- SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Barenboim: ‘The Germans Are Prisoners of Their Past’ (Der Spiegel, June 22, 2012):
World-famous Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim is noted for his strong views on the Middle East peace process and for performing Wagner’s music in Israel. In a SPIEGEL interview, he explains why the Israeli antipathy toward Wagner is grotesque and argues that Israel shouldn’t depend too much on Germany and the US for support.
Part 1: ‘The Germans Are Prisoners of Their Past’
SPIEGEL: Mr. Barenboim, why are you fighting to perform the music of Richard Wagner in Israel? No other composer is as hated there as this anti-Semitic German composer.
Barenboim: It saddens me that official Israel so doggedly refuses to allow Wagner to be performed — as was the case, once again, at the University of Tel Aviv two weeks ago — because I see it as a symptom of a disease. The words I’m about to use are harsh, but I choose them deliberately: There is a politicization of the remembrance of the Holocaust in Israel, and that’s terrible.
SPIEGEL: Please explain what you mean.
Barenboim: When I came to Israel from Argentina in 1952, as a 10-year-old, no one talked about the Holocaust. The catastrophe was still much too close for the survivors, and young Israelis wanted to create a new Judaism. They wanted to show that Jews were not only able to be artists and bankers, but could also pursue farming and sports. They looked forward and didn’t want to talk about the suffering of their parents.
SPIEGEL: When did that change?
Barenboim: With the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion thought at the time, and rightly so, that it was necessary for the Israelis to experience, based on the example of a perpetrator, what had happened there. Seeing all the savagery, coldness and inhumanity of the Shoah in this individual, Eichmann, was unbelievable. It was the first time that I, like all my school friends, thought about World War II in detail. Suddenly they were saying: We have to do something so that this sort of thing will never happen again.
SPIEGEL: What was wrong with that?
Barenboim: Nothing, of course, but a misunderstanding also arose at the time, namely that the Holocaust, from which the Jews’ ultimate claim to Israel was derived, and the Palestinian problem had something to do with each other. Six years after the Eichmann trial, the Six-Day War erupted, and after that war Israel was different than before. Whereas there had been no political opposition to the government’s development policy until then, a fierce debate suddenly began after the 1967 victory: Should Israel return the occupied territories or not? The Orthodox Jews even said that they weren’t occupied territories, but Biblical regions that had been liberated! An enormous alliance started growing after that, the same alliance of the right and the Orthodox Jews that rules Israel today.
SPIEGEL: What does that have to do with Richard Wagner?
Barenboim: Well, since the Six-Day War, Israeli politicians have repeatedly established a connection between European anti-Semitism and the fact that the Palestinians don’t accept the founding of the State of Israel. But that’s absurd! The Palestinians weren’t primarily anti-Semitic. They just didn’t accept their expulsion. But European anti-Semitism goes much further back than to the partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel in 1948. It even goes further back than the Holocaust. Just think of the pogroms in Russia and in Ukraine, the Dreyfus affair in France and anti-Semite Richard Wagner. There is no connection between the Palestinian problem and European anti-Semitism, except that the Palestinians are now expected to pay for historic sins. There are probably many people in Israel who believe that Wagner, who died in 1883, lived in Berlin in 1942 and was friends with Hitler.
SPIEGEL: His daughter-in-law Winifred made up for that later on. She was a confidante of Hitler, and the dictator was a constant guest at Bayreuth, home of the annual Bayreuth Festival, which celebrates Wagner’s operas.
Barenboim: I have the greatest respect for the survivors of the Holocaust. We can’t even imagine what these people went through. And yet even they have differing positions. Take, for example, that of my friend Imre Kertész, the Hungarian poet, who is also a Holocaust survivor. We had hardly known each other for two weeks when he said to me: Can you get me tickets for Bayreuth? I respect that there are survivors who can’t, and certainly don’t want to, listen to this music. But I don’t accept that the fact that an orchestra playing Wagner in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would do any harm to someone sitting in an apartment in Haifa.
SPIEGEL: What fascinates you about Wagner? Why does he impress intellectuals so much?
Barenboim: Wagner exploited all forms of expression at a composer’s disposal — harmony, dynamics, orchestration — to the extreme. His music is highly emotional, and at the same time Wagner has extraordinary control over the effect he achieves. That’s why there is also something manipulative about Wagner’s music, which is not to say that it’s not honest. In fact, I believe that it’s totally honest, but it also happens to be manipulative.
SPIEGEL: Does that also explain the Nazis’ affinity for his music?
Barenboim: Wagner can’t be held directly responsible for that connection. But Wagner was a terrible anti-Semite. His 1850 essay, “Judaism in Music,” is one of the worst anti-Semitic pamphlets of all time. Hitler made Wagner into a prophet. But Hitler, of course, reinterpreted even the worst things Wagner wrote about the Jews in a way for which Wagner cannot be held responsible. I understand, of course, the associations with the Nazis some people have when they hear something like “Lohengrin.”
SPIEGEL: How exactly did it come about that you and your West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which consists of young Arab and Israeli musicians, performed Wagner?
Barenboim: The musicians wanted it. I said: Sure, but we have to talk about it. It’s a tricky decision. It was important to me that we didn’t convince any of the musicians to play the music against their will.
SPIEGEL: Did the initiative come from the Arabs?
Barenboim: On the contrary. It was the Israelis. The Israeli brass players. Wagner is pretty heavy on the brass section. But I explained the musical importance of Wagner to the orchestra. As a musician, you can’t simply ignore him.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Barenboim, are you an Israeli patriot?
Barenboim: What’s an Israeli patriot? What is there to be proud of today? How can you be a patriot in a country that has occupied foreign territory for the last 45 years? One that isn’t capable of accepting that there is also another account of the last 60 years. Yes, the Palestinians could have accepted the partition of Palestine on Nov. 29, 1947, and that was precisely what they didn’t do, because they thought the partition was unjust. Why can’t we accept that as a historic fact and turn the page? It’s just inhuman.
SPIEGEL: You’re lenient with the Arabs, but Israel’s neighbors behave in hostile ways. Didn’t Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say that he wanted to wipe the “Zionist entity” off the map?
Barenboim: I’m not naïve. I know perfectly well that there isn’t a single Arab or Muslim in the world who would say: There has to be a Jewish state in the Middle East. But why should they say that? Israel’s strategy cannot be to constantly confront the Palestinians with the history of the Holocaust, but instead to show them that Israel is a reality. We have made mistakes and you’ve made mistakes, but we’re here and you’re here. Let’s make peace, with justice for all. It’s probably too late for that. But who knows?
SPIEGEL: Why does this conflict seem to be so intractable?
Barenboim: Because the whole world doesn’t see it for what it really is. In truth, everyone knows how this story ends: Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a viable solution to the questions of (the status of) Jerusalem, the borders and the returnees. But it isn’t a conflict that can be resolved politically or even militarily. It’s a human conflict in which two nations are deeply convinced that they are entitled to the same piece of land. We don’t need a Middle East Quartet consisting of the United Nations, the Russians, the Europeans and the Americans. We need a psychiatrist.
SPIEGEL: And that would help?
Barenboim: I’m sure that there are many Israelis who dream of waking up one day to find the Palestinians gone. And there are many Palestinians who dream of going to bed at night and waking up the next morning to find the Israelis gone. If a man dreams about sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, he’s certainly entitled to that. But when he wakes up, he has to acknowledge that he is married to someone else.
Part 2: ‘It Isn’t the Bomb that Makes Israel Secure’
SPIEGEL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently governs with a two-thirds majority in the Knesset, which is unusual for a parliamentary democracy. Does it worry you that Israel no longer has a real opposition?
Barenboim: I believe that the biggest mistake made by the last governments was that they had no real strategy, and that they were actually operating in a merely tactical way: You promise me this and I’ll promise you that. In the long term, Israel’s security rests on only one pillar: the Palestinians’ acceptance of the country. It isn’t the atom bomb that makes Israel secure.
SPIEGEL: How do feel about the fact that Germany has provided Israel with submarines that are apparently equipped with nuclear missiles?
Barenboim: All I can say is that it’s absurd to ban Wagner while buying German submarines at the same time. Germany has dealt with its past in exemplary ways. That’s the only reason I can live in Germany as a Jew. But as impressed and grateful I am about this ability to address the past, I can also see that the Germans are prisoners of their past. Germany will never be a real, free thinking and free feeling friend of Israel, because it will always fall under this shadow. Look at how the world felt about Israel and the Palestinians 40, 20 and 10 years ago, and how it feels today. The reaction of many Israelis is that the world has always been against them. But I don’t believe that the entire world is constantly anti-Semitic. Rarely have morality and strategy gone hand-in-hand in quite the same way as in our conflict. There are many Palestinians who would have been willing to accept the reality of Israel. The pessimists say today that the time for two-state solutions is over. If that’s true, do we seriously believe that a single country can function on Palestinian territory, after all the hate that’s been sown? If we continue in this vein, we won’t have any solution at all.
SPIEGEL: It’s been said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a lot of influence on Netanyahu. Do you think the chancellor takes full advantage of this?
Barenboim: I have put the following question to three German chancellors, Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel: Given our shared history, which extends well beyond the 12 terrible years between 1933 and 1945, don’t you think that you should help the Jews solve their conflict with the Palestinians? All three had the same response: How do you envision that? How can a German chancellor tell the Israelis how to solve their conflicts?
SPIEGEL: Do you feel reassured by Merkel’s statement that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s national interest?
Barenboim: It’s a moral statement that I believe is 100 percent honest. But history shows that the marriage between morality and politics is a shaky one. If I were the Israeli prime minister, I wouldn’t rely on such a statement in the long term. There’s a historic reason for that: It was France that made it possible for Israel to develop a nuclear program in the 1950s. But in the 1960s, (then President Charles) de Gaulle realized that this was contrary to France’s strategic interests, because the French needed oil from the Arabs. So he said: That’s enough.
SPIEGEL: And Israel turned to the United States.
Barenboim: And that’s exactly where Israel is today. It’s something like the US’s 51st state. The Israeli government should be concerned about that. Yes, Israel has a strong lobby in Washington. At the same time, however, I see how America’s hegemony is shrinking and how much the world’s economic growth is shifting to completely different countries, like China, India and Brazil. I ask myself: Where exactly is the Jewish lobby in Beijing, New Delhi and Brasilia?
SPIEGEL: In July, you and your West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will give guest performances in London, where you will perform all Beethoven’s symphonies, including the Ninth on the opening day of the Olympics. Isn’t this an act of bold confidence?
Barenboim: Of course. Israelis and Arabs each make up 40 percent of the orchestra, and none of them represents his government. We are a thinking alternative.
SPIEGEL: Or a real utopia.
Barenboim: I prefer to look at it like alternative medicine. It doesn’t work that quickly, but it works differently. An Israeli who thinks that his government is doing everything right wouldn’t join the Divan Orchestra in the first place. That’s why those Arabs who don’t allow our country to perform in their countries are making a mistake. They don’t want to differentiate among different groups of Israelis. They also attack me constantly.
SPIEGEL: Most recently in April, when Qatar excluded you from a festival.
Barenboim: That was because of the situation in Syria. The concerts were delayed. But many Arabs haven’t learned anything from the great Edward Said, with whom I founded the orchestra, namely that the Palestinians cannot deny the Holocaust. I understand it completely when Palestinians boycott Israeli institutions. But I don’t understand why they would boycott individual Israelis who expressly distance themselves from the Israeli government.
SPIEGEL: You had to give a concert in Gaza City last year without the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Instead, you took along musicians from the Berlin Staatskapelle and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic. But at least you got in.
Barenboim: And I received what was probably the nicest compliment of my musical career. A man there thanked me so effusively and so many times for our performance that, at some point, I had to ask him why he was so happy. He said: “We feel like the world has forgotten us. We receive aid supplies, and we’re grateful for that. But the fact that you have come here with your orchestra gives us the feeling that we are human beings.”
SPIEGEL: Mr. Barenboim, thank you for this interview.