Wagner exhibit in Germany renews debate over legacy

munich, germany | Richard Wagner has been dead for 120 years, but the legacy of his monumental operas glorifying Teutonic myths and his deep anti-Semitism remain as contentious as ever.

A new German exhibit on Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer, which opened last week, highlights the contradictions between Wagner the musical genius and the Wagner who saw himself as the savior of German culture against Jewish influence.

As modern scholars shed respect for the great composer, German authors have published about a dozen books in the last few years exploring Wagner in the light of his anti-Semitism. Most disputed is the degree to which Wagner’s reputation was tainted by Hitler’s appropriating his music. Hitler was born six years after the composer’s death in 1883.

The Wagner family — especially the composer’s daughter-in-law, Winifred — financed Hitler during his rise to power and helped him publish his infamous manifesto, “Mein Kampf.’ After Hitler came to power in 1933, the family remained among his closest friends, and he turned the annual Wagner festivals in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth into Nazi propaganda events.

“It’s remarkable to see how, by and large, the story of Wagner and the Jews has been pushed into people’s consciousness in Germany over the last five years,’ said Joachim Koehler, the author of a book on the subject. While scholars and historians tackle Wagner’s Jew-hating, major Wagner exhibitions bringing the message to the public at large have been rare.

Most of the new Munich exhibit is devoted to Wagner’s compositions, his grand project to build an opera house for himself in Bayreuth — it opened in 1876 — and his political development from anarchist sympathizer in his 30s to staunch conservative later in life.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism is often linked to his jealousy as a struggling young composer over the success of a rival, Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was Jewish. But the show’s catalog offers plenty of other evidence of its deep roots, including Wagner’s assertion shortly before his death that Jews are “the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble.’

Leaving out Wagner’s enmity toward Jews would have been “naive and untruthful,’ but claiming that “Wagner led to Hitler is nonsense,’ said the show’s curator, Juergen Kolbe.

The exhibit at Munich’s City Museum, called Wagner’s Worlds, runs through Jan. 25.