Richard Wagner — The Spiritual Father of Israel

Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), pictured on the left with Richard Wagner, was the founder of Zionism and is revered as the George Washington of Israel. He was a Viennese journalist, a secular Jew, who became convinced that only in a Jewish state – Der Judenstaat was the title of his visionary book – could Jews live free of anti-Semitism.

He was also an opera-lover.

“In the evening Tannhäuser at the opera,” he writes in his diary. “We too will have such splendid auditoriums – the gentlemen in full dress, the ladies dressed as lavishly as possible.”

But it was not only the elegance that moved him. It was Tannhäuser. Much as Wagner was using opera to create a new German consciousness, opera for the Jews could bring about a similar revival of spirit. Herzl’s infatuation with Tannhäuser culminated in the 1898 Second Zionist Congress that, according to an account of the event, “opened with the sound of the opera.”

The redemptive plot, with its motif of the power of self-emancipation, struck a chord with Herzl. Just as Elizabeth and Wolfram offer Tannhäuser the path back to moral idealism, so too Zionism is to be the path for spiritual regeneration. For him, it means a triumph over the alienation that is the lot of assimilated Jews in anti-Semitic Europe.

In the anti-Semitic Wagner’s Tannhäuser, folkloristic elements are used to create national cohesion.

Herzl uses them to inspire the Jews.

Source: Leah Garrett in Jewish Social Studies, fall of 2002


3 responses to “Richard Wagner — The Spiritual Father of Israel

  1. This is all news to me. Very interesting

  2. A late missive on interesting assertion: I am a little confused how this meshes with the author/researchers findings in “Hitler’s Vienna”
    Hitler and his Party were adept at appropriating inspiring symbols, Wagner, the pagentry of Opera, and the Swastika. Would this make Wagner the victim of a type of intellectual property/reputation theft? Was Herzl exploiting the same nativism/nationalist/race passion to stir support for a State of Israel? In Herzl’s period Opera was a mainstream popular art form of the literate (and others), are we sure that Herzl was focused that narrowly on Wagner and the extreme nativism/nationalist/race elements?



    • It’s the redemption theme in Tannhäuser – and no doubt in other Wagner operas – that seems to have moved Herzl, i.e. national redempion.
      Redemption in Herzl’s mind – and here’s the irony – from anti-Semitism.
      I don’t know what Wagner thought of Zionism, if he gave it any thought at all.
      If Herzl stole any intellectual property – it was the Wagnerian Zeitgeist he stole, and he can’t sue.