Once upon a time, Roger Waters was a hero in Germany. In July 1990, a few months after the razing of the Berlin Wall, the former Pink Floyd frontman performed the group’s 1979 album “The Wall” on the Potsdamer Platz in the newly reunified city. As the gig came to a close with the collapse of the giant wall backdrop behind the singer that was accompanied by the words “tear down the wall,” the crowd erupted in appreciation, handing Waters yet another iconic rock-star moment.
How differently things look a little more than 30 years later. Now 79, Waters is embarking on his “This Is Not a Drill 2023” tour in dramatically different circumstances, widely reviled in Germany and other countries for his constant spouting of antisemitic conspiracy theories; his detestation of the State of Israel; and his knuckleheaded apologia of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. These days, the question is less about where and when Waters will play, and more about whether he will be permitted to play at all.
What is being billed as a “first farewell tour” (implying there will be a second farewell and perhaps a third) has been designed to convince fans that they may not get another opportunity to see Waters in person. Moreover, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “Dark Side of the Moon,” probably Floyd’s most influential and best-known album. “Decades later, Waters would go on to spout cranky, conspiracy-minded, pro-Russia political statements that many former fans abhorred,” The New York Times’s Jon Pareles observed in a recent review. “When ‘Dark Side’ appeared, all that was far in the future.”
I revisited “Dark Side” the other day, having not heard it in a while, and it remains a wonderful and intriguing album all the way to its soaring final track, “Eclipse,” distinguished by the vocals of the backing trio of Lesley Duncan, Liza Strike and Doris Troy (for my money, the album’s greatest moment.) At the same time, Waters’s persistent baiting of the Jewish community over more than a decade, always followed by the protestation that calling him “antisemitic” is a “smear,” has made it impossible for me—and I suspect others—to make a neat separation between Waters the artist and Waters the activist, and to listen to his musical offerings while ignoring his political interventions.
Certainly, many of those who know him personally are finding that task even harder. Last month, former Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and his wife, the novelist Polly Samson, tweeted their frustration with absolutely no reserve: “Sadly Roger Waters, you are antisemitic to your rotten core. Also a Putin apologist and a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-avoiding, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac. Enough of your nonsense.”
Waters will doubtlessly be spouting plenty of nonsense between numbers during his tour, and he will likely make use of the offensive symbols that have appeared on previous tours, such as an inflatable flying pig embossed with a Star of David. This sort of imagery sails close to the edge in most European countries. It remains especially so in Germany, the land of the Holocaust, where in the postwar era, Nazi symbols, Holocaust denial, Holocaust mockery and demands for Israel’s elimination as a sovereign state can run afoul of the law.
Indeed, those politicians advocating for Waters’ dates in Germany to be canceled as a protest against his antisemitism and his affinity for Putin have repeatedly referred to the country’s democratic constitution in making their case, as well as the corresponding moral values arising from Germany’s rebirth as a liberal democratic polity. Last month, the municipal council in Frankfurt announced the cancelation of Waters’ May 28 concert at the city’s Festhalle venue, citing his status as one of the world’s “best-known antisemites” as the reason. Similar moves are afoot in Munich, Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin, where Waters is also scheduled to appear.
The situation in the latter four cities is complicated by the fact that Waters will appear at commercially run arenas, whereas the venue in Frankfurt is owned by the city. Countering the concern that Waters will use stages in Germany to promote a hatred of Israel that looks and sounds a lot like a hatred of Jews is the fear that the notoriously litigious singer will sue for breach of contract. Indeed, last week, the musician’s management company announced just that, disclosing that the singer had been in touch with lawyers for the purpose of defending his “freedom of speech.”
Given that there are two months to go before the German dates are intended to take place, it remains distinctly possible that Waters will lose one or more of the four cities still hosting him. The challenge for local politicians is whether they can convert their frequently expressed horror of resurgent antisemitism into concrete action. In this regard, Germany’s recent record is very poor; in the last year alone, the Documenta contemporary art festival exhibited a series of viscerally antisemitic artworks, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of waging “50 holocausts” against the Palestinians while sharing a podium with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and there was a near 40% increase in the number of violent antisemitic incidents—all while its politicians wrung their hands and did very little to curb the phenomenon.
An outright ban on Waters would send the message that Germany is serious about tackling antisemitism beyond mere rhetoric. Yet that is by no means a perfect solution because it does not engage the minds of the legions of fans who are sufficiently unconcerned by Waters’s antics to spend a three-figure sum on a ticket for one of his gigs.
Alongside the argument for a ban on Waters, there must be an even more compelling argument urging his admirers not to indulge his antisemitism and his penchant for dictatorships by buying concert tickets and merchandise. As it stands, however, prospective concert-goers in Berlin are not being challenged to consider the irony of seeing an antisemite like Waters play at an arena named for Mercedes-Benz, which deployed slave labor during the days when the automobile manufacturer was patronized by the Nazi regime.
If the gigs do go ahead, Jewish and anti-racist groups in Germany have pledged massive demonstrations outside the stadiums. These will provide an opportunity to explain why Waters is such a toxic proposition to the masses in attendance. The degree to which they pay heed to this message will give us valuable insight into whether ordinary Germans take antisemitism as seriously as their politicians seem to do.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.