In 1943 Henry Alexander Murray, a psychologist at Harvard University, was commissioned by William Joseph Donovan (“Wild Bill Donovan”) – founding father of the CIA – to prepare an investigative report on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Designated as the “Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler,” it became a ground-breaking study in the fields of offender profiling and political psychology. The inquiry into the malignant and narcissistic personality of the Führer was an effort to understand the “charismatic” nature of his leadership and an attempt to “predict” patterns of his behavior and actions.
Murray interviewed a number of people who had been close to Hitler. Among those was Karl Lüdecke who in 1924 had been sent on a mission to Detroit trying to win Henry Ford’s support for the Nazi Party. Having lost Hitler’s trust he had to flee Germany. He settled in America. Another interviewee was the Harvard-educated fine art publisher Ernst Hanfstaengl who had been Hitler’s confidant during the 1920s until he was removed from the Nazi inner circle in 1933. Murray also spoke at length with Friedelind Wagner who had come to know Hitler intimately when the latter was a regular visitor to her childhood home. Her British-born mother was devoted to the future dictator and had been a Nazi Party supporter from the outset.
The Sussex Orphan
Born in the coastal town of Hastings on June 23rd, 1897, Winifred Marjorie Williams was the daughter of an actress and a theater critic. By the time she was two, both her parents were dead. She spent her early years in an orphanage. Her life changed dramatically when Henrietta Karup, a distant relative in Berlin, became aware of the young girl’s fate.
Henrietta was married to the conductor and virtuoso pianist Karl Klindworth. A former student of Franz Liszt in Weimar, Karl had lived for thirteen years in Marylebone, London, where he enjoyed a high reputation as a piano teacher. Richard Wagner called upon him during his London visit in 1855. Klindworth agreed with him to undertake the most taxing work of his life, the arrangement in vocal scores of Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Klindworth left London for Moscow in 1868 to take up a professorship at the city’s conservatoire. He returned to Germany in 1882 to become conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Wagner Society. Karl and his wife, elderly by then and childless, decided to adopt Winifred Williams in 1907 and educate her to be a “perfect Wagnerite.” Richard Wagner himself had died in 1883, but Karl and Henrietta remained in close contact with the composer’s imperious widow Cosima (Franz Liszt’s daughter). The latter invited Winifred to visit Haus Wahnfried, the family’s villa in Bayreuth.
Siegfried Wagner was Richard and Cosima’s eldest son. A conductor himself, he was the artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1908 to 1930. It was an open secret that he was bisexual. London-born pianist Clement (Clementschen) Harris, a protégé of Oscar Wilde, was Siegfried’s partner when he was in his twenties. In 1892 the two men set off for a trip around the world. Visiting London, Harris introduced Siegfried to the playwright. Wagner then invited Oscar Wilde to Bayreuth, but the plan never materialized.
The years leading up to the First World War brought a change in atmosphere in Germany. Crusaders lamented the moral decline and physical decadence of the nation. The military cracked down on lax discipline. The police began enforcing anti-gay legislation with a new fervency. Tolerance meant weakness.
The Wagner family lived in dread of a scandal and arrangements were made to marry forty-five-year-old Siegfried with the then seventeen-year-old Winifred in the hope that the union would put an end to his “embarrassing” liaisons. The two were introduced to each other at the 1914 Bayreuth Festival. Their wedding took place in September 1915.
Although Siegfried remained sexually active with other men, Winifred bore him four children. She also began playing an increasingly prominent role in the running of the Bayreuth Festival. After Siegfried’s death, she took over the management of the Festspielhaus and would dominate the Wagner Festival until the end of the World War Two.
In 1923, Adolf Hitler paid a first visit to Haus Wahnfried. Since he revered Richard Wagner’s music as the ultimate expression of the Germanic spirit, the journey felt like a pilgrimage. His emotional introduction to the Maestro’s shrine was matched by Winifred’s ecstatic response to the visitor. She welcomed Hitler as the “savior” of the nation.
The two became friends just as he was launching his political ambitions. They remained close throughout the 1920s and 1930s. She was “captivated” by Hitler’s charisma and their relationship bloomed through her adherence to Fascist policies and admiration for Nazi paraphernalia. When Hitler was jailed for nine months after leading the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923, legend has it that Winifred supplied him with the paper on which he wrote his political manifesto Mein Kampf.
On his release from prison, Adolf paid a secret visit to the Wagner household. By the time of the 1924 Bayreuth Festival, some devotees of Wagner’s music were already complaining that it was being hijacked for unsavory political purposes. After achieving power, Hitler financially supported the Festival which became a highlight of the Nazi calendar.
With Siegfried’s death, Hitler is said to have become like a second father to Winifred’s children. There were suggestions that Adolf cheated on his mistress Eva Braun with her. There was even gossip about a possible marriage between Winifred and the man she called “Wolf.” The fact that she acted as Hitler’s personal translator during the treaty negotiations with Britain in the late 1930s underlines their closeness.
After the war, she was arrested for her association with Hitler and sentenced to 450 days special labor and the confiscation of half her property. As part of the Allied initiative to rid society of all traces of the Nazi ideology (known as denazification), she was banned from organizing any future concerts or performances. When the Bayreuth Festival was revived in 1951, she was no longer involved. Her sons Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner successively took over direction of the occasion and maintained the ban imposed on their mother.
Winifred Wagner’s role in the Third Reich remains controversial. Even Siegfried was repelled by his wife’s intense anti-Semitism and hatred of communists, although she intervened on behalf of several of Siegfried’s friends and saved them from arrest. The testimony from two gay opera singers, Max Lorenz and Herbert Janssen, helped reduce Winifred’s sentence. She died in March 1980 aged eighty-two. To her last days, she remained unrepentant of her involvement with Hitler.
Bayreuth & Lucerne
Friedelind Wagner was born on March 29th, 1918, the elder daughter of Siegfried and Winifred. Growing up in Bayreuth meant that she was involved with the Festspielhaus and the family’s “duty” to promote and protect Richard Wagner’s legacy. The offering was not just a musical one, it also represented an ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic message.
After Richard’s death in 1883, Cosima kept her husband’s doctrines alive sharing views with her son-in-law, English-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was an ardent Wagnerite and the author of books that expressed anti-Semitic ideas along racist lines. There also was her mother’s unconditional support of Hitler’s ideology; her brothers Wieland and Wolfgang were Nazis too (although never prosecuted; neither of them ever repented or apologized).
Friedelind adored her father Siegfried who had led the Wagner Festival on the principle that there was no place for racial bias in music. To him, Bayreuth was a labor of peace. Jewish singers and musicians were invited to participate in the Festival. After his death, young Friedelind (she was only twelve at the time) witnessed a rapid change at Bayreuth. Cosima Wagner died that same year and Winifred found herself thrust in charge of both the family and the Festival.
In 1936, Friedelind began work as an assistant to Bayreuth’s artistic director Heinz Tietjen (he also had an affair with her mother). In the end, she rebelled. Intelligent, artistically inclined and strong-willed, she objected to the blatant propaganda uses Hitler and his cronies made of the Wagner Festivals. It offended her that during these events, her home and its grounds were filled with SS troops and members of Hitler’s personal bodyguard. The Führer himself disgusted her and she abhorred the Third Reich. To her, Bayreuth no longer felt like home.
On the eve of the Second World War she escaped to Lucerne, Switzerland, where she was given refuge by two elderly aunts who resided at the Triebschen villa, the site of the first performance in 1870 of Richard Wagner’s serenade to his infant son, the Siegfried Idyll. In the summer of 1939, Friedelind was one of the few invited guests at a unique performance of that very composition conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The Italian conductor, a long time enthusiast of Wagner’s music, was also a fierce opponent of Fascism. Once Hitler came to power, he had taken the agonizing decision to boycott Bayreuth.
London, New York & Bayreuth
Fearing for her safety (her mother warned her that the Nazis would “exterminate” her), she accepted an offer from Arthur Beverly Baxter, a British MP and journalist, to travel to London. Arriving in the spring of 1940, she was interned on the Isle of Man with thousands of other anti-Nazis, many of them Jewish refugees. Released after three months, she began writing anti-Nazi columns for the Daily Sketch tabloid newspaper, but found herself in the middle of the relentless aerial attacks on London by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, known as the Blitz.
In her time of need Arturo Toscanini proved himself to be a loyal friend. He pressured British officials to let Friedelind leave for Argentina and managed to get her a United States entrance visa, arriving in New York at the end of 1941. Struggling to make a living she worked as a waitress at Schafft’s on 42nd Street. Once settled, she re-connected with Jewish musicians and artists who had fled the horrors of the Nazi regime and stepped up her attacks on Fascism in newspaper articles and essays. In 1945 she published her memoirs Heritage of Fire in New York (released in London in 1948 as The Royal Family of Bayreuth). She became an American citizen.
In 1951, the Wagner Festivals resumed under the direction of Wieland Wagner who modernized the staging of Wagnerian operas into powerful works of musical drama. In 1953, he invited his sister to return to Bayreuth. Living on the top floor of the gardener’s cottage at Haus Wahnfried, she was never fully accepted back into the fold. It was a tribute to her character that she persisted by setting up (opera) master classes at Bayreuth which, from 1959 on to 1966, attracted students from all over the world. Bayreuth, however, never put her at ease. In 1984 she decided to leave once again, spending some time in Britain, and finally settling in Lucerne.
Symbolically, she did have the last laugh. Her final visit to Bayreuth took place in April 1990. On that dignified occasion she accompanied Leonard Bernstein, the outstanding American composer, himself the son of refugees who had escaped the horror ghettos of Ukraine. The occasion took place months before his death (Friedelind died a little over a year later), but the two elderly musicians showed to the world that the creative spirit does and will overcome animosity and divisiveness.
Illustrations, from above: Haus Wahnfried, Richard Wagner’s villa in Bayreuth; Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, c. 1929; Winifred Wagner-Williams and Adolf Hitler at Bayreuth; Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus celebrating Hitler’s birthday on April 20th, 1939; Hitler and Winifred (and her sons) in the garden of Haus Wahnfried in 1937; and Richard Wagner’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang with Hitler.