Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth
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Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth

by Brigitte Hamann

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Winifred Wagner was a British-born orphan who became Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law, head of the Bayreuth festival, and one of Adolf Hitler’s closest personal friends.
A no-nonsense Englishwoman who displaced Wagner’s formidable widow to become head of the family and the Festival, Winifred fell adolescently in love with Hitler and


Winifred Wagner was a British-born orphan who became Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law, head of the Bayreuth festival, and one of Adolf Hitler’s closest personal friends.
A no-nonsense Englishwoman who displaced Wagner’s formidable widow to become head of the family and the Festival, Winifred fell adolescently in love with Hitler and made Bayreuth the summer gathering place for the Nazi elite from 1933 to 1939. And yet this staunch German nationalist leaped to the aid of Jewish acquaintances and artists as they were increasingly threatened by exile, imprisonment, or death.

Drawing on previously unavailable sources, Brigitte Hamann has produced a meticulously researched and elegantly written biography—the story of the private Hitler and his monumental obsessions, and of the headstrong, dedicated, and misguided woman who remained loyal to his memory until her death in 1980.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A fair and balanced appraisal, free of vitriol or misplaced sympathy . . . a gigantic historical study of Nazi Bayreuth with, at its center, the life history of a dubious, yet remarkable woman."—Der Spiegel (Germany)

"A magnificent book"—Glasgow Herald (UK)

"Riveting"—Sunday Times (UK)


New York Sun
"Compelling...[and b]rilliantly translated by Alan Bance, Wagner, as a figurehead of cultural politics, is best dealt with by a political historian like Brigitte Hamann"

St. Petersburg Times
"Hamann has produced a gripping, full-dress biography of a woman for whom 'fascinating' is too pale a word."

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
In Hamann’s account, a vivid portrait of Winifred emerges: intelligent and handsome, determined and obstinate, and simply horrible. After the war, she went before a de-Nazification tribunal. She denied the rumors that Hitler had been her lover, but was happy to confess to her “admiration and friendship” for him.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Viennese historian Hamann's important biography tells the complex story of Winifred Wagner (1897-1980), Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law, who headed the Bayreuth opera festival during Hitler's rule. An impressionable 18-year-old, British-born Winifred Williams married Wagner's middle-aged only son, Siegfried, in 1915, bearing him the heirs the Wagners so desperately wanted. When in 1923 Hitler solicited the Wagners for political support, an infatuated Winifred joined the Nazi Party, becoming Hitler's loyal devotee. Widowed in 1930, Winifred assumed directorship of Bayreuth amid rumors of future betrothal to Hitler, who, as Reich chancellor, put the festival center stage in his political campaigns. As increasing numbers of Jewish artists were exiled, Winifred bargained to gain exemptions for her friends and was gradually frozen out by Hitler. Without claiming heroic status for Winifred or denying her anti-Semitism, Hamann (Hitler's Vienna) meticulously places Winifred's aid in the context of the nationalist, anti-Semitic Wagners and their circle. Hamann describes the public denunciation of Winifred by her American emigre daughter, Friedelind; Winifred's equally problematic relationships with her other children; and her postwar openness about her affection for Hitler. This is a fascinating portrait not only of Winifred but of the Wagners and their milieu. 8 pages of b&w photos; map. (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"Hamann provides a rich picture of Winifred's complex personality and of the social and artistic forces surrounding Bayreuth during its Nazi period while giving equal depth and force to the hypocrisies of postwar denazification and Winifred's final years and legacy. An important book for all libraries with in-depth collections on the Nazi era or music history; there are no comparable treatments of this subject in English."
Kirkus Reviews
Austrian historian Hamann (Hitler's Vienna, 1999) tells the story of a British-born woman who married into Germany's legendary musical family and befriended the leader of the Third Reich. Orphaned in 1899, before she turned two, Winifred Williams in 1907 went to live in Germany with the Klindworths, an elderly couple distantly related to her mother. Karl Klindworth, who had studied with Liszt and was friendly with his daughter Cosima, Richard Wagner's widow, introduced Winifred to the inner circles of the German music scene. At 17, the striking young woman charmed 45-year-old Siegfried Wagner, Cosima's only son and director of the Bayreuth Festival, the annual staging of the patriarch's operas. Their marriage made headlines, since Britain and Germany were at war, and Winifred would remain at the heart of a family and country in conflict for decades. The Wagners' opinions were newsworthy, and in 1923, Siegfried and Winifred both vocally supported a charismatic young politician named Adolf Hitler. Winifred's bond with the Fhrer would give her immense satisfaction and worldwide infamy in the years to come. Hamann diligently explores this na‹ve young woman's slow seduction by wealth and power. At Bayreuth, tough, strong-willed Winifred handled the business end while her husband concentrated on the artistic side. Her power and confidence rose, and when Siegfried died in 1930, 33-year-old Winifred became head of the family enterprise. Each of the many times the festival was in financial jeopardy, she turned to her famous friend Hitler for support. When events in Germany took a turn grimmer than anything in the Ring, Winifred could do little more than carefully use her influence to rescuefriends at risk of persecution, or worse. Providing a complete and thorough portrait of Winifred, Hamann shows how the Wagner legacy became enmeshed in Hitler's propaganda machine. A unique perspective on the Wagners, centered on the clan's most controversial member and most tumultuous period.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

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Winifred Wagner

A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth


Copyright © 2002 Piper Verlag GmbH, Munchen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-15-101308-1

Chapter One

An Orphan from Sussex


From England to Berlin

On 8 April 1907 a nine-year old English orphan, Winifred Marjorie Williams, entered the orbit of Richard Wagner. The child was very sickly, and the staff of St Margaret's Orphanage in East Grinstead, Sussex, looking for someone to put her up for a few weeks' holiday, hit upon a distant relation of her mother: Henriette Klindworth, née Karop, aged seventy, who lived in Berlin. Although Winifred was a total stranger to them, Henriette and her 77-year-old husband Karl agreed to look after her for six weeks. Winifred later came to see her arrival there that April as the beginning of a new life.

A childless couple, the Klindworths had lived for decades in Berlin. They were German nationals, but they spoke English at home and, as her letters demonstrate, Henriette Klindworth had only a limited command of German. Klindworth himself, a pianist and piano teacher, and the founder of the Karl Klindworth Music Conservatory in Berlin, was a star pupil of Franz Liszt. But what he regarded as his true life's work was transcribing for the piano excerpts from the worksof his friend Wagner, particularly The Ring of the Nibelung. It was only for financial reasons that he still gave piano lessons.

In April 1907 Klindworth wrote to Wagner's widow, Cosima, the daughter of his revered teacher Liszt: 'At our advanced age, we have now taken upon ourselves something else to worry about-the care and education of a nice young girl of ten [sic], who is completely without means and all alone in the world. She is a little English girl, a distant relation of ours-and now we must hope to live long enough for the little creature to achieve sufficient independence to make her own way.' It quickly became clear that the Klindworths wanted to keep the child permanently.

They were founder partners in the fruit-growing colony 'Eden' in Oranienburg near Berlin, a commune they shared with a variety of land reformers and vegetarians, physical culture enthusiasts and Simple Lifers, freethinkers and opponents of industrialization and speculation in land. Most of the members were nationalist and anti-Semitic, and championed the idea of 'Blood and Soil', free of 'capitalist' aims. They successfully grew fruit, vegetables and flowers on the poor soil of the Mark Brandenburg, and enjoyed a good social life. Klindworth regularly sent Cosima samples of produce from his fruit garden.

The healthy country air, so the old couple thought, would do the child good and alleviate her severe skin complaint. With her raw and bleeding skin, Winifred cannot have been an attractive sight. She said later: 'I immediately felt very good there. With exceptional love and kindness' the Klindworths had 'taken in the orphaned child, who spoke nothing but English'. Her skin healed under the care of the old couple and in the idyllic summer setting of the 'Eden' colony.

No one had previously looked after Winifred for long. She had been born on 23 June 1897 in Hastings, Sussex, the only child of the second marriage of the 54-year-old John Williams, who worked in the tropics as an engineer but was also a writer and theatre critic, and the actress and painter Emily Florence, née Karop, twenty-five years his junior. 'My mother ran away from home as a young girl to become an actress. And my father came across her on the stage-as a critic of her art.'

When the little girl was less than a year old, her father died of a liver disease he had contracted in India. A year later the young mother fell victim to a typhoid epidemic. Winifred had no memory of her parents, and not so much as a picture of them. Much later she found out that her father had 'sunk u12,000 into literary enterprises alone ... There had also been a fine house, but so laden with mortgages that there was nothing in it for me!' And she added: 'This reckless tendency is something I've inherited from my father.'

The orphaned infant was sent to relatives, but they did not keep her for long, 'so that as a child I was passed from hand to hand'. Finally she ended up in the orphanage, a terrifying place. It was here that her skin complaint broke out and became so bad that the doctors urgently advised that she needed a Continental climate-probably in part so as to be rid of a complicated case. Now at last she had found a settled home. She learned German from Klindworth: 'He sat down at the piano and played folksongs and nursery rhymes for me. And I had to try to recite and sing the text.' He also gave the girl piano lessons and a basic musical training, and introduced her gently to the works of his idol, Wagner. 'Every day I heard the tones of Wagnerian music', initially from The Flying Dutchman, which Klindworth was then transcribing for the piano. The story of Senta, the girl who falls in love with the picture of a stranger who almost hypnotically spellbinds her, and for whose redemption she ultimately sacrifices herself, made a lasting impression on the growing Winifred.

When it was time for Winifred to go to high school, her foster-parents made an astonishing decision. They chose 'for my sake to give up their rural idyll near Oranienburg and move to Berlin, so that I could go on living with them'. Klindworth wrote to Cosima's daughter Eva: 'Leaving my nice little house and the lovely things growing in the garden will make tomorrow a hard day to bear, but later perhaps the development of our little girl will give us some happy years.'

And so in September 1908 they moved into the 'rather more modest circumstances' of a rented apartment in Berlin, living there quite isolated at first, in contrast to the sociable life of the settlement, but 'our little one, wild as she was, provided noise and life in plenty'. The child enjoyed living with her beloved 'grandparents' and the ever-present music of Wagner. She loved the invitations from the rich Bechstein family to their country estate in summer, and in winter to the elegant Berlin villa standing in the grounds of their piano factory. The Bechstein villa had a wide marble staircase, leading to the first floor and the piano display rooms, and then to thirty-six private rooms, wood panelled and filled with luxurious furniture, silver, rugs and valuable paintings, including a Velásquez. Helene Bechstein ran a popular salon, where Berlin society-including industrialists and politicians, and international artists passing through the city-gathered. The Bechstein salon was considered nationalist-conservative in tone, but, if only for sound business reasons, it was also cosmopolitan.

The Klindworths soon had plenty of visitors: 'All the best-known conductors and performers frequented the Klindworths' home in Berlin.' In particular, Winifred later recalled Feruccio Busoni and Eugen d'Albert, a pair of modern composers, about whom Klindworth was disparaging, especially if they were enjoying any success. According to Klindworth, the appropriate reaction to the music of Busoni 'and similar members of a foreign race' was disapproval. Opera was 'being buried more and more beneath the subversive influence of Jewry'. But 'Bayreuth lives, so that there is still a temple for those who yearn ... a sacred place of edification and the holy enjoyment of art.'

The 'little one' grew up venerating the Bayreuth circle and angry about the supposed outrages committed by 'Jewish' Modernism, which desecrated the memory of Richard Wagner, the 'Master', and dragged it through the mire. In terms of ideology and aesthetics there was an ever-increasing gulf between the unchanging, emotionally charged and solemn Bayreuth style, with its old stage sets and costumes, and the enthusiastically experimental modern staging of Wagner in Berlin, Munich, Dresden or Vienna, rejected as 'Jewish' and 'un-German'. For Klindworth, conductors such as Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Leo Blech, Felix von Weingartner and Otto Klemperer were 'the Jewish-appreciation-society rabble'. Klindworth's loathing of the contemporary musical life of Berlin was so great that he never took Winifred to a Wagner opera there. Her first great experience of Wagner was to be in Bayreuth.

Klindworth's party-political orientation followed the line of his friend Heinrich Class, the powerful leader of the Pan-German League and editor of the Alldeutsche Blätter (Pan-German Journal) and the Deutsche Zeitung (German Newspaper). With his 1912 publication Wenn ich der Kaiser wär (If I were the Emperor) Class became a much-quoted authority among nationalists and anti-Semites. In it he sketched out his idea of a strong 'Pan-Germany', including Austria and German Bohemia, according to the principle of 'one people, one empire'. To enable this Pan-Germany to gain world-wide respect, he demanded an active colonial and ship-building policy directed against the world power, England. Domestically, he called for a strong dictatorial government that would deprive Parliament of power, prevent universal suffrage, and neutralize 'Reds' and Jews alike. For him, since the Jews were responsible for 'devastating and ruining our public life', the 'gift of emancipation' should be taken away from them. Only this would give the Germany they had 'led astray' the power to renew itself. Class thought the best way to realize these aims would be war at the earliest possible opportunity.

Klindworth adopted these articles of belief as his own, and as early as 1907 he was writing to Evan in Bayreuth: 'I believe that only a terrible world war can release the tension, and only the most awful misery can bring our people back to prudence and moderation, faith and moral aspiration.' Such ideas were also propagated by the Bayreuther Blätter (Bayreuth Journal), which was read as a kind of bible in the Klindworth household. It mixed scholarly essays on Wagner's music with articles on national politics, modern race theories and nationalistic poems by its editor, Hans von Wolzogen. Klindworth wrote in 1913: 'I firmly believe that our group will one day lend a powerful hand to liberating our misguided people from the degrading chains of their enemies within.'

When Henriette Klindworth fell dangerously ill and could no longer run the household, the thirteen-year-old Winifred was sent away to boarding school. But this was not without its problems. Winifred was a spirited child, and on one occasion she deliberately disrupted the crocodile of schoolgirls by repeatedly changing her pace, until the teacher, Ethel Scott, lost her temper and boxed her ear. The girl instantly retaliated in kind. After lengthy discussions, the school authorities concluded that this retaliatory blow was a reflex action, and decided not to expel her. 'Scotty', the recipient of the box on the ear, was to become a lifelong friend.

In 1913 Klindworth described Winifred's achievements at sixteen: 'Our foster child finishes high school this Easter, with a very pleasing report-she has turned out handsomely, has a lively spirit, moves energetically, and always tries hard to be one of the best in the class ... if we are spared long enough for her, she is likely to be well prepared to enter life's fray.' A tall, attractive girl, Winifred had no particular career ambitions; she was good at drawing and watercolours, but first of all, in Berlin she took the 'finishing' training in household management that was customary for girls in bourgeois circles. The training school, only five years old, was part of a large educational establishment that offered everything from a kindergarten to a humanities-based grammar school. Every day the girls in the domestic-science school prepared a four-course lunch and served it to the teachers, at tables laid by the pupils, in a variety of formal styles. The syllabus included infant care, French and civics, the last taught with the aid of the Kreuzzeitung, a nationalist-conservative newspaper. For dancing classes they were joined by cadets from the military academy.


In the summer of 1911, when she was fourteen, Winifred witnessed a 'smear campaign' in the press, as she later described it, against Siegfried Wagner, the 'son of the Master'. She had never met him, but he was highly regarded by Klindworth. Seventy years later she still remembered 'the paper sellers on the Berlin streets shouting: "Siegfried Wagner versus Richard Strauss"'. Siegfried had attacked his former close friend Strauss in an interview. He said it was 'profoundly sad' that Wagner's Parsifal should be staged in theatres 'which had been defiled by the disastrous works of Richard Strauss', on 'boards which had been crossed by the revolting Salome, and also by Elektra, who could only be called a mockery of Sophocles, a profanation of the whole of classicism. My father would turn in his grave if he could see the decline evident in the operas of Richard Strauss ... since when has art been synonymous with filth?' Strauss was speculating 'upon his audience's most impure and base instincts and exploiting them to make money'. He compared Strauss to a 'stock exchange speculator', and declared: 'But let the demi-monde keep to itself, and not try to serve up at a respectable table dishes crawling with bacilli and full of the worst kind of poison.'

In his criticism of Strauss Siegfried revealed his own problems: 'He moves for ever in the light! The conquering hero! His fame knows no bounds! What are the likes of us compared to him? I am satisfied if I'm allowed to light my little oil-lamp here and there and present my operas to the small company of those who take pleasure in folk-sagas and German-ness. It's a kind of catacomb existence!'

Siegfried loudly lamented the failure of his operas Der Bärenhäuter (The Idler), Herzog Wildfang (Duke Wildfang), Der Kobold (The Goblin), Bruder Lustig (Brother Lustig), Sternengebot (The Command of the Stars), Banadietrich (Banadietrich) and Schwarzschwanenreich (Kingdom of the Black Swans). They were composed in the style of his teacher Engelbert Humperdinck, with texts he had written himself, printed at his own expense and sometimes performed with the aid of rich sponsors. He ascribed his choice of themes from German folk-tales to his need 'to draw closer to the soul of the German people, the only antidote to the pestilence of the metropolis'. Among the 'Modernists' Siegfried's composing and poetic talents aroused a good deal of scorn and derision. Karl Kraus, alluding to Siegfried's 'unnatural likeness' to his father, foisted upon him the words: 'Even if I can't write music, at least I look the part.' And Claude Debussy wrote in 1903 about Duke Wildfang: 'Decent music, nothing more; a bit like an exercise by a pupil who has studied under Richard Wagner-one whom his teacher did not consider very promising.'

Artistically, Wagner's son could not hold a candle to Strauss, unanimously favoured by the Berlin liberal press. Conscious that Siegfried's aggression could only have positive results for him as the target of the attack, Strauss stayed out of the public arena. Only later did he counter Siegfried's accusation of writing for money with the remark: 'But the difference is that I live off the takings of my own shop, not from Daddy's business.'

According to Siegfried, and in the old tradition of Bayreuth, it was 'the Jews' and their hatred for Wagner that were to blame for the malicious reviews he received: 'If my father had never written his "Judentum in der Musik" (Jewishness in Music) I would be better off!' Klindworth backed him up, and cursed the 'stupidity and brutalization of an audience that rewards such circus tricks with rapturous cheers. Things are very bad with us, our whole culture is becoming a caricature of rampant Semitism, and I'm afraid that we're sinking down irretrievably into a morass of general sensuality.'

The House of Wagner was always good at providing headlines, especially in the 'Wagner Year' of 1913, 100 years after the composer's birth and thirty after his death. In the 'Valhalla' hall of fame near Regensburg a white marble bust of Wagner was put on display. Monuments and statues to the composer proliferated throughout the world, including the USA. As 'the son of the Master', Siegfried was made a Freeman of the city of Bayreuth.


Excerpted from Winifred Wagner by BRIGITTE HAMANN Copyright © 2002 by Piper Verlag GmbH, Munchen . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Kirkus Reviews
"A unique perspective on the Wagners, centered on the clan's most controversial member and most tumultous period...Hamann diligently explores this naive young woman's slow seduction by wealth and power." (starred)
Publishers Weekly
"[I]mportant...this is a fascinating portrait not only of Winifred but of the Wagners and their milieu." (starred)

Meet the Author

BRIGITTE HAMANN is a historian. Her study of Hitler’s early years, Hitler’s Vienna, was critically acclaimed and an international bestseller. She lives in Vienna.

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