Herbert Von Karajan: Unrepentant National Socialist

Herbert von Karajan (1908 ~ 1989) is regarded as the greatest orchestral conductor ever to mount the podium. Yet, he was also a mountain climber, drove Formula One supercars, and enjoyed fast motorcycling. On water he had few equals: a gifted water skier, he sailed super yachts and was a scuba diving virtuoso. At the age of 54 he descended Mont Blanc on skis. The multi-lingual Austrian-German piloted his own aircraft, fixed wing and helicopter. The maestro earned the respect of iconic sportsmen.

Herbert von Karajan joined the National Socialist Deutsche Arbeit Partei (NSDAP) within weeks of Hitler’s election. His membership card carries the number #1 607 525. He had the distinction of being a member twice over. He carried a German issue NSDAP card (#3 430 914) despite it being illegal for an Austrian to be a member.

The conductor’s esteem for Hitler endured and not once did he deny his membership. Roger Vaughan, the conductor’s biographer, tells of the time they drove through Berchtesgaden and up winding forested roads to Adolf Hitler’s mountain home. As they neared the ruins, bombed by the USAF then looted, von Karajan expressed deep sadness, “there is no monument to him.”

His was a period dominated by the celebrated Furtwangler and Toscanini. No one can read of Karajan’s struggle for fame without admiration for his tenacity. His was a life of grueling hard work, ingenuity, and God-given talent. Herbert von Karajan represented the culture of the Third Reich. Upon Germany’s defeat, the conductor was persecuted by the forces of occupation. Like millions of others he was denied the means to support himself or his family.

Until December 1948, when he was finally cleared by the allies, he lived in St. Anton and remote wooded areas north of Milan. Partisans would have murdered him had they known of his existence.

Karajan’s association with National Socialism never troubled him. He wouldn’t discuss the matter other than declaring, “I would not change anything I have done.”

Even those not given to respect National Socialist ideology noted that no matter what inducements or threats, Karajan never renounced his beliefs. Karajan’s biographer, Roger Vaughan, writes:

Throughout the long drawn-out denazification process there is not the slightest sign of contriteness from Karajan. One may question his ethics, but not his toughness, his strength of purpose, his self-assured single-mindedness. He told the authorities what he had done and he told them with his head held high and his voice in full timbre. He voiced no apologies, no regrets. Here is the story: so be it. And when he was challenged he didn’t defend himself, he attacked.

The last musical work performed on Berlin Radio before it went off the air in May 1945 was Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in E-Major. In 1989, on a date many might regard as a tribute to the Führer’s 100th birth anniversary, Herbert von Karajan led the Vienna Philharmonic in his final performance with this same monumental work.

Occasionally, one will note that Karajan closes an orchestral performance by clasping his arms across his chest. One of the Fuhrer’s idiosyncrasies was to close a speech with clasped hands across his chest. It may well be a signal that will be understood by all National Socialists.

British Diplomat Leslie Edge, an ardent classical music expert, was a close friend of Karajan. He describes how in 1947 he arrived early at the conductor’s humble flat. Religious books of all sorts were scattered around. Passages in books had been underlined and notes scribbled in the margins.

When he returned I asked him about it. He said that you don’t need any faith to believe in God, because there are plenty of signs available of His existence. Mozart wrote a symphony as a child. Heredity cannot account for this. There is only one explanation, the Creator chooses people as His instruments to produce some beauty in a world that is all too ugly.

Denis Stevens described the final von Karajan recording of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in April 1989.

I would say that Herbert von Karajan ventured where lesser conductors feared to go. He achieved immortality as a conductor of international acclaim. He did so by bringing to bear his consummate passion and ability to conduct not only the performance but everything related to it. We see and hear him now at the height of his powers, superbly able to keep a Bruckner symphony spinning not like a top but rather like some celestial sphere; massive, glowing, and infused with cosmic power.

The maestro of maestros passed peacefully on three months later. It is estimated that Karajan has nearly 1,000 recordings to his credit and cumulative sales far exceed 100 million.

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