Brigitte Hamann. Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. x + 582 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-15-101308-1.
Reviewed by Roger Morgan (formerly Department of Social and Political Sciences, European University Institute)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2008)
Rhinemaiden or Valkyrie?
The last year has seen the publication of two major English-language studies of the Wagnerian phenomenon at Bayreuth. One, The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr (2007), gives a lively and penetrating survey of the whole saga, from Richard Wagner's own stormy life to the ferocious contemporary conflicts about which Wagner should succeed the composer's grandson Wolfgang at Bayreuth early in the twenty-first century. The other book, reviewed here, is the English translation of the monumental biography of Winifred Wagner (1897-1980) by the Austrian author Brigitte Hamann, originally published in an even lengthier German edition in 2002.
The long life of "Winnie," in fact, spanned much of the history of the Bayreuth Festival to date. Established in 1886, three years after the composer's death, the festival was directed until 1906 by his formidable widow Cosima, who then handed it over to their son Siegfried. Winnie, an English orphan adopted by a Wagnerite couple in Berlin at the age of nine, made her first visit to Bayreuth in 1914 and returned two years later as the eighteen-year-old bride of Siegfried, her elder by nearly thirty years. The family needed heirs to perpetuate the name of Wagner, and Winnie did what was expected of her. She and Siegfried produced four children in four years; the two boys (Wieland, born in 1917, and Wolfgang, born in 1920) were in due course to succeed their father at the head of the festival. Meanwhile, following Siegfried's death in 1930 (the same year as his mother's), it was the turn of his widow Winnie, still in her early thirties, to take charge of the heritage of Richard Wagner, "the Master."
This was the start of the dark period alluded to in the book's subtitle. Winnie's time as director of the festival (1930-45) lasted only marginally longer than Adolf Hitler's "Thousand-Year Reich" (1933-45), and the links between their two regimes were close indeed. Winnie's notorious affinity with National Socialism obviously meant that when the festival was to be revived in the postwar Federal Republic (it reopened in 1951), it was unthinkable for this head of the Wagner family, who remained an unrepentant admirer of Hitler, to be formally connected with it. The management passed into the hands of her sons: Wieland until his death in 1967, and then Wolfgang in a reign of several decades, still enduring at the time this review is being written.
Winnie, although excluded from formal authority and even banned for some years from setting foot in the festival theater, lived on in Bayreuth, grumbling and interfering, until 1980. This meant that her life there spanned every phase in the Wagner family's history from the visits of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the looming presence of Cosima, through the mixed experiences of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, to the sometimes explosively controversial developments at Bayreuth in the second half of the century.
Hamann's biography explores every one of these epochs in thoughtful and well-documented detail (though it should be said that research on the Wagners would reveal even more detail if the letters and other papers of Winifred, Siegfried, and Wieland were not still kept firmly under lock and key). We follow the strange story of little Winifred, an orphan of Anglo-Welsh origin, plagued by insecurity and ill health, as she left Britain at the age of nine to live with an elderly couple in Berlin, Karl and Henriette Klindworth. The Klindworths, distant relatives of Wagner, not only helped her to become thoroughly Germanized, but also imparted to her their own passion for Wagner (Karl Klindworth, a musician, made piano arrangements of many of the Master's operas). They also instilled in her a set of deeply nationalistic and anti-Semitic views that she was to hold for the rest of her life. Installed at Bayreuth from 1916, the midpoint of the Great War, combining a demanding family life with a profound commitment to imperial Germany as well as to Wagner's music, Winnie moved in deeply reactionary circles. She and her friends deplored the Kaiser's abdication in 1918 and searched actively for a savior to rescue the Fatherland from the hated and despised Weimar Republic, which for them was dominated by deeply undesirable elements, notably Social Democrats, Communists, and Jews.
The book is not a narrowly focused biography, but deals usefully with the "times" as well as the "life" of its subject. The author describes, in some detail, the chaotic condition of Germany in 1923, the year in which Hitler made a dramatic first bid for power, together with the war hero Erich Ludendorff. Winifred and Siegfried hastened to Munich to witness and applaud Hitler's attempted coup, and when it brought him a lengthy prison sentence, Winnie was one of the supporters who kept the convict supplied with edible and other comforts. (She later denied the widespread rumor that she had provided the paper on which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, but clearly she would have been proud to have done so.)
Powerful reinforcement for Winnie's racist and reactionary views came from another striking British import to Bayreuth, the writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927). This distant relation of the prominent family of politicians, a man who had lived in Germany for decades and had won enormous popularity for his massive anti-Semitic tract The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), became in 1908 the husband of Siegfried's sister Eva. He then settled in Bayreuth as a resident "sage" for the nationalistic coterie that was an integral part of the festival's background. His extreme views, already heartily endorsed by the Kaiser, exercised considerable fascination on Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders, whose frequent visits to Bayreuth in the years before Chamberlain's death in 1927 were pilgrimages to the prophet of racism and nationalism, as well as to the spirit and the music of his father-in-law, the Master. As far as Winnie was concerned, the two ex-British expatriates, during all the years when they were neighbors in Bayreuth, conversed only in German. Winnie, indeed, was reluctant for her children to learn English at all, though in practice they did so.
Perhaps the central question about Winnie's attitude to Hitler and Nazism, particularly after 1930, when the deaths of Chamberlain, Cosima, and Siegfried had left her the undisputed mistress of Bayreuth, is this: why exactly did she steer the festival into a position that Goebbels jubilantly described as expressing "the taste and spirit" (p. 169) of the Third Reich? Was it essentially because the resources of the Nazi Party and Nazi state were the salvation of a festival whose finances were chronically precarious, making it possible for Winnie to stage the top-class Wagner productions she certainly knew how to organize? Or, was it because she was deeply committed to the Third Reich and wanted to offer the Wagnerian inheritance of Bayreuth to bolster the legitimacy and prestige of the regime? Or, was it because she was personally overwhelmed by Hitler's charm and charisma, and put Bayreuth at his service as an act of personal devotion and even love?
The author provides copious evidence to show that all three factors were at work. As soon as the Nazis took over the resources of the German state (and even before, to some extent), Nazi organizations gave generous and much-needed support to the festival. Mass bookings of tickets were made by such bodies as the Reich Labor Front and the Nazi Teachers' Association, and by the time of the last wartime festival in 1944, virtually all seats for all performances were issued through the Nazi leisure organization "Strength through Joy." Nazi authorities also helped Bayreuth by allocating extra food rations and providing public employees to act as restaurant staff. Winnie, thus, had every reason to be deeply grateful to the Third Reich (just as Richard Wagner himself owed gratitude to his patron, mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria), simply in her capacity as the dedicated and ambitious impresario of a high-level operatic festival.
It is also true, however, that the spirit and aims of the Third Reich were fully in line with the worldview that Winnie had adopted as a child, before the Great War, and that she never abandoned. It was not only that the festival was bedecked with swastika banners and Nazi slogans, or that Nazi propaganda permeated the pre-performance lectures, hailing Richard Wagner as a precursor of the Greater German Reich. But from March 1933, when the Bayreuth Festival Choir sang in honor of the new chancellor in the Potsdam Garrison Church, to Bayreuth's abortive planning in 1944 for a "victory festival" to be held the following year, Winnie's public and private statements also make clear her passionate support for the regime.
As for the third reason for Winnie's devotion to the Third Reich, Hamann's study provides a wealth of compelling evidence concerning the woman's deep personal affection for the fuehrer. Winnie was indeed a woman whose emotions could strongly influence her beliefs and actions. Already during the lifetime of her elderly (and homosexual) husband, she had developed a strong attachment to the English novelist Hugh Walpole (a frequent visitor to Bayreuth), and from 1930 onward, her relationship with Heinz Tietjen, Germany's most powerful theatrical impresario, was intensely personal as well as professional. Hamann even describes Tietjen, with whom Winnie's partnership did much to maintain the high standards of Bayreuth right up to 1944, as "the great love of her life" (p. 260).
At the same time, Winnie's feelings for Hitler were those of boundless adoration. She was inspired by his political oratory in the twenties; she reveled in every one of his many visits to Bayreuth from 1923 onward (where her children thought of him as a favorite uncle, "Wolf"); she acquired a residence in Berlin in 1933, partly to be near him; she saw him frequently from then until 1940; and she continued to communicate with him by letter and telephone until almost the end of the Third Reich. She never wavered in her devotion to Hitler and his memory. As late as 1975, while recording a controversial television interview, she declared: "if Hitler were to walk through that door now ... I'd be as happy, and as glad to see him and have him here, as ever" (p. 495). Although she acknowledged that Hitler had his "dark side" (never experienced by her, therefore not significant for her), her view of the appalling crimes of the Third Reich was basically that her friend "Wolf" could not be held responsible for them. Even though she devoted great efforts to try to secure the release from imprisonment of many victims of Nazism (including a number of Jews), she persisted in believing that Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, Julius Streicher, or others were responsible for what she called "everything he is blamed for today" (p. 492).
Hamann has painted a sensitive and illuminating picture of a complex woman, who was very much a creature of her time and the peculiar circumstances in which she grew up. Winnie was a person of powerful prejudices, strong emotions, great managerial ability, and phenomenal energy. Her dedicated role in promoting the music of Wagner and her prominent place in Hitler's Germany is vividly portrayed in these pages.
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Roger Morgan. Review of Hamann, Brigitte, Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth.
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