Dutch-born entertainer Johannes Heesters, who made his name performing in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and was dogged later in his long career by controversy over his Nazi-era past, died Saturday in Starnberg, Germany. He was 108.
The tenor made his debut on the big stage at the Volksoper in Vienna in 1934. His career took off in Berlin where, starting in 1935 — two years after the Nazis took power — he became a crowd favorite at the Komische Oper and Admiralspalast.
He gained fame by appearing in films such as “Die Leuchter des Kaisers” (The Emperor’s Candlesticks) and “Das Hofkonzert” (The Court Concert).
Despite his popularity in the Third Reich, Heesters was never accused of being a propagandist or anything other than an artist willing to perform for the Nazis, and the Allies allowed him to continue his career after the war, when he took Austrian citizenship.
In Heesters’ native Netherlands — which was occupied by Germany for most of the war — some viewed him as irredeemable given his appearances under the Nazi regime.
In February 2008, he braved protests to perform in the Netherlands for the first time in 44 years at a theater in his native Amersfoort.
In his previous attempt, in 1964, he was booed off the stage in Amsterdam when he tried to appear as the Nazi-hating Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”
Heesters said it gave him a “heavy heart” to know he was “not wanted in my homeland.”
“What did I do wrong? Sure, I acted in films in the Third Reich, entertainment films, which distracted countless people inside and outside Germany from daily life during war,” he wrote later about the reception he received. “But apart from my career — and the fact that, through no fault of my own, Adolf Hitler was one of the fans of my art — what have I done?”
Critics focused on a visit Heesters made to the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. In December 2008, Heesters lost a legal bid to force a German author to retract allegations that he sang for SS troops. Heesters maintained he had been ordered to go to Dachau by the Nazis in an attempt to deceive the public about what was really going on there, but said the alleged performance “never happened.”
But Berlin author Volker Kuehn cited an interview with former Dachau inmate Viktor Matejka where the prisoner recalled “I pulled the curtain for him, I was there, I saw him singing.”
Around the time of the court case, Heesters was shown on a Dutch television show saying that Hitler was “a good guy.” His wife, Simone Rethel, immediately intervened, saying that Hitler was the worst criminal in the world.
“I know, doll,” Heesters responded. “But he was nice to me.”
Rethel protested after the clip was aired, telling Dutch papers that he had been tricked into making the remarks, and that the program had cut out other parts of the interview where Heesters condemned the Nazi regime.
Heesters continued to be a popular performer in Germany well into his old age, making regular appearances on television and onstage. He made 1,600 appearances in his best-known role, as Count Danilo in Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow,” and 750 as Honore in the musical “Gigi.”
At age 98, he put health problems such as knee and appendix operations behind him to perform in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” As he turned 105 in 2008, Heesters was performing in a musical comedy in Hamburg.
Heesters’ first wife, Dutch actress Louisa Ghijs, died in 1983. The couple had two daughters.
Heesters married his second wife, German actress Rethel, in 1992.