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Culture

Bayreuth's historical ties to Nazism

The scandal surrounding Russian singer Evgeny Nikitin's reputed swastika tattoo and the ensuing cancellation of his Bayreuth Festival contract shows how touchy the subject of Bayreuth's relationship to Nazi ideology is.

The blond Siegfried, the heroic women, the much-lauded Nibelung loyalty - many of composer Richard Wagner's operas are based on Germanic heroic motifs and sagas. This mythology perfectly suited Nazi propaganda, which depicted strong, blonde Germans boldly and valiantly battling the rest of the world.

Charles Ernest Butler's 1909 painting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde from the Nibelung saga

Charles E. Butler's 1909 painting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde

As such, composer Wagner and his operas were co-opted by the Nazis.

"Hitler was an enthusiastic Wagner fan," said Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann, whose 2002 book "Hitler's Bayreuth" revealed the close relationship between Hitler and the Wagner family.

"As a young man, Hitler was in the standing section at any performance of a Wagner opera there was," Hamann added.

The legacy of anti-Semitism

A 19th century photograph of German composer Richard Wagner. Wolfgang Wagner, the grandson of composer Richard Wagner and the leader of the Bayreuth opera festival for more than half a century, died Sunday March 21, 2010, the festival said. He was 90. (ddp images/AP Photo/Trinquart, file) ** B/W ONLY **

Hitler was a big fan of the composer Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) may have lived long before the Nazis came to power, but he - like they - held anti-Semitic views. In his treatise "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music), published in the mid -19th century, he denied that "the Jews" possessed any true artistic abilities. Phrases such as the "corroding influence of Jews on German culture" and "salvation through (self-)annihilation" can also be found in the essay.

As early as the 1920s, before his rise to power, Hitler sought personal contact with Richard Wagner's son, Siegfried, and his wife, Winifred.

"They invited him to their house and a very close friendship developed," said Hamann.

That relationship was also based on the Wagner Family's political sympathies for nascent National Socialism.

"The German nationalist tradition came out of Richard Wagner's work, and when Hitler came to Bayreuth in 1923 and visited the family, all of them became members of the party. They were some of the first Nazis," Hamann noted.

Pictured here, Hitler attends the opening of the Bayreuth Festival with Winifred and Wieland Wagner. Photo, 24 July 1938.

Adolf Hitler at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival with Winifred and Wieland Wagner in 1938

This friendship continued even after Siegfried Wagner's death in 1930. His widow, Winifred, took up the reins as director of the Bayreuth Festival, and maintained close contact to high-ranking Nazis. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the entire NS leadership would attend the annual festival performances of Wagner's operas in the Upper Franconian town of Bayreuth. Hitler, who had tried his hand at drawing and painting as a youth, made his own impact on the Bayreuth program, stage direction and set design.

Learning from the past

Following World War II, the Wagner Family had a tough time divesting itself of its ties to Nazism. Winifred Wagner turned over management of the festival in 1949 to her sons Wieland and Wolfgang, who brought the first post-war performances to the stage in 1951.

But great-granddaughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and her half-sister Katharina Wagner were the first to actively address the festival's dark past. Named festival directors in 2008, the two are presenting the exhibition currently on show on festival grounds that looks at the event's marginalization and persecution of Jewish singers, conductors and directors - even before the rise of Nazism, in many cases.

Evgeny Nikitin, pictured here, cancelled his contract with the festival due to his swastika tattoo.

Evgeny Nikitin cancelled his contract with the festival due to his swastika tattoo

It quickly became clear to the two directors that they would have to address the recent accusation that the Russian singer scheduled to play the lead role in this year's production of "The Flying Dutchman" bore a swastika tattoo on his chest. The bass-baritone was promptly uninvited - he cancelled his contract and left Bayreuth.

"Evgeny Nikitin's decision to [...] give up the part of 'The Flying Dutchman' corresponds with the festival directors' systematic rejection of any form of National Socialist ideology," the Bayreuth Festival press office announced.

"There is such a burden due to Nazism in Bayreuth - even today - that the only thing the directors can do is to repeatedly say, 'We renounce that,'" said historian Hamann.

Author: Rachel Gessat / als
Editor: Greg Wiser

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