Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fate of those who Expose Skeletons in the Closet

Gottfried Wagner (born 13 April 1947 in Bayreuth) is a multimedia director and publicist.  Gottfried Wagner is the son of Wolfgang Wagner and a great-grandchild of Richard Wagner. His Ph.D. is about Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. He has concentrated on German culture and politics, as well as Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries in numerous publications. He is a member of the PEN-Club Liechtenstein and in 1992 was a co-founder of the Post-Holocaust Discussion Group.

He has been living in Italy since 1993, and has estranged himself from his father's family, openly criticising their involvement with the Nazi regime.  Gottfried Wagner's father, Wolfgang, had a conniption fit when Gottfried went public with old family film footage from the 1940s showing the Wagner family frolicking with Uncle Wolf, the family's familiar name for the German Führer, Adolf Hitler.  The Wagners didn't want the family's ties to Uncle Wolf broadcast to the world-at-large.

The death last month of Wolfgang Wagner, the 90-year-old director of the famed Bayreuth festival, was described by numerous commentators -- in keeping with the spirit of the operas of his grandfather RichardWagner -- as a "Götterdämmerung" moment. Historians and cultural critics claimed that the Wagner dynasty, tainted by historic connections and alleged sympathies with the Nazi era, now had the chance to move beyond those embarrassing associations.

So far, it has not worked out like that. Instead old family feuds are again being aired in public, with the revelation that Wolfgang Wagner's only son was prevented from seeing him on his deathbed. Gottfried Wagner, 62, had been estranged from his father for more than 20 years, after lobbying him to confront the family's connections with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. He was left to read in an Italian paper about the impresario's death at 2 am on 21 March 2010.

Wagner Jr, now a theatre director who lives in Milan, has also been excluded from the inner family circle as it mourns the death of its towering patriarch, and was even refused permission to attend the funeral. He has told friends that he is distraught at not knowing even where his father's ashes have been placed.

Next Sunday, family, friends and dignitaries, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is a keen Wagner fan, will gather at the opera house on the Green Hill, as Bayreuth is affectionately known, for a memorial service to celebrate Wagner's life. Gottfried Wagner is still waiting to receive an invitation, but says that if necessary he will plead with Merkel to intervene on his behalf. "If it comes to it, I'll ask her to get me a ticket," he said.

The Wagner family has been riven by bitter feuding for years. A decade of wrangling over who would take the reins of the festival from the ageing Wolfgang saw acrimonious battles between family members, and often dominated the public image of the festival. The power struggle was resolved with the decision to give his now 32-year-old daughter Katharina and her half-sister Eva, who is in her 60s, joint positions as co-directors. Even though, with his maturity and theatre experience, Gottfried might have been the more suitable candidate, he was not even considered for the post.

Most Germans are not even aware that Wolfgang had a son, so well did the festival director erase him from his life.

"The story of Gottfried Wagner is the story of a lost son," wrote Olaf Przybilla in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which broke the story of the latest family dispute. Gottfried was ostracised as a result of his frequent attempts to persuade his father that he should finally deal with his own and the family's Nazi connections. He tackled questions about Bayreuth and its Nazi past that hardly any other family member had addressed. He was banned from the family villa in 1975.

Wagner Sr, who throughout his life faced lingering accusations that he had not done enough to break with his family's past and its proximity to Adolf Hitler (his Welsh mother, Winifred Williams, was even rumoured to be the Führer's lover), was furious to hear that his son had taken on a self-appointed missionary role that threatened to sully the family name. He wrote to him outlining his disapproval. Addressing him "as your father and as the head of the festival", he told Gottfried that he "no longer existed" for him and later referred to him as a "leftist crackpot".


Gary Freedman said...

"A self-appointed missionary role that threatened to sully the firm's name."

Gary Freedman said...

Nazi Germany: Another cult!

God, I hate cults. All that goose stepping.

Gary Freedman said...

What a Family!

In 1915, Siegfried Wagner (the composer's son), in his mid-40s and openly gay, married the English-born Winifred Williams, 18. On his death, she took over the festival. An ardent anti-Semite, Winifred maintained a close friendship with Hitler, who visited Bayreuth often. (She was reported to have given Hitler the writing paper on which he composed “Mein Kampf.”) As a boy, Wolfgang studied music privately in Bayreuth and later studied theater in Berlin.

In 1939, after enlisting in the German Army, Wolfgang took part in the invasion of Poland and was wounded. (The invasion, as one of his sisters explained in “The Wagner Family,” a documentary shown on British television last year, was planned at Bayreuth using Wolfgang’s geography textbook.)