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Hitler's Chosen Artists Walked Fine Line Between Art and Politics

Mathis WinklerDecember 6, 2003

The Nazis compiled a secret list of “divinely gifted” artists, who received favorable treatment in return for entertaining the masses. The list included Dutch-born actor Johannes Heesters, who turned 100 on Friday.

Johannes Heesters was always just interested in performing.Image: AP

When German public television threw Heesters a birthday gala and showed clips from his old movies, no one mentioned the fact that he’d made many of them during the Third Reich.

But the artist, who is still revered by generations of Germans for his performances in operettas and on screen, did respond to questions about why he’d kept silent under Hitler's regime during another TV program immediately following the gala. “Honestly, I was too busy working,” Heesters said. “I couldn’t do anything about politics.”

The “Leni Riefenstahl syndrome”

It’s a position common among artists whose careers took off after the Nazis came to power. Like film director Leni Riefenstahl, whose documentaries “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” helped glorify the regime, most artists denied any knowledge of Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews until after 1945.

Leni Riefenstahl 100 Jahre alt
Film director Leni Riefenstahl died last September.Image: AP

Many people find it difficult to believe that these artists had no idea of Hitler's aims. “If Johannes Heesters says today that he was completely apolitical, I can’t accept that,” says Melissa Müller, the author of a book on Hitler’s list of “divinely gifted” artists due out in February. The list included celebrities such as German conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, actor and director Gustaf Gründgens and composer Richard Strauss.

Müller told DW-WORLD that Heesters was in touch with the highest-ranking members of the regime, and that his career depended on the goodwill of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. After arriving in Berlin in 1935, Heesters began appearing in movies and on stage and became a teen idol as well as one of Hitler’s favorite stars.

But “the question is whether one can blame him for his behavior,” said Müller, who has also written a biography of Anne Frank and is co-author of an autobiography by Hitler’s secretary.

A generation’s grand delusion

Others see things differently. “Riefenstahl did everything for her career, Heesters had a career but kept his distance to the regime,” says Jürgen Trimborn, who has written biographies on both.

Riefenstahl, who died in September at age 101, was often under pressure to repent for her past. In contrast, Heesters was viewed by many as a star with a past innocent enough to keep him on a pedestal after World War II. “He was a sympathetic figure and the Germans wanted to have stars,” Trimborn said.

It's not just the Nazi-era stars who want to forget about their past. “Basically nobody wanted to know anything about what happened before 1945 after 1945,” says Wolfgang Benz, who heads the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at Berlin’s Technical University. “It’s part of a generation’s grand delusion. People said, ‘We couldn’t do anything without risking death.’ Their children and grandchildren still believe this today.”

Artists as propaganda tools

Hannes Heesters und Marika Rökk in Gasparone Ufa Film Filmszene
The Third Reich's dream couple: Johannes Heesters and Marika Rökk.Image: dpa

Heesters has tried to demonstrate that he did resist Nazi attempts to draw him in further. He claims that he was banned from working between 1936 and 1938 after refusing to become a German citizen. Melissa Müller questions this in her book, saying that he continued to make movies and appear on stage during that time.

She says the roughly 1,000 “divinely gifted” artists were given much more freedom than ordinary Germans, and adds that although they apparently didn’t know about their status, they were exempted from military service, paid fewer taxes and given work.

While stars had to play along, they were on occasion allowed to say things that were normally punishable by death. Many in the regime looked the other way, because the artists served the Nazis as propaganda tools both at home and abroad.

Within Germany, the artists played an enormous role in maintaining a careful balance of oppression and entertainment for the masses, explains Benz. “Following propaganda-filled party conferences, there would be nothing but Marika Rökk for weeks,” Benz says, referring to Heester’s Hungarian co-star, who is now 90 years old.

Drittes Reich - Reichsparteitag 1938 Aufmarsch der Sportjugend auf dem Märzfeld während des Reichsparteitags der NSDAP 1938 in Nürnberg
After party conferences, Nazi leaders fed soft entertainment to the masses.Image: dpa

To improve their image in the outside world, the Nazis banked on their lenient treatment of artists “critical” of the regime. “It was much more effective than only having absolute conformists,” Müller said.

Visiting Dachau

In return, Nazi leaders required artists to support troop morale by performing for soldiers and SS officers stationed at concentration camps. In 1941, Heesters and his Munich theater colleagues visited Dachau concentration camp. Although it’s unclear whether the group actually staged an operetta there, pictures of the visit put Heesters in a tough position when they first surfaced in 1978.

While downplaying the incident, the actor and singer managed to apologize for the visit in his autobiography. “I was ashamed of myself and I still haven’t stopped feeling this way,” he wrote. “I am angry with myself for being gullible, credulous and naïve.”

Germans have never pressed Heesters on the issue and keep watching his old films such as “Always You” and “Illusion” (both 1941) and the 1944 hit “It began with such innocence.” His Dutch countrymen, however, never forgave him for his decision to pursue a career in the land of their Nazi occupiers.

A Dutch production of the musical “The Sound of Music” with Heesters in the leading role was cancelled after one performance because of protests, according to Müller. The centenarian still dreams about returning to a Dutch stage. But “I’ve gotten used to the idea that this probably will not happen anymore,” he said during an interview last summer.