‘My dear, dear friend and Führer!’
- Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth by Brigitte Hamann, translated by Alan Bance
Granta, 582 pp, £12.99, June 2006, ISBN 1 86207 851 3
In this, the first major biography of Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Brigitte Hamann tries very hard to be fair to a subject who, one might think, scarcely deserves it. It would be hard to find a better example than the Wagner dynasty of the continuity between the myth of a glorious Germany and its terrible enactment. Hamann introduces her book as follows:
In 1923 the 34-year-old politician Adolf Hitler, heralded as the future ‘saviour of Germany’, paid his first visit to Bayreuth. He revealed himself to be a knowledgable Wagnerian, whose political principles accorded with the ideology of Wagner: extreme German nationalism, anti-semitism, anti-liberalism and racism . . . At the time of this visit, Winifred, at 26, was a frustrated wife – and she fell in love with Hitler. But he did not need a wife; he needed political support from the Wagner family, and from the Wagner Societies, an effective network. Shortly afterwards, Siegfried and Winifred Wagner travelled to Munich to witness the putsch that was supposed to bring Hitler to power, only to see it fail. Winifred in particular now worked harder than ever on behalf of the allegedly victimised and wrongly imprisoned Hitler. Her relationship with him in the ‘years of struggle’ before 1933 became easy and familiar, a rarity with Hitler. Röhm, Hess, Goebbels, Hans Frank and many other friends of Hitler came and went . . . He enjoyed the family and artistic atmosphere at home with the Wagners, playing the kind uncle to the Wagner children, and fancied himself a friend of the arts.
Almost every sentence jars. Hamann credits this semi-educated dictator with being a connoisseur; intimates he was ‘wrongly’ imprisoned; and elevates a ragbag of hatred, nationalism and racism into ‘political principles’. She claims that ‘it is an unusual side of Hitler that Bayreuth brings out. Here, he was the charming art lover, the family’s nice uncle, the financial saviour of the festival, and the patron of a long overdue modernisation who aroused genuine enthusiasm among the Bayreuth artists and public alike.’ Fairness here seems to amount to advocacy, or at least to exculpation. Hamann herself believes that
what Winifred and her son Wieland exemplify is how impossible it is to pronounce a clear-cut verdict on Hitler’s contemporaries. Careers full of contradictions, lies and reinvented personal histories were the norm, and later generations have had to accept them as such. For none of us can say whether, in such dangerous but also seductive times, we would have been able to sustain our resistance.
The woman who forms the subject of her book and who played so prominent a role in Nazi Germany was English: Winifred Marjorie Williams, born in Hastings in 1897. Orphaned at an early age, she came to stay in Oranienburg, near Berlin, with distant relatives, the aged Wagnerians Henriette and Karl Klindworth, in 1907. Karl had studied with Liszt, founded a conservatoire and written piano redactions of Wagner’s operas. The couple were nationalists, founder members of the Eden fruit-growing colony, followers of the ‘simple life’. But for Winifred’s sake they gave up their home in the colony and moved to Berlin. Here she grew up in Wagnerian circles, where Jewish conductors such as Mahler and Bruno Walter were routinely described as ‘rabble’. Quoting archival sources, Hamann gives us a taste of Klindworth’s opinions: ‘I believe that only a terrible world war can release the tension, and only the most awful misery can bring our people back to prudence and moderation, faith and moral aspiration.’