On The Future of Wagnerism, Part 6: The Wagner Family and Questions of Forgiveness (Conclusion)

05/12/2015 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Just as we think of the films of the exceptionally gifted Leni Riefenstahl as Nazi art, so we are in an inexorable process of appreciating much of the art of Richard Wagner as such.

To recap, we knew that with the later exception of Wagner's granddaughter Friedelind, the Wagner family collaborated enthusiastically with Hitler and the war, that they never protested or participated in any level of resistance. But again, Wagner's grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang were teens during Hitler's early rise to power and, though their later silence about Hitler and Nazism was disappointing, they were officially "de-Nazified," along with their unwaveringly Hitler-loyal mother, Winifred, albeit on the basis of minor qualifiers. Winifred did help a few Jewish artists to emigrate, and she protected a few others who were essential to casting, like Max Lorenz, who was homosexual and whose wife was Jewish. In any event, with a mandate from their conquerors, and the support of many Jews (who had likewise been so supportive of Wagner himself), Bayreuth and the Wagners appeared eager to move forward, which they seemed to be doing with notable success. Time for all of us to let bygones be bygones, right?


Winifred Wagner with Hitler and her sons Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner at Bayreuth

What we failed to appreciate was the seriousness and depth of the Wagner family's entanglements with Hitler and Nazism. What we already knew was bad enough, but what emerged subsequently was worse. And who knows what revelations there will be from documents at Bayreuth and those possessed by Wagner family members that have yet to be released. Though it became common knowledge and parlance to refer to Wolfgang as an unrepentant old Nazi who was wounded on the front lines of the war, what came to light about Wieland years later is a lot more disturbing. At Hitler's alleged insistence, Wieland became a titular head of the Flossenberg concentration camp in the environs of Bayreuth.

The camp, we were reassured, was more for political prisoners and wasn't a death camp per se. And we were likewise reassured that Wieland, whose deep commitment to his artistic calling is hard to doubt, spent most of his time there working on staging concepts for Wagner, albeit admittedly with the assistance of slave labor. Flossenberg may not have had crematoria on the scale of Auschwitz but of the 90,000 prisoners who passed through it, 30,000 were murdered there.

According to Wieland Wagner's mistress, the soprano Anja Silja, this was a source of personal regret and remorse for Wieland, who, however, never found a way -- unlike, for example, the recently deceased Gunther Grass -- to publicly acknowledge this shameful past, to publicly express any remorse or regret, or to ask for forgiveness. Apart from his own silence, the question now is not why was Wieland Wagner de-Nazified. It's why wasn't Wieland Wagner tried and prosecuted for war crimes and mass murder. Parallel questions about Wolfgang Wagner and Winifred Wagner are inevitable. Apparently, the reason the Wagners weren't more appropriately prosecuted is the same as that surrounding the decision to exploit rather than punish rocket scientist Werner von Braun. Unlike Winifred, however, von Braun didn't continue to publicly proclaim loyalty to Hitler following the war. Several generations later, it's clear that the whole business of the "de-Nazification" of music and cultural figures is past due for reconsideration.

It's widely known that Wolfgang Wagner, whose comparative absence of talent as a stage director was such that he soon ceded artistic direction of the Festival to his brother, was defensive and mum on questions of his own and Bayreuth's collaborations with Nazism. Following Wieland's death, and for the ensuing forty years, Wolfgang prevailed as CEO of the Bayreuth Festival, the securing of whose finances was his greatest achievement. Any questioning of this domineering administrator's known Nazism was tacitly offset by his engagement of prominent Jewish conductors, as well as of Patrice Chereau to stage what was arguably the most important production of the Ring cycle since its world premiere a century earlier. In October 2010, Wolfgang's daughter, Katherina Wagner -- who with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier were chosen by Wolfgang to succeed himself as co-directors of the Festival -- planned to visit Israel in order to invite the Israel Chamber Orchestra to play a concert in July 2011 at the Bayreuth town hall, to end the post-1945 boycott of Wagner's music in Israel. Her visit was canceled after hostility from Holocaust survivors.

As for Winifred, and as is likewise widely known, her enduring and outspokenly unapologetic loyalty to Hitler was doubtless the reason she was officially banned from direct participation in the postwar management of the Bayreuth festival. But what did that mild wrist-tap mean? As is clear from Eva Rieger's Friedelind Wagner, her 2013 biography, Winifred's greater plan for Bayreuth was always that her two sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, would run the festival. Winifred did not take her rebellious daughter Friedelind seriously and the other Wagner sibling, Verena, was never under consideration for any role in the future of Bayreuth. Winifred may have been officially proscribed from direct, visible involvement in the administration of the Bayreuth Festival, but it's Winifred--Hitler's most devoted partisan and possibly lover, and who provided the paper on which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf--whose blueprint for the future of Bayreuth was adopted.

A related bill of goods we were sold about Wagner and Bayreuth likewise had to do with Winifred. From the 1960's well into the 1990's and beyond we were reassured by our music critics that to literally read racism and anti-Semitism into Wagner's works was to distort them. During those years, there wasn't enough information to know better and it seemed the right thing to try to be affirming. (As I discuss in my Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite, for a number of these writers, being in the closet as gay and/or Jewish and not probing Wagner's anti-Semitism seemed to be conjoined phenomena.) Throughout the earlier period of that same time frame, in mainstream news and literature about opera, Wagner and Bayreuth, Winifred was presented as this crazy old crone, fanatical in her inability to acknowledge the greater truth about Hitler, Nazism and WW2, and otherwise ultraconservative and myopic in her viewpoints about Wagner and staging. Alas, this cartoon image of Winifred doesn't begin to convey the strong, intelligent, flesh-and-blood figure captured by Hans Jurgen Syberberg in his 5 hour, 1975 documentary interview with her. Winifred essentially ran Bayreuth throughout the Nazi era and continued to run it subsequently, at least in terms of her plans having been implemented. To suggest that she -- together with many other prominent Nazi cultural figures -- had no real in-depth understanding or appreciation of Wagner is a mythology that was questionable to begin with but which became a lot more untenable in the wake of Syberberg's film.

It bears repeating here that the bill of goods we've been sold -- that Nazis like Hitler and Winifred had no real understanding of Wagner's art -- can now be put to rest. Whatever else denialists and apologists -- with Jewish Wagnerites forefront among them -- might want to read into the nether reaches of Wagner's art, there is no longer any credibility to the old rationalizations that Nazi appreciations of Wagner were profoundly ignorant, unsophisticated, artless and wrong.

Not so coincidentally, the entire business of our belief that Bayreuth was deeply and genuinely committed to refuting and transcending its Nazi past turns out to have been as naive as it was deluded. Where exactly all this leaves Wagner's art on the spectrum from grandiloquent kitsch to Heilige Kunst may continue to be debated, but to deny the racist, anti-Semitic appeal of so much of it now rings loudly hollow and untrue. What this means is that however artistically or dramatically impressive they otherwise may be, the Ring cycle, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal are racist and anti-Semitic works that qualify for designation as Nazi art. Just as we think of the films of the exceptionally gifted Leni Riefenstahl as Nazi art, so we are in an inexorable process of appreciating much of the art of Richard Wagner as such. In fact, such is my inexorable awareness of this reality that I winced when I learned that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the opening night attendees of last season's Bayreuth Festival.

In fact, if you look at virtually every ostensibly progressive development of postwar Bayreuth -- e.g., Wieland's productions, the Chereau Ring, Wolfgang's featuring of prominent Jewish conductors -- it's possible to see how Nazi viewpoints continued to be served. While the casting of Grace Bumbry in that Tannhauser may have broken the race barrier at Bayreuth, the racist underbelly of this conception simultaneously hissed its suggestion of how far astray into realms of miscegenation erotic adventuring might lead Germans and Germany. Quite comparably, even as the Chereau Ring exposed Wagner's anti-Semitism, it also sharpened Wagner's case against the Jews as miscreants of capitalism and enemies of humanity. Finally, it's Wagner himself, however reluctantly, who established the precedent of featuring Jewish conductors and otherwise exploiting Jewish talent.


Friedelind Wagner (right) with Hitler

Even Friedelind Wagner is not who we thought she was. Yes, she bravely left her family, Bayreuth and Germany during the war, denouncing Hitler and choosing to live in America. And the ordeals she endured in the process do indeed qualify her for comparisons to Brunhilde. It's also clear that she was systematically excluded from more involvement at Bayreuth, before, during and after the war, largely because of her mother's wishes and manipulations. Not only was Friedelind a woman and deemed to be difficult, competitive with her brothers and comparatively ungifted, but she was widely seen and rejected, by her own mother and brothers as well as by most Germans, as a traitor to both her family and her country. Her return to Germany, not so unlike Marlene Dietrich's, was anything but triumphant.

The picture of Friedelind that emerges from Rieger's biography is a lot more mixed than previous histories, including Friedelind's own autobiography, Heritage of Fire. While it's certain that Friedelind became anti-Nazi following years of her thinking of Hitler as family, and though it's clear she believed her grandfather Richard would not have been supportive of Hitler, it remains unclear what she thought about the issue of anti-Semitism in Wagner's life, writings and works. Indeed, although Friedelind later befriended a number of Jews, it remains unclear what she thought about Jews.

In an effort to better understand Friedelind's journey, I contacted Eva Rieger. According to Rieger, Friedelind claimed in her autobiography that she became anti-Nazi earlier than was apparently the case; that as late as 1937, Friedelind was still praising Hitler. It's also clear that however fractured the Wagner family's relations, Friedelind never severed those ties, which she resumed, including with her mother, after the war. There was, after all, an estate to be settled and Friedelind still held hopes of greater invovlement with Bayreuth.

As for the question of what Friedelind thought about Jews and regarding questions of anti-Semitism in Wagner's own life and works, after reviewing some events and statements of Friedelind from the earlier to the later period of Hitler, Rieger was neither able to clarify Friedelind's thinking nor reassure that Friedelind had ever really grappled with these issues. "I think that being a direct relative of Wagner," Rieger evasively concluded, "it is most difficult to admit that he was an anti-Semite." In view of which it's difficult not to revisit the old distrust of Friedelind as someone whose grievances were more engendered by her lifelong family rivalries and resentments than by her later rejection of anti-Semitism, Hitler and Nazism.

In her most visible public role since the war, as the host of the internationally broadcast Chereau centennial Ring cycle in 1976, Friedelind's concluding observation now takes on additional resonance. "Who knows when another Alberich will come along to set the entire cycle in motion again?" asked Friedelind from a script prepared for her by music critic John Ardoin. In the Chereau production, as earlier alluded to, the Nibelungs are depicted as Jews. Whatever other problems and villains there are in the Ring cycle, whatever the complexities, however otherwise layered are the issues of blame, what Friedelind was saying, at least as scripted, is that this Jew in the Thornbush, Alberich, is the bottom line of all the trouble. So despite Friedelind's known resistance to Hitler and her brave acts of anti-Nazi defiance, including those against her own family, her failure to call into question or account for Wagner's anti-Semitism was notable and would seem to warrant further scrutiny and analysis.

The task of full disclosure fell to the only Wagner ever to look squarely at the issue, to confront it head on, to publicly and fully articulate the bigger picture of the fallout and import of Wagner's anti-Semitism and Bayreuth's ardent collaborations with Nazism: Friedelind's nephew, Wolfgang's son, Gottfried Wagner, whose Twilight of The Wagners seemed to be the raison d'etre for Ross's essay, "The Unforgiven."

Ross clearly understood and succeeded in capturing Gottfried's belief that Wagner was foundationally, crucially influential to the advent of Hitler and Nazism. He even noted Gottfried's allegation that Hitler copied Wagner in his phraseology. Determined to test this hypothesis, Ross decided to submit Hitler and Wagner phrases to a sophisticated library computer program that can suggest complementarity, which indeed it did verify. Having acknowledged this astounding truth, Ross then proceeded not to further discuss or even to again mention Gottfried, whose condemnations of Wagner, the Wagner family, Bayreuth, Wagner's Jews and Wagner's legacy, are resolute. For Gottfried, there can be no talk of acceptance or forgiveness in the absence of full disclosure. Gottfried is the only Wagner to have done this exceedingly difficult and excrutiatingly thankless work in his writings and lectures, and giving unauthorized Wagner family testimony on panels such as "The Post Holocaust Dialogue Group," in which Richard Wagner, much of his family, and Bayreuth are designated by Dr. Wagner as Holocaust perpetrators.

Talk about the Unforgiven. The price Gottfried Wagner has paid for all this is virtually complete ostracism from his family, from Bayreuth, from Wagner Societies and the greater world of Wagner appreciation. (Adding insult to injury in that world, Dr. Wagner also wrote a Foreword, "Redemption from Wagner the Redeemer: some introductory thoughts on Wagner's anti-Semitism," to my memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.)

Ross understood and to a degree accepted what Gottfried had concluded and demonstrated. Ross knows he must fully and unflinchingly acknowledge the past. But having done that to a commendable extent, as he did in "The Unforgiven," he expects this will now give him the credibility and license, finally, to move forward again with Wagnerism. He's hopeful that laying everything out on the table will now fortify himself and others with the defense that, yes, we do know and we do now fully acknowledge what happened, and that what happened is troubling and regrettable. NOW can we move on?

Not so unlike opera commentator William Berger's easy recipes for appreciating "Wagner Without Fear," Ross wants to do whatever will allow us to appreciate Wagner the musical and artistic titan without so much interference, without so much background noise, without so much discomfort, without so much resistance. That Wagner's anti-Semitism and the resultant fallout might seriously, and indefinitely into the future, taint or even cripple Wagner appreciation -- and much of musical culture with it -- is overwhelming. It's not surprising that this would seem unacceptable to Ross, other Wagnerites and musical culture arbiters who are admittedly dismayed that the controversies are not only not diminishing, but growing.

So, is Wagner destined to be perpetually labeled, like Jews wearing yellow stars, with that asterisk of being one of history's most virulent anti-Semites and a perpetrator of the Holocaust? And if so, are the Jews and some residual failure of forgiveness on our part to blame for that? If Jews were to die out or otherwise be eliminated from the picture, would that solve the problem? If Israel were to lift the ban on Wagner and sign an affidavit of forgiveness, would that do it? Or is Wagner himself, in company with the accursed of his own creation -- the Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Lohengrin and that opera's Gottfried, the Nibelungs, the Wanderer, the gods, Beckmesser, Amfortas, the Knights of the Grail, Klingsor, Kundry, the Germans -- now doomed to bear the burden of a curse, that asterisk, likewise of his own creation? And is the only hope for redemption the "das ende" that Wagner himself seemed so profoundly to understand, foretell and invoke?

Which brings us, finally, to the question of where the issue of forgiveness rests with me personally. In my experience, bearing resentment, however justifiable, is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to get sick. Whereas forgiveness has shown itself to be crucial to my equanimity, spirituality and serenity. So, yes, I do feel that forgiveness is in order. First, I forgive myself for going against the grain of mainstream musical culture and Wagner appreciation in sharing and affirming the perspective of Gottfried Wagner that Richard Wagner and his family were Holocaust perpetrators. Beyond which I also forgive Richard Wagner. And I do so with something of the mix of tenderness and detachment of his own forgiveness of his beloved Brunhilde, and another of his creations, Kundry, as he bestows upon each the sentence, but also the gift and blessing, of rest. If I wish to retain my humanity, I cannot harbor resentment. Which is why I conclude these reflections with a prayer for redemption. In this as in all things, May Thy Will Be Done.