Wagner's Dark Shadow Can We Separate the Man from His Works?


Part 4: The Wagners: A German Family Straight Out of Greek Mythology

This is how Nike Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, answers her own question: "Yes, the composer of 'Tristan' was an anti-Semite and probably would have liked to burn down Paris. Wagner remains a moral problem. Nevertheless, today no one listens to Wagner from an 'ideological' perspective anymore. That's why we must allow the work to be separated from the character of its 200-year-old creator. Anti-Semitism clearly cannot be proven in his works."

She is saying this in the lobby of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. One is tempted to search for clues of her great-grandfather in her face, but there are none. Wagner had coarse features, while Nike Wagner is petite with fine features.

Let's now take a look at the family itself. Given that there are so many Wagners, a small, albeit incomplete family tree is necessary in order to understand them better, one that only names the characters in this story. Here it goes: Richard and Cosima Wagner had a son named Siegfried, who married Winifred. They had two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, who were the joint directors of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 to 1966. Nike is Wieland's daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier is Wolfgang's daughter from his first marriage, and Katharina is his daughter from his second marriage.

For Germany, the Wagners are what the Atreidai are in Greek mythology. One of them, Atreus, committed a grave sin, casting a curse over all subsequent generations, beginning with Agamemnon and Menelaus, followed by Iphigenia, Orestes and Electra. The family is marked by enmity, as is the Wagner family.

The Nazi Stain

Nike Wagner lived in the Villa Wahnfried, which her great-grandfather had built in Bayreuth, and she more or less grew up in the Festspielhaus, the festival theater, where she played as a child and watched rehearsals. "In private, we were more likely to listen to Bach and Beethoven, while the teenagers were wild about Elvis Presley," she recalls. A strange, four-meter wall towered over the garden. Her father had it built to avoid having to look at his mother Winifred, who lived next door and continued to receive her old Nazi friends until her death in 1980. She once complained that the wall blocked out the sun.

Her father never entered his mother's house, says Nike Wagner. He accused her of dragging him into the Nazi affair. Wieland Wagner was Hitler's darling in Bayreuth. Hitler gave him a green Mercedes convertible for his 18th birthday, and he was favored as the heir apparent on the Green Hill. Wagner joined the Nazi Party and made a lot of money when he was granted the privilege of selling photographic portraits of Hitler. Later, as festival director, Wieland managed to portray himself among German intellectuals as the good Wagner by drawing attention to his grandfather's artistic sophistication.

Did Nike Wagner reproach him for his closeness to Hitler? Her father was 28 at the end of the Nazi era, so that his actions could not be attributed entirely to his mother's influence. "My father separated himself from the Nazi past in two ways: by condemning his mother and by esthetically purifying the stage. Of course, that didn't mean that Bayreuth suddenly became 'Nazi-free' or 'morally reeducated'."

She doesn't suffer from historical amnesia, but she is protective of her father. When Germans remember their history, the issue of what to preserve is always a key concern. What should remain, and what aspects of German history should continue to be portrayed in a positive light? Richard Wagner? And if not, at least Wieland Wagner, who made Bayreuth socially acceptable among intellectuals once again?

Katharina Wagner, 34, takes a similar approach to her cousin Nike. During a discussion of the Nazi era in a Berlin restaurant, she quickly turns to Winifred. The family has tacitly agreed that Winifred will carry the Nazi burden, so as to draw attention away from the others. But it wasn't that clear at all. In her book "Die Familie Wagner" ("The Wagner Family"), Brigitte Hamann writes that Winifred helped Jews during the Nazi period.

To this day, historians accuse the Wagners of withholding documents from those who study the Hitler years. In response, Nike and Katharina Wagner say that they, unlike others in the family, are willing to cooperate in every respect.

Katharina and Nike are completely different women. There is a sturdy and solid aspect to Katharina's demeanor that would seem more at home in a pub than in the family of a man who personifies German high culture. But her father Wolfgang and her great-grandfather had similar character traits.

Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner were not on good terms, even though they ran the Bayreuth Festival together. According to Nike Wagner, when Wieland died in 1966, his brother measured his apartment and then demanded rent from the brother's widow, Nike's mother, who was apparently unable to pay and forced to vacate the apartment, together with her children.

'Just Because You're a Wagner Doesn't Mean You're an Artist'

Nike Wagner lost her childhood home and later became a sharp critic of her Uncle Wolfgang, who ran the festival until 2008 and died two years later. She wanted to become his successor, together with her cousin Eva Wagner-Pasquier. In yet another twist in the battle between the clan, Eva broke off the alliance once it became clear to her that she would only get the job if she teamed up with Katharina. The two half-sisters have run the Bayreuth Festival since 2008, with Katharina also working at times as a director.

"I'm not passing judgment," says Nike. "The two women should go ahead and prove that they can do it." She does have a few bones to pick, though, such as over "the incompetence in the renovation of Villa Wahnfried." Later in the conversation, she says sharply: "Just because your name is Wagner doesn't necessarily mean you're an artist."

Katharina Wagner shrugs her shoulders. Of course she has nothing against her cousin, she says, brushing off Nike's remarks with the composure of a winner. She is running the world-famous Wagner festival in Bayreuth, while her cousin is in charge of the art festival in Weimar. The somewhat coarser side of the family has prevailed over the more sophisticated side. That's just the way it is. But is there any hostility? No, says Katharina, of course not.

Nike goes to Bayreuth every summer. Sometimes she sees Katharina, but she doesn't speak with her. The two cousins have never spoken a word with each other, and Nike is still waiting for an invitation to reconcile over a glass of champagne. Still, she never approaches her cousin. She takes her seat in the Festspielhaus and listens to the music of her great-grandfather.

Was Wagner a Leftist?

In 1986, political scientist Udo Bermbach, now 75, sat there for the first time and watched the Ring cycle. He became obsessed with Wagner after that, with both the music and the composer's political side. He shifted his academic focus and developed into an expert on the musician. His book, "Mythos Wagner" ("The Wagner Myth"), has just been published.

Bermbach did not see Wagner as the proto-fascist Köhler describes in his book "Wagner's Hitler." For Bermbach, Wagner was also a leftist. The composer had a revolutionary phase in 1848/49, when half of Germany was fighting for democracy and freedom. During the Dresden uprising in May 1849, he wrote flyers, transported hand grenades, was in close contact with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and observed the approaching Prussian troops from the tower of the city's Church of the Holy Cross. When the revolutionaries' cause was lost, he fled to Zürich, where he lived in exile until 1858.

His time in Zürich was a wild period of his life. He went to parties, indulged in a romance with a married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, and wrote to Franz Liszt: "I must be going mad here. It's the only solution!"

When he returned to Germany, he reconciled with the monarchies, especially with Ludwig II, who helped him pay for the Bayreuth Festival. "There was no money to be had from the leftists," says Bermbach.

What remained was the utopia of a better society, one that was not ruled by money. While in Dresden in 1849, Wagner wrote the poetic but somewhat awkward lines: "The torch, it burns brightly, it burns deeply and broadly / burning to ashes everything around it / consecrated to the worship of Mammon!"

His Ring cycle is an anti-capitalism piece, making it highly topical. The drama begins with a real estate speculation by Wotan, the father of the gods, who has the giants Fafner and Fasolt build him a house that he cannot afford.

In his utopias, too, Wagner uniquely recreates the German soul. The notion of a better world is experienced in modern-day Germany in every organic supermarket, and it's reflected in the success of the Green Party, the social welfare state and the public's resentment of power politics, as evidenced for a brief period by the success of the Pirate Party. Anti-capitalism is widespread.

In his portrayal of utopias, Wagner conveyed ideas from both the left and the right.

For Wagner, striking a chord was the key to building a better community, which is something both the Nazis and the Communists also envisioned. The Nazis added racism to their concept, which is why they made Wagner one of their own. The left distanced itself from him for the same reason.

Udo Bermbach believes that this was a "major historical mistake by the left." Because of their disgust with anti-Semitism, they "abandoned him to the right." In fact, he notes, the "democrats on the whole betrayed him." Bermbach believes that if the left had claimed him, he would not have been as useful to the Nazis and would not have been discredited quite as much. But Bermbach also believes that Köhler's book is exaggerated, saying that Hitler was not a creation of Wagner's.

A 'Prophet and a Clown'

Joachim Köhler is a slim man who bears a slight resemblance to Wagner's friend Friedrich Nietzsche. He speaks in a benign way and is surprisingly soft-spoken for the author of such an aggressive book as "Wagner's Hitler." Sitting in an Italian restaurant in Hamburg, he talks about how he hit upon the idea for the work.

In the 1990s, when Köhler was working for the weekly newsmagazine Stern, he became irate when he read the memoirs of Wolfgang Wagner, who he believes "whitewashed his story in a way that was almost shameless and portrayed Hitler as their friendly Uncle Wolf." The book was Köhler's impetus for writing his own work on the subject.

"I approached the subject in the manner of a detective, like a Sherlock Holmes, for example," says Köhler. He pauses for a moment. "What I missed, however, was the genius of the century, 'the last of the Titans'." Köhler, surprisingly enough, seems moved.

Today, commenting on his theory that Wagner was partly to blame for the Holocaust, he says: "Hardly any more so that the anti-Semites Hegel, Marx and Schopenhauer. An intellectual anti-Semitism was almost socially acceptable at the time." He lists the Jewish directors with whom Wagner worked, and says that he "had Jewish friends throughout his life, which would be hard to imagine with a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite."

But how, then, did the repugnant essay "Judaism in Music" come about? Köhler says: "Wagner was often one thing and its opposite at the same time. He was a passionate vegetarian, but he couldn't do without his daily steak. He had a tendency to stretch a point." Most of all, says Köhler, Wagner was simultaneously a "prophet and a clown."

Köhler launches into a lengthy speech about Wagner's humorous side. There was "a tendency to wear women's clothing; he subscribed to Paris fashion magazines and secretly wore silk negligees that he had designed himself. Wagner was difficult to paint, because he was constantly making faces, kidding around, doing somersaults and headstands. As a theatrical person, he didn't distinguish between theater and reality, and he seemed to be saying to everyone: Don't take me so seriously."

Was it all just fun and games? Was his anti-Semitism somehow a quirk and therefore tolerable? Apparently many things are possible with Wagner. As he sits there, Köhler comes across as a non-believer, a critic who became a disciple, and he clearly rejects the thesis of his book, when he says: "I no longer see Hitler being directly influenced by Wagner. Hitler didn't become Hitler because he listened to 'Rienzi'."

In the end, Köhler too has succumbed to Wagner's power. Even during his lifetime, the man who so greatly despised power was someone who could quickly become overpowering, to his women, his friends and his employees. He had a vehemence that was difficult to escape, a vehemence that was evident in his manner, his works and his longing for a new society. It is this Titanism to which Köhler has succumbed, this yearning for greatness, which was once a typically German trait, at least until Hitler's time. That too can only be savored in part when listening to Wagner today. With Wagner, it's possible to break the seal that has been placed over the years from 1933 to 1945, but it requires turning a blind eye to some things.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Jakespeare 04/13/2013
1. Wagner
Wagner was first and foremost an Artist... and as an artist he portrayed the world he lived in with musical tones, daunting silence and thundering crescendos. True Art is totally subjective... and Wagner wasn't making musical statements of his antisemitism... he was playing back the deep and disturbing state of affairs of a Germany at war with herself and the world. If you were Wagner, the Industrial Age was stepping in and demolishing all established order. Christians in Germany had no love for the Semite either at that time. He captured chaos in his music... and it is unfair to lay National Socialism over him and his music. Germany was at the time, at the forefront of Science, Medicine, Art, Psychology and Technology. You can hear that all in his music... and the tragedy of the Titans fall from grace. Lighten Up Germany!
golestan 04/13/2013
The German obsession with post-Nazi guilt borders on the absurd. Anybody who could possibly have been in a position of decision making in 1945 (say of age 21) is now at least 89 years old. Not many of them left and of those who are still there 95% had nothing to do with the horrendous crimes committed in that era. Germany's conduct ever since the founding of the Federal Republic has been exemplary on the international scene. Now you are tainting the reputation of a great composer, who was dead 6 years before Hitler was even born, just because Hitler liked his works? I have news for you: Hitler also liked Berchtesgaden and he was a teetotaller. Are now all the teetotallers and Berchtesgaden also tainted??? ... just the opinion of a Canadian bystander.
sylvesterthecat 04/13/2013
3. Angst, angst and yet more angst
Sometimes I really despair about our German cousins. Germany manages to produce a towering genius like Richard Wagner, after giving the world the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and still worry about the fact that Wagner didn't like Jews very much. Would you have preffered a man who loved everything Jewish but couldn't write music? As he seems to be such an embarrassment to you, can I suggest that you ' find ',(perhaps under the floorboards at Wahnfried), a dusty old Birth certificate in the name of 'Dickie Wainwright' born 1813 in Felixstowe? We'll be delighted to adopt him especially as genius is in short supply these days. Incidentally, the most fanatical Wagnerians I know of, are both Jewish.
dorbarn 04/14/2013
4. How about the United States and Slavery
Slavery was upheld in our constitution... etcetc, we all know the history... can the good things that came to US history and culture through people and institutions, churches, courts, that upheld slavery be separated from this dark history?
Kurnewal 04/14/2013
I think the German emphasis on obedience, respect for authority and discipline historically fostered a society where emotion was repressed. In the arts, especially music, this huge reservoir of repressed emotion could be released. This is why Germany produced a successon of composers who have no equals in musical history: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. The idea of any composer from another nation being measured against any one of these giants is ludicrous.
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