Right up until his death, on December 24 at age 108, Dutch-born singer and actor Johannes Heesters was still performing the songs that had made him famous and, in some circles, infamous.
Beloved and much honored in Germany and Austria for a steady stream of stage, screen and television roles and recordings, Heesters owed his long career to the man who made him a star — Adolf Hitler. No one disputed Heesters’s talent as a charmer, but, at least outside of the German-speaking world, he never shook free of the sulfurous stench of his deal with the devil.
Having eagerly lent his talents to the Nazis, and as a result been the eager recipient of more benefits from the Third Reich than any other non-German artist, Heesters remained grateful for the patronage. As late as 2008 in a TV interview, he called Hitler “a great guy” and he brushed aside the immediate correction from his much-younger wife that Hitler was “the worst person in the world” by explaining, “I know, Doll, but he was good to me!”
Blame it on “The Merry Widow.” Adolf Hitler was smitten with Franz Lehár’s operetta, with its sentimental tunes, satiric plot about “Vaterland” politics, women’s emancipation, money and love — never mind its Jewish authors, Leo Stein and Viktor Léon. When Munich’s Gärtnerplatztheater announced a production in 1938, Hitler had to have a box seat. The young Dutch singer making his Munich debut as Danilo, the romantic male lead, was Heesters. As recounted in “Der Herr im Frack” (“The Guy in Tails”), the detailed biography of Heesters by Jürgen Trimborn (who also wrote the definitive biography of another long-lived Nazi artist, Leni Riefenstahl), Heesters was astonished to see Hitler showing up to moon over his performances night after night.
Trimborn quotes Heesters claiming in a 1998 interview for the daily newspaper Die Welt that he “never gave a ‘Sieg heil’ salute,” because he found it “so unbecoming.” On the contrary, it was Hitler who kissed Heesters’s hands. “I was flabbergasted… and walked away proud as a peacock.” Hitler personally commanded (or rather “invited”) Heesters and the rest of the Gärtnerplatztheater company to return to Munich to perform “Merry Widow” as the highlight of the infamous, annual state- and city-sponsored propagandizing festival Tag der Deutschen Kunst the following July. Bear in mind that Munich’s magnificent main synagogue, solely because its existence “offended” this festival, was demolished in preparation for this event — so, despite its Jewish and Hungarian provenance, “Merry Widow” thereby became accepted officially as the highest sort of “holy German” art.
Trimborn quotes Hitler’s housekeeper recalling him emulating Heesters in the role, complete with top hat and tails, scarf tossed over his shoulder, asking: “What do you say? Am I no Danilo?” The enthusiasm of the Führer made Heesters and “Merry Widow” the biggest hit in the Third Reich. Productions proliferated, becoming ever more grandiose with generous state subsidies and promotion. Richard Strauss became so crazed with jealousy that it’s likely (according to Trimborn) he tried to incite Nazi thugs to kill Lehár.
Albert Speer recalled that the first thing Hitler did to celebrate the Anschluss was ask Martin Bormann to play the recording of “Merry Widow.” Bormann dutifully asked which recording — the production Lehár himself had conducted in Berlin in his honor or Heesters with the Gärtnerplatztheater artists? For Hitler, Heesters’s was “10% better!” Hitler’s “Merry Widow” mania only increased, and in the final years of the war, 1943 and ’44, Hitler drove everyone else crazy in his Wolf’s Lair by listening only to Heesters’s recording of “Merry Widow” over and over again.