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Why Karajan?

By Professor Raymond Holden AM, Emeritus Professor of Music, Royal Academy of Music, London


A leading authority on performance practice and performance history,  Professor Ryamond Holden AM is the author of The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan for Yale University Press, among other books. Part I examines Karajan, the Nazi period, and World War II.

In a world that has become increasingly bland and diffuse culturally, Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) should act as a beacon of hope for all those aspiring to artistic excellence. The heir to a majestic line of great central European conductors that included Hans von Bülow (1830-1894), Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Bruno Walter (1876-1962) and Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), Karajan created a musical empire that did much to shape the cultural climate of the late twentieth century.

With a personal performance aesthetic that was as thought-provoking as it was imaginative, he was a peerless conductor who was admired unreservedly by artists such as Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998), Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) and Christian Thielemann. But he was also considered by some to be something of an ethical bogeyman, whose political indiscretions brought his performing activities into serious disrepute. Regularly pilloried for his larger-than-life personality, his love of fast cars, his imperious manner and his overly demanding musicianship, Karajan never failed to provoke the ire of those who struggled to come to terms with him either professionally or personally, or those who envied his fame, influence and financial success. 

Born Heribert Ritter von Karajan in Salzburg, Austria, on April 5, 1908, Karajan was the second son of the physician, Dr. Ernst von Karajan (1868-1951), and his wife, Martha (1881-1954).[1] 

A descendant of the ennobled Greco-Macedonian clothing manufacturer Georg Johann Karajoannes, the young Herbert looked back on his antecedents with pride. His father was a fine amateur clarinetist and a part-time member of the Mozarteum Orchestra, while his mother was a doting parent who always encouraged her son’s very obvious musical talents. After a relatively modest start as a conductor, Karajan quickly rose to superstar status through a series of well-chosen appointments, and was soon leaving critics, listeners and fellow musicians scrambling for superlatives. So how did Karajan become such a divisive figure, and why does he trigger such extreme responses? 

Karajan created a musical empire that did much to shape the cultural climate of the late twentieth century. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon


Undoubtedly, one the public’s biggest stumbling blocks when assessing Karajan the man was his membership of the Nazi Party, a historical trope that never fails to raise its ugly head whenever his often-problematic, early-political history is being discussed. For Austro-German conductors who lived through the dark days of the Third Reich, the ways in which they navigated their careers through that era’s murky cultural waters did much to define how they were perceived and received in later life. 

Some, like Fritz Busch (1890-1951), simply refused to engage with the Nazi-regime and quickly left Germany, while others, like Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), never joined the Party and naively believed that they could stare down their new political masters from within. And then there were those such as Karl Böhm (1894-1981), who, like Furtwängler, never actually joined the NSDAP, but managed to play the system for all it was worth. 

Karajan, on the other hand, did join the Party, not once, but seemingly twice. After a stint as Second Kapellmeister at the tiny Ulm Stadttheater, he was headhunted by theaters in Berlin and Karlsruhe, before being tempted by an offer from the Aachen Stadttheater in 1934 that would make him Germany’s youngest Generalmusikdirektor. With a three-year contract that gave him sweeping powers and financial security, Karajan was to take charge of the city’s principal operatic and concert organizations. But having accepted the post, the new regime expected him to join the Nazi Party. 

Confusion then reigned when it appeared that he had already signed up with the NSDAP at Salzburg. Having been recruited there by Herbert Klein, a local Party activist, Karajan paid his 5 Shillings joining fee and was given the membership number 1,607,525 in 1933. But after making no other payments, his initial membership lapsed. And this is why it appears that he re-joined the organization in 1935.[2] 

Used by amateur historians as a stick with which to beat him politically, Karajan’s supposed double dip into the cesspool of mid-century Austro-German politics was really little more than a clerical error. But there is no denying that he did join the Party, and probably did so because he thought that it was a sure way to quickly climb up the Reich’s greasy musical pole. When challenged about this in later life, Karajan simply shrugged his shoulders and said: 

“It is sometimes said, unthinkingly, that I would have sold my own grandmother to get [the Aachen] position. Yet this sentence sums up fairly accurately what I was capable of doing at that time, young hungry conductor that I was. Entry into the party was a condition of my becoming general music director in Aachen. For me it was the price you sometimes have to pay to get exactly what you want if there is a particular goal you must achieve at all costs.”[3]

The Aachen Stadttheater where Karajan served as General Music Director from 1935-1942

Karajan, Böhm, and the Nazi Party

Karajan’s actions were those of an overly ambitious young man and clearly a mistake politically. Unlike Böhm, Karajan never tried to hide his membership of the NSDAP, or to argue his innocence. Böhm spent the whole of his later life obfuscating his dark past, and even when asked as early as the 1930s had he joined the Nazis, he replied: “I have never been the member of a party, not even a Volunteer Fire Brigade, and I shall never join one.” [4] 

While this is undoubtedly true, it is also extremely disingenuous. Böhm’s lack of membership did little to deter him from undertaking propaganda tours for the Nazis to Britain, France, Spain and Portugal. 

Nor did it stop him from broadcasting regularly on Deutschlandsender and Reichssender Berlin, or from leading the celebrations at a concert marking the tenth anniversary of Kraft durch Freude (‘Strength through Joy’) in Vienna on December 10,  1943. Böhm continued to plead his innocence to his dying day, but few believed him, and there is now a plaque in the Festspielhaus at Salzburg that reads: 

Karl Böhm was one of the politically recognized conductors of theThird Reich.’ He benefited from the Nazi regime, and his advancement was also helped by the expulsion and persecution of Jewish or politically undesirable colleagues. In 1944, Adolf Hitler included him as one of the 15 most important conductors in the ‘God-Given List’ [sic].”

Although Böhm never contributed to the NSDAP, he was one of the cultural figureheads of National Socialism. He was, therefore, banned from performing from 1945 to 1947.

In 1938, Karajan had become a de-facto persona non grata by Nazi-Germany. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

Fall from grace

While it is true that Karajan also undertook propaganda tours to France and Italy during World War II, it should be remembered that he, too, didn’t emerge from the Third Reich wholly unscathed. After marrying his second wife Anita Gütermann (1917-2015) on October 22, 1942, who was of partial Jewish descent, Karajan no longer enjoyed the support of senior government officials and arts managers in the German capital.[5] 

Prominent soloists quickly began to absent themselves from his Berlin concerts, and his tenure at Aachen was terminated at the end of the 1941–2 season. In later life, Karajan maintained that he was fired without warning from Aachen, and that he only learned of his dismissal after reading about it in a newspaper while on tour in Italy. No longer able to rely on the security of his Aachen tenure, his standing in Berlin also became increasingly shaky. Karajan’s last performance for the Staatsoper was of Carl Orff’s (1895-1962) Carmina Burana at the Kroll Theatre on 19 February 1942, and his only engagements in the capital from 1943 were as conductor of the Staatskapelle Berlin. 

By the end of the Third Reich, Karajan’s fall from grace was nothing short of spectacular, and the meteoric young conductor who was famously dubbed ‘Das Wunder Karajan’ in 1938 was now one of the regime’s most high-profile persona non grata

Like most Berlin residents, Karajan suffered privations and hardships during the closing months of the war, and after his apartment had been destroyed by bombs, he was later seen sheltering from the bombing in the basement of the Hotel Adlon without shoes and dressed in a shabby trench-coat. Fearing capture by the invading Russians because of his prominence as a musician, he escaped to northern Italy shortly after his last concert with the Staatskapelle in February 1945. 

Traveling first to Milan, and later to a boathouse on Lake Como, he was soon discovered by the Nazi authorities and ordered back to Berlin. They had already lost Furtwängler to Switzerland and were keen to ensure that at least one of their former star conductors was still available to them. Aware of what the loss of both artists meant for morale and propaganda, the Nazis quickly arranged for Karajan to fly back to Germany. But events were moving fast, and when he returned to Milan to collect some of his belongings before setting off for Berlin, he was overtaken by the German retreat and the subsequent American occupation. 

No longer in any danger of being repatriated to the now-lunar landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated Nazi capital, Karajan remained in Italy for much of 1945, before returning to his parents’ house in Salzburg towards the end of the year.

As part of the Allied denazification process, U.S. troops show German civilians the corpses found in the Buchenwald concentration camp, April 16, 1945

Post war

But Karajan’s political past was never far away and he faced a bleak future at the end of the war. When he left Berlin, his finances and career were at a nadir, and having conducted only three concerts since fleeing Germany, Karajan was keen to resume work. But he first had to undergo the denazification process. After he was interviewed by an American tribunal towards the end of 1945, his case was processed quickly and he was issued with a work permit that December. Karajan’s career then appeared to rise phoenix-like from the ashes after he was invited to perform with the Wiener Philharmoniker in January 1946. 

But matters quickly took a turn for the worse when he was summoned to appear before another denazification tribunal in Vienna the following month. This time, it was the Austrian authorities who quizzed him about his membership of the Nazi Party. But he claimed that he had no interest in politics, and that his sole reason for joining the NSDAP was to secure his post in Aachen. As Party membership was not illegal, the Austrian tribunal had no other option but to find him not guilty. 

A descendant of the ennobled Greco-Macedonian clothing manufacturer Georg Johann Karajoannes, Karajan was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1908

The rise of a phoenix 

Even when Karajan’s musical fortunes had been largely restored after being cleared by both the American and Austrian authorities, his political past was not easily forgotten, and when he visited 22 cities in North America with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the spring of 1955, tempers quickly boiled over. With memories of Nazi atrocities still fresh in the minds of the American public, his visit was a catalyst for demonstrations by war veterans, trade unionists and members of the Jewish community. 

Although Karajan was cleared of any wrongdoing by the denazification process, he was still considered representative of Nazi social and cultural policies by some elements of American society. The most vociferous demonstrations occurred during his visits to New York, where pickets paraded outside Carnegie Hall before his first concert, with banners that read “Tonight at Carnegie Hall The Musical Dictators of the Nazi Regime.” Security was at a premium during the tour, and it was even suggested that Karajan should register at his hotel under an assumed name. At the press conference that he gave in New York on March 3, 1955, he was quizzed heavily about his activities during the Third Reich and justified his behavior by arguing:

“I automatically became a member of the NSDAP when I took over the Aachen town orchestra in 1934, which was a state appointment. I have never been interested in politics — not in the slightest — and nothing apart from my music has any significance, nothing, that is, except for science, art and sport.”[6]

Karajan continued to chant this mantra of justification for the rest of his life, but some of the younger members of the New York Jewish community were wholly unimpressed and were having none of it. So it is hardly unsurprising that when he returned to NYC at the end of the tour, he was again confronted with a protest that linked his tour with the atrocities of the Holocaust; six million Jews were killed.

But it was really thanks to a chance encounter with Walter Legge (1906-1979)  in Vienna, Austria, in 1946 that Karajan’s international career took off so spectacularly during the 1950s. Legge was a record producer for EMI and was on a talent-spotting trip to the Austrian capital when he came across the then down-at-heel conductor. On the lookout for maestri to record and to perform with the company’s recently established house band, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Legge was bowled over by a rehearsal that Karajan took with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Legge was “absolutely astonished at what the fellow could do,” and thought that “enormous energy and vitality he had was hair-raising.”[7] 

Determined not to let Karajan slip through his fingers, Legge contacted him immediately and quickly arranged a meeting at the conductor’s dilapidated eighth-floor, Vienna apartment. The two men had an instant rapport and Legge engaged Karajan for EMI from September 1946.[8]

Karajan never failed to provoke the ire of those who struggled to come to terms with him either professionally or personally, or those who envied his fame, influence and financial success: Holden. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

With the Philharmonia Orchestra, Karajan set new standards of orchestral performance and was admired musically by players, public and critics alike. The distinguished British conductor, Sir Neville Marriner (1924-2016), was a member of the band at the time, and later recalled: 

He came with a great sense of musical importance, and brought to the table a kind of sophistication that we’d never had before in orchestral playing. If you said that you’d played for Karajan in those days, you were automatically considered one step higher on the musical ladder. He transformed the Philharmonia … His ear was also quite extraordinary … [and] he managed to control the orchestra so easily, which was helped enormously by his command of English.”[9]

But not all the players were so easily swayed. Karajan’s political past was still a bitter pill for many to swallow, and it was during the orchestra’s autumn tour of the United States in 1955 that matters came to a head. The renowned British conductor, harpsichordist and musicologist, Raymond Leppard (1927-2019), was the keyboard player on that trip and was stunned by what happened near the end of the visit:

By the time we played our last concert in Boston [Karajan] was in a foul mood, so foul that he had left the stage after the last note in Ann Arbor the previous evening and took no applause; a sort of calculated insult to the orchestra and American audiences … The orchestra had by then had enough … There was a rehearsal in Boston the following morning and the atmosphere was electric. Karajan came in late, called a rehearsal number at which point one of the first violins, Peter Gibbs (1920-1975), himself a fighter pilot in the R.A.F. during the war, stood up. His attempts to address Karajan were interrupted by Walter Legge sitting in the hall who ordered him to sit down, “I will not sit down, and, Mr Karajan, I did not spend four years of my life fighting bastards like you to be insulted before our Allies as you did last evening. At this the orchestra to a man stood up, applauded and left the stage. Karajan couldn’t get off and, for once, was completely nonplussed.”[10]

Holden is a conductor, broadcaster and public intellectual. A native of Australia, the Professor was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honors List. Photo credit: Courtesy

The Boston concert went ahead, but, according to Leppard, Karajan later vowed that he would never again take charge of a British orchestra. The sad conclusion to this sorry episode came some time later when Gibbs decided to end his own life. Haunted by the atrocities of World War II, and clearly affected by his encounter with Karajan, the violinist never came to terms with what he had experienced as a fighter pilot, or with the fact that Britain’s leading orchestra had become the plaything of a former member of the Nazi Party. All who knew Gibbs were deeply moved by his suicide, and few who lived through the Boston episode would disagree with Leppard when he wrote:

“Even … after the Philharmonia, when concert-master at Covent Garden there was something unresolved, unsettled in [Gibbs], perhaps due to the war. Finally it seems he could cope no longer and flew his own small plane out alone above the North Sea and never came back. His fate moved me then and stills does infinitely more than that of his German adversary.”[11]

In the decades following Karajan’s two tumultuous tours of the United States in 1955, interest in his Nazi past never abated. If anything, speculation about his political associations snowballed. Yet, those who were close to the conductor personally after World War II were always adamant that he had little interest in politics, other than when it affected his own career. And from the list of great artists with whom he worked, he was clearly neither a racist nor an anti-Semite. Of course, it is only right and proper that social and cultural historians should drill down into the actions of such an important figure. But it must never be forgotten that he was first and foremost a leading interpreter of Europe’s great musical canon, and that that must always be the principal benchmark against which Herbert von Karajan is judged. 

[1] Karajan died at Anif, near Salzburg, on 16 July 1989. 

[2] When Karajan joined the NSDAP in 1935, his membership number was 3,430,914.

[3] Herbert von Karajan, as told to Franz Endler, trans. Stewart Spencer, Herbert von Karajan: My Autobiography (London, 1989), p. 37. 

[4] Karl Böhm, trans. John Kehoe, A Life Remembered (London, 1992), p. 54.

[5] Karajan had met Anita in 1939 and was romantically involved with her from 1940. 

[6] Klaus Lang, trans. Stewart Spencer, The Karajan Dossier (London, 1992), p. 24.

[7] Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, On and Off the Record: a Memoir of Walter Legge (London, 1982), p. 222.

[8] Ibid, p. 223.

[9] Raymond Holden (ed.), Speaking Musically: Great Artists in Conversation at the Royal Academy of Music (London, 2023), p. 12. 

[10] Raymond Leppard, ed. Thomas P. Lewis, Raymond Leppard on Music (White Plains, 1993), p. 379.

[11] Ibid, pp. 379–80. 

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