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Striking a Discordant Note

Gottfried Wagner was only 9 when he stole a key his father had hidden and slipped into the Festspielhaus, the shrine to his great-grandfather, Richard Wagner.
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June 3, 1999

Gottfried Wagner was only 9 when he stole a key his father had hidden and slipped into the Festspielhaus, the shrine to his great-grandfather, Richard Wagner.

With his heart pounding, he sneaked into the dusty, dirty rooms above the old set-painting workshop and made a startling discovery. Amid paintings depicting scenes from great-grandpa’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” Gottfried found photographs of his grandmother, his father, Wolfgang, and Uncle Wieland with Adolf Hitler. There were thick tomes on racial history and a huge oil painting of the Führer with a menacing Alsatian dog.

Then there was the excursion to the cinema, where he and 500 schoolmates had been forced to watch a documentary about the Third Reich. The horrified boy saw goose-stepping Nazis and piles of corpses at Buchenwald — all set to great-grandpa’s transcendent music.

But when Gottfried asked his father about the connection between Wagner’s music and the terrible pictures, he was curtly told to do his homework. “If I had persisted any further with my questions, I would have been beaten,” Gottfried writes in his controversial new memoir, “Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family’s Legacy” (Picador U.S.A.). His grandmother, Winifred, who celebrated Hitler’s birthday, had another response. “What you have seen is the manipulation and the falsification by the New York Jews,” she said.

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