare the necessary redemption of the human race from the flattest, most demoralising servitude to vulgarest matter, synonymous with carrying out the most preposterous and senseless doctrine, that of Communism? Can ye not see that this doctrine of a mathematically equal division of property and earnings is simply an unreasoning attempt to solve that problem, at any rate dimly apprehended, and an attempt whose sheer impossibility itself proclaims it stillborn? But would ye denounce therewith the task itself [i.e. the removal of the power of money] for reprehensible and insane, as that doctrine of a surety [i.e. Communism] is? Have a care! The outcome of three-and-thirty years of unruffled peace shews you Human Society in such a state of dislocation and impoverishment, that, at end of all those years, ye have on every hand the awful spectacle of pallid Hunger! Look to it, or e'er it be too late! Give no alms, but acknowledge a right, a God-given right of Man, lest ye live to see the day when outraged Nature will gird herself for a battle of brute force, whose savage shout of victory were of a truth that Communism; and though the radical impossibility of its continuance should yield it but the briefest spell of reign, that short-lived reign would yet have sufficed to root up every trace, perchance for many an age to come, of the achievements of two thousand years of civilisation. Think ye, I threaten? Nay, I warn!"[1]

     It was a prophetic warning, published in the same year as The Communist Manifesto and directed precisely against it;and in his zeal that his warning about the coming of Communism  should not be fulfilled, Wagner called for the preservation of the Monarchy in Saxony. Only he argued that his idea of monarchy was not in opposition to the Republic, but in union with it.

     All he asked was for "the King to be the first and sterlingest Republican of all. And who is more called to be the truest, faithfulest Republican, than just the Prince? RESPUBLICA means: the affairs of the nation. What individual can be more destined that the Prince, to belong with all his feelings, all his thoughts and actions, entirely to the Folk's affairs? Once persuaded of his glorious calling, what could move him to belittle himself, to cast in his lot with one exclusive smaller section of his Folk? However warmly each of us may respond to feelings for the good of all, so pure a Republican as the Prince can he never be, for his cares are undivided: their eye is single to the One, the Whole; whilst each of us must needs divided and parcel out his cares, to meet the wants of everyday."[2]

     Here Wagner is expressing one of the key ideas of Orthodox Christian monarchism: that only the king is able to transcend individual and party political factionalism and self-interest, and labour for the nation as a whole. In this sense the king is the guarantee of the freedom of his people rather than its destroyer; for only he can preserve the freedom of individuals and parties from encroachment from other individuals and parties. And so "if he is the genuine free Father of his Folk, then with a single high-hearted resolve he can plant peace where war was unavoidable."[3]

     Wagner defends himself against the charge that he is not a Republican. No, he is a Republican. But the Republic he envisages will be proclaimed by - the King! "Not we, will proclaim the republic, no! this prince, the noblest, worthiest King, let him speak out: -

     "'I declare Saxony a Free State.'

     "And let the earliest law of this Free State, the edict giving it the fairest surety of endurance, be:- 'The highest executive power rests in the Royal House of Wettin, and descends therein from generation to generation, by right of primogeniture.'

     "The oath which we swear to this State and this edict, will never be broken: not because we have sworn it (how many an oath is sworn in the unthinking joy of taking office!) but because we have sworn it in full assurance that through this proclamation, through that law, a new era of undying happiness has dawned, of utmost benefit, of most determinant presage, not alone for Saxony, no! for Germany, for Europe. He who thus boldly has expressed his enthusiasm, believes with all his heart that never was he more loyal to the oath he, too, has sworn his King, than when he penned these lines today."[4]

     All this may seem like the height of romantic fantasy - and Wagner was nothing if not a romantic. However, his idea of a "People's Monarchy" as essential to the spiritual well-being of Germany did not leave him; and if he did not find it in Saxony, he appeared to have found it for a time in Ludwig II of Bavaria some 16 years later. Moreover, already in 1848 he was quite clear that he did not mean by a "People's Monarchy" a kind of compromise between Monarchy and Republicanism in the form of an English-style "constitutional monarchy": "Now would this have brought about the downfall of the Monarchy? Ay! But it would have published the emancipation of the Kinghood. Dupe not yourselves, ye who want a 'Constitutional Monarchy upon the broadest democratic basis.' As regards the latter (the basis), ye either are dishonest, or, if in earnest, ye are slowly torturing your artificial Monarchy to death. Each step forward, upon that democratic basis, is a fresh encroachment on the power of the Mon-arch, i.e. the sole ruler; the principle itself is the completest mockery of Monarchy, which is conceivable only as actual alone-ruling: each advance of Constitutionalism is a humiliation to the ruler, for it is a vote of want-of-confidence in the monarch. How shall love and confidence prevail, amid this constant, this often so unworthily manoeuvred contest twixt two opposing principles? The very existence of the monarch, as such, is embittered by shame and mortification. Let us therefore redeem him from this miserable half-life; let us have done altogether with Monarchism, since Sole-rule is made impossible by just the principle of Folk's rule (Democracy): but let us, on the contrary, emancipate the Kinghood in its fullest, its own peculiar meaning! At head of the Free State (the republic) the hereditary King will be exactly what he should be, in the noblest meaning of his title [Fürst]: the First of the Folk, the Freest of the Free! Would not this be alike the fairest commentary upon Christ's saying: 'And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall he be servant of all'? Inasmuch as he serves the freedom of all, in his person he raises the concept of Freedom itself to the loftiest, to a God-implanted consciousness.

     "The farther back we search among Germanic nations for the Kinghood's meaning, the more intimately will it fit this new-won meaning, and prove it strictly naught be re-established."[5]

     Wagner returned to this subject in 1864, in an article entitled "On State and Religion" written at the request of King Ludwig II. If in 1848, the year of revolution, he had been concerned to show that kingship was compatible with freedom, here he links freedom with stability, which is the main aim of the State.

     "For it constitutes withal the unconscious aim in every higher human effort to get beyond the primal need: namely to reach a freer evolution of spiritual attributes, which is always cramped so long as hindrances forestall the satisfaction of that first root-need. Everyone thus strives by nature for stability, for maintenance of quiet: ensured can it only be, however, when the maintenance of existing conditions is not the preponderant interest of one party only. Hence it is in the truest interest of all parties, and thus of the State itself, that the interest in its abidingness should not be left to a single party. There must consequently be given a possibility of constantly relieving the suffering interests of less favoured parties.

     "The embodied voucher for this fundamental law is the Monarch. In no State is there a weightier law than that which centres on stability in the supreme hereditary power of one particular family, unconnected and un-commingling with any other lineage in that State. Never yet has there been a Constitution in which, after the downfall of such families and abrogation of the Kingly power, some substitution or periphrasis has not necessarily, and for the most part necessitously, reconstructed a power of similar kind. It therefore is established as the most essential principle of the State; and as in it resides the warrant of stability, so in the person of the King the State attains its true ideal.

     "For, as the King on the one hand gives assurance of the State's solidity, on the other his loftiest interest soars high beyond the State. Personally he has naught in common with the interests of parties, but his sole concern is that the conflict of these interests should be adjusted, precisely for the safety of the whole. His sphere is therefore equity, and where this is unattainable, the exercise of grace (Gnade). Thus, as against the party interests, he is the representative of purely-human interests, and in the eyes of the party-seeking citizen he therefore occupies in truth a position well-nigh superhuman. To him is consequently accorded a reverence such as the highest citizen would never dream of distantly demanding for himself."[6]

     The subject relates to the King through the self-sacrificing emotion of patriotism. In a democracy, on the other hand, the position of the King is taken by public opinion, the veneration of which is far more problematic, leading as it does to "the most deplorable imbroglios, into acts the most injurious to Quiet".[7] "The reason lies in the scarcely exaggerable weakness of the average human intellect, as also in the infinitely diverse shades and grades of perceptive-faculty in the units who, taken all together, create the so-called public opinion. Genuine respect for this 'public opinion' is founded on the sure and certain observation that no one is more accurately aware of the community's true immediate life-needs, nor can better devise the means for their satisfaction, than the community itself: it would be strange indeed, were man more faultily organised in this respect than the dumb animal. Nevertheless we often are driven to the opposite view, if we remark how even for this, for the correct perception of its nearest, commonest needs, the ordinary human understanding does not suffice - not, at least, to the extent of jointly satisfying them in the spirit of true fellowship: the presence of beggars in our midst, and even at times of starving fellow-creatures, shews how weak the commonest human sense must be at bottom. So here already we have evidence of the great difficulty it must cost to bring true reason into the joint determinings of Man: though the cause may well reside in the boundless egoism of each single unit."[8]

     Another problem with public opinion is that it has an extremely unreliable "pretended vice-regent" in the press. The press is made out to be "the sublimation of public spirit, of practical human intellect, the indubitable guarantee of manhood's constant progress." But in fact "it is at all times havable for gold or profit."[9]

     In fact, "there exists no form of injustice, of onesidedness and narrowness of heart, that does not find expression in the pronouncements of 'public opinion', and - what adds to the hatefulness of the thing - forever with a passionateness that masquerades as the warmth of genuine patriotism, but has its true and constant origin in the most self-seeking of all human motives. Whoso would learn this accurately, has but to run counter to 'public opinion', or indeed to defy it: he will find himself brought face to face with the most implacable tyrant; and no one is more driven to suffer from its despotism, than the Monarch, for very reason that he is the representative of that selfsame Patriotism whose noxious counterfeit steps up to him, as 'public opinion', with the boast of being identical in kind.

     "Matters strictly pertaining to the interest of the King, which in truth can only be that of purest patriotism, are cut and dried by his unworthy substitute, this Public Opinion, in the interest of the vulgar egoism of the mass; and the necessitation to yield to its requirements, notwithstanding, becomes the earliest source of that higher form of suffering which the King alone can personally experience as his own.”[10]

     Ordinary men pursue definite, practical aims associated with their particular, lowly station in life. But "the King desires the Ideal, he wishes justice and humanity; nay, wished he them not, wished he naught but what the simple burgher or party-leader wants, - the very claims made on him by his office, claims that allow him nothing but an ideal interest, by making a traitor to the idea he represents, would plunge him into those sufferings which have inspired tragic poets from all time to paint their pictures of the vanity of human life and strife. True justice and humanity are ideals irrealisable: to be bound to strive for them, nay, to recognise an unsilenceable summons to their carrying out, is to be condemned to misery. What the thoroughly noble, truly kingly individual directly feels of this, in time is given also to the individual unqualified for knowledge of his tragic task, and solely placed by Nature's dispensation on the throne, to learn in some uncommon fashion reserved for kings alone& The highly fit, however, is summoned to drink the full, deep cup of life's true tragedy in his exalted station. Should his construction of the Patriotic ideal be passionate and ambitious, he becomes a warrior-chief and conqueror, and thereby courts the portion of the violent, the faithlessness of Fortune; but should his nature be noble-minded, full of human pity, more deeply and more bitterly than every other is he called to see the futility of all endeavours for true, for perfect justice."[11]

     "To him more deeply and more inwardly than is possible to the State-citizen, as such, is it therefore given to feel that in Man there dwells an infinitely deeper, more capacious need than the State and its ideal can ever satisfy. Wherefore as it was Patriotism that raised the burgher to the highest height by him attainable, it is Religion alone that can bear the King to the stricter dignity of manhood."[12]

     Therefore just as Monarchy is more purely disinterested, more truly solicitous of the needs - the deepest as well as the more temporary needs - of all its citizens, than "Franco-Judaico-German Democracy"[13], so through this very necessity of having to rise above individual, partial, lower interests and needs, it ascends into the realm of religion. And, we should add, receives its strength and confirmation and sanctification from religion. In this Wagner, paradoxically, is not far from the Orthodox Christian conception of true kingship…


     Some of Wagner’s political ideas found expression in his music. One of the main themes, of his music as of his political writings, was the corrupting power of money. Thus his greatest work, the four-opera Ring cycle, describes how money, symbolized by a magic golden ring, is incompatible with true love and happiness.

     In 1877 the Wagners visited London, the centre of contemporary Mammon-worship, and during a trip down the Thames by steamer, as A.N. Wilson writes, “Wagner said, 'This is Alberich's dream come true - Nibelheim, world dominion, activity, work, everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog.'...

     "One of the most disturbing novels of the 1870s was Trollope's The Way We Live Now - disturbing because genial, comic Anthony Trollope, who had so consistently amused his public with tales of country-house gossip and cathedral-feuds, chose to depict an England extremely vulgarised, sold to Mammon, dominated by money-worship.... Professor Polhemus, an American scholar quoted by Trollope's biographer James Pope-Hennessy, makes the point that Trollope saw the same truth as Marx and Engels - 'a world where there is no other bond between man and man but crude self-interest and callous cash-payment', a world that 'has degraded personal dignity to the level of exchange-value', creating 'exploitation that is open, unashamed, direct and brutal'. Professor Polhemus points out that, while Karl Marx was an optimist, Trollope's later years were suffused with pessimism and gloom.

     "The Way we Live Now was published the year before the opening of the Bayreuth Festival Playhouse and the first complete performance of Wagner's Ring. As Bernard Shaw reminded 'The Perfect Wagnerite' in 1898, 'the Ring, with all its gods and giants and dwarfs, its water-maidens and Valkyries, its wishing-cap, magic ring, enchanted sword, and miraculous treasure is a drama of today, and not of a remote and fabulous antiquity. It could not have been written before the second half of the nineteenth century, because it deals with events which were only then consummating themselves.'

     "Shaw rightly saw Alberich the dwarf, amassing power through his possession of the ring, and forcing the Niebelungs to mine his gold, as the type of capitalism. 'You can see the process for yourself in every civilized country today, where millions of people toil in want and disease to heap up more wealth for our Alberichs, laying up nothing for themselves, except sometimes agonizing disease and the certainty of premature death.'

     "No allegory of any work is exhausted by drawing too punctilious a match between symbol and signified. The audience to Wagner's musical drama is caught up in an experience which is profound in itself, and to say Alberich = the Big Capitalist or that the befriending of Alberich by Loki and Wotan = the Church and the Law embracing the power of capital is too narrow and too specific an account of what stands as a universal work of art. Shaw was right, however, to say that Wagner's masterpiece was rooted in its time. What is suggested in the final opera of the cycle is a universal collapse - the Gods themselves hurtling towards self-destruction. As the 'storm-clouds of the nineteenth century' - John Ruskin's phrase - gather, we sense impending disaster in many of the great art-works of the period."[14]


    Wagner tried to make his art a religion. Christianity was undergoing a profound crisis throughout Europe, and Wagner found the substitute in his own operas. As he wrote in his 1880 essay, “Religion and Art”, “While the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention.”

     As Douglas Murray writes, he followed Schopenhauer and Feuerbach in supposing that religion was simply the expression of our innermost desires. “The role of art, he believed, was to ‘save the spirit of religion’. And what he was attempting to speak to, in his music and essays was the source of that other-worldly, subconscious voice that speaks to us, asks questions and seeks answers. From Tannhauser right through to Parsifal, Wagner’s ambition… was to create a kind of religion which could stand up on its own and sustain itself…”[15]

     Wagner’s last work was the pseudo-Christian Parsifal, and it is intriguing to compare Wagner’s attitude to art and religion to that of another great artist whose major works on art and religion were produced at almost the same time – Lev Tolstoy. Now Tolstoy devoted a whole chapter of his What is Art? to a rejection of Wagner’s music. Rosamund Barrett writes: “Tolstoy had more or less built an entire artistic and religious edifice on the foundation of one aspect of Christianity (the Sermon on the Mount), and although he can be forgiven for not reading Wagner’s ponderous aesthetic writings, here was a classic case of him willfully refusing to consider all the dimensions of a structure in his path that did not conform to his specifications in the rush to tear it down. Although Wagner and Tolstoy were in certain important respects poles apart (the composer’s bombast and love of luxury spring to mind), there are also some intriguing parallels between them. Under the influence of Schopenhauer both formulated a religious vision based on a highly idiosyncratic theology of redemptive love which had little in common with traditional Christianity. Redemption can be attained only by renouncing eros and practicing compassion or agape, the word for love used in the New Testament: such are the lessons of Wagner’s last work Parsifal and all of Tolstoy’s late works from The Death of Ivan Ilyich onwards. Only love can redeem mankind and bring about a state where human beings can be at peace with themselves and with each other. Thomas Mann was quite correct when he wrote in 1933 that the patterns of Tolstoy’s artistic career was identical to that of Wagner, for in both cases, everything in their later oeuvre was prefigured in their earlier works. For all its enthralling narrative, for example, War and Peace is ultimately about sin (separation from God, and the absence of human relatedness) and redemption (the restoration of love), as can be seen by following Natasha Rostova’s spiritual journey.

     “Mann’s comparison of the consistency of Wagner’s artistic evolution with that of Tolstoy is instructive, for both Wagner and Tolstoy came to distinguish the simple religion of love and compassion for the poor and oppressed that Jesus Christ had founded from the deforming edifice of the Christian Church (it is striking that they both made a serious study of Renan’s Life of Jesus in 1878). They both wished to revive the spiritual essence of Christianity by removing its superstitious elements and the Old Testament notion of a vengeful God in order to create a purer and more practical religion. And the pacifism and vegetarianism both espoused in their final years went hand in hand with their views on the regeneration of society and a corresponding desire to simplify their aesthetic style. Before he died in 1883, Wagner came to see vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists as the harbingers of cultural renewal, and, ever the Romantic idealist, he hoped that through the medium of religious art (specifically music, his kind of music) a culture of compassion would replace the contemporary ‘civilisation’ of power and aggression. Tolstoy came to the same conclusions, but naturally the religious art he had in mind was primarily the verbal kind. Both Wagner and Tolstoy were anxious for the rest of the world to gain insight into Jesus’ radical idea that responding to violence with more violence can only lead to the further desecration of nature…”[16]


     However, it was not for his views on capitalism or kingship, or even religion or art, that Wagner was best known, but for his views on the Jews. According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his work on Russo-Jewish relations, German antisemitism began in 1869 with Richard Wagner.[17] His music-dramas, staged every year until his death in a specially constructed theatre at Bayreuth, propagated, in Richard Evans’ words, “heroic figures from Nordic legend [that] were to serve as model leaders for the German future”. 

     But Evans takes Wagner’s anti-semitism still further back: Wagner “had already been a cultural anti-Semite in the early 1850s, arguing in his notorious book Judaism in Music that the ‘Jewish spirit’ was inimical to musical profundity. His remedy was for the complete assimilation of Jews into German culture, and the replacement of Jewish religion, indeed all religion, by secular aesthetic impulses of the sort he poured into his own music-dramas. But towards the end of his life his views took on an increasingly racist tome under the influence of his second wife, Cosima, daughter of the composer Franz Liszt. By the end of the 1870s she was recording in her diaries that Wagner, whose outlook on civilization was distinctly pessimistic by this time, had read Wilhelm Marr’s anti-semitic tract of 1873 and broadly agreed with it. As a consequence of this shift in his position, Wagner no longer desired the assimilation of the Jews into German society, but their expulsion from it. In 1881, discussing Lessing’s classic play Nathan the Wise and a disastrous fire in the Vienna Ring Theatre, in which more than four hundred people, many of them Jewish, had died, Cosima noted that her husband said ‘In a vehement quip that all Jews should burn in a performance of Nathan’.

     “After Wagner’s death [in 1883], his widow turned Bayreuth into a kind of shrine, at which a band of dedicated followers would cultivate the dead Master’s sacred memory. The views of the circle she gathered round her at Bayreuth were rabidly anti-Semitic. The Wagner circle did its best to interpret the composer’s operas as pitting Nordic heroes against Jewish villains, although his music was of course capable of being interpreted in many other ways as well…”[18]



[1]Wagner, "What Relation bear Republican Endeavours to the Kingship?" in Art and Politics, London and Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996, pp. 139-140.

[2]Wagner, op. cit., p. 141.

[3]Wagner, op. cit., p. 142.

[4]Wagner, op. cit., pp. 142-143.

[5]Wagner, op. cit., p. 143.

[6]Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., pp. 11-13.

[7]Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., p. 18.

[8] Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., p. 18.

[9] Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., p. 20.

[10] Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., pp. 20-21.

[11] Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., pp. 22-23. We remember the great speech of the king in Shakespeare's Henry V (IV.1):

Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,

Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition!
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

[12] Wagner, "On State and Religion", op. cit., pp. 23-24.

[13] Wagner, "What is German?", op. cit., p. 166.

[14]Wilson, op. cit., pp. 413-414, 415.

[15] Murray, “Is the West’s Loss of Faith Terminal?”, Standpoint, May, 2015, p. 30.

[16] Bartlett, Tolstoy. A Russian Life, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, pp. 373-374.

[17] Solzhenitsyn, Dvesti Let Vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), Moscow, 2001.

[18] Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, London: Penguin, 2003, pp. 32-33.

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