The Wagner Clan, by Jonathan Carr

A turbulent family steeped in Nazism vies for control of the Wagner empire
Click to follow

Yet another Wagner book, but a novel one: a chronicle of the battle for control of his posthumous empire in Bayreuth. This began in 1883 with his widow, Cosima, retrospectively writing his will and naming herself and his son as his heirs. It's still being fought today. The composer's great-granddaughter, Katharina, 29 – following very mixed reviews for her new production of Die Meistersinger – is considering her next move in the game to win the crown.

Jonathan Carr devotes his first 50 pages to a somewhat indigestible resumé of Richard Wagner's life, but once into the real story his book becomes gripping. As contenders came and went, I tried to keep pace on a large sheet of paper, and by 1945 I needed another. For these were not only numerous relatives: they included people like the tenacious conductor Heinz Tietjen, Bayreuth's artistic éminence grise, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the crazy British Wagnerite who married Wagner's daughter Eva and wrote a bestselling racist history of "civilisation" that fed directly into Mein Kampf.

Carr accurately describes Chamberlain as the family spin-doctor. He helped Cosima to clean up Wagner's image with a sanitised biography, while she burned incriminating letters from Nietzsche and her first husband, Hans von Bulow. The Wagner archive is a saga in itself, with some bits sold off by impecunious descendants, some going up in smoke with Hitler, some buried in the garden at Bayreuth as the Americans advanced. Winifred – appalled at the revelations when Cosima's diaries were published – threw the remnants into a vault, where they sit to this day.

Everybody in this tale gets their moment. It's fascinating to meet clever granddaughter Nike and angry grandson Gottfried, and to see how Wieland and Wolfgang – talented warring sons of Wagner's sweet, gifted, bisexual son, Siegfried – have carried on the torch. But it's the formidable Winifred – the English waif who married Siegfried and became infatuated with Hitler after Siegfried's death – whose spirit rightly pervades this story.

Carr refrains from speculating as to whether she actually slept with Hitler, but shows how deeply imbued she was with Nazism. As she never repented her anti-Semitism, her daughter Friedelind stayed hostile to the last. The miracle is how this bunch managed to keep control of their empire with state support despite their close implication in the crime of the century.

Faber, £20. Order for £18 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897