2004-09-16 14:27:31 UTC
opera, _Das Flüchlein das jeder mitbekam_: "The Little Curse that
The context is exploring why Wagner opera performances in Germany
dropped so dramatically when the Nazis took power, and why that
decline accelerated during the Nazi period. The relationship between
the Nazis and the Wagner clan is relevant to this issue, and _Das
Flüchlein_ tell us something significant about that relationship.
The two outer Acts of _Das Flüchlein_ are light romantic comic opera
in a fairytale setting. But Act II is in a darker mood, dominated by
the sinister figure called "Wolf". Wolf is the leader of a gang of
robbers and murderers, a horrific creature who leaves human body parts
about the floor of his lair. There is still an element of comedy
there, as Wolf is too over the top to be taken entirely seriously. But
it's grotesque comedy, comedy of horror.
One remarkable thing about this is that "Wolf" is a representation of
Adolf Hitler, and Wolf's gang is a representation of Hitler's Nazi
entourage. That is, Siegfried Wagner's last opera was a vehement
attack on his occasional houseguest Adolf Hitler, along with his
henchmen. Perhaps another remarkable thing is that this fact is not
Not only was the character of Wolf a scathing denunciation of Hitler,
but it was intended to be a public attack. _Das Flüchlein_ was
intended for performance, and there could have been no doubt amongst
its audience over who used the nickname "Wolf". That Hitler used the
name "Wolf" at Bayreuth and elsewhere - it was never an exclusively
Bayreuth nickname - when he wanted to be "off duty" was an open secret
among those in the know in the German media, political circles and
society. To Siegfried's audience the reference would have been
unmistakable. (Though his audience never got to see the opera;
Siegfried died before completing its orchestration, and the first
performance of a reconstructed version was given in 1984.)
By the way it is sometimes suggested that Hitler took the name "Wolf"
from Wotan's pseudonym in _Die Walküre_, in his role as father of the
Volsung twins. But it is more likely that Hitler took the name Wolf
from the name Wolf, which is both a reference to a satisfyingly fierce
creature and a common German name. Wagner's Wotan was not called
"Wolf" but "Wolfe", a two-syllable name; "Wolfe" is idiosyncratic and
Wagnerian, while "Wolf" is not. And if Hitler had intended a homage to
Wagner he might have been expected to get the name right. Moreover,
"Wolfe" was an adulterer's false name, something unheroic and faintly
comic which seems far from Hitler's self-image, and which would have
been a gift to German satirists. The noble form of Wotan's name, in
_Die Walküre_ was not "Wolfe" but "Wälse".
If there is any doubt about who Siegfried Wagner meant by "Wolf", it
is answered by an earlier creation of Siegfried's, which also used the
name "Wolf" to refer to Hitler, though in a more ironical, even
playful, vein. Friedelind Wagner wrote:
"For Christmas and her birthday Father always prepared elaborate jokes
for Mother, usually exploring the ridiculous aspects of the Nazi
party, which furnished the happiest sort of material for such
nonsense. Sometimes it was a poem or a painting or a whole stage
setting worked out with meticulous detail. [...]
"Another time Father built a cave with a wolf and badger in it. 'The
wolf in the badger's cave', he called it. This was meant to represent
Hitler and his landlady in Munich, who was named Mrs. Dachs, meaning
badger. It would have been even funnier a little later, for Mrs. Dachs
became mentally unbalanced and behaved in a fantastic manner. For a
long time Hitler was the only one who could soothe her. In his
presence she was still somewhat normal, until one day she attacked him
with an axe. Wolf ran for his life and hastily changed his
[Wagner, Friedelind, with Cooper, Paige, _The Royal Family of
Bayreuth_, Eyre and Spottiswood, London, 1948, page 44. It's a shame
Frau Dachs wasn't a bit faster.]
The question is in any case confirmed by Peter Pachl, author of the
recent biography of Siegfried Wagner. In his notes on the _Das
Flüchlein_ overture, for Volume 2 of the Marco Polo/CPO set of the
Complete Overtures of Siegfried Wagner, Pachl wrote: "The conflict
with the sadistic robber Wolf in Act II refers to Adolf Hitler, whom
Winifred Wagner admired so passionately. The composer's widow herself
admitted to this connection."
[Pachl's biography Siegfried biography is _Siegfried Wagner: Genie im
Schatten_, München 1988/1994, A.B.]
By the way Siegfried's source for his robber chief who dismembered and
ate his victims was Tale 40, "The Robber Bridegroom", from the
Brothers Grimm's _Kinder- und Hausmärchen_. In the 1857 version of the
tale the robber leader was simply described as "a suitor who appeared
to be rich"; in the 1812 edition he was "a Prince". Giving him the
name Wolf was entirely Siegfried's idea.
This raises a number of questions. One is why Siegfried Wagner should
have been preparing a public attack on Hitler in 1929-1930. This was a
time when the Nazis were not yet in power, but it had already become
clear that opposing them was a dangerous, generally fatal, business.
It seems that Siegfried acted from a mix of political and personal
motives. Regrettably there is no point in promoting Siegfried as a
great resistance hero, a man of rocklike principles who took a moral
stand against evil. He wasn't quite that.
To identify possible political motives I'm going to attempt a brief
summary of Siegfried's response to Nazism. My principal sources are
the Friedelind book already cited (_The Royal Family of Bayreuth_,
also published as _Shadows over Bayreuth_), Geoffrey Skelton's
biography _Wieland Wagner: The Positive Sceptic_, Frederick Spotts'
_Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival_, Köhler's _Wagner's
Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple_ travesty, Kurt Lüdecke's _I Knew
Hitler: The Story of a Nazi Who Escaped the Blood Purge_, Wolfgang
Wagner's autobiography, _Acts_, and Goebbels' _Diaries_. All of these
sources, except for Spotts' book, need to be treated with scepticism
ranging from moderate to complete. I've ignored the books by Nike and
Gottfried Wagner. Nike's book is worthless for biographical
information, while Gottfried's book is worthless.
All these writers have their own agenda, and all are careless with
facts. A minor but irritating example is that Skelton said that after
Siegfried met Mussolini he had compared him unfavourably to Hitler,
noting that unlike Hitler Mussolini did not have "the light of love in
his eyes". So there, I thought, was proof that in 1924 Siegfried was
very much under Hitler's spell. But then I found that Köhler had used
the same quote but attributed it to Winifred instead. I'd usually
assume that Köhler was the less reliable source, but in this case the
words do sound more like Winifred. The truth can probably be found in
Peter Pachl's Siegfried Wagner biography, mentioned above. Until I
locate a copy (I don't think there's one in Australia) I can't use the
Anyway, here's Friedelind's summary of Siegfried Wagner's political
"Father was disillusioned with post-war Germany. In his heart he was
still a monarchist as were the majority of Germans; he could never
understand or forgive the Kaiser's flight and had no sympathy with the
Weimar Republic which failed although it meant well. He was a liberal
but also a conservative and the sight of Germany torn by revolution
and bloodshed, spawning one sinister "messiah" after another,
distressed him. Germany was a pigsty, he said, and he meant it. But
Father had too international a background to be agitated about party
politics. He had spent much of his life abroad; each year he travelled
all over Europe, and when he was at home Wahnfried, with its guests
from everywhere, was decidedly international. So he teased Mother
about her rallies and refused to look upon Hitler as a saint."
[Friedelind, page 45]
Friedelind was the only one of Siegfried's children who was close to
this very private man. So while her account is a case for the defence,
it is based on better knowledge than any other witness who chose to
speak on this topic.
But there is another side. Siegfried was polite enough, at the least,
to Hitler that in 1943 Hitler remembered him as having been a
"personal friend, though a political neutral" [Tabletalk, 1 March
Köhler claimed that Winifred once described Siegfried putting his
hands on Hitler's shoulders, and saying, "You know, I really like
you!" [But I haven't checked the source for this, and Köhler-caveats
apply.] While other accounts of Hitler and Siegfried together suggest
reserve and distance on Siegfried's side.
But both kinds of story, those indicating touchy-friendliness and
those indicating reserve, could be more or less true. Siegfried Wagner
seems to have been a kindly, amiable, man, far nicer than his father.
I think that anyone, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Ghandi, or anyone
else, would have come away from an early meeting with Siegfried with
the feeling that he really liked them. As his namesake said: "Nun
ficht mit mir/Oder sei mein Freund!" Friendliness seems to have been a
default position for Siegfried; it was offered for the other person to
lose. The fact is that over time Hitler did lose it, as _Das
The clearest case of Siegfried acting to assist the Nazis occurred in
1924, on the Wagners' visit to America to raise funds for Bayreuth.
While there they used their social standing to secure Hitler associate
Kurt Lüdecke an audience with the far-right, antisemitic magnate Henry
Ford, to solicit donations to the Nazi party. In his account Lüdecke
claimed that the visit was a failure. He also claimed to have thought
that Siegfried Wagner would have been disappointed by the failure,
since he "subscribed to his father's view that the Jew is 'the plastic
demon of decay'".
However it's not clear that Lüdecke knew much about Siegfried's views,
as opposed to those of Winifred. In his account he tended to lump the
two of them together, not only failing to see distinctions in their
commitment to National Socialism, but also failing to note
distinctions in their national origin and upbringing. Thus he wrote of
the two Wagners' "race and parentage", seemingly thinking of them as
the same. (Was he perhaps thinking of Siegmund and Sieglinde?)
Lüdecke's last mention of the Wagners described them having dinner
with two Jewish women in a New York restaurant, and giving Lüdecke the
cold shoulder. As one would.
In the 1970s Winifred said in an interview that in her discussion with
Ford, in which she asked Ford to meet Lüdecke, Ford had indicated
willingness to donate to Hitler. Köhler has built from this a story
that Ford did in fact give money to Lüdecke, and that Lüdecke had lied
in order to protect Ford from the backlash that would follow if it
were known that he had donated to the Nazis. Thus the Wagners had been
the financial bridge between Hitler and Ford.
I checked the sources cited by Köhler on this, and found that his
account was misleading, which some people may find less than
surprising. In fact Winifred's story did not contradict Lüdecke's
account, and regardless of what Ford may have said to Winifred, there
is no evidence that Lüdecke's account of failure was untrue. I should
say that I really don't care about Lüdecke's reputation one way or the
other; this is just where the evidence falls. What seems most likely,
following Köhler's own sources, is that Ford at a later time donated
money to the Nazis through a different channel, unconnected to Lüdecke
or the Wagners.
(Sorry about going into excessive detail on this. I've only just
finished sorting this one out.)
However it does appear that, as Lüdecke said, Siegfried was
antisemitic, in ways that were in some respects similar to his father.
That is, he didn't think that Jews were evil, or inferior as a race,
but he might claim that they "stuck together", that they promoted
trivial, shallow arts, and so on. Like his father, Siegfried had a
circle of Jewish friends, and many Jewish colleagues.
As evidence of Siegfried's views on "the Jews", Friedelind quoted a
letter written in 1921, Siegfried's response to a more thoroughgoing
antisemite who objected to the number of Jewish artists and patrons at
"I feel bound to tell you [Siegfried wrote] that I do not agree with
you at all. Among the Jews we count a great many loyal, honest and
unselfish adherents who have given us numerous proofs of their
devotion. You suggest that we should turn all these people from our
doors? Repulse them for no other reason than that they are Jews? Is
that human? Is that Christian? Is that German? No! [...]
"And if the Jews are willing to help us, that is doubly meritorious,
because my father in his writings attacked and offended them. They
would therefore have - and they have - every reason to hate Bayreuth.
Yet, in spite of my father's attacks, a great many of them revere my
father's art with genuine enthusiasm. [...]
"On our Bayreuth hill we want to do _positive_ work, not negative.
Whether a man is Chinese, a Negro, an American, an Indian or a Jew,
that is a matter of complete indifference to us. But we might learn
from the Jews how to stick together and how to give help. With envy
and admiration I see how the Jews assist their artists, how they pave
the way for them. If I were a Jew my operas would be performed in
every theatre. As things are, however, we must wait until we are dead.
[...] Are we now to add intolerance to all our other bad qualities and
reject people of good will?"
Of course even in this letter repudiating antisemitism, it could be
argued Siegfried still revealed "mild" antisemitism, in the view that
Jews stick together and promote their own artists, and that if he were
only Jewish his operas would be enormously more successful. This
echoes his father's idea that a preponderance of Jews controlled the
theatres and music criticism. But it is also clear that Siegfried was
not the sort to approve of the Nazi thuggery that was already being
directed against German Jews, even in the 1920s.
In sum it can be seen that by 1929/1930 Siegfried had political
reasons to loathe Hitler and Nazism, from his own idiosyncratic and
essentially apolitical point of view. The first was the Nazi cult and
culture of violence, which was by then abundantly obvious. Siegfried
would have seen their murders of their political enemies and of their
own kind, their street bashings, and their breaking up of theatres.
The Nazis had not yet revealed themselves as mass murderers, but they
had clearly shown that they were barbarians. Siegfried was an
old-style conservative, and not in any sense a barbarian or supporter
of barbarism; he had every moral right to be appalled by what the
Nazis had already revealed of their true nature.
The second political reason was that as we have seen that Siegfried
was the kind of theoretical antisemite who quite liked the actual Jews
he met every day. So he had Jewish colleagues, Jewish friends, quite
possibly Jewish lovers as did his father, and he had family
connections with Jewish people, and he had no reason to wish any of
them any harm. But by 1929/1930 it was quite clear that the Nazis
wished his Jewish friends and colleagues deadly harm. (I agree with
the current general consensus that the Holocaust had not then been
planned or even thought of. But regardless of whether you share that
view, it must be agreed that by then the Nazi intention to do Jews
"deadly harm" was clear enough.)
There was a third issue, which was both political and personal.
Siegfried was a notorious habitué of Bayreuth's bathhouses, which were
famous throughout Europe as a place where homosexuals could meet each
other in a uniquely free, frank and open environment, also meeting
handsome young Bayreuth farmboys who didn't mind earning a little
money with a kind gentleman. Siegfried was probably more bisexual than
gay, in modern terms, as he had affairs with women as well as men, in
addition to doing his duty by the Wagner dynasty by keeping Friedelind
pregnant for four years running.
Still, he was a Man Who Has Sex with Men, or MSM in the technical
language of our time. In the language of his time, especially amongst
those Nazis who were not homosexual themselves, he was a "practitioner
of homosexual perversion". As such, he could hardly have helped
noticing that people like him (but lacking the protection of a famous
name) were being bashed on the streets by people wearing Hitler's
uniforms, and that the _Völkische Beobachter_, _Der Stürmer_ and other
Nazi papers were making it clear that the future would be very grim
for "practitioners of homosexual perversion", if and when the Nazis
came to power.
So Siegfried had political reasons for planning and beginning to
execute a public protest, an open denunciation of Hitler and his gang.
He also had personal reasons, which can wait for next time.