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WAGNER'S DAUGHTER-IN-LAW & UNCLE WOLF,
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This review is from: Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth (Hardcover)
The subtitle of this book is important – A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth – for Winifred Wagner’s institutionalised childhood, her youth with the ageing hippie Klindworth couple and the early years of her marriage to Siegfried are all raced through in around 50 pages (out of 500). Another mere 50 cover the 30 odd years after her de-nazification hearings and the takeover of the Bayreuth Festival by her two sons. The main bulk of this book concerns itself with the 25 years of her relationship with Hitler (and his with the Wagner family and the Festival) and its immediate aftermath.
That said, Brigitte Hamann provides a fascinating and eminently readable account of that relationship. Her attitude towards her subject seems to change as the book progresses. Initially she presents Winifred as a fervently (German) Nationalist, anti-Semitic character, much influenced by the writing and the presence around Wahnfried of her brother-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, even before she met and fell under the spell of Onkel Wolfi, as the family referred to Hitler. (Incidentally, Chamberlain was also English by birth but, like Winifred, became more German than the Germans.) The older Winifred is a rather different person as portrayed here. Throughout the war, as evidenced by many of the testaments taken from her de-nazification hearings, Winifred became some kind of Schindleresque saint, saving everyone she could from the clutches of her top Nazi friends – friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, people she didn’t know at all, jews, gentiles, the lot. One suspects that all this is coloured by Winifred’s own practical need for self-justification at those hearings and should be taken with a slightly larger pinch of salt than Hamann seems prepared to. One can accept that there was a certain naivety to Winifred that wouldn’t allow her to accept either what was happening to these people or that her beloved Fuhrer had any knowledge of what was being done in his name. But her continued and oft-expressed loyalty to both Hitler and the principles of National Socialism throughout her later life would suggest that her opinions had not changed gthat much since her youth.
What comes clearly out of Hamann’s narrative is a Hitler who found in the Wagner family and its mistress a privacy, a domesticity and a family life he so obviously needed and lacked elsewhere. Hamann remains remarkably tacit on whether the Adolf/Winifred relationship was ever consummated. One suspects not. What does come as a surprise, though, is how early in the War the relationship between them broke down. After all those secret midnight trysts in the 30’s, it comes as a shock to realise that they didn’t meet at all during the last four years of the War and that correspondence between them became more and more infrequent and formal.
Most of the other members of the Wagner family and many around the periphery come out of this book pretty badly. It seems as though there’s something in the genes that drives Wagners to the bloodiest and most internecine of family wars. What is currently going on around the succession to possession of the Green Hill and all that goes with it appears to be little more than a re-run of what occurred towards the end of the war with the previous generation. Wieland emerges particularly badly. A spoiled kid determined to get his way and inclined to smash things if he didn’t, he played the most political of games in securing the Festival for himself, conducting vicious and potentially lethal campaigns against the likes of Tietjen, Preetorius and even his own mother. And he was certainly the most duplicitous of all of them about his relationship with AH and the party. It transpires that he was actually second-in-command of a local concentration camp in the latter days of the War – something he would never admit to in later life. Wolfgang remains a much shadowier figure – perhaps because he was necessary to the writer for allowing access to the family archives, albeit still severely restricted and censored. Even Furtwangler turns out not have been quite the Parsifalian simpleton, devoted only to his art, that he and his supporters made him out to be after the Fall of Berlin. In fact, both before and after the War he was a dedicated schemer, determined to get the better of Toscanini, Tietjen and later the one he called the ‘K man’, von Karajan, by whatever means it took.
So this book provides a good sprinkling of gossip as well as a fair amount of new material and information about a crucial and shaming period in Bayreuth’s history, all meticulously researched and referenced. It also does us the service, like the film Downfall, of showing Hitler as a human being with human foibles and human insecurities rather than just as a mythical ogre – and that is what is so much more frightening.