Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth
By Brigitte Hamann. Translated from German by Alan Bance. 592 pp. Harcourt, 2006. $35.
It’s a Wagnerian scenario no less bizarre than the staged ones. Winifred, the orphan girl with a misty past in England, blossoms after she’s united with her family in the Aryan fatherland. Soon she gains entrance to Wahnfried, the Valhalla of Teutonic mythos in Bayreuth, Bavaria. Then she marries Siegfried, who, as the son of its founding deity, Richard Wagner, is prince of the realm. Here the Wagnerian and historical scripts diverge: it’s not Siegfried she helps to arm with a magic sword, but Adolf Hitler. Certain that he’s the hero who will free the German race from the insidiously powerful corruptors in its midst, she transforms the Wagners’ summer Bayreuth Festival into a kind of Nazi Kulturfest. Hitler goes on to devastate a good portion of the planet and dies. Winifred, however, remains faithful to him, loathed as a monster though he may be by the rest of the world, for the rest of her long life.
According to this deftly written biography, there’s nothing mythological about how crucial the Wagner family and its network of cultural elites were to the führer’s rise to power. Brigitte Hamann, the German historian who authored Hitler’s Vienna, plumbs newly available correspondence to show just how solidly they espoused anti-Semitic nationalism well before the appearance of the Austrian agitator, and how entranced with him they were from early in his political career.
That shouldn’t be surprising. As early as 1850 Richard Wagner himself published a tract warning of the Jewish corruption of music. His English son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a natural scientist and Germanophile in residence at Wahnfried until his death in 1927, wrote bestselling books that established him as a major proponent of Aryan racial purity—one whom Hitler followed closely and later praised as “the prophet of the Third Reich.” The future führer must have felt at home: The entire Wagner household, along with the Master’s sacred chair, settee, and pianos, was a shrine to heartfelt pan-Germanism.
Winifred was brought into this world from a Sussex orphanage in 1907 at the age of nine. The septuagenarian Klindworths, distant relatives of her mother, brought her first to a kind of Aryan hippie paradise called Eden, near Berlin. Karl Klindworth was a music teacher who transcribed excerpts of Wagner’s operas for piano; hence Winifred’s entrée to the Wagner household. In 1915, Winifred married forty-sixyear-old Siegfried, the heir to the Wagner dynasty who himself had no heirs. In fact, he was creating scandals due to his homosexuality. Nevertheless, Winifred quickly produced the desired scion, plus three more children in quick succession. She thus gained a foothold of authority at Wahnfried, the Wagner residence, despite Wagner matriarch Cosima, granddaughter of Franz Liszt, whose imposing and kooky presence hovered until her death in 1930, at the age of ninety-two.
In the early twenties, Bavaria was suffering from hyperinflation, the ignominy of the Versailles treaty, and often violent factional conflict. At this point Hitler came onstage. The Wagner family was having a hard time keeping the Beyreuth Festival afloat. They thought that only a strong man could save the Republic from its ills— namely, domination by Jews and weakness in the face of international socialism. It also occurred to them that such a man could save the festival. But the fiery Austrian who was gripping the popular imagination wasn’t palatable to those who could fund him; his political group was known mostly for street brawls. Then a Wagner family friend bought him a respectable wardrobe, and Neville Chamberlain gave his stamp of intellectual approval.
It wasn’t long before Hitler came for breakfast at Wahnfried and Winifred fell for him head over heels. So much so that some thought— mistakenly—that “Wolfy” and “Wini” (nicknames for Adolf and Mrs. Wagner) were an item. After the failed 1923 Munich putsch, Winifred sent reassuring notes and care packages, which included the paper on which Mein Kampf was probably written, to his prison cell. She proclaimed to friends her everlasting faith in him, despite his setbacks: “Adolf Hitler is the man of the future, and he will still pull the sword out of the German ash-tree.” After he did, and raped the forest to boot, she stood by him, seeing him as a hero who acted on his beliefs, even though it meant a near-complete break with her children.
Through her letters and her testimony in de-Nazification hearings after the war, Winifred comes across as a naïf who came to love the volkisch (nationalist folk) ideals through the lovely, pastoral Eden commune and the magic, if rather soap-operatic, Wahnfried world. In the main, she was driven to her Nazism neither by opportunism nor hate for Jews. Not that she wasn’t a thoroughgoing anti-Semite. But like many prejudiced people, she managed to divorce individuals from her abstract stereotypes. On the one hand, she fervently believed that ridding German-speaking lands of Jewish influence was necessary if Germans were to realize their divine, wonderful destiny. On the other, she tried to protect Jewish musicians and associates. Somehow she felt it was just “Jewish influence on cultural life” that Germans needed to get out from under. To her, Hitler not only understood that thoroughly, he was acting on it.
In her completely unsensational, scholarly way, Hamann lets these Wagnerian voices describe their yearnings for a dictatorial utopia free of Jews. It’s a wish as heartfelt as it is horrifying.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.