Academic journal article German Quarterly

Winifred Wagner oder Hitlers Bayreuth

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Winifred Wagner oder Hitlers Bayreuth

Article excerpt

Hamann, Brigitte. Winifred Wagner oder Hitlers Bayreuth. Munchen: Piper, 2002. 688 pp. euro26.90 hardcover.

Having completed her highly acclaimed study of Hitler's early years in Vienna (Hitlers Wien. Lehrjahre eines Diktators), Brigitte Hamann was looking for a vantage point from which she could train the lens of Alltagsgeschichte on the succeeding stages of Hitler's career. She could not have seized upon a more suitable and rewarding subject than the life of Winifred Wagner. It takes the observer into the eye of the storm and offers us glimpses, strikingly vivid and intimate, of the functioning of the Third Reich. No other group of people, not even his old comrades, was allowed to come as close to him as Winnie and her four children were. They sat on his knees and called him "uncle Wolf;" after their own father's death, they came to regard him as their substitute father-no one more fervently than Wieland, the composer's grandson and heir apparent. To the extent that Hitler had any need for the warmth of a normal family life, he experienced it at Bayreuth, where he stopped more frequently between 1923 and 1940 than anyone had realized.

It is no exaggeration to say that Winifred may be regarded as a key figure for the understanding of social and cultural history in 20th century Germany. To produce an adequate account of this paradigmatic figure, access to primary sources is crucial. In this regard, like many scholars before her, Hamann ran into some major road blocks. Access to materials under the control of Wolfgang Wagner was granted only selectively, even though he originally had proposed to Hamann to write a biography of his mother. Winifred's letters to Wieland were withheld by Wieland's descendents. Most importantly, however, the voluminous papers of both Siegfried and Winifred, including personal letters by Hitler and other Nazi bigwigs, remain locked away in the safe of a Munich bank. The precise nature of Hitler's entanglement with the Wagners won't be known, therefore, until those archival treasures are made available. The Wagners, in contrast to the Mann family, are notorious for this practice of stonewalling; it merely continues a "Tradition der Verhinderung" (364), for which primarily Winifred must be held responsible and about which Hamann, as any historian would, writes with a good deal of bitterness.

Normally, such denial of access would be fatal to any serious scholarly work. Not so in this particular case because there exists a great deal of primary sources scattered in various places that is accessible. Furthermore, there are local and national newspapers, published and unpublished memoirs, and, last but not least, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's legendary 1975 film interview with Winifred, expertly analyzed here by Hamann. It is a measure of her caliber as a researcher that she located an impressive array of unpublished sources, such as letters, diaries, and memos. Chief among them are the uncensored papers of Friedelind, the rebellious daughter and author of a controversial memoir about her life at Wahnfried; the lively letters of Lieselotte Schmidt, a picture book Nazi who, until her death in 1938, served as Winifred's secretary and helped with the upbringing of the children; the diaries of Gertrud Strobel, archivist at Wahnfried; and countless letters to sundry friends by Winifred, who was a tireless and refreshingly frank letter writer.

The narrative that Brigitte Hamann has woven from this rich, not infrequently juicy material can only be characterized as absorbing. Her sober-minded biography of Winifred is devoid of rhetorical exhibitionism and authorial vanity-devoid also of cumbersome theoretical reflections. Hamann's style is unpedantic; she wears her scholarship lightly despite the nearly two-and-a-half thousand notes which are extremely laconic, sometimes too much so. Only on rare, but well-timed occasions does she step forward to offer a critical comment in her own voice. But the intellectual discipline of a conscientious historian is in evidence throughout, even when she merely appears to be piecing together shreds of evidence. …

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