Johannes Heesters, a Dutch-born singer and actor who made his name performing in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and was dogged in his long career by controversy over his Nazi-era past, died Dec. 24 at a hospital in Starnberg, Germany. He was 108.
His agent, Juergen Ross, announced the death but did not provide a cause.
Mr. Heesters made his debut as a tenor 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 also appeared in films, including “Die Leuchter des Kaisers” (“The Emperor’s Candlesticks,” 1936) and “Das Hofkonzert” (“The Court Concert,” 1936).
Mr. Heesters was never accused of being a propagandist or anything other than an artist willing to perform for the Nazis. He continued his career after the war, when he took Austrian citizenship.
In Mr. Heesters’s native Netherlands — which was occupied by Germany for most of the war — some considered his performances under the Nazi regime unforgivable.
Yet in February 2008, at age 105, 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 Capt. von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”
Mr. Heesters said it gave him a “heavy heart” to know he was “not wanted in my homeland.”
“What did I do wrong?” he wrote later about the reception he received.
“Sure, I wanted to make my career, and I remember well at the time how many people in the Netherlands were proud that I made a career in the huge neighboring country,” he wrote. “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 Mr. Heesters made to the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. In December 2008, Heesters lost a court case attempting to force a German author to retract allegations that he sang for SS troops there.
Around the time of the court case, Mr. 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.”
Johan Marius Nicolaas “Johannes” Heesters was born Dec. 5, 1903, in Amersfoort. His first wife, Louisa Ghijs, a Dutch actress, died in 1983.
Survivors include Rethel, his wife of 19 years, and two daughters from his first marriage.
Mr. Heesters continued to be a popular performer in Germany well into his old age, making regular appearances on television and on stage. 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 performed in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” As he turned 105 in 2008, he appeared in a musical comedy in Hamburg.