Winifred Wagner: A Memoir

by Matt Koehl



UNSWERVING LOYALTY — Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred welcomes the Führer to Wahnfried, the family home in Bayreuth. Her allegiance never wavered with changing circumstances.

NO FIGURE HAD A GREATER or more profound impact on the cultural life of Europe during the past century [and a half] than Richard Wagner. Not only did this creative titan succeed in stirring contemporary artistic circles to their foundations, however. More importantly, with his concepts — political, social, and racial, as well as artistic — he anticipated Adolf Hitler and inspired the development of the National-Socialist idea. Awakened as a youth of 17 to a consciousness of his extraordinary mission and destiny by a performance of Rienzi, the Leader himself was later to declare: “Whoever wants to understand National-Socialism must first know Wagner.”

The tradition started by the Master of Bayreuth succeeded after his death to his wife, Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, and when she died to their son, Siegfried. After Siegfried’s death in 1930, the glorious legacy was passed on to Winifred Wagner, his remarkable widow and without doubt one of the greatest women of the [last] century.

On March 5th [1980], Frau Wagner died in Überlingen on the Bodensee at the age of 82. The daughter of John and Emily Karop Williams, she was of English-Welsh and Danish descent. Orphaned when she was only two years old, she left her native England at age 10 for Germany, where she was adopted and raised by the famous pianist-conductor, Karl Klindworth, and his wife. In 1912, at the age of 18, she joined the Wagner family when she married Siegfried.

With the rise of the National-Socialist party in Germany, the Wagner family threw its enthusiastic support behind Adolf Hitler and was affiliated with his Movement from the earliest days. Siegfried himself made no secret of his sympathy for the great, new Idea. His mother, Cosima, welcomed Hitler to Wahnfried and took the trouble to write to a local paper urging public support for the 1923 Munich revolt. For her part, Winifred quietly undertook to send “CARE” packages to Hitler during his imprisonment at Landsberg. One of those packages contained the note paper on which the Leader wrote Mein Kampf!

When Siegfried died in 1930, Winifred Wagner assumed direction of the Bayreuth festivals, a responsibility which she held until the end of the Second World War. She brought in first-rate artists, such as Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Richard Strauss, Emil Preetorious, Heinz Tietjen and Maria Müller; and under her guiding hand not only did Bayreuth become the foremost musical center of Europe, but it achieved a level of excellence which has never been equaled.

Because of her ardent support of Hitler, U.S. occupation authorities drove Frau Wagner out of Bayreuth after the war and banned her from the festivals. Eventually she did return to the city, however, where her majestic presence served to haunt the uneasy consciences of every usurper and despoiler, just as it acted as a bright reminder and symbol for all true disciples of the Master.

In her later years, Winifred Wagner was active on behalf of the hundreds of individuals who, more than a generation after the end of the war, were the victims of political persecution in “democratic” West Germany and elsewhere. Unrepentant and loyal to the ideals which she had always held, she continued to display a picture of the Führer beside that of her illustrations of her father-in-law there in her home at Wahnfried.


I MET WINIFRED WAGNER on two occasions.

The first time was just prior to the dress rehearsal of Siegfried in July 1975. It was my first visit to Bayreuth, and my introduction to Frau Wagner had been arranged through the courtesy of the late Dr. Hans Severus Ziegler.

Dr. Ziegler had been the general director of the German National Theater at Weimar, as well as a distinguished member of the Cultural Senate of the Reich during the National-Socialist period. One of the Doctor’s grandparents was the German-American, Gustav Schirmer, who founded the famous music publishing firm in New York City bearing his name. It was Schirmer’s business with many renowned artists and musicians which formed the basis for the Ziegler family friendships with such great personalities as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss.

In 1923, Dr. Ziegler joined the National-Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP). A short time later he founded the first party weekly, Der Nationalsozialist, and was named deputy director of the NSDAP for the state of Thuringia. It was during this period that the Doctor became a close personal friend of the Leader. In 1925, following Hitler’s release from prison, he was present at the historic reorganization of the Movement, and it subsequently was the venerable Doctor who suggested the name Hitlerjugend for the renascent youth of Germany.

The very close ties of Siegfried and Winifred Wagner with the Hitler movement were made possible by the long-established friendship between the Wagners and the Zieglers. (Details of this remarkable union are given in Ziegler’s first postwar book, Adolf Hitler aus dem Erleben dargestellt, Verlag K.W. Schütz, Göttingen, 1965.) It was only fitting, then, that the Doctor should choose to consummate his life’s work by bringing together the standard-bearers of two great traditions: one representing the immortal cultural legacy of the Master of Bayreuth, and the other the dynamic, historic will of a reborn National-Socialist movement.


I HAD LONG LOOKED FORWARD to this meeting with the Grand Lady of Bayreuth. For her part, Frau Wagner had been kind and gracious enough to take time out from an extremely busy schedule to confer with me. She fairly radiated as she welcomed me into her home, and I was immediately struck by her magnificent warmth and unpretentious dignity. As a small token of my respect and esteem, I presented her with a bouquet of red and white carnations. She thanked me and then jokingly apologized that she had never been properly “denazified.” I forgave her!

Frau Wagner had just returned from a voyage to the North Cape of Norway. Recharged and reinvigorated by the hyperborean experience, she reminisced about the great pan-Germanic, pan-Nordic vision which had generated so much enthusiasm during the wonderful days of the Führer —  a vision which had inspired the works of Wagner himself, one in which she continued to see the redeeming hope for the future.

We stepped outside and walked over to the gravesite of Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima, where we paused for a moment of silent tribute. Afterwards, Frau Wagner took me aside and showed me the horrible damage which Allied bombs had wrought on Wahnfried during the Second World War. She went on to describe how American “souvenir collectors” proceeded to loot and desecrate the estate after 1945. I shook my head in utter disgust and revulsion. “Yes, indeed,” I said, as we slowly turned away.

Before I left Bayreuth, Frau Wagner paid me the ultimate honor of insisting that I attend a performance of the great Ring drama Siegfriedauf dem grünen Hügel — and that as head of the World Union of National Socialists I should sit in the very seat in the Wagner family loge formerly reserved for the Leader himself during his frequent visits to the Festpielhaus.

It was a magic moment. Not only was it a warm personal meeting and supreme cultural experience, but it was in fact an historic occasion in which the glorious tradition of Bayreuth was linked forever to the true, reborn Movement of Adolf Hitler.


WHEN I RETURNED TO VILLA WAHNFRIED two years later, during the summer of 1977, much had changed. The old house, once gutted and in ruins, had been restored. Unfortunately, while the physical aspect at Bayreuth had improved, the spiritual condition of the Festpiele themselves had worsened and the performances had become something thoroughly grotesque and repulsive. Alien influences had invaded the hallowed ground. In the hands of these subterranean forces, the very drama which I had so joyously experienced two years earlier had become a cheap, disgusting parody of the legendary Teutonic hero.

Winifred Wagner herself had been declared persona non grata at the Festspiele. The immediate occasion was her “indiscretion” in granting an interview to French television in which, without apology, she staunchly defended her association with Adolf Hitler and his Cause.

But if Frau Wagner was not welcome at the old Festspielhaus, then for her the performances in their aberrant state of desecration and tasteless perversion had themselves become non grata. The abominations wrought by such as Boulez, Chereau and Kupfer were particularly painful to her, and under no circumstance would she allow herself to suffer through the unholy spectacle of a Siegfried in latter-day bourgeois attire or a Dutchman in blackface.

Frau Wagner spoke to me of her fears and concerns for the future. I reassured her that all of this, too, would pass away, and that what was happening and had happened — could only be seen properly as a part of something much bigger. She agreed.

As we took leave of one another for the last time, she thanked me warmly for having stopped by to see her. She then took my hands and in a soft, steady voice said: “I don’t have much time left. At one time, I had great hopes that my sons would carry on the tradition of their grandfather. But it is too late for that now. Bayreuth has been betrayed, and now comes the Götterdämmerung.”

I reminded the good woman that according to ancient tradition, the Twilight of the Gods is but the prelude to a new age, redeemed and purified.

She smiled.

“Yes,” she conceded. “You are right. You and your movement are now our only hope.”

Matt Koehl is commander of the NEW ORDER and president of the World Union of National Socialists. He served as deputy to George Lincoln Rockwell in the first postwar National Socialist party after World War II, which became the NEW ORDER. This tribute appeared under the title “Winifred Wagner & Adolf Hitler: A Special Friendship” in The National Socialist, Number 2, Fall 1980.

Source: New Order

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