Reassessing the first rebel of Bayreuth

Reassessing the first rebel of Bayreuth


norman lebrecht

January 24, 2014

In today’s Wall Street Journal, I review the new English translation of Eva Riger’s biography of Friedelind Wagner.

Friedelind, sister of Wieland and Wolfgang, was the first member of the unholy family to denounce its racism and leave Bayreuth … only to come crawling back, begging forgiveness. Wolfgang never forgave. Hers was a profoundly compromised and troubled life. Read the review here.

friedelind wagner


  • william1951 says:

    Unfortunately a subscription is required to read the article.

  • william1951 says:

    Friedelin took a principled and very courageous stand by breaking with her family, denouncing their close association with Hitler, and by moving to America and working against National Socialism during the war. It says a great deal about the Wagner family that even after the war they literally treated her like a traitor.

    It is also says a lot that in post-war Germany her work against National Socialism was met with a cold silence for the most part when in fact she should have been celebrated as a courageous resistance fighter. Sometimes silence speaks volumes…

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      She wasn’t a “courageous resistance fighter”. There some who were, and many of them paid with their lives. Sh refused to play along, and that is a laudable attitude and it certainly can’t have been easy for here. But please let’s not exaggerate. It was more a personal rebellion against a family she didn’t like. There wasn’t anything she could have done to really work against the Nazis anyway. She wasn’t that important, just happened to have been born into a prominent family. But even those who really were among the most prominent public figures back then could do very little against the machinery of terror that the Nazi regime was. See Thomas Mann or Wilhelm Furtwängler, much more influential people at the time, and how they fared when they protested against the regime.

      • william1951 says:

        After immigrating to the USA Friedelind made regular anti-Nazi broadcasts on the radio. She also worked with the OSS (the United States intelligence agency formed during the war) to create a psychological profile of Hitler since she and her family had close personal contact to him. Those a very significant actions are far more than what people like Furtwängler did.

        It’s worth noting that her parents correctly and contemptuously told her that the Nazis would have her killed if they ever got the chance. This was a particular danger while she was living in Zurich and Argentina before Toscanini helped her get a US visa.

        There are, of course, people who want to downplay the principled and courageous stand the “little mouse” took. Their comments often ironically speak for themselves…

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          No, I just want to put things in a more realistic perspective here. There is really no need for your cheap shot insinuations. It doesn’t add anything to the discussion.

          What good do you think did having “a psychological profile of Hitler” do? Did it help end the war quicker?

          There were far, far, far more prominent Germans like Thomas Mann or Marlene Dietrich who spoke out against the Nazis but it didn’t make much, if any, difference either. I guess Dietrich’s boosting the morale of the troops helped the soldiers a little bit, but apart from that, it’s not like the rest of the world hadn’t already figured out that the Nazis were up to no good so they needed to be told.

          And, I have never heard of them attempting to assassinate even such prominent figures as Mann or Dietrich. Because they knew that it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. They were kind of busy with waging the biggest war in history. So maybe her parents told her that which is of course a really nasty thing to do, but it is completely unrealistic to think that there was a real danger for her unless you learn your history from cheap novels.

          • william1951 says:

            The National Socialists murdered countless political opponents. There was even a special insignia for them in the concentration camps. We should remember that Friedelind also spoke against Hitler before she left the country. One of the first steps in all occupied territories was to round up and murder all political and cultural leaders who might stand in opposition to the occupation. Just as I predicted, “Michael Schaffer” and his ilk will be obsessed with demeaning the “little mouse” who challenged the Wagner family’s close collaboration with Hitler.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            You are getting more and more insulting with every post. “Michael Schaffer” and “his ilk” – notice how you even try to demean my name, very odd that.

            But simply ridiculing someone because of his or name is exactly the technique that you keep saying was used against the “little mouse”. You repeat that over and over again even though I already explained that that isn’t a demeaning name to call someone in your family at all. But you keep repeating that, trying to hammer it in, obviously because you don’t have much arguments of any substance.

            Also, I never denied that Friedelind Wagner challenged her family’s association with Hitler and I never tried to “demean” her for that either. You are now just freely making up stuff. You are trying to smear me as some kind of Nazi sympathizer in the vilest way. Goebbels would be proud of you.

          • The pair of you, stop right here.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “Richard Wagner’s descendants would be of no more interest than Mozart’s were it not for the tenacious grip they exert on the festival he founded in Bayreuth”

    I guess that’s because there are no living descendants of Mozart – both his surviving sons died childless.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    However when Wolfgang was still there, she was around in Bayreuth. Tolerated somehow. I met her there. Maybe it suited Wolfgang to have her around. Or maybe she had a right anyway to be there.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “At home, they called her Mausi (“little mouse”), which even among Wagners isn’t very nice.”

    Au contraire, Norman, in German that is a very nice and actually very common affectionate diminutive of “Maus”, just like “Mausel”, “Mauselchen”, and, by far the most common, “Mäuschen”, typically used for a girlfriend though. “Mausi” is more for a little girl, like a little sister, as in this case. But it is a very nice and cute name to call a girl. The word “Maus” does not have a negative connotation in German in the sense of “a dirty little animal” or something like that. A mouse is a cute little animal. I thought it was the same in English – see “Mickey Mouse”, a cute and beloved character.

    • william1951 says:

      The festival direction was turned over exclusively to her two brothers, Wolfgang and Wieland, even though she wanted to be included. After all, as a woman she was just a “little Mouse.” But don’t try to tell some people that such names are degrading.

      Interesting that the “little Mouse” openly defied her parents close and personal devotion to Hitler and immigrated to the USA during the war to work against National Socialism. As a result she was disinherited by her mother (her father was already dead,) and excluded from participating in the direction of the Festival. She also often faced ostracism in Germany after the war. If only Wolfgang and Wieland, and many other Germans, had been such “little mice.”

      It’s too bad she allowed herself, to some extent, to be used as window dressing at Bayreuth after the war. Wolfgang’s son, Gottfried, has taken a clearer course and refused to deal with the family until they tell the whole truth about its history, including releasing over 200 letters that were exchanged between Winifred and that family “uncle” with the little mustache…

      Forgive me if I don’t debate this. After living in Germany for 33 years, I can tell you that attempting dialog with ethnocentric German’s who have chip on their shoulder is pointless. Best to just ignore them.

      • william1951 says:

        I should add that Gottfried is Wolfgang’s only son (not a daughter who might be demeaned as a “little mouse,”) and that he has a Ph.D. in Theater Studies. As such he was the heir apparent for the Directorship of Bayreuth. Gottfried was, however, literally disowned by Wolfgang because he would not accept his father’s Nazi sympathies. It is astounding that the family has still not resolved this issue with Gottfried.

        When Eva Rieger’s biography was presented in Bayreuth, Wieland’s daughters Daphne, Iris, and Nike were there, but Wolfgang’s children, the Festival Directors, Katharina and Eva were not. Wonder what that means, if anything. It appears the Wagnerian melodrama continues…

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        “Forgive me if I don’t debate this. After living in Germany for 33 years, I can tell you that attempting dialog with ethnocentric German’s who have chip on their shoulder is pointless. Best to just ignore them.”

        Oh, it’s you – William Osborne. I hadn’t realized that, but the very familiar “forgive me if I don’t debate this” gave that away.

        So you have lived in Germany for 33 years and you still don’t understand that there is nothing bad per se about calling someone “Mausi”? Really? Most members of my family call me “Mikey” (even now that I am 45 years old…), that in itself doesn’t mean that they don’t take me seriously.

        I find it kind of sad that you have lived in Germany that long and you know – you have actually mentioned that in other places – that there is generally far more dialog and education about this dark period in German history going on than there is in most, if not all other countries when it comes to their own dark histories. Yet when it is opportune, you choose to ignore that, just to smear people who disagree with you.

        • william1951 says:

          For the readers here, this new Word Press format AJ is using changes my name to my google name for some reason (William Osborne was already taken.) I haven’t yet found a work around. On the other hand, perhaps everyone here should use a pseudonym since the dialog often has such a low niveau, including ad hominine attacks as regularly practiced by “Michael Schaffer” – a name of such a nobody there is no information at all about him on the web, or more likely, a pseudonym.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            No, that’s my actual name. Sorry it’s not good enough for you. I am on Facebook though. If you are, too, we can become friends!

            I haven’t “practiced” any “ad hominine attacks” against you here, but almost every one of your replies here contains one against me. Now I am “a nobody”. Very classy!

            Why don’t you just stick to solid arguments? Do you think posts like this last one of yours here raise the “niveau” of the “dialog”?

            BTW, it’s “ad hominem”, not “ad hominine”. That’s not a typo, you always say “ad hominine”. And I told you before. If you don’t believe me, look it up!

        • Neil van der Linden says:

          It is true that the Germans did more soul-searching about the atrocities of the Nazi period, the Holocaust and the WWII than any other European country, several of them never having been that far away from what had happened in Germany. It could be that that has lead to a certain mantra, a certain fixed narrative as well, but the result is genuine.

          Even the Wagner brothers, notably Wieland, did that in their way. Maybe also to save the Bayreuth business. And Wolfgang, though apparently ignoring and even humiliating his sister, had invited iconoclast and seemingly iconoclast directors like Götz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer, Patrice Chéreau, Peter Hall and Heiner Müller and conductors like Boulez, Kleiber, Solti and Barenboim, sort of to make up for things in a way, regardless of the fact that these conductors were the best of their days anyway.

          • william1951 says:

            And through his stark, simple productions, Wieland is also thought to have been the father of Regietheater – in its positive sense. This helped pave the way for productions such as Chéreau’s. And Katharina’s Meistersinger was very explicit in its explorations of Germany’s darker history.

          • Neil van der Linden says:

            Wieland was the ultimate embodiment of the idea of The Empty Stage that Peter Brook later would formulate. His pure abstractions referred back to innovations in architecture that had taken place in the first decades of the century. He cleaned the stage in Bayreuth from the ideas about theatre or Richard, based in fairytale inspired magical realism, which may have been innovative in the time of Richard, but which were obsolete and reactionary already at the beginning of the century, as for perfect illusion film had taken over as leading medium. While Chereau moved to another opposite, using realism in a historicist Marxist way, indeed without Wieland all the later innovations would have been impossible.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “As punishment, Winifred sent Friedelind to a weight-loss clinic, then in 1937 to a finishing school in England. Off the leash, she made contact with Arturo Toscanini, who had been Bayreuth’s star conductor before Winifred, on Hitler’s orders, banned Jewish performers. Toscanini responded by leading an international cultural boycott of Nazi Germany.”

    My understanding is that Toscanini led such a boycott right in 1933, not only four years later. But I am not a Toscanini expert. Maybe someone who is can clarify.