Werner Klemperer (right) as Commandant Klink from the television program Hogan's Heroes about the antics of group of Allied prisoners at a German POW camp. CBS Television

This day in Jewish history 2000: Col. Klink of 'Hogan's Heroes' Dies

Actor Werner Klemperer was born in Germany to a Jewish father and fled as the Nazis rose to power. That didn't stop him from portraying a comical German commander on the hit TV show 'Hogan's Heroes.'

On December 6, 2000, actor Werner Klemperer died at the age of 80 in New York. The son of the distinguished Jewish-born, German orchestra conductor Otto Klemperer and singer Johanna Geisler, Werner Klemperer became almost a household name in the United States in the 1960s for his role as Col. Wilhelm Klink, commander of a German prisoner of war camp during World War II in the TV comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes.”

“Hogan’s Heroes,” which aired on CBS-TV from 1965 to 1971, depicted the antics of a multi-national group of Allied POWs who run circles around their captors at the German Stalag 13. They dig an underground network of tunnels, smuggle in contraband, including women, engage in intelligence missions for the Allies – and all under the noses of the Nazis, most notably the bumbling, vain and clueless Col. Klink and his sidekick, the gentle, good-hearted Sgt. Schultz, who turns a blind eye to most everything Army Air Corps Col. Robert Hogan and the prisoners he leads do. (Schultz’s reaction to most of what he witnesses is to say, “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!”)

Needless to say, there were those who were offended – and those who continue to be offended by the very idea of a comedic TV series that basically offered up a version of “the lighter side” of the Third Reich. But the show wasn’t about the Holocaust, which was still not a subject for art or entertainment in that period. And the Nazis were depicted as so incompetent, and the heterogeneous group of prisoners, all airmen (among them a Frenchman, a Briton, a black American, and Hogan, the senior officer, also American), were to a man so resourceful, courageous, loyal and debonair (Hogan had an ongoing flirtation, if not more, with Klink’s blond-haired secretary, who provided him with information), that there wasn’t much one could object to.

Over the years, Klemperer would explain his decision to accept the role when it was first offered to him, by saying he presented the producers with a single condition: "If they ever wrote a segment whereby Colonel Klink would come out the hero, I would leave the show," a threat he never had to carry out.

Werner Klemperer was born in Cologne in 1920. In1927, Otto Klemperer was appointed director of the prestigious Kroll Opera and the family moved to Berlin. Although Otto was born Jewish, he converted to Roman Catholicism and raised his children as such (though toward the end of his life, he re-embraced Judaism). All of the members of the family were musicians, and Werner himself also sang and played the violin professionally.

Otto Klemperer fled Germany in 1933 – shortly after Hitler became chancellor and after he, a Jewish conductor, had the audacity to stage an opera by the Aryan cultural hero Richard Wagner, to which he received an outraged public response. He left Germany soon after, and after several stops, ended up in the United States, where he was offered the position of music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His family joined him in 1935.  

Werner enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II and served in its Special Services Unit providing entertainment for troops in the Pacific. After the war, he worked in theater and in both film and television as a respected actor.

But it was as the monocle-wearing Col. Klink that he made his real mark, and the role earned Klemperer two Emmy Awards for best supporting actor. He never expressed any regret for taking the role, although later in life he was unwilling to reprise it (except once, on “The Simpsons”) or act in similar ones in film. He had a second career as a narrator for a variety of U.S. orchestras, and also performed in operas and plays.   

The great irony of “Hogan’s Heroes” is that many of the principal roles, in particular among the Germans, were played by Jewish actors, several of them refugees from occupied Europe. John Banner, who played Sgt. Schultz, had been abroad when the Germans invaded Austria, and he was able to gain entry to the U.S., but he lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Robert Clary, who played the diminutive French POW Louis LeBeau, was himself a survivor of Buchenwald, while most of his immediate family was murdered in Auschwitz. Others included Leon Askin (also a refugee from Vienna) and Howard Caine, both of whom played German officers.

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