Herbert von Karajan

In 1938, the same year that Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria, a 30-year-old conductor from Salzburg led the Berlin State Opera in a production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  The show was spectacular, and the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan was hailed as a wonder. Soon after, he signed a lucrative contract with Deutsche Grammophon.  Already a member of the Nazi party, von Karajan was on the way to becoming one of the leading musicians of the Third Reich.  Like many of  his fellow non-Jewish German musicians, however, von Karajan was to emerge from World War II relatively unscathed, going on to become one of the most-recorded musicians in the world.  While his egotism and ambition were no secret, his political convictions were vague enough to allow the post-war musical world to look the other way.

Herbert von Karajan was born on 5 April 1908 in Salzburg, the son of a successful physician.  As a youth he studied music and conducting in Salzburg. In 1929 he took up the position of orchestra conductor in Ulm, and in 1934 was appointed as Kapellmeister at Aachen, where he remained until 1941.  He joined the Nazi party in 1933 or 1935, and his breakthrough came in 1938, when he emerged as a favourite of the Nazi elites.  In Berlin he made a name for himself as a conductor of politically-acceptable contemporary music, particularly the works of Carl Orff and Richard Strauss.  After a 1941 performance of the popular Carmina Burana, the composer himself said admiringly, 'the orchestra under Karajan sounds fantastic'.  Constantly striving to further his career, von Karajan was irked by the looming figure of Wilhelm Furtwängler – a man who, despite his politically ambiguous relationship to the Reich, was the undisputed pre-eminent German conductor.  The competition between the young von Karajan and the older Furtwängler did not go unnoticed, but few thought that von Karajan posed a real challenge.  An exiled Russian princess wrote that von Karajan 'is very fashionable and some people tend to consider him better than Furtwängler, which is nonsense.  He certainly has genius and much fire, but is not without conceit'.

Although von Karajan never involved himself in any explicit political affairs, he profited from the re-organisation of the musical world under Hitler.  Most famously, Richard Strauss’s being fired after his defence of a Jewish librettist gave Peter Raabe a job, which in turn allowed von Karajan to take Raabe’s post at the Aachen opera.  Eventually his name was included in Goebbels’ list of musicians ‘blessed by God’. However, even he was not to remain immune from the Führer’s notoriously fickle affections.  In 1939 von Karajan led a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger that was a total failure.  Hitler, in the audience, took this as a personal affront and purportedly never forgave him.  Even more scandalously, von Karajan married Anita Gutermann, the heiress to a textile fortune who was burdened with a Jewish grandfather.

However, the very thing that threatened his career in the Third Reich was to salvage it after the war was over.  After the war, the Soviets issued a prohibition on the conductor’s public performances – his voluntary entrance into the Nazi party several years before the war began was enough to condemn him.  By 1947, though, all bans had been lifted, and he was free to perform and conduct at will.  The clearing of his name was largely thanks to his part-Jewish wife, whose Jewishness he exploited in order to plead ‘resistance’ to the Reich.   Some historians believe that he deliberately lied in order to ensure his denazification.  In any case, his career continued on its astronomical trajectory toward fame and fortune.  In 1955 von Karajan took over as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic; in addition, he led the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival, as well as working extensively in London and around the world.  He remained the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic until he retired in 1989, due to poor health.  Soon after retiring, von Karajan died in Salzburg, one of the wealthiest and most famous conductors in the world.



Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Meyer, M., 1993. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich, New York: Peter Lang.  

Morwood, J., A Good Old Stick. Review essay of Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music by Richard Osborne. The Musical Times, 140(1867), 71-73.