Sunday 26 May 2002
'British' Wagner saved Jews from her friend Hitler
By Tony Paterson
WINIFRED Wagner, the composer Richard Wagner's British-born daughter-in-law known for her fanatical admiration of Adolf Hitler, saved Jews, Communists and homosexuals from the Nazi death camps, according to a new biography. She started life as an orphan named Winifred Marjorie Williams before marrying the composer's son Siegfried in 1915 and going on to run Germany's Bayreuth festival throughout the Nazi era after her husband's death in 1930. It has long been known that she was a close friend of Hitler, the Nazi dictator, whom she affectionately nicknamed "Wolf" and entertained frequently.
After the Second World War, she was forced to give up her role as the Bayreuth festival director because of her Nazi links. From then on, she was regarded by the Wagner family and the German public as an incorrigible Nazi apologist.
"She is the only Nazi left in Germany," wrote the writer Heinrich Mann after the war.
Now, however, fresh evidence about the woman known as "Hitler's girlfriend" has been unearthed by Brigitte Hamann, a Vienna-based historian. Her biography Winifred Wagner or Hitler's Bayreuth was published in Germany last week.
Mrs Hamann spent five years researching unpublished material held by a Wagner archivist and letters written by the Wagner family's private schoolteacher, Liselotte Schmitt.
Most of Winifred Wagner's correspondence and diaries, including her letters to Hitler, are still held by the Wagner family and remain unpublished. Her biography shows that, contrary to popular belief, Winifred's friendship with Hitler cooled dramatically during the war after she intervened on many occasions to prevent her Jewish, Communist and homosexual friends from being sent to concentration camps.
The couple were allowed to flee to Switzerland. "My grandparents owe their escape entirely to Winifred Wagner," Mrs Hamann quotes their grandson as saying.
Winifred is quoted as saying to a Communist friend, Lydia Beil, whom she managed to free from imprisonment by the Nazis: "I will make my passionate opposition felt if it helps to prevent an act of violence by the party." The Jewish singer Hans Beer was also rescued from a "punishment battalion" at Buchenwald concentration camp on Winifred's intervention. "I was snatched from the jaws of death," the book quotes him as saying. Mrs Hamann reveals that, because of her position, Winifred was able to help dozens of Nazi victims who turned to her increasingly after war broke out. "She did so spontaneously, automatically and with a great deal of human sympathy," writes Mrs Hamann.
Her book makes no attempt to conceal the fact that, despite her action in saving victims of Nazism, Winifred remained a devoted admirer of Hitler until her death in 1980.
In a 1975 interview [with David Irving], she said: "If Hitler were to come in the door today, I would be as happy and glad to see him and have him here as I always was." She admitted keeping a picture of the dictator on her desk bearing his inscription: "From Wolf to Winnie." Winifred was convinced that Hitler bore little responsibility for the Holocaust because she felt that he was deliberately driven insane by "poisonous injections" administered by his doctor, Theodor Morell.
The biography suggests that her indoctrination started when -- as a frail nine-year-old suffering from dermatitis -- she was plucked from an orphanage in East Grinstead, Sussex, and adopted by the anti-Semitic Klindworth family in Berlin who were Wagner fans and friends of the composer. Winifred first visited Bayreuth in 1914 when she was 17. A year later, she married Siegfried Wagner, who was 28 years her senior. "From then on, she was immersed in a morass of anti-Semitic Nazi ideology," said Claus Spahn, a Wagner expert who reviewed the biography for Die Zeit newspaper. "The whole Wagner family including their servants were under Hitler's influence."
Mr Spahn said more would be known about Winifred if the family -- who still run Bayreuth festival, with her son Wolfgang as director -- allowed full publication of her letters and diaries.
"There is little chance of this happening," he said. "Winifred Wagner is still the black sheep of the Wagner clan."