Books: The Crystal Bucket : Wini und Wolf | clivejames.com
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Wini und Wolf

‘Self-indulgence,’ said La Bruyère, ‘and severity towards others are the same vice.’ A crack worth remembering when the unrepentant features of Winifred Wagner (BBC 2) filled the screen.

The temptation to judge her was hard to resist. Interviewed at length in German with English subtitles, she defended herself with a fluency that might well have conned the unsuspecting. Certainly she was and is a formidable woman. Bayreuth flourished under her artistic directorship. The way she tells it, the Festspielhaus enjoyed the favour of Hitler and the Party but apart from certain subsidies it still had to make its own way. There were no Nazi demonstrations in the auditorium, at Hitler’s own request. She interceded for her Jewish musicians, forwarding petitions when asked.

The petitions were nearly always successful, thanks to her friendship with Hitler, about which she still has no qualms, since it was purely a human tie — no politics. She sounded tough yet reasonable. Here, you could imagine bright young viewers thinking, was one Nazi not entirely to be despised. Someone who had behaved rather well even though backing the wrong horse. Someone larger than her accusers.

It all happened a long time ago. Perhaps the guilty were a bit more innocent, the innocent a bit more guilty, than they were painted. Best to leave it alone. That, at any rate, is the ploy on which somebody like Albert Speer is relying: to sit there looking puzzled and regretful until nobody cares any more. Winifred, to do her credit, is less devious than that. She sees no necessity to cover up, since she was right all along.

Her Verhältnis zu Hitler, being nonpolitical, was the kind of relationship that could draw to the full on his reserves of ‘Austrian human tact and warmth’. She called him ‘Wolf’ and he called her ‘Wini’. Tiptoeing upstairs together on the Führer’s frequent visits to Haus Wahnfried, Wolf and Wini cooed over the tots’ cots. Apparently Adolf and the two Wagner boys (Wieland and Wolfgang, later to be Festival directors in their turn) addressed each other in the familiar form, du. So touching. But what about all those other children whose lives were being made hell not far down the road?

It was on this point that Winifred’s show of hard-bitten realism turned to mush. She has a point when she says that it is easy not to be a Nazi now that Hitler is no longer around. But she neglects to mention that there were a lot of people who were anti-Nazi even when he was around, simply because they could see him for what he was. She couldn’t, or else didn’t want to. According to Winifred, her children weren’t saying du to the Devil, they were saying it to their country’s redeemer. Look at the Volksgemeinschaft which Hitler gave Germany — the feeling that workers of all kinds were part of one movement. Bless his big, blue eyes, he towered above his offsiders. ‘I except Hitler quite generally from that whole crowd.’

Especially she excepted him from Streicher. The whole Jewish issue was a bee in Streicher’s bonnet. Apparently ‘we all’ thought Streicher an impossible piece of work. No, the Final Solution had little to do with Wolf and nothing at all to do with Wini. ‘Nothing outside touched me.’

The first fallacy is obvious, or ought to be: men like Streicher didn’t act independently of Hitler’s will, they were his will. The second fallacy is harder to get at, but in the end more important. Winifred was fooling herself to imagine that nothing outside touched her. You can’t keep a stench like that outside. It seeps into everything. Still, Winifred proves just how bright you can be without realizing that you are participating in a nightmare.

Back in Britain, where politics tend to be a good deal quieter, Lady Falkender made a well-timed bed-of-pain appearance on ITN, disarming her critics by freely admitting that she had the occasional tantrum — and who wouldn’t, after twenty years hard? A Joe-come-lately like Mr Haines could scarcely be expected to know what was involved. With this interview Lady Falkender scored a plus which not even Sir Harold Wilson could turn into a minus.

Making his own appearance on ITN a few days later (the Beeb was out in the cold), Sir Harold was stripped for action — no pipe. He referred to what Lady Falkender had said ‘on the Jimmy Young Show’. He was cunningly understanding about Joe. But he made a gentle plea for reason. ‘You’re talking about molehills when my problems were mountainous.’ Moses — the Lawgiver!

But perhaps the country isn’t so badly governed after all. The State of the Nation (Granada) cast journalists as politicians in a compressed reconstruction of the Cabinet debates re the IMF loan. With Anthony Crosland at death’s door, there was a case for postponing the programme, but Mrs Crosland bravely agreed to its transmission. As it happened, Crosland came out of it well. His unexpectedly trenchant arguments against cuts in social services were put by the best natural actor of the bunch, Peter Jenkins of the Guardian. David Watt played Callaghan. Everybody caught one another’s eye with a ‘spot the loon’ look when Benn was talking. The show was probably true to life, since each Minister had a vested interest in briefing the journalist chosen to play him. It’s a sweet technique for getting at the truth, so I imagine someone will put a stop to it soon enough.

While Frank Finlay was having his stomach pumped — Yerk! Karf! Whark! — in Another Bouquet (LWT), his ritzy mistress Sarah piled into the palliasse with young Gavin, erstwhile lover of his wife Cassie and husband of his daughter Prue. In another part of the studio, Cassie was making it with Evan, medico father of Gavin’s girlfriend Vicky. According to my own pocket calculator, there is nobody left to get laid except the baby. Why am I watching such trash, when the small screen is yet rich with classics like The Country Wife? BBC1’s Play of the Month, this was lavishly cast but stunningly dull, mainly because Wycherley’s witticisms are not witty.

20 February, 1977