The Bayreuth Festival during the 'Third Reich'

Seminar Paper 2004 16 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Bayreuth and Hitler 1933-1939

III. Bayreuth’s special standing in the ‘Third Reich’

IV. Hitler’s ‘Court Theater’

V. ‘War Festivals’ 1940-1944

VI. The National Socialist Interpretation of the ‘War Festivals’

VII. Conclusion

VIII. References

I. Introduction

As the historian Michael Karbaum argues, “[t]he history of the Bayreuth Festival between 1933 and 1944 is, to a large extent, the history of the relations between Hitler and Bayreuth”[1].

Since its founding in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival had been a locus of representation for politically prominent figures; among the guests of the first Festival were the German Emperor Wilhelm I and the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II[2]. In the years to come, Bayreuth would keep its meaning as a “political symbol“[3].

From 1933 on, the Wagnerian Hitler used the Festival for both the representation of his person and his regime. The Foundations for this appropriation were both ideological and personal:

Firstly, after Richard Wagner’s death, his “Bayreuth disciples”[4], grouped in the “Bayreuth Circle”[5] especially Hans von Wolzogen and Houston Stewart Chamberlain[6], created the “Bayreuth idea”[7] ; in this process of formulating their ‘German Wagnerism’ as a völkisch ideology, they focused more on Wagner’s prose writings[8], than on his music, and especially emphasized Wagner’s anti-Semitism[9]. The “Bayreuth Circle” played a crucial role in developing and propagating the ideology of “redemptive anti-Semitism”, i.e. a worldview in which “the struggle against the Jews is the dominant aspect” and “other racial themes are but secondary appendages”[10].

Secondly, Winifred Wagner, the English-born wife of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried and director of the Bayreuth Festival between 1930 and 1944, knew Hitler personally from 1923 on and became a Nazi Party member in 1926[11]. Hitler himself said about her: “ But, nevertheless, Frau Wagner has brought Bayreuth – that is her great historic achievement – together with National Socialism”[12]. After the war, she described her relation to Hitler as a purely “personal and familiar connection, based upon the worship of and love to Richard Wagner”[13] and denied that there was any connection between arts and politics[14].

In this paper, I will describe the central characteristics of the relation between National Socialism and the Bayreuth Festival from 1933 to 1944. To this end, I will frequently refer to both Hitler and Winifred Wagner as persons, in order to show, that the idea of a purely personal relation between Winifred Wagner as director of the Festival and Hitler as “Führer und Reichskanzler” was actually an illusion. As I will argue, there was certainly not only a connection between arts and politics, but a intermingling of both at the Bayreuth Festival.

II. Bayreuth and Hitler 1933-1939

When preparing the Bayreuth Festival in 1933, Winifred Wagner had to realize that many ticket reservations from abroad had been canceled[15]. Because of the political radicalization in Germany, foreign visitors were attracted to the Festival to a far lesser extent than before. Moreover, in spite of new stagings at Bayreuth, there was no increased demand in Germany, either[16].

Winifred’s attempts to get support from Berlin were initially not successful; her private secretary wrote in May 1933: “Frau Wagner has unpleasant days in Berlin”[17]. A couple of days later, her secretary even stated: “Highest tragedy, that Bayreuth has never been attacked before like that from all fronts as in the Third Reich”[18]. But in June, a personal conversation between Hitler and Winifred solved all financial problems “within a quarter of an hour”[19].

Hitler’s personal decision started the subsidies for Bayreuth; later, he would take pride in this fact: “I am perceiving it as a special fortune, that I had the opportunity to keep Bayreuth in the time of its economic breakdown”[20]. In 1933, the Ministry of Propaganda, the Land Bavaria and the National Socialist Teachers’ Association purchased tickets; the sum paid by the Ministry of Propaganda would amount to 364,000 marks in the following year[21]. Hitler and Göring had suggested in 1933 to buy tickets from the Festival via the Reich and the Länder, in order to give them to “worthy persons”[22] ; the Reich and the Nazi Party realized this idea of Hitler by purchasing tickets and distributing them as rewards[23]. Apart from ticket purchases, the Festival received money for radio broadcasts of performances in Bayreuth. Moreover, from 1934 on, Hitler’s chancellery paid between 50,000 and 100,000 marks annually for new stagings[24]. In addition to this support, the Festival was exempted from paying taxes[25].

III. Bayreuth’s special standing in the ‘Third Reich’

In September 1933, the Law on the Reich Culture Chamber institutionalized the process of cultural coordination (Gleichschaltung) and put all seven bodies of the Reich Culture Chamber “under the supervision of the Reich minister for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda”[26], i.e. Goebbels. But, as Winifred Wagner stressed after the war, she “did not enter the Reich Theater Chamber”[27]. In fact, the cultural coordination did not affect Bayreuth; the Festival was practically the only important cultural institution that was not controlled by the Reich Culture Chamber[28]. Two factors created a special constellation for Bayreuth: Firstly, Heinz Tietjen, general director of the Prussian State Theaters, who had been designated in 1932 to become artistic director at Bayreuth[29], was a protégé of Hermann Göring[30]. Secondly, and more decisive, Winifred Wagner was personally supported by Hitler[31].

Because of this special relationship, Winifred was even able to strengthen her position as overall director of the Festival against criticism, which was mainly uttered by orthodox Wagnerians. These traditionalists, led by Daniela Thode and Eva Chamberlain, Winifred’s sisters-in-law and represented by the Germanist Wolfgang Golther from Rostock and the Swiss Wagnerian Adolf Zinstag, demanded that “Richard Wagner’s will is kept unbreakable in the Festival”[32], i.e. they rejected any deviation from Richard Wagner’s original staging instructions[33].

Winifred Wagner, in contrast, intended a reform of the scene[34] ; Tietjen, accordingly, brought the innovative stage designer Emil Preetorius to Bayreuth. This move posed a direct challenge to the traditionalists[35]. In 1933, when a new staging of Parsifal was planned for the Festival in 1934, a major controversy arose: Eva Chamberlain and Daniela Thode wrote a petition in favor of keeping the original staging of 1882 and the scenes “on which the eye of the Master had rested”[36]. Additionally, the traditionalists Zinstag, Golther and Paul Pretzsch asked Goebbels to intervene personally in the conflict[37]. But the Reich Theater Chamber answered, that there was no need to intervene, because “also the Führer agreed with the presentation in the present form”[38]. Finally, from 1935 on, the orthodox Wagnerians stayed away from the Festival[39].

So, the Festival was not only exceptioned from the cultural coordination; the Reich Ministry of Propaganda even financed it to a large extent. Furthermore, as was shown by the Parsifal controversy, the special relationship of Winifred Wagner to Hitler made support by Goebbels’ Reich Culture Chamber possible, without concessions regarding the authority over the Festival.

However, from 1933 on, no important decision concerning the Bayreuth Festival was made without approval from or knowledge of Hitler[40]. In this respect, there was no coordination at the Bayreuth Festival because it was not necessary.


[1] Karbaum, Michael: Studien zur Geschichte der Bayreuther Festspiele 1876-1976), Regensburg 1976, p. 87; in this paper, all quotes from German texts are own translations, if not noted differently.

[2] Eger, Manfred: Die Bayreuther Festspiele, in: Müller, Ulrich/Wapnewski, Peter (eds.): Richard-Wagner-Handbuch, Stuttgart 1986, p. 589-624, here: p. 596.

[3] Schmidt, Michael: Bayreuth als politisches Symbol. 125 Jahre Richard-Wagner-Festspiele, in: Neue Gesellschaft. Frankfurter Hefte 48 (2001), p. 470-474.

[4] Large, David Clay: Wagner’s Bayreuth Disciples, in: Large, David C. & Weber, William (eds.): Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics, Ithaka and London 1984, p. 72-133.

[5] Schüler, Winfried: Der Bayreuther Kreis von seiner Entstehung bis zum Ausgang der Wilhelminischen Ära, Münster 1971.

[6] The English-born racial theoretician Chamberlain had from 1888 on contact with Wagner‘s widow Cosima; in 1908, he married Eva Wagner, the daughter of Richard and Cosima and moved to Bayreuth; see Large, David Clay: Ein Spiegelbild des Meisters? Die Rassenlehre von Houston Stewart Chamberlain, in: Borchmeyer, Dieter/Maayani, Ami/Vill (eds.), Susanne: Richard Wagner und die Juden, Stuttgart &Weimar 2000., p. 140-159.

[7] Large, Disciples, op.cit., p.133.

[8] Large, Disciples, op.cit., p. 133.

[9] For a differentiated and instructive analysis of Wagner’s anti-Semitism see Katz, Jacob: The Darker Side og Genius. Richard Wagner’s Anti-Semitism. Hanover & London, 1986.

[10] Friedländer, Saul: Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. I: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939, New York 1997 p. 87.

[11] Knopp, Guido/Deick, Christian: Winifred Wagner, in: Knopp, Guido et.al: Hitlers Frauen und Marlene, Munich 2001, p. 207-270; Joachimsthaler, Anton: Hitlers Liste, Munich 2003, p. 140-176.

[12] Statement of Hitler, February 28/March 1, 1942, , in: Adolf Hitler. Monologe im Führerhauptquartier, edited by Werner Jochmann, Hamburg 1980, p. 308.

[13] In 1975, the director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg filmed an interview with her; quotes from the interview are printed in: Syberberg, Hans-Jürgen: Meine Trauerarbeit für Bayreuth. Notizen zur Entstehung des Films “Winifred Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried 1914-1975, p. 243-296, here: p. 275; quoted as: WW 1975.

[14] Landy, Marcia: Politics, Aesthetics, and Patriarchy in the Confessions of Winifred Wagner, in: New German Critique, No. 18 (Autumn 1979), 161-166, here: p. 154.

[15] Knopp/Deick, Winifred, op.cit, p. 240.

[16] Karbaum, Studien, p. 85.

[17] Letter of Liselotte Schmidt, May 19, 1933, printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 77.

[18] Letter of Liselotte Schmidt, May 26,1933, printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p.77.

[19] Letter of Liselotte Schmidt, June 30, 1933, printed in: Karbaum, Studein, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 77-78.

[20] Statement of Hitler, January 24/25, 1942, in: Adolf Hitler. Monologe im Führerhauptquartier, edited by Werner Jochmann, Hamburg 1980, p. 225.

[21] See the statistical appendix in Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 149-155, here: p. 152.

[22] Notes of Daniela Thode for a conversation with Joseph Goebbels, 1933, printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 86.

[23] Karbaum, Studien, p. 86.

[24] See the statistical appendix in Karbaum, Studien, Part II, here: p. 152-153; the figures for the single years are: 100,000 RM (1934), [1935: No Festival] 100,000 (1936), 50,000 (1937), 100,000 RM (1938), 100,000 RM (1939).

[25] Knopp/Deick, Winifred, op.cit., p. 240.

[26] Law on the Reich Culture Chamber, printed in: Noakes, Jeremy/Pridham, Geoffrey (eds.): Nazism. A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, 1919-1945, Vol. I, First American Edition, New York 1990, p. 397-398; the seven bodies were: 1. Chamber of Literature, 2. Press Chamber, 3. Radio Chamber, 4. Theater Chamber, 5. Music Chamber, 6. Chamber of the Creative Arts, 7. Film Chamber (already provisionally established in July 1933).

[27] Wagner, Winifred: Memorandum for the De-Nazification Tribunal (1946), printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 113-116, here: p. 115.

[28] Large, David Clay: Wagners Bayreuth und Hitlers München, in: Rüsen, Jörn/Friedländer, Saul (eds.): Richard Wagner im Dritten Reich, Munich 2000, p. 194-211, here: 207.

[29] Tietjen had been recommended by Siegfried Wagner before his death; Karbaum, Studien, p. 83-84; Winifred needed Tietjen’s professional advice, because, as Knopp and Deick, Winifred, op.cit., p. 232, point out, she “hardly had a clue of the artistic side of the Festival company“.

[30] Karbaum, Studien, p. 83-84; Knopp/Deick, p. 235.

[31] Karbaum, Studien, p. 84.

[32] Wolfgang Golther to Joseph Goebbels, November 11, 1933, printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 98-99.

[33] Karbaum, Studien, p. 83.

[34] Bauer, Oswald G.: Die Aufführungsgeschichte in Grundzügen, in: Die Bayreuther Festspiele, in: Müller, Ulrich/Wapnewski, Peter (eds.): Richard-Wagner-Handbuch, Stuttgart 1986, p. 647-674, here: p. 667.

[35] Karbaum, Studien, p. 84-85.

[36] Parsifal Petition, September 1933, printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 94-95, here: p. 94.

[37] Karbaum, Studien, p. 88.

[38] Reich Theater Chamber to Paul Pretzsch, January 1, 1934, printed in: Karbaum, Studien, Part II, Documents and Notes, p. 99.

[39] Karbaum, Studien, p. 88.

[40] Karbaum, Studien, p. 87.


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Hitler Bayreuth Festival Third Reich Modern Dictatorship Political Religion




Title: The Bayreuth Festival during the 'Third Reich'