Richard Wagner, the Anarchist

During his Dresden years, Wagner took part in the revolutionary activity against the Saxon government. In the meetings of the so called Vaterlandsverein he spoke openly against the state, having been strongly influenced by the anarchists Michael Bakunin and P.-J. Proudhon. At the same time, he exhausted for the universal mission of German culture: "...the rays of German freedom and German gentleness shall warm and transfigure the French and Cossacks, the Bushman and the Chinese." Here, he is in conformity with the older tradition of the German mission.

After the revolt in Dresden May 1849, Wagner lived as a refugee in Switzerland and wandered round Europe ranging his tours even to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Wagner returned to political activity in 1864 when he received the invitation of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, to settle in Munich. Wagner responded and started to form his ideas on nationalism. He believed that Bavaria could become the unifier of Germany. This proved to be a miscalculation and, a few years later, he tried to find contacts in Berlin in order to propagate his ideas among the Prussian leaders.

The state authorities of the new unified Reich did not give the Wagnerian conception of the world its blessing - not before the 1930s. Bismarck turned down Wagner's plans, and Wagner had no other alternative but to provide his own shelter for all Wagnerians saturated with petty-German politics, for all "true Germans".

In his final years, Wagner returned to his negative attitude towards the state. Already in his essay Beethoven he had argued that the German culture is universal by nature but this universality shouldn't mean conquering by force. The German is not ein Welteroberer but ein Weltbeglücker.

Wagner strived to institutionalize his own art by founding his own opera festival in Bayreuth (1876) and numerous fan clubs (Wagner-Vereinigungen) throughout Germany. Finally, Wagnerism spread across the German borders through this society activity. An old route of German influence, or 'German mission', was the Baltic Sea. Via this route Wagnerism spread as a society activity to the Scandinavian and Baltic countries.

Throughout his life, Wagner was ambivalent in his relations with the German Reich. The tracing of Wagner and his intellectual aftermath is simultaneously a process of figuring out the frontiers of German cultural influence in Europe. This area is undoubtedly wider than the politically stressed conception of German history could lead us to suppose.


Written by Hannu Salmi, hansalmi@utu.fi.
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