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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Those wicked old Wagners

By Norman Lebrecht / June 15, 2005


There are almost as many books about the Wagner family as there are about the composer himself - and he was once the subject of more biographies than any main in history, bar Napoleon and Jesus Christ. Why this need to read about a nasty clan of nonentities who keep banning one another from the family shrine? Because there is a strong suspicion that the Wagners contributed measurably to the greatest atrocity of modern times, and that the full story has yet to be told.

Brigitte Hamann's new biography of Winifred Wagner, the composer's English-born daughter-in-law, brings to light fresh evidence of the family's involvement with Hitler and its complicity in his crimes. It took great ingenuity on the author's part since the Wagners squirreled away their papers and refuse access to outsiders. But Hamann, a Viennese scholar, laid hands on Winnie's letters to her best Nazi girlfriend and, with other sources, has assembled a dossier strong enough to have landed several Wagners in the Nuremburg dock.

Winifred was an outsider. Adopted as a child orphan by a septuagenarian pair of Wagner worshippers couple, she was presented in 1915, aged 18, for marriage to the Master's only son Siegfried, a homosexual of 46. Her role was to make babies and help 'Fidi' take over the Festival from his mother, Cosima. This was no easy task, since the war had wiped out the family savings. The Wagners blamed the Jews.

By 1921, with no resumption in sight, Fidi toned down his virulent anti-Semitism to court funds from Jewish Wagnerians in Europe and the US. Back home, he mingled with rabid nationalists. In September 1923 Adolf Hitler visited the family to pay homage to his favourite composer and meet the English historian Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Fidi's brother-in-law (and Neville's cousin), whose racial dogmas pervade Nazi ideology every bit as much as Wagner's teutonic primitivism.

Winnie and Fidi went to Munich for the day to witness Hitler's putsch; later they sent him goodies in prison. The festival reopened in 1924 and Hitler came the following summer, seeing a full Ring cycle, Parsifal and Mastersingers. He bonded with the Wagners, who called him 'Wolf'. When Fidi died in August 1930, Winnie took over the Festival with Hitler as her constant consultant.

They were intimate friends, nothing more. Hitler was in mourning for his suicidal niece, Geli Raubal, and Winnie was in love with her artistic director Heinz Tietjen, a chameleon chameleon who ran the Berlin State Opera under both socialist and Nazi regimes. To please Hitler, Winnie booked his favourite conductor, the obstreperous Wilhelm Furtwangler. When he became Fuhrer in 1933 Winnie, facing a shortfall on ticket sales due to the ban on Jews, appealed to Goebbels, who sent her packing. Hitler then ordered Nazi organisations to bulk-buy tickets at full price, a subsidy that continued throughout the Third Reich. But for Hitler, Bayreuth would have gone bankrupt. Under his patronage, the Festival became an offshoot of the Nuremberg rallies, a place where prominent Nazis strutted their stuff before adoring crowds.

Until the Second World War, Hitler was a regular attender, meddling with the casts and mingling with the family. Winnie pestered him throughout the year, pleading for extra subsidy and occasionally interceding for victims of the regime. Relations cooled after Winnie's daughter, Friedelind, fled to America and made anti-Nazi broadcasts, but Hitler remained attached to Winnie's sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, and conspired with them to oust Mum and Tietjen and replace them with Wagner's flesh and blood.

Wieland, whose middle name was 'Adolf', was in contact with Hitler until February 1945. With his brother-in-law Bodo Lafferentz, head of the Kraft durch Freude unit that co-financed Bayreuth, he set up a concentration camp near the festival grounds to manufacture parts for V-1 and V-2 rockets. The Wagners employed slave labour and set up a gallows in the yard. Wieland was named governor of the camp. After the War, its SS guards were put on trial but the Wagner bosses escaped unpunished.

When the day of denazification came, Winifred was banned from running the festival and her two sons took over, just as Hitler intended. The festival, reopened in 1951, became a gathering place for relics of Hitler's circle. Wieland attacked his mother in the press as 'a former leading Nazi' while protesting his own political innocence. Wolfgang raised funds for the enterprise from old Nazis and steel magnates.

Although Wieland's spartan staging signalled a breach with the past, nothing else changed at Bayreuth. The brothers soon fell out. After Wieland's death in 1966, Wolfgang barred his children from the succession. Later he banned the son and daughter of his own first marriage in favour of his lastborn child, Katharine.

While Wieland was a competent stage director and enlightened manager, Wolfgang was a plodder, a thick-skinned autocrat. In 1973, the town of Bayreuth bought the festival theatre, its archives and the Wagner home for 12.4 million Deutschmarks (about £4 million at the time), but Wolfgang runs the Festival to this day as his private fiefdom, squandering public subsidy on productions of ephemeral consequence and accountable only to a board of poodles. Now 85, he cannot be long for this world. If the Bavarian authorities have any respect for public probity they will move swiftly on his death to suspend the intended succession.

For the Wagners, as Hamann confirms, have shed nothing but shame on their ancestor's ideals. They were formative Nazis, active SS men and unregenerate accepters of post-war Nazi gold. They were also creative nullities, trading on a famous surname.

Their family saga is no sillier than most telly soaps, except that it involves crimes against humanity. Hamann has provided the fullest indictment so far of Wagner family guilt. There are, to my knowledge, at least two more books in preparation, intent upon dewhitewashing Bayreuth. The evidence is mounting, and the reckoning cannot be deferred indefinitely. Only when the Festival is removed from family hands will its wicked past be fully purged. Personally, I won't set foot in the place until there is evidence of regime change.

Brigitte Hamann: Winifred Wagner, a life at the heart of Hitler's Bayreuth (transl. Alan Bance), is published on June 18 by Granta Books, price £30

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001