Karlheinz Böhm, 1928 – 2014

31 May

I went into the Trafik as usual this morning to pick up my Saturday Kurier to read at breakfast and saw on the front page of every Austrian newspaper a large photo of Karlheinz Böhm and his dates. This news led me to break my otherwise firm habit of starting the Saturday paper at the back of the supplement and working my way forward and then starting on the last page of the newspaper itself and working my way forward. I turned immediately to pages 17 and 18 to read more.

Who is Karlheinz Böhm and why so much news coverage of his death? What follows is a very personal response to that question. The short version: Karlheinz Böhm was a dashing actor who became famous playing the Emperor Franz Josef (second to last emperor of Austria) to Romy Schneider’s Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) in the “Sissi” films of the 1950s. Thanks to genuine acting talent he was, miraculously, able to move beyond this role and later even played the part of a serial killer with success.

At some point he was on vacation in Kenya with friends and was appalled by the gap between the relative wealth of the tourists and the poverty around them. He decided to do something and changed his life completely. On a famous German TV show “Wetten, dass …?” (more or less “Do you want to bet …?”) he expressed the bet that not even one-third of the viewers (an estimated six to seven million people) would give one Deutschmark (this was a long time ago!) or one Schilling (for the Austrian viewers) to alleviate hunger in Africa. He won that bet, but enough people gave that over a million marks came in and he was able to start an aid and development project in Africa, ultimately in Ethiopia.

There’s an interesting story about how the country was chosen, if you were wondering why Ethiopia when he had the idea in Kenya. Apparently, he went to the Kenyan government first, but they did not want to accept his terms (he wanted full say in how the money was spent) so he carried on from one country to the next. The first government to agree to his terms was the government of Ethiopia and his organization “Menschen für Menschen”  (“People for People”) was born . He gave up his acting career and devoted the rest of his life to helping people in Ethiopia.

His way of using the money from “Wetten, dass …?” He went from village to village with an interpreter and sat down, literally, on the ground with the people in these villages and asked them what they most needed. Everything Menschen für Menschen does–and they’re still around after 30 years–is based on the answers he got.

Some of what the short version above leaves out is that, on top of being a famous actor himself, he was Karl Böhm’s (the world-famous conductor’s) son so he was brought up with considerable privilege. The short version also leaves out why Menschen für Menschen (MfM) is one of the few charitable organizations I contribute to on a monthly basis. First of all, I love the picture of this man leaving behind a career with the kind of success most of us would give our eye teeth for and going and asking what people need and then doing his best to deliver it. In addition, by focusing on one country MfM can apply an integrative approach to development very effectively. That means they don’t just focus on clean water or education or more productive farming techniques or making women more independent or health care. They work on on all these aspects at the same time to increase the impact of what they are doing in each area. And, as well as focusing in an ongoing way on making people independent from their support, they are also there quickly with help when there are natural disasters.

Austrian TV is, of course, in addition to the commemorations of Karlheinz Böhm’s life and life’s work, showing all the “Sissi” films over the next week or so. So please forgive me if I leave you now to go watch them one more time. But first I need to go and increase my standing donation to the work that meant so much more to him.

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One Response to “Karlheinz Böhm, 1928 – 2014”

  1. ecbinvienna June 1, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    After spending some time yesterday watching a few interviews with Böhm I’d like to augment the impression I may have given of him. Repeatedly, when people asked him why he was doing what he did, he answered with the German word “Wut”, which means “anger”. And, indeed, that was a very important part of his work. A couple of points greatly angered him.

    One was the way that European colonialism in Africa had contributed to the state of affairs and that Europeans distanced themselves from that, not taking responsibility. He was also angered by the indifference of Europeans to the enormous gap between their wealth and the desparate poverty of so many Africans.

    In one interview, at the Siemens Academy of Life, he described his almost uncontainable anger upon arriving at the airport in Frankfurt after a month or two in Ethiopia and seeing the excess of everything. He said more than once that we in Europe are suffocating in superfluous things. He wanted to even out the distribution of resources on principle not out of pity. Indeed, problematic as the word “help” can be, Menschen für Menschen’s tagline is “Mithelfen statt Mitleiden”–to help rather than to pity. That, too, is very important to remember when remembering him.

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