Success Heesters has a price

"There at the mill, that beautiful mill..." Operetta-singer Johannes Heesters (104) sings his last song on the stage of theatre De Flint in the Dutch town Amersfoort. The audience of 800 people joins in massively and gives Heesters a long lasting standing ovation. 'Auf Wiedersehen', resounds as the curtains fall. Outside the venue around 50 antifascists, united in the committee 'Heesters Raus!', protest against the 'rehabilitation' of the operetta-singer. They carry placards with texts like 'My grandparent was also in Dachau' and 'The singing nazi'. Heesters might be popular in Germany, in the Netherlands he is controversial.

It's Saturday 16 February, the day the high-aged singer will perform in Amersfoort. Through the massive presence of national and international press, the Hugh amount of police and security officers it becomes clear that a big controversy around the character of Heesters has arisen in the Netherlands. The committee 'Heesters Raus!' announced to disturb the concert by singing protest songs in the theatre dressed in the Dachau concentration camp prisoners uniform. Theatre De Flint, in a bid to have s smooth performance and to avoid the protests, set up draconian rules as copying of passports of the audience, strip-searching and detection gates.

Some neonazi's and ultra rightists were using the commotion surrounding Heesters performance to show their faces. At the fascist forum Stormfront they spoke already in December 2007 about attacking the protestors and the racist Gabbers of the forum Holland Hardcore distribute leaflets against the 'Heesters Raus!' committee. At the evening itself 8 neonazi's are arrested when trying to disturb the protest.

Visiting Dachau
Who reads the leaflet at Holland Hardcore sees the writer has nothing to say about the history of Heesters. The argumentation of the 'Heesters Raus!' committee are also not challenged, only that it is 'unjustified' that Heesters is 'criminalised and terrorised'. The committee however formulated some arguments why they think Heesters shouldn't be performing in Amersfoort. The main reason is the fact that the singer went to Dachau in 1941 on invitation of the SS. Together with the ensemble of the Münich Gartnerplatz Theatre Heesters was accompanied by SS-Obersturmführer Alex Piorkowski. All pictures from that occasion that have been found, 50 in total, give proof of Heesters' visit, no doubt about it. Heesters also recognises his visit and writes in 1978 in his first biography 'Es kommt auf der Sekunde an' that he regrets that he let himself lure to the camp. Probably the SS wanted to use Heesters visit for propaganda reasons.

Main controversy is however whether Heesters has entertained the SS during that visit, with a Jewish orchestra from the camp. Some journalists, such as Volker Kühn, claim that Heesters lies about his performance. Kuhn interviewed a former prisoner of Dachau who pulled the curtain during the concert. Also a Polish prisoner confirmed the act of Heesters. However the witness died. Heesters himself always denied the performance; he only was audience at the concert of the orchestra. In an article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant the renowned Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) is quoted that it has not been proven that Heesters performed for the SS-camp command. The photo-diary of SS frontman Piorkowski gives also no conclusive evidence, despite he dropped some lines in his book that are questionable: "I dedicate this book to the sweet artists that gave us so much pleasure in the concentration camp Dachau on a warm afternoon at 21 May 1941."

The committee 'Heesters Raus!' said Heesters kept performing in his world of fairy tales, despite knowing about the crimes of the Nazi-regime and the war in full progress. NIOD said most artists in Nazi-Germany kept performing, except for the Jewish ones who were excluded from participating in the cultural scene. Also some artists fled because they didn't want to work under the Nazis. In the book 'Ich bin gottseidank nicht mehr jung' by Heesters he tells about the price of his success in Nazi-Germany: "I can remember some concerts for national-socialist purposes. I couldn't hide from those." One of these performances was for the German army, the 'Wünschkonzert fur die Deutsche Wehrmacht'. However, the German biographer of Heesters, Jurgen Trimborn, doesn't see Heesters as a propagandist of National Socialism.

In Nazi-Germany all forms of art were levelled and put under the authority of the Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. During the war Heesters performed together with a Jewish theatre group in Amsterdam and The Hague. Via de UFA-movie studio's, also under authority of Goebbels, the singer had to ask permission for the tour. He got it, but later Goebbels realised that Heesters worked together with Jews. As punishment Heesters got a temporary ban to work for UFA. In December 1942 however Heesters, thinking about his career, wrote a letter to Goebbels requesting him to let him work more for the movie industry. Heesters signed his letter with 'Heil Hitler', a routine ending of letters in Nazi-Germany when corresponding with authorities. Heesters never performed in propaganda movies, it were the so-called 'Durchhalte' movies where he played his part. Main goal of these movies was to entertain the audience and lead them away from the harsh reality of war. In Nazi-Germany, as well as in the Netherlands, these movies were very popular.

Heesters was not a member of the NSDAP, nor was he member of the Reichskulturkammer. He didn't propagate National Socialism during his career and he refused to perform in the Netherlands during the occupation. Nor is there any propaganda to be seen in the movies Heesters acted. In a reaction to the commotion in the Netherlands Heesters writes an open letter on his website: (...) "Whatever I did during 1933 and 1945, I can't blame myself for anything, also not after consulting my conscience. (...)" The committee 'Heesters Raus!' thinks different about this: "It doesn't matter if you were sympathiser or that you took part in propaganda. You have blood on your hands".

"The moral constraint in which a lawyer founds himself after a shift in power, for example from democracy to dictatorship, where crimes become law, is not a situation in which an artist will be in. The artist sees himself as an artist, nothing more. He is non-political and keen on adjusting himself to new situations. The artist has learned to accept new trends and runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds," said Volker Kühn. This quote is typical for the career of Heesters as well. When he went to Austria in 1934 and a year later to Germany the singer only had one main object: to make a career. Heesters' urge to sing himself to the top was bigger than taking a break and thinking about the crimes of the Nazi-regime. The committee 'Heesters Raus!' points rightly out that Heesters kept on singing, but it goes too far to brand Heesters as a 'Nazi-singer'. That's also why the singer didn't get a 'Berufsverbot', what did happen to national socialist artists as Josef Thorak and Leni Riefenstahl. For many people Heesters is just a profiteer who earned a lot of money. With the career of Heesters it ended well, being a top artist in Germany and Austria. In the Netherlands he remains a singer who carries an unwanted history, a history that appeals to the war wounds of the Dutch.

John Postma, editor the Dutch antifascist magazine Alert!