Wagner’s Heir Bows to Lay Bare Her Family’s Nazi History
The great-granddaughter of Hitler’s favourite composer plans to expose how the Bayreuth Festival became connected with the Third Reich
21 June 2009
The great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, has vowed to investigate her family’s links with the Nazis in a move that could be bitterly opposed by other members of the dynasty.
Katharina Wagner, 31, an opera stage director, feels she has a duty to do what previous generations have avoided. “When I was growing up, I was repeatedly confronted with this topic,” she said. “Was my grandmother Hitler’s lover? To what extent was my father embroiled with Hitler? No one in the family ever spoke about it. If my sister and I don’t ask the questions, who then will?” Nine months ago, Katharina took over as co-director of the Bayreuth Festival, which started 133 years ago to showcase Wagner’s work. She has introduced several changes with a view to opening up the event to the masses, including podcasts and giant TV screens, but last week’s announcement that she plans to invite a team of researchers to lay bare the show’s Nazi connections is her most controversial move yet.
“There’s a shadow hanging over Bayreuth, and I feel a responsibility to try to get some clarity,” Katharina said. She said she wanted “independent, renowned historians, and not only those with an affinity to Bayreuth” to carry out their investigations “independently of me and my family”.
Katharina, who took over as festival co-director with her half-sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, after a lengthy family feud, said she expected some opposition from members of the clan. However, she said that the private archives of her father Wolfgang would also be open to scrutiny, suggesting he favoured her initiative.
Hitler supported the festival long before he became a political force and befriended Winifred Wagner, the British-born wife of the composer’s son Siegfried. This connection allowed the festival to remain largely independent during the Third Reich and, after the war, led to Winifred’s conviction for supporting the Nazis.
Katharina stressed that “every nook and cranny” of the festival’s archives needed to be raked through. She made the announcement a month before she opens the festival with Wagner-Pasquier for the first time since they took over from Wolfgang Wagner, who ran the show for 54 years but was often accused of a lack of innovation.
The leadership battle was one of the longest and fiercest feuds in the world of classical music, with Katharina’s cousin, Nike, also contesting the post.
Katharina’s announcement about the investigation has attracted as much attention in the German press as did her artistic plans for the programme on the “Green Hill”, as Bayreuth is affectionately known.
There is some doubt as to whether an investigation will throw any new light on the role of the Nazis and how the Wagner clan courted Hitler, experts said. Katharina herself said she did not know what to expect and that, “although the topic has been dealt with, it has clearly not been dealt with extensively enough”.
According to Wolfgang Schreiber, a critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “We can hardly expect anything particularly mind-blowing to emerge from this, because Bayreuth’s ideological past is a well ploughed field.”
Katharina said she was searching for sponsors to finance the investigation. She said she hoped an initial report could be completed by 2013, in time for the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.
In further moves to address her family’s failure to confront its past, she backed an initiative to put plaques in Bayreuth’s park which point out that Arno Brekker, the creator of sculptures of Richard and Cosima Wagner, was Hitler’s favourite sculptor.
Next year she also plans to host an exhibition on “silenced voices” about the expulsion of Jews from Germany’s opera houses. The former Wagner villa, Haus Wahnfried, will also establish a permanent exhibition of the festival’s Nazi history.
Katharina said she hoped the “soap opera” of the battle for the Bayreuth throne was now over, but highlighted how strained relations still are between her and her estranged cousin, adding that, although she could imagine having a coffee with Nike Wagner, “I won’t be doing the inviting”.