- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

The reputation of Robert Falcon Scott, the intrepid Royal Navy officer who led two daring expeditions to the Antarctic at the beginning of the 20th century, has fluctuated over the years. Initially hailed as a hero on a par with Nelson only to be second-guessed later as foolhardy or incompetent, Scott has inspired countless books, at least two of them with the same title (except for the subtitle) as David Crane’s Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy (Knopf, $30, 592 pages, illus.). Do you need to read this hefty new tome?

Yes. Mr. Crane is a persuasive writer who has sifted through the published and unpublished records of all the participants in the polar dramas of the period and woven a coherent narrative with thoughtful analysis. The story’s end remains particularly gripping — Scott and his two teammates who survived the push to the South Pole are found dead in Scott’s tent on the return trip only 11 miles from a well-stocked depot.

“It was not faulty logistics that did for Scott, not lack of food or fuel … not imprecise instructions, not over-rigid instructions, not arrogance, not stupidity, not the fifth man, not scurvy, but the weather… . They had been, quite literally, killed by the cold,” says the author. The weather Scott’s team encountered in March 1912 was 10 to 20 degrees colder than normal, according to Scott’s meteorologist, “a one in ten chance.”

Still, the day-to-day accounts of both expeditions abound in so many catastrophes or near-catastrophes that the reader can only marvel that anybody survived either trip. As an epigraph to Chapter 17 puts it, “Let no one think the worst is over until he is dead” (Sophocles). Fully half the chapters could be titled, like Chapter 17, “Escape from the Ice.”

Mr. Crane gives equal time to both expeditions, contrasting Scott’s imaginative improvisations that got him through the first trip with the far more meticulous planning for the second. He discusses Scott’s family problems (he retained the support of his mother and sisters after his somewhat unlikely marriage to an impecunious sculptor between voyages) and Scott’s rivalry with Shackleton, a member of Scott’s first expedition who developed scurvy and was sent home on a relief ship but returned to lead two polar expeditions of his own.

The author also describes how Scott assumed, correctly, that Amundsen’s team, traveling on skis from a base 60 miles nearer the Pole, would beat the British team there, but decided to go anyway.

The main argument of Mr. Crane’s book is that there were many courageous polar explorers, but that Scott achieved “posthumous dominance” through his journals and letters: “It was only in his written legacy that the values to which he aspired stood shorn of those accidents of character and temper that always came between him and his ideals.

“His achievements as a leader of two of the greatest of all Antarctic expeditions are unarguable, but in the very nature of science or geographical exploration, if Scott had not done it, someone else would. The same is not true of the legacy of his last days. His testimony has the same appeal as great literature, and has it for the same reason… . No one else could have written them …”

Mr. Crane concludes that for all of the scientific achievements of the expedition — the zoology, meteorology, geology, physics, cartography — it was the spirit of the men rather than what they did that matters. At the limits of endurance, Scott wrote, “I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet deaths with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.”

Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of composer Richard Wagner and long-time director of the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, was one of the more remarkable women in Hitler’s Germany. She is now the subject of a well researched biography by Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann, Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth (Harcourt, $35, 592 pages, illus.).

Ms. Hamann’s subject was born Winifred Williams in England in 1897. She soon lost both parents and was adopted at age nine by distant relatives in Germany who were friends of the Wagner family. With a view to continuing the Wagner dynasty, Winnie was married off at age 18 to Wagner’s son Siegfried. Siegfried, an unsuccessful opera composer, was gay, but over the years he and Winnie produced four children.

The Bayreuth in which Winnie matured was devoted to the music and philosophy of Richard Wagner. The composer’s anti-Semitism was pervasive; Jewish singers were employed only when there was no acceptable alternative. In one performance of “Der Meistersinger,” a singer’s praise of German art led the audience to interrupt with a boisterous rendition of “Deutschland uber Alles.”

In 1923 an aspiring politician named Adolf Hitler made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, where he met Winnie. It was love at first sight — on Hitler’s part, love of Wagner and Bayreuth as a symbols of German nationalism; on Winnie’s part, love for the charismatic Hitler. The Fuehrer was observed at the performance of one part of “The Ring” with tears streaming down his face; as for Winnie, she called Hitler “Wolf” and prepared special welcomes for him at Bayreuth.

Siegfried died in 1930, leaving Winnie as director of the Wagner festival and its precarious finances. Hitler, who came to power three years later, saw to it that the festival received grants that put it on a sound financial footing. Winnie began referring to Wolf by the initials USA, which stood for “Unser seliger Adolf,” our blessed Adolf.

By the late 1930s, German artists were required to be members of a Nazi organization that attested to their patriotism and culture. Many of Winnie’s singers ran afoul of this requirement, but Winnie pulled strings to assure that they were allowed to perform. When the Gestapo arrested the wife of a local music critic, Winnie insisted that there be a public trial. In it, the woman was freed.

In Ms. Hamann’s words, “The help that Winifred gave to so many Jews was spontaneous, unquestioning, full of sympathy, and not at all calculating… . And yet, in the old Bayreuth manner, she went on using anti-Semitic propaganda phrases, even though the misery of the Jews confronted her daily.”

After the war, Allied authorities initially occupied the festival grounds and banned Winnie from Bayreuth. She underwent a series of de-Nazification trials in which she was ultimately characterized as a “follower” of Hitler rather than a “major offender,” a distinction that kept her out of jail and allowed her to resume her festival activities. Several of her children, however, sought to depose Winnie as director of the festival. She fought them off until 1949, when she became convinced that her past was a liability to the festival and resigned. She lived on until 1980, dropping in from time to time on Hitler Youth reunions.

With regard to Nazi crimes, Winnie conceded “that everything that happened in the second half of the war is completely unacceptable.” But she placed the blame not on Hitler but on his acolytes.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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