Grappling With Richard Wagner's Legacy And A Dark Family History
The death of a 98-year-old widow in Germany last April attracted worldwide headlines. At that age, her passing was hardly unexpected. Yet the death of Verena Wagner Lafferentz made the front pages and reminded the world of the darkest days of one of Europe’s most notable annual music festivals.
Verena was the last surviving grandchild of the composer Richard Wagner. Her parents were Siegfried Wagner – the only son of the man who wrote Der Ring des Nibelungen, Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde – and Winifred Williams Wagner.
Siegfried Wagner died in 1930 at the age of 70. Winifred lived on until 1980. Her long widowhood plunged the Bayreuth Festival into the Third Reich. Her family’s reputation has never been the same.
Winifred called herself The Last Nazi. Her devotion to Adolph Hitler and his maniacal government was on full display in a 1976 film during which she stated, “If the Fuhrer were to come into the room at this moment, I would rise and embrace him as a dear friend.”
What you do when your mother has such hideous beliefs?
Hitler was a regular visitor to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. The town, the operas, Wagner – who died in 1883 – all became Nazi shrines.
Verena, the youngest Wagner grandchild, married a Schutzstaffel officer called Bodo Lafferentz. The couple spent most of their lives together on Lake Constance near the Swiss border.
The control of the Bayreuth Festival passed to her brothers, Wolfgang and Wieland, who grew to hate one another. Another sister, Friedelind, was the only family member to repudiate Hitler and fled to America in 1937.
A mentor of mine, musicologist Edward Downes, knew Friedelind quite well in New York. I asked him once, what did Miss Wagner do in the States? Wagner’s granddaughter? Was she lecturing at Columbia? Was she directing her grandfather’s operas at the Met?
Edward didn’t miss a beat: “She was a waitress at Schrafft’s on 42nd Street.”
Bayreuth today remains a mecca for music lovers. There is usually a three- to four-year wait for tickets to the Wagner operas presented every summer (July 25 through August 23, 2019).
Still, the family members spend most of their time decrying the Nazi past – thus keeping the sordidness alive. Grandma Winifred (“Wummi”) was unrepentant right up to her death at the age of 83.
Verena was a beautiful woman. The possibility of her marrying Hitler was rumored through the early days of World War II. Hitler was friendly with each of the Wagner grandchildren, Friedelind excepted. Verena was young and lovely. As a Wagner, her echt German-ness would not have been questioned.
Her mother was Hitler’s biggest fan. Winifred’s biographer, Brigitte Haumann makes it clear that Mama Winifred was eager to marry Hitler.
“It is only here in Bayreuth that he has a family life,” Winifred said.
They reaped benefits for a few years. They pay the price to this day.
Her children and grandchildren no doubt mourn Verena Wagner Lafferentz. Unlike her mother and brothers, Verena lived a long and quiet life under the radar. She remains tainted by her family’s proximity to evil. Perhaps her passing – the last direct survivor of Bayreuth’s Third Reich – will allow the possibility of forgiveness.