Friday 6 May 2022

Robert Aickman and Winifred Wagner

Winifred Wagner

In Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, I discuss the author’s admiration for the actress and film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. I show how Aickman had an uncomfortable appreciation of figures associated with Fascism, and how he was happy to overlook what might seem obvious faults if he considered them to be great artists. Riefenstahl was not the only instance of this.

In a letter to Ramsey Campbell dated 29th November 1976, Aickman wrote:

Have you seen the Winifred Wagner film? Though not up to much cinematographically, it is, as The Times said, ‘Spellbinding’.

The film is The Confessions of Winifred Wagner, essentially a five hour interview given by Wagner in 1975 to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Aickman is likely to have seen the 105 minute version edited for cinema release in the UK.

Wagner was an interesting woman: born in Hastings in England in 1898 and orphaned by the age of two, she was brought up in a series of Sussex children’s homes. Aged ten, she was adopted by relatives of her mother and moved to Germany. Her adopted parents were friends of Richard Wagner, the composer, theatre director, polemicist and conductor, best known for his operas.

Wagner’s son, Siegfried, ran the successful Bayreuth Festival, which had been passed to him by his father. Siegfried was secretly bisexual and it was arranged that seventeen year old Winifred Klindworth (as she was known at that time) would meet Siegfried (aged forty-five), and a year later, they married. The Wagner family hoped that the marriage would shield Siegfried and the family from scandal, and also provide heirs. Winifred and Siegfried dutifully had four children before he died in 1930, when Winifred took over the running of the Bayreuth Festival.

Siegfried and Winifred Wagner

In 1923 Winifred met Adolf Hitler, an admirer of Richard Wagner’s music, and became devoted to him. When Hitler was jailed in 1923 for his part in a failed Nazi Party coup d’état, Wagner not only sent him food parcels, but also stationery on which Mein Kampf may well have been written. In the 1930s she served as Hitler’s translator and their relationship grew so close that by 1933 there were rumours of impending marriage. The Wagner home in Bayreuth became Hitler’s favourite retreat. (He was there so frequently that after the war the Americans assumed it had been his property.)

Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner

Winifred Wagner remained personally loyal to Hitler throughout her life (she died in 1980, aged 82), and never admitted any error in their relationship. She insisted that she only ever experienced an immensely positive side of Hitler's personality, and could disassociate that from his (reported) darker side. Hitler was known in her family as 'Wolf'.

In Syberberg's film, Winifred claimed to be absolutely 'unpolitical', but she also admitted she was an ardent National Socialist. Such contradictions are a thread in the film. Another example is that at Bayreuth, Hitler was apparently able to forget affairs of state and consider only music, yet Winifred describes how great political decisions were made there. (She was excluded from her own living room when discussions took place about the exact position of Siegfried Line.)

Winifred was consulted by Hitler about important artists who might be exempted from military service. She also appears to have successfully interceded on the part of a number of Jews and homosexual men who were being persecuted. One particular letter she wrote in the late 1930s to Hitler seems to have prevented Hedwig and Alfred Pringsheim (whose daughter was married to the author Thomas Mann) from being arrested by the Gestapo. It is interesting that this letter should have surfaced when the vast majority of her two-decade long correspondence with Hitler, which has been preserved, has never been made available to researchers. One important motivation for her itercessions (which were generally successful) was to give the Bayreuth Festival access to the best artists.

Winifred Wagner at the train station of Bayreuth, 1941

Winifred Wagner argues at the end of the film that contemporary critics cannot possibly understand how ordinary Germans felt about Hitler at the time. Her own children, however, were able to see him for the monster he was. In 1939 Winifred's daughter, Friedeland, became an outspoken critic of Hitler and left Germany. After the war Winifred's son Wieland, a favourite of the Fuhrer, condemned Hitler. In the film Winifred refuses to admit that she did anything wrong, and even acts as an apologist for Hitler by stating that he allowed himself to be too much influenced by others around him. She also does her best to 'humanise' Hitler by offering information such as his enjoyment of 'liver dumplings, despite usually having a vegetarian diet.

After the defeat of Germany, a de-Nazification court banned Winifred from the Bayreuth Festival, the running of which was passed to her sons Wieland and Wolfgang. She complained to Syberberg that she was accused of being a 'beneficiary' of Nazism, but pointed out that her own son ended up being allowed to run 'her' festival and was therefore even more of a beneficiary, and that he was essentially ungrateful considering the favours Hitler had bestowed on him.

By the 1950s Winifred Wagner was once again a successful political hostess. Her grandson has written,

. . . the first lady of right-wing groups . . . received political friends such as Emmy Göring, Ilse Hess, Adolf von Thadden [co-founder of the National Democratic Party], Gerdy Troost, the wife of the Nazi architect and friend of Hitler Paul Ludwig Troost, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, the German NS-movie director Karl Ritter and the racist author and former Senator of the Reich Hans Severus Ziegler.
Gottfried Wagner, Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult  (Cologne, 1997)

Winifred Wagner interviewed in 1975

Given his views, it is perhaps not surprising that Aickman thought the interview given by Wagner was ‘spellbinding’ (others may reasonably consider it an over-long exercise in self-justification and a display of what we would now call 'entitlement'). However, in his letter to Ramsey Campbell, Aickman also wrote:

Winifred Wagner emerges unmistakeably as a Great Soul.

It is difficult to understand this statement unless one takes Winifred's claims at face value and ignores the obvious contradictions. She insists that she was a scapegoat, and one assumes that her devotion to music and her passionate loyalty to her friend, 'Wolf', commended her to Aickman. Were these qualities, for Aickman, more important than the fact that she was devoted to the dictator responsible for World War Two, who had perpetrated the Holocaust? It is very difficult to understand in what way Aickman could have thought her ‘a Great Soul’.

The above is an expansion of material from Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell.


With thanks to Gary Couzens, Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement. 

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