Being a great admirer of the works of Richard Wagner - and most particularly of his RING Cycle - means having to deal with conflicted feelings about his (and Cosima's) rampant anti-Semitism. Most of the time when I'm listening to Wagner's music I don't give it much thought. But when I'm reading about the Wagners and the history of the Bayreuth Festival it becomes an unavoidable issue to ponder. (Above, the Festspielehaus).
Brigitte Hamann's excellent book, WINIFRED WAGNER: A LIFE AT THE HEART OF HITLER'S BAYREUTH deals with the Nazi era's ultimate intersection of politics and art.
Wagner's music has long been linked to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. Hitler loved Wagner and even as the tide of World War II began to turn against Germany, he kept the Bayreuth Festival running. When things got so bad that no one could afford to attend the Festival (or to even get to the town of Bayreuth), the House was packed with wounded German troops who were given free tickets by the government.
Hitler's connection to Bayreuth remained strong in part because of his personal friendship with Winifred Wagner. She was the British orphan who had come to adoptive parents in Germany. The elderly Klindworths were very involved in the world of Wagner and naturally Winifred fell under the spell of the music.
Just at the time Winifred reached young-womanhood, there was a desperate need for Richard Wagner's only son Siegfried to wed and thus deflect increasing rumours of his homosexuality. The attractive Winifred, many years Siegfried's junior, was set before him. They married and miraculously managed to produce four children despite stories of Siegfried's continuing same-sex dalliances.
The death of Cosima in 1930 finally paved the way for Siegfried to fully take the reins of the Bayreuth Festival but in an odd twist of fate he only survived his mother by a few months. On Siegfried's death, Winifred took over the running of the Festival with the support of the artistic staff and musicians, thus marginalizing Siegfried's sisters.
Hitler had visited Bayreuth in 1925 and Winifred had met him and stood with him before Richard Wagner's tomb (above). Later, when Hitler was in jail for fomenting political unrest, she sent him parcels of food. And writing paper - on which he is thought to have written MEIN KAMPF.
With Hitler's rise to power, his passion for Wagner and his view of Bayreuth as a world symbol of the superiority of German art assured that the Festival would to continue thru the war years. Winifred and Hitler were in frequent contact and spent much time together; he would come to Bayreuth and stay - whenever he could find the time - in a house (adjoining Wahnfried) known as the Fuhrer Haus. He loved to sit up late at Wahnfried before a blazing fire (even in summer) regaling the Wagners and their guests with long stories; his audience reportedly sometimes had trouble staying awake. Other times Hitler would suddenly call for Winifred and/or her sons Wieland and Wolfgang to come immediately to Berlin or to meet him at some other site. The Fuhrer's wish was their command. (The above photo is from the cover of Hamann's book).
As the war escalated, Hitler had less time for Winifred but kept up his interest in the Festival. When Winifred heard of instances of Nazi brutality and the enforcement of harsh anti-Jewish laws, she believed that Hitler's henchmen and goons were acting without his knowledge. She thought of Hitler as a warm and peace-loving man. Her sons called him Uncle Wolf.
As Germany teetered on the brink of defeat, supplies exhausted and services non-existent, Winifried clung to the hope that her Wolf had a secret plan up his sleeve to crush the enemies marching on the Fatherland. She was deluded. The book's description of the day the Allied forces entered Bayreuth (April 14, 1945) gives us an unusual perspective of what its like for the ordinary folk of a defeated country when wars end. [One fact the book reveals of which I'd previously been unaware was that there was a 'small' concentration camp right outside the town of Bayreuth; it was more of a way-station where people were held awaiting shipment to the large camps away in the East].
Then began Winifred's long de-Nazification process; at her trial the testimony of several Jews (and their family members) who she had helped get released from the camps via her connection to Hitler helped soften the punishment; she was not imprisoned or (as she dreaded) sent to a work camp, but she was stripped of her position as head of the Festival. Her sons managed to distance themselves from her and to down-play reports of their own involvements with Hitler. To emphasize the brothers' full breaking with the past, Wolfgang banned his mother from entering the Festspielhaus (above). The ban held nearly until her death.
Winifred claimed not to have known about the horrible atrocities committed by the Third Reich; she knew that Jews and homosexuals were impounded in camps but not of the gas chambers and the ovens and the mass graves. She viewed the Nazi era simply as a time of strong nationalism, and of pride in all things German - and especially of pride in the Master's music. Over the years she quietly kept contact with others who had passed thru the de-Nazification process. They maintained a coded link by referring to "USA" ("Unser selige Adolf" - "Our Beloved Adolf").
Winifred Wagner might simply have faded quietly out of the world's attention were it not for a filmed interview which took place in 1975. The filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg requested to interview her, supposedly for a documentary about the Festival and her role in it. His secret agenda seems to have been to talk to a legendary woman who had known Hitler personally and never repented of her friendship with him. Syberberg put Winifred at ease with his chattiness and she was delighted to have an audience for her recollections. He tricked her by leaving an audiotape machine running even when the cameras were off. Among her many reflections on the Nazi era and her friendship with Hitler, this quote caused a sensation:
"If Hitler were to walk in through that door now, for instance, I'd be as happy and glad to see and have 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. You see, the only thing that exists for me in a relationship with somebody is my personal experience."
In 1977, she was finally allowed back into the Festival Theatre where the controversial Patrice Chereau RING Cycle was being presented. She considered the production a desecration.
Winifred Wagner died in 1980 at the age of 83.
Hamann's book gives us a vivid portrait of a controversial woman living thru the great and tragic events of the 20th century while maintaining a friendship with one of its most notorious figures. As the saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction. For me the book is a veritable page-turner.
Note: I wrote this entry last Summer but saved it for the time when the Met would be performing the RING.