The Truth About Colonel Klink: When America’s Favorite Comedy Nazi Commandant Was Played by a Jewish Refugee

Imagine achieving fame as an actor playing Nazis in America – thirty years after fleeing the Nazis to America.

In our dour politically correct culture, which takes comedy too seriously, it sounds like a particularly excruciating form of hell. Werner Klemperer, born in Cologne in 1920, built his career playing a Nazi criminal Emil Hahn on trial in Judgment at Nuremberg, and the mass murderer Adolf Eichmann in Operation Eichmann. Then, he was the bumbling, hyper-Teutonic, Colonel Wilhelm Klink in the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes from 1965 through 1971. Coming from a generation that could see art as challenging and comedy as subversion, Klemperer was proud of these roles.  His outrageous star turn ridiculing Nazis week after week on CBS was downright liberating.

It sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit gone bad: produce a comedy about a German Prisoner of War camp just twenty years after the liberation of Auschwitz; Gomer Pyle meets Stalag 17.  Then hire three German Jewish refugees as three prominent Nazis. Include among the “prisoners” a Buchenwald survivor who lost twelve siblings and parents in Auschwitz, and still bears the concentration camp number A5714 the Nazis branded onto his forearm.

Even in those less PC times, Jack Gould, the standard-setting New York Times critic first found Hogan’s Heroes: “a little sick… an insensitive and misguided extension of Hollywood television’s all too prevalent belief that anything and everything can be converted into cheap slapstick.”

The Buchenwald survivor Robert Clary, who played the French prisoner LeBeau, insisted: “Stalag 13 is not a concentration camp. It’s a POW camp, and that’s a world of difference. You never heard of a prisoner of war being gassed or hanged.” True, captured soldiers weren’t slaughtered like Jews – but POW camps were cruel. And central to the comedy’s success was its Naziness, with recurring visits from Gestapo Major Wolfgang Hochstetter, played by another Jew, Howard Caine (originally Cohen).

John Banner, a Viennese-born Jew, who also lost relatives to the Nazis and played the beefy, clueless “I see Nothing” Sergeant Schultz claimed: “Schultz is not a Nazi.” He saw “Schultz as the representative of some kind of goodness in any generation.” The “Good German” stance is morally problematic, absolving the millions whose indifference enabled Hitler.

As the son of the famous violinist, composer and conductor Otto Klemperer, as a trained actor who spent most of his three years in the American army during World War II entertaining the troops, Werner Klemperer often called Klink  “just another acting assignment.” He would say that when people tried “to overanalyze ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ I merely tell them that it was a funny show, a wonderful show, and I’m very proud of it.”

It was never that simple.

The key here is the one condition this World War II veteran and German refugee placed when cast as the anal, violin-playing, monocle-sporting colonel. “If they ever wrote a segment whereby Colonel Klink would come out the hero, I would leave the show,” he said. In other words, this show would always be “I hate Nazis,” and resist television’s saccharine impulses to become “I Love Lucy,” the Stalag edition.

Remarkably, this charmingly subversive show worked. True, the sane, smooth-talking, lady-killing, wry center of Hogan’s Heroes was Bob Crane as Colonel Hogan, the highest-ranking prisoner. But Hogan’s patsies—Klink and Schultz—were the most mimicked—and memorable.

This was the pre-Sixties Sixties, when a mischievous “beat” sensibility reigned rather than the angrier “Hey, Hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today” approach that emerged a few years later. Back then, Americans laughed at Cold War anxieties with Get Smart.  They worked through class anxieties by watching fish-out-of-water country bumpkins living in luxury during Beverly Hillbillies and spoiled aristocrats mix with regular folk in Green Acres.  And every week, Americans with still-vivid nightmares from World War II, which involved 16.1 million American troops, could laugh through a controlled topsy-turvy cantata that guaranteed an Allied victory. “If you liked World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes,” the show’s over-the-top tagline proclaimed.

Back when the cone of silence still squelched much conversation about the genocide of the Jews, when it took three years to sell the first 3,000 copies of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night—which has now sold over 10 million copies—no reasonable person believed that Hogan’s Heroes exonerated the Nazis. But laughing made the once unspeakable more discussable.

Just as I Love Lucy advanced feminism by empowering women to defy their husbands, just as in a later generation, M*A*S*H mocked the military and All in the Family blasted racists and sexists, viewers loved watching the Nazis get out-smarted thanks to the underground tunnels, elaborate ruses, and spy versus spy subplot mocking the Nazis.

Surprisingly, Hogan Heroes became respectable. Klemperer was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy, for all six seasons from 1965 through 1971—and won twice. In the highest pop culture compliment, he reprised his role as Colonel Klink on the camp classic Batman and, decades later, as Homer’sguardian angel in The Simpsons.

Klemperer’s Emmy six-peat suggested his true career frustration. TV’s establishment was flattered because he was slumming—with his highfalutin classical resume giving the lowest form of tv entertainment some tone.  He was cultured, the son of a Highbrow icon, and one of the persecuted not the persecutors (although his Jewish-born father converted to Catholicism then back to Judaism and his soprano mother Johanna Geisler raised him Catholic).

Within two years, Jack Gould of the Times conceded:  “the half-hour is passingly amusing as Hogan’s Heroes pulls off a coup every week and invariably foils the enemy.” And, Gould added, it’s an “ironic commentary on the uncertainties of show business” that “the primitive role of Klink” has given Klemperer “national prominence and a bulging bank account…. It is nice that such a reward should fall to a gentleman of the theatre.”

Now rich and famous, Klemperer returned to his—and his—father’s loves: he became a High Priest of High Culture. He performed as a concert pianist. He won a Tony nomination as Herr Schultz in Cabaret. He sang in great operas. And, using his distinctively persnickety but now almost universally recognizable voice, he narrated classical music performances, bring them to the masses.

When Klemperer died in 2000, his widow Kim Hamilton admitted that all the clanking about his Klink role could be demoralizing. She said, “He sometimes felt he was too identified with that character.” He would have preferred to live in a world that loved him for his classical music. Still, he was enough of a professional—and a decent enough person—to appreciate the adulation and the opportunities it provided.

Historians tracing America’s cultural recovery from World War II should acknowledge Hogan’s Heroes’ comic genius helped America confront the Holocaust’s hideousness.

Comedy should be edgy.  Comedy should be triggering.  By learning how to laugh at Klemperer’s “HO-gggan!” and Sergeant Schultz’s “I see nothing,” we were saying “I fear nothing”—and am hungry to learn about everything. Raising a generation of finger-pointing, cry-babying narcs is problematic. By judging everything students learn nothing, stuck in their echo chambers.

If refugees from Nazism could use comic Nazis to skewer Nazi evil, we can learn to love laughing lovingly at our more benign foibles, to better ourselves and our society.

 

FURTHER READING

Bernard Weinraub, “Werner Klemperer, Klink in ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ Dies at 80,” 2000.

Brenda Scott Royce, Hogan’s Heroes: The Official Companion, 1998.

David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History: Col. Klink of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ Dies,” 2012.