The Bayreuth Clan: Nike Wagner on Her Family's Past

By Joachim Kronsbein

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Nike Wagner talks about her ancestors Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, her family's friendship with Adolf Hitler, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's one-sided taste in opera.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Wagner, you are descended from two important composers. Are you closer to your great-great-grandfather, Franz Liszt, whose 200th birthday is this October, or his son-in-law, Richard Wagner?

Wagner: Definitely Liszt, even though I discovered him late in life -- and then only through the praise of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. What a multifaceted, fantastic and experimental body of work he created! I have therefore put Liszt at the center of my art festival in Weimar for years now. I like his spirit: Noble, eccentric, European.

SPIEGEL: Many people consider his work to be second-class.

Wagner: His works may not all be of the same quality, but Liszt is underestimated and underrepresented in our concert halls. His contemporaries loved his virtuosity. He made them ecstatic in a way matched only by Paganini. The musicians he promoted -- Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz -- did nothing for him, and his revolutionary late works were decried as the product of a senile old man. What's more, two world wars changed musical tastes. Eventually Liszt was seen as too emphatic, too loud, too pious. It's also quite possible that the heavyweight Wagner deliberately tried to overshadow Liszt.

SPIEGEL: How did Liszt meet Wagner?

Wagner: He had heard his opera 'Rienzi,' whereupon he considered Wagner a genius. And Liszt stood by this assessment, no matter how badly Wagner behaved. Liszt kept his friend above water both financially and emotionally, especially in the ten years of Wagner's political exile. During that time, Liszt performed his friend's works in Germany, and defended him. In fact Liszt -- the most famous of the two composers -- stood by Wagner's side right up until the Bayreuth Festival was founded. But from Bayreuth's point of view, Liszt only ever gave Wagner a leg up, and that's the image that has persisted and been passed down, an injustice that Liszt's daughter Cosima -- Wagner's wife -- also helped to perpetuate.

SPIEGEL: She put down her father for her husband's benefit?

Wagner: Perhaps she felt the need to prove that she had married the greater composer.

SPIEGEL: What did people say about Liszt in your home, the Villa Wahnfried?

Wagner: He never counted for anything in the Wagner household. In fact, people would poke fun at him now and again, calling him 'the abbot' or dismissing him as a mere drawing-room performer. Richard Wagner despised that kind of musician and considered them to be nothing more than a showman. He also despised Liszt because he composed symphonies and religious works [which he did not consider to be serious enough]. Wagner thought Liszt was crazy in his later years. And yet his late works and their emerging atonality were far more modern than Wagner's. But it's true that Richard loved and always respected Franz. Liszt's music wasn't buried until after his death.

SPIEGEL: In July 1886, Cosima refused to halt the festival even though her father was dying in Bayreuth. His death was kept secret.

Wagner: He died in the house next door, poorly looked after, and in great pain. Suddenly, the loneliness that the restless Liszt had presumably always carried around became visible. Maybe the somewhat formal way he addressed people, which was seen as coldness on his part, was simply a form of escape. Indeed Liszt appears far more mysterious today than the ever-exuberant Wagner, who externalized everything. Liszt was discreet. His ego was delicate, and he never forced himself center stage, an interesting contrast to his skillfully executed public performances.

SPIEGEL: He supported his son-in-law unreservedly.

Wagner: Wagner felt guilty about Liszt all his life. He knew he was indebted to him. He also said so in public time and again, especially after he had made the breakthrough in Bayreuth.

SPIEGEL: Although it's the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth in October, the festival isn't marking the occasion.

Wagner: That's incomprehensible, embarrassing and scandalous. The city of Bayreuth does this and that, but it doesn't owe Franz Liszt anything. That's the exclusive responsibility of the Wagner family. The Wagners are deeply indebted to Liszt. It would be historically irresponsible to deny that. I was deeply hurt that my cousins were deaf to my appeals to open up the concert hall for a major festival and birthday concert on October 22. It would have been a wonderful event, as well as a way to start repaying that debt.

SPIEGEL: Liszt was Catholic and had received his minor orders in Rome. Wagner was Protestant. What was your childhood like from a religious point of view?

Wagner: Traditionally Protestant. But probably only because of Johann Sebastian Bach.

SPIEGEL: So you believe in the spirit of music?

Wagner: My siblings and I were given a kind of mass christening at the Villa Wahnfried when we were aged between five and 10, together with a house concert. But our father saved us from having to go through confirmation. Our household was completely liberal. Religion was treated as a part of our culture that was merely required to understand masterpieces.

SPIEGEL: But God existed in your household?

Wagner: In the form of annoying religious services. Wagner's religious period was long gone. Bach and Beethoven's music lay all around. Our upbringing was typical of the educated middle class. At Christmas we had to perform at the piano, and the presents remained unopened until we were done.

SPIEGEL: And was Grandma Winifried, Hitler's loyal friend, with you?

Wagner: Of course. After all, she lived next door. And Christmas isn't Christmas without grandparents. My father had a wall built to divide our joint garden the rest of the year.

SPIEGEL: Was she warmhearted?

Wagner: No, she was pragmatic. We were never close.

SPIEGEL: When did you first discover that Winifried was extremely friendly with the Nazis?

Wagner: Families don't really try to expose relatives, but my father's comments told me quite a lot. 'She still thinks we could win the war!' he joked about his mother in the 1960s. That's why he never went next door, and avoided her afternoon teas with her fellow Nazi sympathizers. As teenagers we were shown Erwin Leiser's documentary about the Third Reich at school, and I remember being shocked by the footage of the piles of corpses at the concentration camps. That prompted some questions for this friend of Hitler's.

SPIEGEL: Did you challenge her?

Wagner: We asked her if she had seen the film or whether we could take her to see it some time because she might be able to learn something from it. 'It's all American propaganda,' she said dismissively. She closed up. If she hadn't, she would probably have had to question her own life and her beliefs.

SPIEGEL: Did you speak to your father, who was also close to Hitler?

Wagner: My father was very introverted, and didn't speak that explicitly. We never asked him directly like we'd asked grandma. Maybe because we thought we were on the good side as Wieland's children. The 'old Nazi,' as my father called his mother, sat next door in the other house. We also saw how terribly conflicted my father was about his mother. So the basic structure of things seemed to be alright. We also understood that he publicly demonstrated his growing realization and guilt about the Nazi atrocities by working with formerly ostracized left-wingers, Jews and modern people and in the medium of aesthetics.

SPIEGEL: Do you mean that your father's much-praised modernization of Bayreuth, in which he cleared everything folksy off the stage, was a case of pure de-Nazification?

Wagner: It's very complicated because the aesthetic aspects also developed their own dynamic. But Wieland was only able to find his own artistic niche and free himself by resisting everything that came before. I know he didn't like the post-war Germany of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer because former Nazis were filling posts all over the place.

SPIEGEL: Hold on. He was involved too. He was 28 at the end of World War II, and he and his brother Wolfgang were also close to Hitler.

Wagner: Correct. He was mixed up in his mother's dealings with Hitler, and was pleased by Hitler's praise. That's something he couldn't talk about after the war. Instead he cleaned up the Wagnerian stage. Incidentally, the new Bayreuth and Liszt are similar.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Wagner: My father isn't remembered either. The new Bayreuth festival celebrates a special anniversary in 2011: Exactly 60 years ago, Wieland Wagner took the helm and began his revolutionary direction, cleansing Bayreuth of its Nazi past, both stylistically and ideologically. But Bayreuth isn't holding an exhibition or any other event to commemorate its reinvention. Why? Has the city forgotten its history? Is the old Wolfgang regime still pulling the strings? Isn't there a new generation at the helm?

SPIEGEL: What about Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier; Wolfgang's daughters, your cousins?

Wagner: They mustn't allow themselves to become the agents of their father's problems. Wolfgang Wagner's long-term strategy was first to copy his artistically superior brother, to 'direct as similarly as possible' as Wieland, and then, in the next stage, try to have him forgotten -- or to give historians the impression that Wieland had been a senior Nazi. As a result, Tony Palmer's documentary about the Wagner family is irresponsibly biased. For instance, it features Viennese historian Brigitte Hamann claiming Wieland Wagner had been a concentration camp commandant.

SPIEGEL: Do you deny that?

Wagner: Yes. We asked the current director of the memorial at the former Flossenbürg concentration camp to find out all he could about any dubious activities my father had engaged in. There is simply no evidence of this. My father only worked at one of Flossenbürg's satellite camps in Bayreuth. This satellite camp occupied a former spinning mill and was used for physics research on a 'seeing bomb.' Brigitte Hamann's claim is preposterous. I only wonder why she would risk her reputation as a historian.

SPIEGEL: So what did your father do at the satellite camp?

Wagner: His brother-in-law had him transferred there to prevent him being called up. He worked on his theater sets there. You could say he was living the right life in the wrong way without knowing that it wasn't possible.

SPIEGEL: Wieland was a member of the Nazi party, the NSDAP.

Wagner: My mother told me how he was forced to join the party at Hitler's behest: 'What? You're not in the party yet, Wieland?' Hitler had said. 'We'd better get that sorted out then.' That's how informally it was done. You have to remember that the Wagners had an immensely privileged position with regard to the Nazis. They could openly criticize Hitler while sitting around the fireplace with him in the evening, or talk disparagingly about Bayreuth's conceited regional party leaders. They went for walks with Hitler in their garden, and visited him at the Reich Chancellery. He was so close to Winifried's children that it must have been hard for them to see that the nice 'uncle' was a criminal.

SPIEGEL: When did you start moving away from your family's position?

Wagner: The process of coming to terms with Germany's past was as fast or as gradual as it was in all other German families. After my father died, in 1966, I spoke to my mother for years about it. That was very helpful. It vividly showed just how comfortable my family was around Hitler. When I asked her what they did on New Year's Eve in Wahnfried, she blurted out, 'We waited for Adolf Hitler to call. Nobody could go to bed beforehand.'

SPIEGEL: The 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth is in two years' time. Bayreuth wants to mark the occasion with a jubilee performance of the Ring. The chosen director, Wim Wenders, pulled out at short notice. Who could take his place?

Wagner: Fortunately that's not my problem. The search for a replacement is being conducted rather haphazardly, but let's wait and see. At least they have an interesting conductor in Kirill Petrenko.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to choose a film director who hadn't ever directed a theatre play before.

Wagner: Movie directors have never been successful on the opera stage. The conditions are too different. But apart from that, artists can't resist the temptation to perform in Bayreuth. Nowhere else can you attract more attention aside from your actual performance. Bayreuth is a social phenomenon. Even so, I'm surprised that Angela Merkel has let herself become so closely mixed up in the politically risky undertaking that is the Bayreuth complex.

SPIEGEL: She just likes Wagner.

Wagner: That's fine, but it would be even better if our chancellor did the rounds for once and visited the other opera houses and festivals in her country, those that are suffering and exploring new avenues, but are being largely ignored by the media and the sponsors.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Wagner, thank you for speaking with us.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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About Nike Wagner
Nike Wagner, 66, has led Weimar's Pèlerinages art festival since 2004. The literary scholar and publicist is the daughter of Wieland Wagner, a grandson of composer Richard Wagner who after the Second World War led the Bayreuth Festival with his brother Wolfgang. Beginning in 1951, Wieland, who had been a member of the Nazi party, tried to make a radical break with the Opera festival's previous political engtanglements. After his death in 1966, Wolfgang took on full responsibility for the festival. When he died in 2008, Nike applied to take on leadership with the director of the Salzburg Festival Gerard Mortier. But the foundation board chose Wolfgang's daughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier instead. This year's festival begins on July 25 with "Tannhäuser."
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