Adolf Hitler, the notorious dictator, responsible for the deaths of millions of people, is seen in rare footage discovered in Germany, dining with friends and playing with children. Two rolls of 16mm silent film in rusty cans were found in the attic of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, which had become a place of pilgrimage for the opera-obsessed Fuhrer during his 12 years as ruler of the Third Reich. The films, one of them 4 minutes long, the other, little less than 11 minutes, were shot in 1936 by a 16 year-old Wolfgang Wagner, a grandson of Richard Wagner. They show Hitler in a series of informal settings with the Wagner family.
The footage has excited researchers who say that it adds another dimension to Hitler, one that seems to humanise the monster, responsible for the Holocaust and perhaps the world’s most destructive war. Sylvia Krauss, director of the Bavarian State Archive and supervisor of the estate of Wolfgang Wagner, who died in 2010, discovered the films in December. ‘One views the scenes with a certain anxiety,’ she said. ‘You can see Hitler in completely unknown poses. Not the statesman Hitler we know but one where he comes across in a very friendly way.’
Hitler was obsessed with Wagner’s music and befriended the Wagner family early in his political career. The Wagner children would come to call him ‘Uncle Wolf’, Wolf being a nickname allowed only to the closest of the Nazi inner circle. The films were shot three years after Hitler assumed power. He was childless throughout his life and the Wagner children were surrogates for him. He can be seen playing and joking with them at the Villa Wahnfried, the family residence in Bayreuth, The footage also shows Hitler sketching Weiland Wagner, Wolfgang’s brother, who died in 1966.
‘That these children were surrogates, we have known for a long time but these films bring that to life,’ Miss Krauss said. ‘Winifried Wagner, Wolfgang’s mother is seen in conversation with Hitler. She holds Hitler’s hand, she is beaming. Other friends of the Wagner family featured includes the conductors Heinz Tiedjen and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Hitler’s favourite architect Albert Speer is captured with the clan enjoying a dinner after a festival performance.’
Katharina Wagner, Wolfgang’s daughter and director of the Bayreuth Festival, donated the family archive in 2013, but because Verena Wagner Lafferentz, 96, Wolfgang’s younger sister, is on the film, and still alive, it cannot be broadcast publicly to protect her rights under German law. Digital copies will be made to enable academic study. ‘The selection of people who will see them will be very strict,’ Miss Krause said.
It’s worthy of note that Furtwangler was the subject of a book published by Quartet. Yehudi Menuhin, who I interviewed, had this to say about Furtwangler:
He was a great conductor and an absolutely clean man no question of doubt. He stood up for Hindemith; he protected many Jews, helped many out of Germany and himself had to escape towards the end of the war. He happened to conduct the orchestra when some of the leaders were there but we can’t expect everyone to behave in the same way. Sometimes it takes more courage to remain in your country than to leave it. Those who stayed suffered a pretty bad fate and those who came out after all, escaped yet there was this feeling of superiority amongst those whom escaped thinking they showed great determination in leaving it behind. I would say Jew or gentile, you cannot blame those who stayed, and you can’t blame those who escaped. It’s just the way things went but Furtwangler himself was a man of integrity.’
Yehudi himself, who I got to know rather well, was a great humanitarian and one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered.
It’s also worth mentioning that Quartet published in 2010 an unusual and engrossing account of Hitler’s rise to power, written in novel form by one of Germany’s leading television directors: Young Hitler by Claus Hant. 150 pages of intriguing appendices substantiate the novel’s provenance amongst the ashes of a demoralised and bankrupt Germany, Young Hitler also provides a unique perspective, but unlike the film archive, is available from Quartet Book’s website directly.