‘My dear, dear friend and Führer!’

Jeremy Adler

  • 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.’

The defining moment in Winifred’s life occurred in July 1914, when, aged 17, she accompanied Karl Klindworth to Bayreuth. She heard Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman and the entire Ring cycle. ‘From now on,’ she later recalled, ‘nothing else existed for me but Wagner and the world of Bayreuth.’ It seems to have been less the music than the Wagnerian fusion of aesthetics and eroticism in the shape of the Festival’s director, the composer’s son, 45-year-old Siegfried, that enraptured her. ‘For me,’ Winifred said, ‘this meeting . . . meant love at first sight. It was his lovely warm voice that most impressed me, his whole appearance; his wonderful blue eyes.’ Under family pressure to marry – his mother, Cosima, was 78; his sister, Eva, married to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, remained childless – Siegfried proposed to Winifred. She accepted: ‘I entrust myself body and soul to you, guide me through life – shape me as you would have me!’

The young bride was admitted to the composer’s dysfunctional family, presided over by his widow, Cosima. Winifred’s new brother-in-law was the author of the influential Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (‘The Foundations of the 19th Century’) which proclaimed the superiority of the ‘nordic’ or ‘aryan’ race and the need to expunge the others, notably the Jews, by means of ‘selective breeding’. Winifred reacted enthusiastically: ‘Never in my life have I grasped anything with such effortless ease and speed.’ He repaid the compliment, praising her ‘logical mind’. She was also proud of her friendship with Adolf Dinter, whose Die Sünde wider das Blut (‘The Sin against the Blood’) earned a place beside The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as one of the most widely read anti-semitic books of its day.

Hamann rightly notes that the Wagners’ ‘centrality’ in the ‘German nationalist web’ can be seen from the fact that they knew of Hitler as early as 1919. At that date, however, it was not Hitler but the Wagners who formed the public vanguard of racism. Wagner himself and the vexed question of his music are given practically no attention. Hamann never tells us what Winifred – or Hitler – thought of him, and trivialises his infamous essay, Das Judentum in der Musik, referring to it merely as ‘that little 1850 publication . . . which was the touchstone of the Wagner family’s anti-semitism’. Nobody would guess from that how powerfully his invective stirred up hatred of the Jews. It was widely quoted, not least by Chamberlain in his Wagner biography of 1895, a work well known to Hitler:

At the beginning of Das Judentum in der Musik, Wagner tells us that his purpose is ‘to explain the unconscious feeling which in the people takes the form of a deep-rooted antipathy to the Jewish nature, to express therefore in plain language something really existing . . .’ And how was this really existing thing to be removed? . . . Wagner points to the regeneration of the human race, and to the Jews he says: ‘Bear your share undauntedly in this work of redemption, gaining new birth by self-immolation; we shall then be one and undivided! But remember that there can only be release from the curse which rests upon you: the release of Ahasuerus – destruction.’

Even if one discounts the Jewish caricatures in his operas – Beckmesser in The Mastersingers, Mime and Alberich in the Ring – the impact of Wagner’s racism can hardly be avoided.

The Wagner circle and the intimates of Winifred’s foster-parents were among Hitler’s earliest supporters. Hitler himself acknowledged the role of Klindworth’s friend Heinrich Class, writing: ‘Politically, we stand on the shoulders of the Pan-German League.’ Another friend, Helene Bechstein, whose salon Winifred frequented as a child, gave Hitler clothes and shoes, money and jewellery (to sell or pawn), as well as coaching him in etiquette and table manners. He first sought attention in Bayreuth at a ‘German Day’ rally in 1923, effectively an NSDAP spectacle, with a motorcade, speechifying, flag-waving, marches, girls in national dress – and, of course, street fighting. Siegfried and Chamberlain were greeted with cries of ‘Heil!’ as the procession passed Villa Wahnfried, but Hitler did not enter the precincts until the following day, 1 October 1923, when at Winifred’s invitation he met the whole clan. Both he and his hostess cherished this ‘moving’ occasion. Hamann makes clear that Hitler had ‘carefully’ staged the visit as a ‘pilgrimage’ before the Munich putsch. The Völkischer Beobachter claimed that the visit symbolised ‘the intimate melding together . . . of the nationalist freedom movement and the Bayreuth ideal of culture . . . the renewal of the German people in the spirit of Richard Wagner’. For the night after the putsch, Siegfried and Winifred had planned a concert in Munich, which was to include the premiere of Siegfried’s symphonic poem Glück (‘Luck’ or ‘Happiness’). Winifred wrote to a friend that the putsch, despite its failure, had ‘opened up a completely new field of activity; passionate commitment to Hitler and his ideas’. As she devoted herself to his cause, she praised especially his ‘moral strength’ and ‘purity’.

Hamann shows in detail how the rise of the Nazis became entwined with the fate of Bayreuth. In 1924, the Wagners went on a fund-raising trip to America, during which they solicited Henry Ford’s aid for Hitler while at the same time trying to appease Jewish Americans, whose money they needed to help them reopen the festival. But Siegfried goofed by ranting against ‘Jewish-Communist swine’ at a dinner for wealthy guests; refusing to accept he’d made a mistake, he attributed the trip’s failure to ‘hostile propaganda’. Meanwhile, Bayreuth quickly became what Hamann describes as a ‘citadel’ of the NSDAP, and in the 1924 elections the local nationalists polled a ‘record’ 7045 votes against the SPD’s 6141. Hitler wrote to Winifred that he was ‘overcome by delight’ and congratulated her on these results ‘in the town where the sword we fight with today was forged, first by the Master and then by Chamberlain.’ When the festival finally reopened some weeks later, swastikas adorned Wahnfried and the Official Guide to the Bayreuth Festival invoked the reawakening of the mythical sword, Nothung. Fritz Busch, who conducted The Mastersingers, was understandably upset: he wasn’t a sympathiser with Hitler, had never seen a swastika before and turned down an opportunity to meet General Ludendorff. Others were also worried: Thomas Mann noted that while ‘Wagner will never cease to interest me . . . Bayreuth as it now presents itself interests me not at all.’

Hamann reports every passion, tiff and row, every argument that took place over the hiring and firing of the great artists who supported, opposed or somehow survived in Nazi Bayreuth. She details Busch’s disgust, Toscanini’s theatrical outrage, Furtwängler’s meekness and Tietjen’s compromises, but ignores the underlying questions. Nietzsche began the debate as early as 1888 in Der Fall Wagner (‘The Wagner Case’):

One pays heavily for being one of Wagner’s disciples. Let us take the measure of this discipleship by considering its cultural effects. Whom did this movement bring to the fore? What did it breed and multiply? Above all, the presumption of the layman, the art-idiot . . . Bayreuth is a large-scale opera – and not even good opera. The theatre is a form of demolatry in matter of taste; the theatre is a revolt of the masses, a plebiscite against good taste. This is precisely proven by the case of Wagner: he won the crowd, he corrupted taste, he spoiled even our taste for opera.

The NSDAP supported Bayreuth by purchasing tickets for members of the SA and the SS; Winifred described this as ‘a kind of consecration through art’, though once there they were keener on going to the pub; indeed, Hitler’s own taste never went any further than that of Nietzsche’s ‘art-idiot’ – his main contribution was to suggest that they install ventilators. The ‘modernisation’ of the festival praised by Hamann was instigated by Winifred, who at Hitler’s suggestion invited Alfred Roller to update the festival’s decrepit Parsifal in 1934. This was hardly innovative: Roller’s heyday had been around 1900, when he designed the Viennese productions of Wagner that had excited Hitler in the first place. Hitler’s crazed obsession with Tristan and its ‘Liebestod’ – not treated here – could have been used to illuminate his relations with Winifred. In one year, he heard the opera around fifty times. Transgressive passion and the Wagnerian death wish seem to underpin his fetishisation of Bayreuth and his wooing of Winifred.

The catalogue of their meetings at rallies, performances, luncheons and dinners, and of their assignations in Munich, Bayreuth, Nuremberg and Berlin, provides ample evidence for intimacy. On Siegfried’s death in 1930, rumours spread about a marriage that would have made Winifred in fact what she was in effect, the First Lady of Nazism; even members of the Führer’s circle, even his secretary, thought the couple were having an affair, gossiping about Hitler’s ‘Bayreuth Treatment’ – a view Hamann dismisses out of hand. Whether consummated or not, the relationship was intense and enduring. Based on mutual aggrandisement, it grew increasingly sultry, even hysterical, not unlike an operatic romance whose gushing surface hides a crude reality. Initially, Hitler required cash, and Winifred supplied it as best she could, even encouraging people to subscribe to the Völkischer Beobachter; but with the rise of his political fortunes and the disappearance of the Jewish audience from Bayreuth, their roles reversed and Winifred enlisted Hitler to guarantee Bayreuth’s survival as well as its artistic independence from Goebbels and the Reich Culture Chamber. Oddly, Hamann never asks where the money came from and whether it should be seen as a legitimate subsidy or a misappropriation – like the brand-new Mercedes Hitler gave to Winifred’s son Wieland, or her present to Hitler of a manuscript page from Lohengrin.

In 1933, after the Nazi seizure of power, Hitler spent a week at the festival and officially attended every one after it until 1940; he also made many private visits. By then Bayreuth had become a year-round attraction for what Hamann calls ‘cultural tourists’, bringing ‘a tidy profit’ for the Wagners. One Christmas, Hitler sent a plane to deliver an outsize portrait of himself. Winifred wrote to thank him:

My dear, dear friend and Führer!

I just cannot put into words the joy you have given me with your picture: I’m completely beside myself with joy and happiness and gratitude, and you will have to accept this stammering in place of a sensible letter! – You could not have given me greater pleasure than with this wonderful present, which is a masterpiece of skill and faithfulness, and bestows upon my humble home the blessing of your constant presence! –

My endless thanks to you, giver of such inexpressible joy! –

In true friendship, your Winnie.

Winifred also graced state functions – among them, a dinner for Anthony Eden and John Simon in 1935. Hitler noticed that she had eaten nothing and ordered a carafe of wine and a tray of delicacies for her when the guests had gone. She treasured this as a token of his ‘sensitivity’.

Hamann attributes the subsequent cooling in their relations to Winifred’s requests that Hitler help several Jews, ‘half Jews’ and ‘quarter Jews’, but offers no proof. By contrast, she recounts in detail each case where Winifred’s intervention saved a Jewish friend, including her appeals to subordinates who acceded from fear that she would complain to Hitler, even though there was no chance that Hitler would do anything to save such people. Absorbed by the demands of the war, he no longer needed Winifred to add a shine to his name, and had no time for the sham heroics of Bayreuth. The rescues do Winifred credit, but it would be absurd to believe that such behaviour exonerates her. Those she saved can be counted, but the harm she did cannot be quantified. For this she expressed no regret, no contrition. She remained a life-long Nazi.

Hamann presents her case chiefly via the sources, but most of the key facts were already known; there are major unpublished documents to which she has not had access, both in the Festspielhaus and in Winifred’s own notorious ‘cupboard’, the contents of which she bequeathed to her grandchildren. In making scant reference to more recent publications, other than letters, memoirs and biographies, she ignores the framework put in place by a less credulous, more critical form of historiography. Other biographers of Hitler might as well not exist. Younger members of the family, such as Nike and Gottfried Wagner, who were appalled by their grandmother and have sought to make amends, also deserved a hearing. The inability or unwillingness to handle contrary viewpoints is especially problematic when Hamann discusses Hans-Jürgen Syberburg’s interviews with Winifred, conducted in 1975. Hamann claims that what Winifred did ‘was unique in postwar history. Rather than defend herself, the festival or her position between 1933 and 1945, she defended Hitler, attributing the real guilt to “the Party”.’ This is a typical resort of Nazi apologists, however, and would be familiar to members of Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party. But Hamann says merely that Winifred ‘was neither a heroine nor a criminal, but one of the great mass of trusting, misguided people who succumbed to the great seducer Hitler’. The judgment flies in the face of her own argument up to this point. Her biography purports to be an unbiased study, but the best one can say is that it replicates Winifred’s own confusions.