New research by Oliver Rathkolb at the University of Vienna, using documents that were previously inaccessible, confirms the key fact that Herbert von Karajan always denied – that he joined the Nazi party in Salzburg (where it was illegal) in April 1933. Karajan, while he was alive, would set his Swiss lawyers on anyone who sought confirmation of that fact.
Rathkolb also finds that the conductor falsified documents to further his career. As a teenager he had been a member of a rightwing nationalist society in Salzburg. His early letters contain ugly anti-semitic sentiments.
None of this is revolutionary. It mostly confirms what has long been known.
But Karajan’s racism was never black and white. Some of his closest associates were Jewish – a secretary, his record producer, his protégés. If he tired of them, he might abuse them in anti-semtiic terms – but that was hardly unexpected for an Austrian of his generation.
More puzzling, for me, is his dual identity. Karajan’s grandfather was Greek. His close friend and US agent Ronald Wilford is part-Greek.
The Greeks suffered terribly under the heel of the same Nazis that Karajan supported. How, in the dead of night, did he reconcile those two halves of his identity, persecutor and persecuted? Was it a case of, as Wilde put it, ‘for each man kills the thing he loves…’?
photo: Taler, 1941