Photo: Karajan´s Nazi party membership card.
I am no Karajan-basher - I recognize his immense contribution to classical music and admire his superbly conducted performances of many of my favourite works.
But I find it entirely unacceptable, that he has never been willing to publicly explain his activities during the 1930´s and 40´s: I am no self-righteous purist - I realize the complexity of the situation in Germany at that time, and to be completely honest, few os us would probably have been heroes in similar situations. The problem is not what he did, as I don´t think he is a worse person than most, but his lack of understanding, that as a public figure he has a responsibility to help explain the nature of the issues and conditions in these years.
I have translated a fascinating article from yesterday´s Berliner Morgenpost´s Karsten Kammholz on Herbert von Karajan and the Third Reich:
"Three minutes airtime was what the host Reinhold Beckmann recently gave his guest, the conductor´s widow Eliette von Karajan on this unpleasant topic: No, on the Nazi era she never talked with Herbert, said Eliette. Then Helmut Schmidt appeared: "Karajan was obviously not a Nazi. He was a follower". And thus the issue was wiped off the table. Karajan himself, who would be 100 years old on April 5, never spoke publicly about that time.
And the exact role of the conductor in the Third Reich is still somewhat of a mystery. Previously, many saw him as apolitical, but documents from his early past speak a different language: There is evidence that Karajan joined the Nazi Party as early as April 8, 1933 in Salzburg. He has always claimed that he automatically joined in 1935 upon being made General Music Director in Aachen. Experts however, doubt such automatic membership allocation.
Karajan became a very early member of the Nazi Party in Salzburg, at a time when the party was still far from power in Austria. Karajan´s membership may thus be be seen as a conscious political step - or as calculated, career opportunism.
His unique career would have been impossible at that time without the good will of the party: Karajan´s big breakthrough is still considered to have taken place at October 21th 1938, where he conducted a performance of Wagner´s "Tristan and Isolde" at the Berlin State Opera. Afterwards the journalist and music critic Edwin von der Nüll wrote a review with the famous headline "The Miracle Karajan" in the magazine "BZ". This positive criticism at once raised the young Austrian to the level of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the powerful chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. However, evidence indicate that this article on Karajan was a politically commissioned work.
Hermann Göring, then Prime Minister of Prussia, was overseeing the Berlin State Opera and Joseph Goebbels as the chief of the Reich Chamber of Culture was responsible for Furtwängler. Probably both Göring and Goebbels had an interest in Karajan. He fitted well into their world view since he was young, extremely good-looking as well as being a perfectionist and aesthete.
Peter Uehling, whose book "Karajan" (Rowohlt, 2006) is the latest of nearly a dozen biographies on the conductor, said: "All of this made him attractive to the Nazi leaders." Göring would have been proud to work with this new conducting star.
Karajan knew how to exploit this awareness by the party peaks. Because up to the "miracle"-article, he was "just" a provincial conductor: Previously stationed at Ulmer, he was appointed general music director of Aachen in 1935.
Karajan conducted Wagner's "Tannhauser"at Hitler´s birthday in 1935 and played the Horst Wessel song (the official anthem of the NSDAP) several times during his career.
"There are stories that despite of all this, Hitler despised Karajan," says Misha Aster in his book "The Imperial Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic and National Socialism" (Siedler Verlag, 2007).
Apparently Hitler considered it presumptuous that Karajan, before the eyes of the leader, conducted Wagner's "Meistersinger" by heart at the Berlin State Opera. After that performance, Hitler allegedly said that he would no longer go to the Staatsoper when Karajan was on the podium.
Karajan remained in Aachen, Germany, as general music director, until he was dismissed in the 1941/42 season allegedly because he was there too rarely. He was informed of this decision while in Rome on a tour with the Berlin State Opera.
Karajan now tried to offer his services to the regime in other ways: The conductor wanted to be a fighter pilot. But he was rejected because he was too old. Henceforth, he led the Staatskapelle Berlin. Only the end of the war suddenly interrupted his career. After that Karajan apparently had some difficulties explaining his past.
There are documents that show that Karajan even entered the Nazi party twice. By the previously mentioned Salzburg membership in 1933 he received membership number 1607525. It has been argued that this membership was not valid since Karajan only payed the administration fee, but not the membership fees he was supposed to. In March 1935 the conductor joined the Nazi party again, this time in Aachen where he received membership number 3430914. After the annexation of Austria the competent "Reichsschatzmeisterei" of the NSDAP in Munich discovered Karajan´s dual membership and declared the initial membership invalid. The second membership was then retrospectively dated as May 1, 1933.
His denazification moved very slowly forward in the occupied Germany. Karajan was forbidden to work, the Allied kep interrogating him and remained negative. The Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde still keep the records to document this. There it is documented, that as late as April 1949 in a letter from the Zonal Office of Information Services in Hamburg, the office of the Cultural Relations Branch explicitly stressed that Karajan´s denazification, which was completed in 1946 in Austria was not valid for Germany.
Thus Karajan was not under consideration for the conducting post with the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Three months later, von Karajan in an exchange of letters between the Zonal Office of Information Services and the American Veterans Committee in New York was described as an "ardent Nazi".
Only the young Federal Republic of Germany helped Karajan to his 1950 comeback. And suddenly he was no longer held back: He got engagements in Vienna, Salzburg, Milan, London and Berlin. Sporadic attacks of his Nazi past, he dismissed as being envious.
Misha Aster was puzzled , "that in the 50s and 60s nobody intensively worked with a Karajan biography ." Maybe not in Germany, but in the United States they did, which Karajan got to feel in 1955 when he as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic went on a tour to New York with the orchestra. Jewish organizations demonstrated against Karajan in front of the New York's Carnegie Hall with placards: "They helped Hitler murder millions". Karajan noted the protests with demonstrative disinterest.
In the 1960´s the conductor and his Philharmonics planned a concert tour to Israel. But the Israelis were clear: The orchestra could come, Karajan could not. Only when he died in 1989 the way was paved. In 1990 the Berlin Philharmonics were in Israel for the first time."