Rienzi, 1945

In 1908 Richard Wagner's third opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribune was put on in Linz. This production, though as such it wasn't earth-shattering in artistic significance or otherwise, nevertheless was to have grave and unforseen consequenses in world history.

It was literally to change the world.

The Linz performance was attended by a certain August Kubizek, a man whom by and large history has forgotten. Herr Kubizek was a musician and an avid Wagnerian. At that time he lived in great squalor in a "gloomy, bug-ridden back room" in Vienna. With him at the theatre he had his room mate, an awkward provincial youth of nineteen who knew nothing of Wagner. The youth's musical taste was rather less refined, vulgar even. What he loved was Lehár and especially The Merry Widow. When he whistled it was most often the cheerful and delightful ditty "I'm off to Chez Maxime". In his daydreams he was the dashing Danilo, beloved and adored and coveted by every woman in the land. In reality women would have nothing to do with him.

Lehár, Kubizek thought, what tosh! But there's more to music than that, Kubizek thought. Music can be a mighty force, a force to be reckoned with. It can be philosophy. It can show us the way. It can change us beyond recognition. It veritably can give us a reason to live. Therefore Kubizek took it upon himself to educate his young friend. The most important thing was to teach him about Wagner.

Hence Linz and Rienzi.

"It was at that moment it all began", the youth reminisced thirty years later in Bayreuth. It was when Rienzi sang: "But if you choose me as the protector/ of the people's given right's,/ then you may look back upon your forebears,/ and see me as the people's tribune!" Whereupon the people reply: "Rienzi, hail to you, the people's tribune!"

The youth was called Adolf Hitler.

Wagner became his god and Rienzi became the opera for him. It was the Rienzi overture that opened the Nuremberg Rallys, by Der Führer's insistence. When Robert Ley, head of the Labour Front DAF (Deutsche Arbeitsfront) and the leisure organization KdF or Kraft durch Freude, suggested the piece be substituted with something slightly more modern, something more "National Socialist" in tone and appeal, Hitler became quite livid. "You know, Ley, it's not accidental that the Party Rally always opens with the overture from Rienzi. It's not just a musical question. By invoking the splendours of the Imperial past, this son of a small inn-keeper succeds, at 24 years of age, in persuading the Roman people to drive out the corrupt Senate. It was while listening as a young man to this divinely blessed music in the theatre of Linz that the inspiration came to me that I was likewise destined to unite the German Reich and make it great."

The libretto of Rienzi, though from a historical novel by Bulwer-Lytton, is based on a true story from the 14th century. Cola di Rienzi is a modestly born fellow who becomes a tribune, brings down the rule of the aristocracy, defies the Church and becomes the de facto ruler of Rome. Then things start going against him and in the opera both the aristocracy and the mob, egged on by ecclesiastical powers, turn on him. He seeks refuge in the Capitol but the mob sets fire to it and in the end he is buried in a sea of flames amid collapsing stone walls.

It's quite easy to see why young Adolf was drawn to the story. He and no one else was Rienzi. It was his holy mission - nay fate - to unite and purify Germany and make the Vaterland mighty once more. From then on that was his single goal in life, that and nothing else.

I wonder, would Hitler ever have become so obsessed with his mission or fate had he never seen Rienzi or encountered the opera at a later and far less impressionable age? Would that have made a great difference in historical terms? Would Nazism perhaps never have been born, or more likely, adopted a far less rabid and contagious form? I wonder. Maybe.

If so: Cheers, Kubizek, nice one.

Hitler's career does in fact parallel Rienzi's career in an eerie fashion. They have roughly the same humble background, the same metoric rise, the same power over the masses. They are both frighteningly, alarmingly beloved by their almost mesmerized people. The end is particulalry eerie. Rienzi meets his in the burning collapsing Capitol, Hitler his in the burning bombed Berlin bunker; both surrounded by the enemy, both having lost the favour and adoration of the people.

In the end Hitler wanted as much death and destruction as possible. If his dream failed to materialize then everything deserved to be destroyed. If his people failed him in the end then they deserved to be destroyed. Only his fate mattered, nothing else. Because his fate was Germany's fate.

There's an interesting footnote about the end. When once it became clear that Germany would be defeated and his dream was not to be, Hitler in his Führerbunker started to retreat into himself. His health started tottering. He'd kept going by the dubious shots and pills his personal doctor, the remarkably shady Dr. Morell, had administered. (His favourite pills were called Dr. Köster's Antigas Pills and were a well nice mixture of strychnine and belladonna.) But Morell abandoned him the first chance he got. So no much needed medication.

Hitler sought comfort in music. The record player was on the whole time.

What did he listen to? Rienzi, the opera that started it all and uncannily predicted his fate? Götterdämmerung - another powerfully apocalyptic opera? Lohengrin? Maybe Parsifal or Tristan und Isolde? No. None of them.

Apparently, according to reliable witnesses from the bunker, what he listened to over and over and over again, in a plethora of different recordings, was The Merry Widow and especially Danilo's cheery tune about being off to Chez Maxim.

Maybe, just maybe, when the bombs started coming down in heavy showers and the destruction of his world was imminent, there was a small part of him that wished he'd been Danilo instead of Rienzi.

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