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Conductor with Brilliant Career and a Nazi Past is Dead at 81

July 18, 1989
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Famed conductor Herbert von Karajan, whose Nazi past did not deter a brilliant musical career, died Sunday of a heart attack at his home in Anif, in the Austrian Alps. He was 81.

Despite his Nazi affiliations and protests against his appearance in the United States, von Karajan, for 35 years director of the Berlin Philharmonic, remained one of the most renowned figures in the world of classical music.

He was the definitive interpreter of the music of Richard Wagner, another Nazi favorite.

Soul-searching articles in the press, debating artistic merit versus morality and ethics, appeared last year when the German record company Deutsche Grammophon issued recordings of von Karajan’s Nazi-era performances. But there was no public outcry to his concert appearances last winter in the United States.

This stood in contrast to his appearance in this country in February 1955, when Jewish groups and musicians vigorously protested his impending musical tour and attempted to have the State Department ban von Karajan’s entry.

At that time, the State Department advised protesters that all legal requirements for the entry of von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic had been met.

Protesters at the time included the Jewish Labor Committee and the Workmen’s Circle, who asked the West German government to recall von Karajan and other members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who were affiliated with the Nazis. They also called for boycotts of the performances.


Von Karajan’s 1955 tour was his first following a two-year ban of his conducting by the Allied Powers.

The ban resulted from a “de-Nazification” trial after World War II, which found that von Karajan had joined the Nazi Party in Austria in 1933, despite his claim that he joined in 1935 to maintain his career.

In fact, Von Karajan, a native of Salzburg, Austria, joined the Nazi Party not once but twice: first in Austria in 1933, when the Nazis were not yet in power, and again a year later in Germany, after membership was banned in Austria.

He often included the Nazi “Horst Wessel” song in his concerts, as well as other Nazi musical favorites.

In a cultural power struggle, von Karajan was favored by Hermann Goering, president of the Reichstag and second only to Hitler in the Nazi Party, over Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ choice of Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Israel Radio refused to play his recordings. But, according to a 1978 report, the Israeli Embassy in Bonn agreed to von Karajan’s participation in a pro-Israel information campaign.

A former wife of von Karajan visited Israel in an unsuccessful attempt to try to get Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and the Israel Philharmonic to allow von Karajan to conduct in Israel before playing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Shortly after von Karajan resigned last month, it was announced that Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim would conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in Israel next spring. The orchestra has never performed there.

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