When the Fuehrer came to the table, he ate beans and greens, leaving room for dessert.
He planned to push vegetarianism as a way of life after the war. Until then, he allowed guests to eat the dead meat of the animals he loved, while he nibbled on bunny food, noodles, dry bread and cakes washed down with peppermint tea or maybe, on special days, a low-alcoholic beer. A sugar freak, he consumed mountains of pastries and chocolate until the end.
Hitler’s eating habits, relentless opera-going and temper tantrums were memorably described by a girl who met him when he still wore lederhosen and she was barely out of kindergarten: Friedelind Wagner. He called her Mausi.
Born in 1918, Friedelind was the daughter of Siegfried Wagner, which makes her the granddaughter of Hitler’s favorite composer: Richard Wagner.
Home was the villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth, sainted site of the summer Wagner Festival. Hitler, a welcome guest, enjoyed goofing around with Mausi and her three siblings: Wolfgang, Wieland and Verena.
Mother Winifred, who adored “Wolf,” as Hitler was known, and hoped to marry him after her husband’s sudden death, provided the paper on which he wrote “Mein Kampf.”
“Mein Kampf” is a boring book except for the crazy notes on fashion -- I recently reread it. (An unbuttoned look is best for the healthy Aryan.)
But Friedelind’s “Heritage of Fire” (“Nacht ueber Bayreuth”) published in 1945 after the war’s end, is terrific - - an absurdly funny account of her friend the Fuehrer, who often invited her out and encouraged her incorrigible truancy.
The lack of respect is wonderful. After long lunches, the four kids would wait eagerly for him to get up and fart out of view.
(No, she didn’t make this up: Decades later, Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, remembered the pills he took for flatulence.)
Slowly, in front of our eyes, he morphs from awkward house guest into the blathering, shouting mass-murderer who incinerates much of the world.
“The poor Fuehrer!” sighs Winifred upon hearing of the 1934 Roehm putsch in which Hitler massacred his competitive old buddies in the SA. So stressful “to be betrayed by your best friends,” she adds. As so often with the complex Winifred, we don’t know if she just played dumb or was really too besotted to absorb the truth.
Not much later, an utterly unstressed Hitler casually describes his “cleansing action” to Mausi and the kids in Wahnfried, while expressing some irritation that his men shot the wrong Willi Schmidt. But, as he notes, Munich was annoyingly full of Willi Schmidts. Didn’t mean to plug the musicologist who was sitting down for dinner with his shocked wife!
And then it was off to see a very long Wagner opera at the festival theater, where the July opening, then as now, attracted the political and financial elite despite the invariable humidity.
Friedelind provides a vivid description of the commotion backstage during “Rheingold” as messengers entered the Fuehrer’s box to whisper some good news: His henchman had just assassinated Engelbert Dollfuss, the chancellor of Austria.
Afterward, a cheerful Hitler sat down for dinner with the kids, noting no one could blame him for the murder since, after all, he had been at the opera.
Cameos abound. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, hobbling through the door, sees plump Friedelind and snickers: “Hey fatty, still stuffing your face?” (I translate loosely). In another chapter, he competes with Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering to preside over the best opera house in Berlin.
All along, mother Winifred does a rather remarkable job extracting a few luckless Jews from Adolf’s prisons and keeping others singing on her stage.
The tension is palpable. Soulful Frida Leider has a nervous breakdown because she can’t bear singing for Nazis. Toscanini and Furtwaengler battle to be top baton at the festival, until the Italian finally turns his back on Bayreuth, disgusted by its top patron. He often came to Friedelind’s rescue once she fled Bayreuth, Uncle Wolf and her mother in 1938.
I wish her subsequent life had been happier.
A new biography by Eva Rieger, “Friedelind Wagner: Richard Wagner’s Rebellious Granddaughter,” is a loving, illuminating tribute to this unusual, bighearted woman who was all too often written off as a silly eccentric and traitor after the war.
A good part of the book is devoted to the backstage intrigues in the battle for Bayreuth, which poor Friedelind lost. As the only Wagner who had spurned Nazi Germany, the musically gifted Friedelind had hoped that she would play a leading role in restarting the festival theater.
Instead, she was sidelined by her brothers Wolfgang and Wieland, who were shrewder and also not female. Wieland brought a new style of staging using modern lighting to Bayreuth when it reopened in 1951. He had perfected his technique in a satellite concentration camp near Bayreuth, but in the massive amnesia that befell Germany, this was not remembered until a few years ago.
Friedelind was allowed to give some master classes for a while, but without sufficient financing, she ran up huge bills and was ultimately evicted from the hallowed hall. You can bet her book wasn’t on sale at the souvenir shop. In fact, it was virtually impossible to find by the time of her lonely death in 1991 at the age of 73.
In Rieger’s biography (translated by Chris Walton) she strides into history captured by many memorable pictures that show her grandfather’s big chin and affinity for dramatic attire. That’s quite a hat Mausi wore for her photo-op with Uncle Wolf one summer day in Bayreuth.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Brecher at email@example.com