Karlheinz Böhm

Austria/Germany

2007 Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Fraternity among Peoples

KARLHEINZ BÖHM, Organisation Menschen für Menschen, Aid for Ethiopia

For his life’s work serving humanity and peace, for his extraordinary personal commitment, for the successful, outstanding network of activities he has created to support concrete affirmative action in Ethiopia, a country with one of the most ancient cultures in the world, but one of the poorest.


In the middle of a highly successful career as an actor, Karlheinz Böhm decided to break with his usual life and engage in a great humanitarian project in Ethiopia, which he himself built up from scratch. He has succeeded in motivating a vast circle of supporters and collecting donations for about 300 million Euros. Thus he has established the foundations for humanitarian development that include the construction of 173 schools, school hostels and training centers, several infirmaries and 3 hospitals as well as agricultural and eco-agricultural projects, the construction of hydraulic infrastructures, roads and bridges, sex education programmes to prevent early marriages and genital mutilation among young girls, training and small loan programmes aimed at improving the predicament of women in Ethiopian society. In carrying out these projects, Böhm follows the principle of “help those who help themselves”, and not just charity.

Karlheinz Böhm is a great example of what the commitment of a single individual can achieve for our world.


Biographical data

Born on 16 March 1928 in Darmstadt, as the only son of the well-known conductor Karl Böhm and the singer Thea Linhard, Karlheinz Böhm is an Austrian citizen. He spent his youth first in Hamburg, then in Dresden. Due to a serious illness, he was in Switzerland from 1940 to 1945, continuing his education at the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz, a Swiss boarding school. From 1945 onwards, he lived with his parents in Graz, where he graduated in 1947 and started a graduate course in philosophy and philology at the University of Graz. An illness once again thwarted his plans and forced him to stay in Rome, where he made use of the opportunity to study history of art for a term.

Although his parents arranged for him to take piano lessons at an early age, he was not interested in a musical career, but instead pursued his passion for directing and acting. So in 1948, he made an abrupt decision to go to Vienna, started work as a director’s assistant with Karl Hartl and took acting lessons with the Burgtheater actor Albin Skoda. He got his first small film roles in shows like “Der Engel mit der Posaune” (1948) and “Haus des Lebens” (1952). In 1952 Arthur Rabenalt gave him the chance to show his talents in a leading role together with Hildegard Knef and Erich von Stroheim (“Alraune”). After this box-office hit, he acted in a number of entertaining films. He became hugely popular, in particular in his role as Emperor Franz Joseph at Romy Schneider’s side in the “Sissi” trilogy (1955-1957). In 1960, his role as Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s eerie psychodrama “Peeping Tom” was in stark contrast to the image of the Emperor in the Sissi series. After several years guest-starring in Hollywood in the mid-sixties, he turned more and more to the theatre in Europe and was involved in opera directing there, too. In 1964 he staged “Elektra” in Stuttgart, “Tosca” in Graz as well as “The Gypsy Baron” in Munich, and went on tour as “Chicken” in Tennessee Williams’ play “Kingdom of Earth” in 1971. At the beginning of the 1970s he gave some excellent performances in character roles in the Rainer Werner Fassbinder productions “Martha” (1973), “Effi Briest” (1974), “Faustrecht der Freiheit” (1974) and “Mutter Küsters’ Fahrt zum Himmel” (1975). In the years that followed, Böhm was a member of the cast at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus, playing King Lear to much acclaim, as well as in large theatres in Hanover, Basel, Zurich, Vienna and Munich. But he became a household word to the majority of the public, primarily for his roles in such popular television series as “Ringstrassenpalais” (1980 and 1982) and “Die Laurents” (1981).

On 16 May 1981 during the German ZDF television channel’s programme “Wetten, dass…?”, as an acclaimed film star, Karheinz Böhm made his now-legendary appeal to television viewers. This changed his life completely. At the time he made a bet that he would not manage to get “every third viewer to donate one deutschmark, one Swiss franc or seven Austrian shillings for people in the Sahel region.” Böhm won his bet. However, in October 1981, he flew to Ethiopia for the first time with about 1.2 million Swiss francs and on 13 November 1981 founded the charity Menschen für Menschen, which he has spearheaded since then.

Menschen für Menschen works exclusively in Ethiopia and carries out long-term, sustainable projects for the rural population there. Following the principle of “support for self-development”, millions of Ethiopians have been given a secure future from the time it was founded to date. Several months a year, Karlheinz Böhm coordinates the programmes locally, spending the rest of the year in Europe to publicise the causes of global poverty and the work of his foundation. Karlheinz Böhm receives no payment for his commitment to one of the world’s poorest countries.

He has received the following awards for his work: In Germany in 2001 he was given the Bundesverdienstkreuz, an award of the highest importance. The Ethiopian universities in Jimma and Alemaya awarded him two honorary doctorates in 2003. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, paid tribute to Karlheinz Böhm in October 2003 by making him the first to receive honorary citizenship in his country.

With his Ethiopian wife Almaz (born in 1964), who has been vice president of the foundation board at Menschen für Menschen Switzerland and Liechtenstein since 1999, Böhm has two children, Nicolas (born in December 1990) and Aida (born in February 1993).