Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Phantom of the Opera


'Yes, Hitler had always been a good friend of the house of Wagner; she, Winifred, admired him and was grateful to him. Yes, he had been misled by the people around him, and pushed into making decisions. No, she had never slept with Hitler.'

An extract from an interview with Winifred Wagner, given, quite unbelievably, in 1945 immediately after the collapse of the Third Reich. The extract is from an interview with Klaus Mann (son of Thomas Mann) published in the US army newspaper Stars and Stripes, and quoted in the recently published Winifred Wagner, A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth, which also supplies my header photograph of Hitler with the book's subject.

The story of Winifred Wagner is the stuff of fiction. In 1907 a nine-year-old English orphan, Winifred Williams, was sent to live with distant relatives in Berlin. In 1915, in the middle of World War 1, the eighteen-year-old girl was married in Bayreuth. Her groom was Siegfried Wagner, the 46 year-old only son of Richard Wagner, head of the Bayreuth Festival, and a homosexual, or as author Brigitte Hamann tactfully puts it, “a man’s man”.

Therein lies one of the the many flaws in this meticulously researched book, which at 582 pages is Wagnerian, both in length and sympathy. Hamann lives in Vienna, studied in Germany and Austria, and is the author of a study of Hitler’s early years. A good biography gives the details of the subject’s private life, but does not pass judgement. I can only conclude that Hamann decided that chronicling Bayreuth’s musical beds might invite judgement. Her circumvention of issues central to the story verges on the comic. An eighteen-year-old girl marries a 46 year-old homosexual to provide an heir (Wieland) to the Wagner dynasty. Yet in the lengthy index entry for Siegfried Wagner there is no entry at all under 'homosexuality', and just one (on page 8) under the tactful heading 'sexual proclivities', while elsewhere we read that the notorious Nazi homosexual Ernst Rohm stays in Siegfried’s house with his 'friend' Franz von Epp. But at least gender equality is respected, and Winifred’s affair with Bayreuth artistic director Heinz Tietjen also gets the ‘don’t mention it in front of the children’ treatment.


Although there is a wealth of detail on the wonderfully bitchy world of Bayreuth and the ‘Master’, this is much more than a music book. It tells of a cataclysmic collision of politics and music, and the photo above from the book shows one of the points of impact - Tietjen and Furtwängler with Winifred’s friend ‘Wolf’ at the new Berlin City Opera staging of Lohengrin in 1929. As worlds collide Brigitte Hamann only makes a token attempt to disguise her allegiance to the Wagner camp, just one small example is how she recounts on page 374 how performances of the Wesendonck Lieder were banned at Bayreuth by Wagner’s widow Cosima, but omits any mention of the song cycle in the entry for Wagner, Richard Compositions in the comprehensive index, despite their appearance in the text.


Winifred confirmed the Wesendonck ban in 1944, and the end of the war did not see the end of her political blunderings. In 1952 she visited the GDR (interestingly following the same itinerary as my recent visit - Leipzig, Dresden and Zwickau), and upset the West Germans with her praise for the communist regime. Back in Bayreuth she lived in her husband's old house which she referred to as the Führer building, and it became a gathering place for the widows and children of the former Nazi leaders. When they were there Hamann describes how they "could talk openly about old times, which for all of them were the best times of their lives. And they could express their enthusiasm for the Führer to their heart's content." Another contact of Winifred was David Irving, who Hamann generously describes as "the revisionist British historian". Others describe him as a holocaust denier.

In 1975, at the age of 78, Winifred was at the center of yet another controversey when Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's documentary film about her was released. In the film she says the following - "If Hitler were to walk in through that door now, for instance, I'd be as happy and glad to see him here as ever, and that whole dark side of him, I know it exists, but it doesn't exist for me because I don't know that part of him". Four years later, in 1979, she was guest of honour in Bayreuth at a rally of hundreds of former Hitler Youth and Bund Deutscher Mädel members, and she followed this by attacking the award of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Yehudi Menuhin with these words - "despite all his achievements, I regret the prize has been given to a Jew, because it's just more grovelling to that race on the part of this generation - haven't we got any pride?" Winifred Wagner died in March 1980, aged 82.

An extraordinary, and truly frightening tale that is essential reading, particularly for the bon mots that litter the text. The most memorable include Winifred's description of Hitler's personal physician, Karl Brandt, who was responsible for carrying out Hitler's euthanasia programme which systematically murdered the mentally ill and the disabled. On hearing of Brandt's death sentence in 1948 Winifred Wagner complained: "What a nice, decent fellow he was, and what a price he's got to pay now for the things he was made to represent." (P 441)


Elsewhere Hassmann writes about the Bayreuth concentration camp (see note 1 below), in which Winifred's son, Wieland (see note 2), held a senior position until April 1945, and reassures us with these words - After 1945, ex-inmate Hans Imhof described his stay at Bayreuth as ‘the best part of my whole time in concentration camps’ (P 380).

Extraordinary words from an extraordinary book. Unless you read it you will never believe it.

Note 1. Bayreuth concentration camp was a satellite of the Flossenbürg KZ site. Around 30,000 died in Flossenbürg and its subcamps. Among those killed were Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, General Hans Oster, and others involved in the plot to assasinate Hitler on 20th July 1944. These men had been arrested following the collapse of the plot, but they were held in various prisons and camps until being sent to Flossenbürg, where they were hanged on 9th April 1945, shortly before the liberation.


Note 2. In 1949 Wieland Wagner was cleared of all political charges despite his Nazi past and close friendship with Hitler - the photo above shows him with Hitler watched by a member of the Bayreuth domestic staff. Wieland's failure to mention in his de-Nazification questionnaire that he held a senior position in the Bayreuth concentration camp was of no consequence as enquiries into these activities had ceased by 1949. He took over as Bayreuth Festival Director in 1951, holding the position until his death in 1966. Although Wieland symbolically removed the old order from the Bayreuth productions the pre-war legacy remained very much present behind the scenes, including Winifred's close friend Dortmund steel magnate Moritz Klönne, who became president of the Society of the Friends of Bayreuth. In another of the book's bon mots designer Emil Preetorius describes Wieland Wagner as "the arsehole of Bayreuth".

Although Winifred was removed from involvement in the Festival, the Wagner dynasty continues its control of Bayreuth to this day through Wieland's brother Wolfgang. He was born in 1919, and his close association with Hitler is chronicled in Hamann's book. Despite these Nazi connections musicians of the calibre, and integrity, of Daniel Barenboim work at Bayreuth. In an illuminating conversation with Edward Said Barenboim says - "one has to distinguish between Wagner's anti-Semitism, which is monstrous and despicable and worse than the sort of normal, shall we say, accepted-unacceptable level of anti-Semitism, and the use the Nazis made of it."

Winifred Wagner, A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth by Brigitte Hamann is published by Granta Books, ISBN1862076715

For more on Hitler’s musical inner circle take An Overgrown Path to Hitler’s court composer was a Harvard alumni.
Photo credits - Winifred Wagner, A Life at the Heart ofHitler’s Bayreuth, Granta Books. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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