Monday Morning at the Wagners

From Cosima Wagner’s Diaries 1878-1883:

Coming from his bath, R.[ichard] says to me: “You are quite right—we should have slaves”… [January 7, 1878]

One more potential bit of evidence, incidentally, for my claim that Nietzsche’s arguments in early essays like “The Greek State” and in Birth of Tragedy may have been about real, not metaphorical, slavery.

In her diary, Cosima Wagner makes clear that she and Richard had been discussing the benefits of slavery over wage labor (“I declared recently that slaves had been happier than the present-day proletariat”), which was one of the main defenses of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War in the South. Though the relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche was, in 1878, on the brink of a permanent rupture, we know that much of Birth of Tragedy was inspired by Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner. It seems plausible that Cosima’s table talk with Richard about slavery in the late 1870s was an extension of earlier dialogues about slavery between Richard, Cosima, and Nietzsche in the early 1870s.

As I’ve argued before, the battle over slavery and emancipation in the Americas was watched closely in Europe, and though we know a lot about the left’s response to that battle, we know less about the right’s. I’ve speculated that Nietzsche’s writings on slavery, which are often taken to be more rhetorical and psychological rather than statements about actually existing slavery, should be thought of as perhaps the leading edge of European speculation about the cultural and political costs of ending human bondage. Which, again, was for Nietzsche a matter of present history.

Ultimately, what I’m interested in is how these discussions of abolition and emancipation on the European right in the latter half of the 19th century play a role in the development fascist political economy in the first half of the 20th century. The role of slavery in the Nazis’ thinking about settlement in the East—and in their actual practice in the 1940s—remains something of a mystery to me. How was it possible, after a century of bourgeois celebration of free labor and wage labor, for a European country to make slave labor the foundation of its economic thinking—not at the peripheries of its extracontintental colonies but at the heart of its empire? During World War II, it’s even been reported, Wagner’s grandson used slave laborers from a nearby concentration camp in his Bayreuth productions.

In the meantime, there’s Cosima Wagner, giggling with her husband (after he says we should have slaves, he continues, “but who should be the first slave? Ross or Georg?” Cosima notes, “We laughed heartily”), fresh from his bath, over the question of human bondage.


  1. juan tenorio July 14, 2015 at 7:36 pm | #

    Anyone who was a member of the privileged classes (back in 1870 that would roughly mean, in Europe, anyone who could read), and who had looked around, would know that the difference between ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ was largely theoretical.

    Alex. Dumas writes, in the Three Musketeers about one of the Musketeers threatening, quite seriously, to cut one of his servant’s ears off.

    D’Artagnan beats his first hired servant, ‘just enough to make him respect him’.

    Hamstringing (cutting the hamstrings and rendering a person effectively unable to walk, at all) was also commonly done to ‘free’ people.

    If these things can be done to you with impunity on the part of the person doing them, then you are NOT free in any real sense.

    For all of history, there has been a basic assumption that only certain people matter.

    The rest are ‘speaking instruments’ to quote Aristotle–tools for getting things done who happen to be able to speak.

    So I’m not surprised by R. and C. Wagner’s exchange: despite his claims of ‘poverty’ at various times in his life,and his supposedly ‘liberal’ politics, the Wagners (and the Marx’s too) were indeed members of the privileged classes, reliant on servants and peasants (Marx’s ‘lumpenproletariat’),for all their basic needs.

  2. aletheia33 July 14, 2015 at 8:39 pm | #

    As some aspects of the Nazi program were directly imitative of the use of eugenics to legitimate the U.S. South’s mode of continuation of slavery in all but name from Reconstruction on, perhaps further exploration of the history of that imitation would prove clarifying.

    • Alan K. July 14, 2015 at 10:37 pm | #

      There was a good deal of influence and even correspondence between American eugenicists and Nazi ones throughout the 1930s. Some of the Nazi racial theorists even got their Gobineau from the American eugenicist, Madison Grant. Stefan Kuhl’s “The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism” documents many of these connections:

  3. TC July 15, 2015 at 3:08 am | #

    Perhaps your mystery can be solved by a visit to the NS-Dokumentationszentrum Müchen

  4. Dave Timoney July 15, 2015 at 7:33 am | #

    It is worth recalling that the “century of bourgeois celebration of free labor and wage labor” was also marked in Germany by the continuing perception of Slavs as helots and the East as an area suitable for agrarian exploitation rather than industrialisation.

    Mark Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire” is good on the background to this. He also has interesting things to say about Germany’s reference to the USA as a model in other respects, e.g. Carl Schmitt’s equivalence of the Monroe Doctrine with the idea of ‘Grossraum’, however it looks as if Nazi slave “theory” was more influenced by traditional attitudes towards serfdom than plantation slavery.

    • Corey Robin July 15, 2015 at 2:54 pm | #

      I bought the Mazower book about a month ago. It’s definitely on my reading list, thanks!

  5. Peter Dorman July 17, 2015 at 10:19 am | #

    This is slightly off-topic — not really about slavery in general — but you should definitely give a read to The Conquest of Nature by David Blackbourn, if you haven’t already. He is extremely illuminating on the intersection of nature philosophy, economic development, and racism (especially toward the Slavs) in German history. I would be interested in someone reading this from a knowledge of Nietsche and telling us if there’s another angle.

  6. Frank Wilhoit July 19, 2015 at 3:46 pm | #

    Wagner was too pure (and monumental) an egoist to have any politics. Cherry-picking his writings and reported aphorisms is great fun, and you can find anything you are looking for, but none of it actually means anything.

Leave a Reply