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  • Götterdämmerung, Führerdämmerung?
  • Stephen McClatchie (bio)

It has long been commonplace for historians and biographers to invoke the notion of Götterdämmerung—the twilight of the gods—when writing about the final days of Adolf Hitler and his monstrous Third Reich. This trope is used, in both English and German, by leading authors such as Joachim Fest, William L. Shirer, Ian Kershaw, Anthony Read, and David Clay Large.1 Without exception, however, the idea of Götterdämmerung has been used uncritically, rhetorically—almost as jargon, in Adorno's sense. It was even used this way by Adorno himself, who once referred to Götterdämmerung as an "inflamed prophecy of the nation's own doom."2 In what follows, I propose to measure the implications of this historiographical trope against the reality of the Nazis' appropriation of Wagner and his music.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the analogy was drawn by the Nazis themselves as the Thousand-Year Reich crumbled around them. In February 1945, Martin Bormann received a letter from his wife that stated:

One day the Reich of our dreams will emerge. . . . In some ways, you know, this reminds me of the Götterdämmerung in the Edda. . . . The monsters are storming the bridge of the Gods. . . . the citadel of the Gods crumbles, and all seems lost; and then, suddenly, a new citadel arises, more beautiful than ever before. . . . We are not the first to engage in mortal combat with the powers of the underworld, and that we feel impelled, and are also able, to do so should give us a conviction of ultimate victory.3

In a similar vein, an entry in the diary of Fritz Kempfler, the Nazi mayor of Bayreuth, from mid-April 1945 referred to "this hour of Götterdämmerung."4

The trope was also employed by the Allies. A search for the terms Hitler and Goetterdaemmerung in the archives of the New York Times finds the two linked eleven times between November 1943 and May 1945, including a 1944 story in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Götterdämmerung—By Hitler," which purported to find a "pathological 'Götterdämmerung' streak in the Nazis."5 Following the Allied victory, a front-page article in the "Week in Review" section of the Sunday Times began as follows: "Germany last week went down to defeat [End Page 184] in the death and flame, the swirling violence, of a Wagnerian finale. Adolf Hitler had his Goetterdaemmerung."6 And the connection continues today, albeit in a somewhat ironic sense, as in the title of Martin Geck's review of Pamela Potter's book on musicology under the Nazis: "'Così fan tutte' or 'Götterdämmerung'? The National Socialist Past of German Musicology."7

The word Götterdämmerung is a German translation of the same term, Ragnarok, which appears in the thirteenth-century Icelandic Prose Edda—one of Wagner's sources for the Ring. His Götterdämmerung is quite different from the one that appears in the Edda, however. In the myth, once the Valkyries have borne enough slain warriors to Valhalla and the Norns have finished weaving their threads of fate, Valhalla is besieged by giants and monsters, led by Loki. The fiery fallout of the siege of Valhalla ignites the earth (which had been suffering from a monstrous winter) and destroys all living creatures on earth, as Valhalla itself, the gods, and the giants are consumed by fire. According to the myth, however, a few escape with Baldur to the roots of Yggdrasil, the World-Ash Tree, and are spared destruction; they emerge, ultimately, beyond the myth's narrative parameters, to establish a new "world of harmony between man and nature, a world without walls or nations; a world without gods."8

Germanic and Norse myths were immensely popular in German-speaking lands in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly among völkisch ideologues like those drawn to the Bayreuth Circle around Cosima Wagner and Hans von Wolzogen—not to mention Wagner himself and his choice of subject matter. Articles on the myths themselves, as well as their connection with Wagner's works, appeared frequently in the...


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