Rejecting a Family Legacy


One night in the early 1960s when Gottfried Wagner was a teenager, he crept up to a monumental bust of his great-grandfather, Richard Wagner, in a park in the village of Bayreuth, a sleepy Bavarian hamlet transformed every summer by the annual Wagner festival into a pilgrimage destination for opera lovers from around the world.

But for young Wagner, his famous ancestor represented something besides the soul-stirring music that has enraptured listeners for 150 years. To Gottfried his great-grandfather was a hideous symbol of hate whose achingly beautiful operas and fierce anti-Semitic writing combined to inspire Hitler's genocide against the Jews. The train to Auschwitz, Gottfried believed, started in Bayreuth.

Gottfried smeared red paint all over the bust of his famous relative. The next day he stood amid the gasping crowd that wondered who would do such a thing. "I looked on with relish," he writes in his recently published memoir, "Twilight of the Wagners" (Picador), "while the fire brigade cleaned up the menacing monster."

Wagner, now 52, has spent most of his adult life trying to make people see his great-grandfather as a monster whose ugly racial views are inextricably intertwined with his musical genius.

"In the U.S. people like to separate Wagner the ideologue from Wagner the artist," Gottfried says over lunch in San Francisco. "That is impossible to do. He wanted to change society with his art. He is very precise in his psychological impact on the listener. People get almost hypnotized."

Gottfried Wagner certainly strikes his critics as hypnotized, as obsessed with his great-grandfather--who died 60 years before he was born--as the composer was with the Jews. Or as Hitler was with the composer. Gottfried's father, Wolfgang Wagner, who runs the Bayreuth festival, hasn't really spoken to him since the mid-'70s. While he once considered taking his wife's name to escape the shackles of the family history (he chose Mendelssohn's wedding march over his great-grandfather's wedding music for his ceremony), Gottfried now seems resigned to being the official anti-Wagner.

He certainly looks the part. His white hair seems to stand up with Teutonic intensity. His small gray eyes bore like a diamond drill. His sharp nose and arched eyebrows carry the family's famously stern visage. His conversation comes in operatic bursts. You almost expect him to slap on a horned helmet, jump atop the table, wave a spear and blast forth in song.

"This is a farewell," he almost sings in his accented English. "My book is a farewell to a family tradition I can no longer accept. It's a book against denial. This family had quite a responsibility to culture and politics in Germany."

This family, he says, not my family. Wagner, to judge by his book, felt alienated from his family even before he grew repelled by its complicity in the Nazi regime. As a child playing in the attic of the Wagner theater he stumbled across pictures of his grandmother, uncle and father with Adolf Hitler. The Fuehrer, it turns out, was Uncle Wolf. (The memoir was first published in Germany in 1997 under the translated title "He Who Doesn't Howl With the Wolves.")

Hitler was an annual guest at Bayreuth starting in 1923--a decade before he came to power--and was an honored visitor for 20 years. Hitler once asked Gottfried's grandmother, Winifred, to marry him, and she in turn sent him the paper on which he wrote "Mein Kampf" in prison.

His earliest memory of hearing his great-grandfather's music is as a 4-year-old filled with dread. "I found it very frightening," he says.

His own taste runs to the music of Kurt Weill, on whom Gottfried wrote his thesis for a PhD at the University of Vienna. But as a musicologist he still finds his great-grandfather fascinating. He says he once thought he could disentangle the artist from the ideologue, the mythic operas with their gods and dwarfs and cataclysm of fire and water from the malice toward the Jews. Now he sees the two sides of Wagner as inseparable. And he is dismayed that Americans don't seem to ponder the implications of the work. "It's treated like a fantasy world from Walt Disney," he says with scorn. "It's infantile."

Gottfried Wagner has also grown more irritated with and alienated from his family as he has dug up one dismaying discovery after another. He chanced, for example, upon reels of home movies shot by his father starring Hitler and stored in the sidecar of a motorcycle. His father didn't want to talk about the past. Wolfgang Wagner barely mentions Hitler in his own memoir. "His life is based on denial," his son says.


One of Gottfried Wagner's most disturbing discoveries was made in Israel at the Diaspora Museum, where he learned that Bayreuth had a Jewish community for 600 years--until Hitler sent the town's Jews away to concentration camps from which they did not return. Where, he wonders in his book, was the Wagner family?

Wagner's relentless plumbing of his family's past tore apart his already-strained relationship with his father. After he adopted a Romanian orphan and sent his father a picture of the boy, the elder Wagner returned the photo. Wagner laments the estrangement and points out that he has tried for a rapprochement--but not at the price of muting his criticism of the family. "He was expecting that I not talk critically of Wagner," he says, "which I cannot do."

Gottfried worked one stint as an assistant director under his father at Bayreuth in 1976 but now accuses his father of blackballing his career as a stage director. And he has loudly criticized Wolfgang Wagner's productions for toning down anti-Semitic elements in some of the operas. Paradoxically, while Gottfried finds much of his operatic inheritance objectionable, he opposes attempts to dilute the work. Wagner says he would even like to direct Wagner in Israel, where there is an unofficial ban on performing the composer's work. "I would follow Richard Wagner's indications, which would make it explosive," Gottfried says. "I want to provoke a more profound reading of the scores."

His musical career has been intermittent (for a while he worked as a banker), but with the memoir finally published he would like to concentrate on music again. He has an upcoming gig to stage direct a Weill opera in Portugal and is collaborating on an opera based on the memoir of a Holocaust survivor. He also co-founded the Post Holocaust Dialog Group, an organization that fosters contact between Germany and Israel. "There are limits to historical research," he says. "There comes a point where you say, 'We, the second generation, are living here and now and what can we do?' "

Gottfried, who lives outside Milan, spends much of his time lecturing about his great-grandfather. In 1996, he gave a talk at Occidental College and a dozen neo-Nazis popped out of the audience giving Nazi salutes, disputing that the Holocaust happened and shouting that Gottfried should be proud to be a Wagner.

But on this trip, Wagner encountered mostly his great-grandfather's more respectable admirers. In fact, he was in the Bay Area a week before the San Francisco Opera began a production of Wagner's massive, 18-hour, four-opera "Ring" cycle. At the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, he spoke to a polite group, most of whose questions afterward were more about music than politics. Which of Wagner's operatic characters, wondered one person, do you identify with the most?

Wagner shook his white mane. "I don't identify with any of them," he said. "I'm just Gottfried."

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