08/01/2012 11:06 am ET

Richard Wagner Family Feuds Over Hitler Letters

The long-running soap opera Sturm und Drang surrounding one of Germany's most famous -- and infamous -- families got a little hotter this week when one relative threatened legal action against another if she does not come clean about the past.

The latest act embroiling the descendants of German composer Richard Wagner stars his great-granddaughter, who has demanded that the world's most famous opera festival go through a painful but necessary program of de-Nazification.

Katharina Wagner, the co-director of the annual Bayreuth Festival, wants to purge the event of its sinister history as a showcase for Nazi propaganda under Adolf Hitler.

Wagner is demanding that relatives release sealed documents detailing the family's dealings with the Nazis. "I myself had and have no problem to make available to the public all my exclusive property and material in its entirety relating to this issue," she told the Daily Mail.

But Amélie Hohmann, granddaughter of one of the family's most infamous members, Winifred Wagner, is refusing to release what she called potentially "explosive" letters between Winifred and Hitler.

The British-born wife of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried, Winifred headed the family during World War II and was a close confidante -- some even whispered the secret lover -- of the blood-thirsty dictator.

Even though family patriarch Richard Wagner died in 1883, he and his music remain controversial and anathema to many Jews who associate him with his biggest fan, Hitler. Not only did Hitler adore Wagner's music -- ordering it played at party rallies -- but he also found in the composer an anti-Semitic soul mate.

Besides writing "The Ring of the Nibelung" and other of the world's best-known operas, Wagner also penned the infamous "Das Judenthum in der Musik," or "Judaism in Music." The essay attacked Jewish rivals -- including the Christian convert Felix Mendelssohn best known for the "Wedding March" -- for what he saw as music that sullied German culture.

That troubling legacy was passed down to Winifred's son Wolfgang Wagner, Katharina's father. As head of Bayreuth, he banished his unrepentant Nazi sympathizing mother from the festival but died in 2010 having failed in the eyes of some to truly come to terms with the family's past.

Wolfgang's biggest critic was his own son Gottfried Wagner, Katharina's half-brother. He was cut off by his father after writing a damning memoir, "Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family’s Legacy," that questioned the sincerity of the family's break with its Nazi past.

Now, nearly 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, Katharina wants to put the sordid Wagnerian drama to rest. While other German institutions such as BMW and media giant Bertelsmann have fessed up about their own Nazi collaboration, Bayreuth remains tainted in the eyes of many. Another reminder of the festival's unsavory past was Russian opera star Evgeny Nikitin's withdrawal from the festival after it was revealed that he has a swastika and other Nazi symbols tattooed on his chest.

Wagner's music is still taboo in Israel. A recent planned concert that would have broken an unofficial ban in the Jewish state was cancelled after Holocaust survivors said playing the music there would amount to "emotional torture."

Katharina has tried to heal the breech. Although she was forced to cancel a visit to Israel after Holocaust survivors protested, she arranged for the Israel Chamber Orchestra to play an unprecedented concert last year in Bayreuth.

Now Katharina hopes her cousin will end the family feud by unsealing the Hitler letters once and for all. So far, Hohmann has ignored legal requests to turn them over.

But Michael Brand, Katharina's lawyer, told the Mail that his client isn't giving up. "Katharina Wagner considers the right to take all legal steps necessary if no progress on this matter is achieved," he said.

Expect the drama to continue.