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Imagined Germany: Richard Wagner's National Utopia. (Book Reviews).

Hannu Salmi. Imagined Germany: Richard Wagner's National Utopia.

New York / Bern: Peter Lang, 1999. viii + 229 pp. $50.95.

UNLIKE WEIMAR GERMANY between the two World Wars, which does garner some recognition from Anglo American readers because of its enduring impact on film, theatre, design, and critical theory, German culture between 1815 and 1914 is largely unknown terrain. Names, rather than contexts, are recalled: A. Schopenhauer, F. Nietzsche, O. Bismarck, K. Marx, R. Wagner. Hannu Salmi's readable and well-researched study of Richard Wagner's ideas in their social and political environments will serve as a useful corrective to this spot of cultural amnesia.

In order to grasp the particular problems of German history in the nineteenth century and hence the meaning of Wagner's proposed solution, Salmi begins with a chapter reviewing the political background as well as the importance of historical thought during the Romantic period. It is important to bear in mind that there was no nation state called "Deutschland" ("Germany"). Until its dissolution in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was a complex arrangement of territories held together by tradition, dynastic bonds, and inertia. Romantic writers and the generation which had helped defeat Napoleon were increasingly vociferous in their demands for a modern nation state, defined by a single sovereign, a parliament and a national language, but all such aspirations were thwarted by political givens. The German case looks quirky from today's vantage point because at that time being radical meant supporting causes which now appear conservative, such as unification, centralism, and nationalism. By examining the politics of the time, Salmi helps us to see how Wagner's early radicalism is not essentially at odds with his later nationalism.

Wagner, who had participated in the 1848 uprisings in Dresden and been forced to flee after they were suppressed, spent the rest of his life seeking an alternative to the political constellation. As so many Germans, he believed that an aesthetic order could supplant the state. As Salmi shows, Wagner conflated notions of a "German spirit (Geist)" and a "German people (Volk)" with a Romantic model of the artistic genius as the expression of a general will. Such genius would achieve what the politicians could not, namely the founding of a strong, unified "Germany." The utopian concepts envisioned in 1848 would remain Wagner's constant aim:
   Then let us sail across the sea, and here and there found a young Germany,
   let us fructify it with the products of our toil and striving, and let us
   beget and bring up the noblest and most godlike children [...]. Let us make
   it German and glorious; from its rising to its setting, the sun shall look
   down upon a beautiful, free Germany, and on the borders of the
   daughterlands, as upon those of their mother, no downtrodden, unfree people
   shall dwell, the rays of German freedom and German gentleness shall warm
   and transfigure the Cossack and the Frenchman, the Bushman and the Chinese.
   (qtd. 58)


Although Wagner would at one point toy with the possibility of going to the United States of America (influenced by his American dentist!), circumstances instead kept him active at home.

Relying upon archival sources, letters and contemporary accounts, Salmi traces in detail how Wagner became ensnared in political affairs as he attempted to realize his aesthetic ambitions. An unavoidable contradiction between the democratic impulses and the reliance upon aristocrats derived form the vast scale of Wagner's projects. He conceived operas as a "total work of art" (Gesamtkunstwerk) that would distill the essence of German myth and history, to be performed on a national stage that would become the focal point for political self-representation for all Germans, a symbolic compensation for the missing national assembly. But such schemes required huge sums of money. Wagner struggled to maintain aesthetic autonomy even as he turned first to Ludwig II of Bavaria and then to the Prussians for patronage. Salmi's account makes for disquieting reading, especially at moments such as the performances in 1871 of Wagner's grandiose march for the new German emperor, which opened with the lines "Hail! Hail to the Emperor! King Wilhelm / Shield and Bulwark of all Germans' freedom!" (150).

The pandering was in vain. Bismarck, who had been willing to use Wagner as an instrument for diplomatic tactics, blocked Wagner's efforts to establish himself in Berlin. Wagner then turned away from the imperial capital to Bayreuth, which was small and provincial, but had a theatre. The funding was to come from subscriptions throughout "Germany," collected via Wagner societies. Contemporaries drew explicit comparisons between Wagner and Bismarck as the representatives of the two aspects of the German empire: "Richard Wagner, the great poet and composer, whose unerring innovations in the field of art are the parallel to Bismarck's political achievements,--Richard Wagner, the bard of German greatness, will dedicate his lifework to the German Fatherland. It is up to the People to ensure its worthy reception" (176). In a sense, the subscribers and the audience members would function as citizens of an aesthetic realm that was overlaid upon yet not identical with the political state. Bayreuth would become the capital of this "imagined Germany."

Salmi is careful to notice the darker aspects of Wagner's utopian project, both intended ones and those over which he had no direct control. Shrill insistence on being "German" was accompanied by cruel and stupid attacks on others, mainly the French and the Jews. After Wagner's death the transformation of the Bayreuth festival into the center of an ardent cult did much to prepare the way for the Nazi co-opting of Wagner's legacy. Not for the last time, a utopian dream was sullied by misunderstanding and by a distorting reception.

This study should be useful not only to those interested in Wagner but to everyone trying to understand a period whose complexities are often overlooked. There are few misprints (on p. 74, the million taler should be 100,000), and the text has been made accessible with all quotations translated yet also in the original in footnotes. Although one might have wished at times for more discussion of the politics of the "total work of art" as a response to the theories of political representation (along the lines of Jean-Christophe Agnew's Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750), Salmi's book provides a solid foundation for such elaborations.
Arnd Bohm
Carleton University
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Author:Bohm, Arnd
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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