Hitler's cultural accomplices: Wagner, Speer and Bechstein

Cultural figures like the Wagner family paved the way for Adolf Hitler long before he came to power in 1933. They ensured Hitler's acceptance in Germany's upper-class society

Adolf Hitler felt comfortable in these circles (Photo: DW)
Adolf Hitler felt comfortable in these circles (Photo: DW)


The German publisher Hugo Bruckmann and his wife, Elsa, were among the early and highly influential promoters of Adolf Hitler. They first officially invited him to their estate in 1924. Their "literary salon," where intellectuals of various religions and opinions had met for intellectual exchange before World War I, was frequented in the 1920s primarily by German nationalists who railed against democracy and the Weimar Republic.

Among them was Hitler's later star architect, Albert Speer, but also the married couple Winifred and Siegfried Wagner, who organized the famous Bayreuth Festival in celebration of German composer Richard Wagner. Elsa Bruckmann provided a forum for all those who mourned Germany's imperial era and suffered from the economic crisis or the "ignominy" of the lost First World War.

A platform for Hitler's indoctrinating speeches

"The longing for a messiah was great, and the hopes of the upper middle classes were pinned on Hitler," explains Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth. Hitler had inspired Elsa Bruckmann and many others with his indoctrinating speeches and his visions of a new great Germany. The couple provided financial support to the leader of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), and Elsa Bruckmann took pleasure in dressing him appropriately. Through her, Hitler also established crucial connections with prominent industrialists.

Adolf Hitler felt comfortable in these circles. "After all, he had not received any significant education and had barely managed to make a living as an art and postcard painter in Vienna. He lacked a proper upbringing and background; he had to acquire everything on his own," Sven Friedrich elaborates.

Close ties to the Wagner family

Winifred Wagner, the daughter-in-law of composer Richard Wagner, was also one of Hitler's supporters. "Winifred was enthralled by Hitler due to his sense of mission and his profound admiration for Wagner's music," says Friedrich. From the very beginning, he had promised her that he would take care of the Bayreuth Festival once he had power in Germany.

A friendship quickly developed between the two. At times, Adolf Hitler lived with the Wagners in their estate. A prominent member of the family was also Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an influential British-German race theorist, antisemite and a mastermind of the National Socialist movement. He was married to Richard Wagner's daughter Eva. "For Hitler, Chamberlain was an idol," says Sven Friedrich.

Loyalty to Hitler despite Munich putsch attempt

In 1923, the National Socialists, led by Adolf Hitler, made an unsuccessful attempt to violently overthrow the government of the Weimar Republicin Munich. As a consequence of this failed coup, Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison. He began serving his sentence in the spring of 1924 at Landsberg Fortress and was granted early release later the same year.

"This imprisonment at Landsberg Fortress was more of a house arrest, where one lived comfortably with like-minded comrades," Friedrich points out. The Wagners are not to be found on the visitors' list, but they kept up a lively correspondence with Hitler. Winifred Wagner sent him sweets and writing paper. It was on this paper that Hitler wrote his book "Mein Kampf." Elsa Bruckmann later offered to be the editor for the second edition.

Active donors: Helene and Edwin Bechstein

Alongside Elsa Bruckmann, the names of Helene and Edwin Bechstein are also on the list of Hitler's visitors in prison. The Bechstein piano company, founded in 1853 by Carl Bechstein, was a well-established German business at the time, and is still one of the biggest piano manufacturers today. "Until the war, most prominent pianists played on a Bechstein piano or grand piano," says Gregor Willmes, a musicologist and cultural manager at the Bechstein company. Inflation in the 1920s hit the company hard.

Edwin, one of Carl's sons, had cashed out early on and had some wealth. He and his wife supported Hitler's plans, and like the Wagners, they also hosted Hitler in their villa.

In Hitler's favor

Once Adolf Hitler gained power, the Bayreuth Festival was under his personal protection because the Wagners had always supported him. "He reciprocated by granting Bayreuth substantial financial subsidies," says museum director Sven Friedrich. The National Socialists ensured that the performances, known as the "War Festival Performances," continued until 1944.

With the start of World War II, Hitler's visits to the upper-class ladies became less frequent. Elsa Bruckmann distanced herself from Hitler because of the atrocities commited on his orders in the persecution of the Jews and in the war. However, she is said to have retained her nationalist sentiments until her death in 1951.

Denazification after 1945?

Winifred Wagner remained an ardent supporter of Hitler and National Socialism after the war. She — like her son Wieland, who had stood closely by Hitler's side — had to go through a so-called denazification procedure. She was not allowed to continue in her position as festival director in Bayreuth. She continued to meet with her old friends from the Nazi era.

Hitler's architect Albert Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Other cultural figures, like the sculptor Arno Breker or conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, had cooperated with Hitler, but the Allies eventually classified them as "fellow travelers" ("Mitläufer") and they were able to resume their activities successfully after a time. Breker even created works commissioned by the German government after the war. And conductor Friedrich Furtwängler was celebrated during his tours with the Berlin Philharmonic in Europe. Wieland Wagner, on the other hand, took over management of the Bayreuth Festival together with his brother Wolfgang. They introduced a new aesthetic with lighting effects and sparse stage designs, and Wieland was hailed as a great innovator in stage direction.

Dealing with the past

Helene and Edwin Bechstein's closeness with Hitler had also damaged the reputation of the piano making company after the war. Nevertheless, they kept the name. "We carry the name, of course, because of Carl Bechstein, who was an important personality and promoted art and culture, but we are aware of this inglorious history surrounding Helene and Edwin," says cultural manager Gregor Willmes. Today, the company works with many Jewish and Palestinian pianists from Israel and supports musical projects that deal with National Socialism. No one from the Bechstein family itself is still with the company.

The Bayreuth Festival Hall is no longer owned by the Wagner family, but is maintained by the public Richard Wagner Foundation. Today, artistic director Katharina Wagner, granddaughter of Winifred Wagner, has confronted her family's National Socialist past. Her goal from the beginning has been to "lead the Festival into a modern age."

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