Room 28 Forum

Gottfried Wagner in the blind spot of the German media

Reflections on the media response to the "finding" of the Hitler-film recordings taken by Wolfgang Wagner.

Hannelore Brenner

These reflections were written in response to an article which appeared in the periodical DIE ZEIT, 28 July 2016, No. 32, page 39, entitled "Die Laune ist glänzend" ("Spirits are high"). Subtitle: "Adolf Hitler was a permanent guest at the Bayreuth festival. An unknown film has just appeared which sheds a completely new light on the role he played in the Wagner family."

Similar articles followed in other media.


I just had to shed light on the silenced side of the story. This was a moral obligation, for the sake of the truth.

The original article was published on 8 August by the online-newspaper "Humanistic Press-Service" - hpd.

In the blind spot of the media

Translated into English by

Christina Whitelaw Jaffe

August 2016

It is a well-known phenomenon: it always occurs when you know more about a subject than the journalists that are writing about it, or when you are aware of aspects that the reporters know nothing about, or cannot know about or do not want to know about. These are moments when you recognize journalistic weaknesses, the so to speak blind spots in the media, and their power and their sovereignty of interpretations of events. It is at this point that one realizes how unfair the media can be – or one-sided, outrageous, biased or dangerous, depending on the issue at hand.


Yet you needn’t necessarily be an expert in a subject to be taken aback and be surprised by what you read. Sometimes it is enough to have read a certain book to notice that somebody is falsifying facts, watering them down, manipulating or simply ignoring them. The last thing I want to do is chime in with the populist choir of those who claim the press always tells lies. Therefore it is important to note that the phenomenon I refer to appears everywhere where communication takes place. Without exception.


As this phenomenon caught my eye in a particularly disconcerting way recently, I feel impelled to react to it for the sake of fairness. It happened when I opened page 39 of the arts supplement of the latest edition of the ZEIT and read the subtitle: "Adolf Hitler was a permanent guest at the Bayreuth Festival. An unknown film has just appeared which sheds a completely new light on the role he played in the Wagner family." - An "unknown film"? What’s that about? Didn’t I read about these Hitler films years ago?



"Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult" ("He who doesn’t howl with the wolf")

I took out my copy of Gottfried Wagner’s autobiography. Gottfried Wagner, born in 1947, is the son of Wolfgang Wagner and his divorced wife, Ellen Drexel. The title: "Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult", published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 1997. I found the relevant passage in the chapter headed Villa Wahnfried:

"In the autumn of 1963, while my parents were on holiday recovering from the stress of the Festival, I explored a woodshed next to our garage where my father’s heavy BMW motorcycle with its side-car was kept. I found two cardboard boxes with numerous round aluminium tins of different sizes. They were so rusty that I was unable to open them with my bare hands. I smuggled them into my room, removed the rust and carefully opened them with a screwdriver. Each tin contained a roll of film. I took one of the bigger ones out and examined the film strip through a magnifying glass. What I discovered stunned me."

This discovery was the starting point of Gottfried Wagner’s critical analysis of his family’s involvement with Adolf Hitler and the NS regime – at a time which has gone down in history as the "leaden era", because all attempts of the younger generation to question their mothers, fathers and grandparents about the terrible atrocities that emerged from the centre of German society generally fell on deaf ears and were stifled. This conspiracy of silence supressed all memory of the NS crimes, allowing them to be trivialized, marginalized and denied. What emerged was a poison that oozed into the daily lives and, of course, the upbringing of the post-war children.

Now just imagine how much the Wagner family had to conceal and hush up, first and foremost among them, Winifred Wagner, heiress, executor and "keeper of the grail" of Richard Wagner’s oeuvres, which had reached a new level of sanctification in the Nazi era! How much whitewashing, how much skilful manoevering and ducking and weaving did it take in the first few years after the war to avoid being radically penalized for their disastrous pact with Hitler, their beloved friend of the family and sponsor, into whose "marmeladige” (jammy) eyes one can now look eighty years later in the unknown, missing and retrieved film documentary?



"Why did nobody know of its existence?"

"But why did these film documentations disappear for such a long time?" the authoress of the ZEIT article asks in surprise. "Why did nobody know of its existence? (…) Is the content of the film so explosive that an attempt was made to keep it locked up (by whomever). Was the controversial nature of the content perhaps not recognized? Or was it just a case of the typical Bayreuth “Schlendrian” – time-wasting inefficiency?"

A few lines further on she sums up: "However, Wolfgang’s descendants can no more be accused of inefficiency in dealing with their own past than can the offspring of his older brother, Wieland. Both branches of the family (…) are bent on establishing transparency."

Who is meant by this? Who is “bent on establishing transparency"? Reading the article to the end, I can only conclude that the executors and representatives of Wolfgang Wagner’s legacy are being referred to. Gottfried Wagner is certainly not meant. Although this quality is absolutely true for Gottfried and he deserves credit for his well documented work for this aim. But his name is not mentioned, there is no reference to his autobiography. Of course that would destroy the logic – and probably the intention – of the article. And one question would appear absolutely nonsensical, namely: "Why did nobody know of its existence?"


An antipode to the Green Hill

Back to the year 1963, when Gottfried discovered the film reels in his father’s woodshed. He was 16 years old, the same age his father was when he filmed Hitler. With great caution Gottfried began to ask his father questions to find out about this connection between his family, his grandmother and his father to the 'Führer' (Uncle Wolf). However, neither his father nor his grandmother showed the slightest understanding for the boy’s need to find out about the past – on the contrary. Thus Gottfried became the black sheep of the family – a nest defiler, an outcast, the antipode to the Green Hill. And someone who defied his family for all the years to come, up until today.

Gottfried Wagner broke a taboo, there is no denying it. He had to break it, had to break out of the world of his childhood and escape from an atmosphere that was threatening to suffocate him. He broke off relations with his father and by doing so broke off relations with the entire lobby of the German financial, political, cultural and media world, which had all vigorously contributed to the renaissance of the post-war Bayreuth Festival theatre. The break was absolute. Gottfried left Germany. He knew, as Adorno knew, "There is no right life in the wrong one."


Gottfried with his aunt Friedelind. Copyright © Gottfried Wagner

A photo and a memory


The photo taken in 1983 shows Gottfried with his aunt, Friedelind Wagner (1918-1991). In 1944 she had published the book "Heritage of Fire" in the USA. The German version appeared in Switzerland in 1945 with the title "Nacht über Bayreuth" ("Night sky over Bayreuth"). Gottfried got on very well with his Aunt Friedelind:


"She loathed Hitler and because of this she was ostracized by the Wagner clan and treated as a traitor. Instead of apologizing to her, they mocked her and branded her as a loser. I saw through that as a child and developed a very close relationship with her that lasted all her life. She was the only one of her generation of the Wagners who always helped me when I was in need. In my home the photo of her stands right next to the one of my mother."


May 1998, Opera House, Tel Aviv

I became acquainted with Gottfried Wagner in Israel in 1998. Reading his autobiography had motivated me to follow an invitation to a matinee in the Opera House in Tel Aviv on 5th June, 1998. The purpose of the event was to discuss the question whether Richard Wagner’s works might or can be performed in Israel, or if they should not be performed there at all. My Israeli friends accompanied me.

After about an hour-long discussion – with no consensus in sight about the question at hand – the audience was surprised to hear an announcement. The "Dutchman aria" from Wagner’s opera, "The Flying Dutchman" was to be played. At this the ensemble entered the stage and got ready to play. A tumult broke out in the auditorium. "We were invited to come here to take part in a discussion about whether Wagner should be played or not, not to listen to him being played!" People were shouting indignantly, the organizers tried to calm them down and restore order. Many left the theatre. I switched on my tape recorder and pointed the microphone into the hall. I was instructed not to do this. Outside the theatre, I was able to record a few reactions. It was there I met Gottfried Wagner, who was having a lively discussion with outraged members of the audience. That is how we first met.


Family history, dialogue and a new beginning

Since then we have stayed in touch. Gottfried learned about my project with “The Girls of Room 28”. We realized our common interests. What the alliance with survivors of Room 28 is for me is for Gottfried Wagner the diversified dialogue with the Jewish side.

In 1992 he was one of the co-founders of the "Post-Holocaust dialogue group of children of the victims and perpetrators". This work was the basis of his book which appeared in 2006: "Unsere Stunde Null. Deutsche und Juden nach 1945: Familiengeschichte, Holocaust und Neubeginn. Historische Memoiren". (Our Zero Hour. Germans and Jews after 1945: family history, Holocaust and a fresh start. Historical memoires). In this he collaborated with Abraham Peck, the son of Holocaust survivors.

When the exhibition "Die Mädchen von Zimmer 28, L 410, Theresienstadt" (The Girls of Room 28, L 410 Theresienstadt) was opened in Schwerin in 2004 within the framework of the competition " Verfemte Musik" ("Outlawed music") there was also a presentation by Gottfried Wagner and Michael Chaplin on the programme. Gottfried spoke on the theme: "From Wagner’s Lohengrin to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator". It was one of his many lectures and presentations on the work and life of his great-grandfather.


Kurt Weill, exile and a counter-world

At no time, however, was Richard Wagner his sole theme. In 1977 Gottfried graduated from the faculty of musicology at the University of Vienna, gaining his doctorate on Kurt Weill. He was the first to do research on Kurt Weill’s life and work. For two and a half years he was head of the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York. He travelled all over the world giving numerous lectures on Kurt Weill and other themes.

It is not surprising for me that the intensive study of Kurt Weill and German exile with all the personal encounters and discussions this brought with it – including with survivors of the Holocaust – shaped Gottfried Wagner’s destiny. He entered a "counter-world" – and got to know people and their works which represent the very culture that had been burned and outlawed by the Nazis, which means he got to know people whose conception of art and humanity he could share from the bottom of his heart.

"Du sollst keine anderen Götter haben neben mir." ("Thou shalt have no other gods before me")


In 2013 his new book appeared: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Richard Wagner – a minefield". Paul Lawrence Rose, Professor for European history at the Pennsylvania State University analysed the study thoroughly and came to a remarkable conclusion:


"Gottfried Wagner combines extraordinary honesty, critical insight and analysis, the most up to date scholarship, and the unique knowledge of a family-insider about the deceits and self-deceptions entrenched in the modern rebirth of “New Bayreuth” to show how no amount of clever and imaginative “public-relations” manipulation will ever achieve a true "redemption” of the Bayreuth Festival until the Festival and the House of Wagner relinquish the drive for power that has been a moving spirit of the Festival ever since Richard Wagner himself first conceived of this idolatrous monument to himself."


From taboo to mainstream

Very few people involved in the atrocities of the Nazi times, whether they were perpetrators or witnesses, are still living nowadays. Dealing with one’s own family history of the Nazi time has become mainstream, politically correct and welcomed by the media. Eighty years after the shooting of the films in question, which show Hitler in Siegfried Wagner’s house and in the Wahnfried Park with Winifred Wagner and Wolfgang’s siblings, 53 years after their discovery by Gottfried Wagner in the autumn of 1963, and 19 years after their disclosure in his autobiography, the unveiling of the missing Hitler films by the two official branches of the Wagner family can hardly be called a courageous act or a real attempt to deal with the family NS involvement.

In 2016, just in time for the Festival on the Green Hill — the expiry of the copyright had just made the publication of a commented edition of Hitler’s "Mein Kampf" possible – this "finding" turns up, it seems, just at the right time, and it turns up to be called a sensation. A sensation, I wonder — for whom?

And I also wonder: when will the entire correspondence between the Wagner clan and Hitler between 1923 and 1945 be edited and published? Gottfried Wagner has been demanding this in all clarity for decades – as can be read in the afterword of the 5th edition of his autobiography of the year 2010.

One more important

Okay. It is a very broad complex field and it is not even my territory, and the issue is not even all that important to me. What is important to me is that these reflections contribute in some way to regaining a balance and establishing more objectivity in journalistic matters, in the interest of historical truth and human fairness.


Hardly any other person has devoted more time and energy analysing the historical burden he inherited than Gottfried Wagner. As a representative of the post-war generation, who had every reason to rebel against their fathers, he saw it as his moral obligation and responsibility to look very closely, reveal his discoveries, ask questions and investigate, in order to bring his insights and experiences into the public discourse.

Gottfried with Helga Kinsky, Anna Toeller, Anna Hanusová (right), Salzburg 2005. © H.Brenner

He has always applied himself to this enlightening educational task consistently, with great passion and energy. Along the way he has made many enemies. But he has made wonderful friends, too. Friends who appreciate his refreshingly open nature, his warmth, his sense of humour and not least, his extraordinary courage and integrity.


Gottfried with his family: Eugenio,Teresina und mit Emma. © Gottfried Wagner

New home: Italy

Since 1983 Gottfried Wagner has lived in Italy with his Italian wife, Teresina and son, Eugenio. He is in harmony with himself and his life in general and happy that he found the safe haven he had longed for. "Without Teresina and Eugenio I wouldn’t be the person I am today. They give me everything I missed for so long – love, trust and support. They also support my work."

Gottfried Wagner’s private archives

In the meantime he has accumulated extensive archives containing his life’s work. Gottfried Wagner’s private collection comprises a wide range of historical, personal and literary documents, including documents inherited from his mother, Ellen Drexel, and documents by his aunt, Friedelind. Many of these documents are more significant in their powerful informative value and authenticity and certainly more meaningful than the questionable historiography we are being served up by the media at present.


Some people are ahead of their time, or one might say they are incompatible with the time they live in. Because they have committed themselves to their own ethos and their own convictions and they take their historical responsibility seriously. Because they are not prepared to compromise the truth, and they keep their distance from power games and all forms of intrigue. People like this never had it easy in the past. Nor do they have it easy today. Yet they are as important as the clean air we need to breathe.


Gottfried Wagner 2013. Photo © Alfredo Zullo

Gottfried Wagner (born 1947) is a music historian and multimedia director with a thematic focus on German-Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries. (Antisemitism and music, Kurt Weill, 'degenerate music', culture in Theresienstadt). His intensive analysis of the history of the Third Reich and its consequences includes an analysis of the antisemitism of his great-grandfather, Richard Wagner. In his gripping autobiography "Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult" (1997), he describes his childhood on the Green Hill in Bayreuth, his unsuccessful struggle to get answers to his questions from his family and the horror he felt when he discovered the abysmal involvement of his own family.

Gottfried’s desire and aspiration to find out about the atrocities that emerged from the centre of German society and in particular the role his own family played in this, his urge to lift the cloak of silence and end supression of the truth have made him a critical, knowledgeable, dedicated, creative and courageous contemporary.

Thank you!

to Christina Whitelaw Jaffe for the translation!


Copyright: © Hannelore Brenner, Berlin, 6 August 2016


This article is protected by copyright. It may not be reprinted without permission of the authoress. First published in Forum Room 28



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