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Rejecting a Family Legacy

Richard Wagner's great-grandson says in his memoir he's convinced his ancestor's music is tainted by Nazi sympathies.

July 19, 1999|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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?

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