restricted access Wagner and the Origin of Evil
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Wagner and the Origin of Evil

Prologue: the Hedgehog and the Fox

In a famous essay on Tolstoy's view of history, entitled "The Hedgehog and the Fox," Isaiah Berlin began with a fragment of Greek poetry: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."1 Berlin rang a note of caution that the words of this fragment "may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense," but he went on to suggest that they also may "yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general." Berlin fleshed out this difference by proposing that the hedgehogs "relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance." The foxes, by contrast,

pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no single moral or aesthetic principle; these last [the foxes] lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.2

According to Berlin, Dante was a hedgehog, as were Plato, Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Shakespeare, however, was a fox, and so were Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce. Berlin did not favor one or the other of these two "intellectual and artistic personalities," but saw them primarily as "rival types of knowledge." Although he admitted that the classification could become, "if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and absurd," he believed that it could nevertheless serve as "a starting point of genuine investigation"—like the one that he himself went on to conduct [End Page 151] about Tolstoy's view of history, concluding that the Russian thinker and writer was at heart a fox, yet presented himself as a hedgehog.3

In the mid 1990s, the Canadian historian Michael Marrus wrote a review article about the historiography of the Holocaust, suggesting that the distinction between fox and hedgehog could serve not only as a way of understanding historical writing in general, but, more specifically, as a way of making sense of the historiography on the Holocaust.4 Marrus noted that "in the first two decades after the Holocaust writers were preoccupied with the search for a single key—something that would unlock the mystery of the massacre of European Jewry." But he also noticed that "historical writers today are uncomfortable with the framework they have inherited. They spend much of their time pointing to variety, paradoxes, complexities, and contradictions. Their writing is less informed by single, unitary perspectives than it was with their predecessors, and they have advanced our knowledge on many smaller fronts."5

Marrus named three areas in which historians had traditionally searched for a single cause of the Holocaust or attempted to determine its uniqueness in history: the development of anti-Semitism in nineteenth-century Germany; the machinery of destruction devised and operated by the Nazi bureaucracy; and the association of Jewish culture with the threat of modernism. According to Marrus, an increasing number of more recent studies had begun to question single-cause theories by looking, for instance, at more widespread ethnic cleansing in the East and pointing to other victims of the politics of racial purity, such as Nazi eugenics, Gypsies, or those killed through euthanasia programs. Although he concluded that the historiography of the Holocaust (including his own work) had gradually moved into the realm of the foxes, and with it into the "mainstream of historical understanding," he acknowledged that "not everyone who cares about the Holocaust...