This article was originally published in German.
There probably aren’t many musicians who have to emphasise right at the beginning of their concerts that they are not antisemites. But most musicians aren’t Roger Waters. The 79-year-old Brit’s pre-recorded voice echoes over the loudspeakers of Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena: The show will start in ten minutes, he announces. “And a court in Frankfurt has ruled that I am not an antisemite.” Applause and cheers in the almost sold-out arena. The rest of the evening, however, comes across a huge “but…”.
Around 10,000 fans of the ex-Pink Floyd star have come to this first of two performances in Berlin on 17 May 2023. They have come despite his antisemitic outbursts, his vocal support of the BDS movement, his dissemination of Russian war propaganda, his sympathies for Putin. You could say: despite Roger Waters. Or did they rather come precisely because of him?
There are no counter-protests to be seen outside, just a small anti-Zionist welcome committee: BDS supporters stand on the square in front of the arena with banners, handing out flyers. “Jews, Israelis and internationals all agree with Roger,” says one. “It’’s only the Germans who attack him – that’s provincial.” Everyone agrees? Not quite. The Jewish organisation WerteInitiative wants to protest against Waters with a flyer campaign, but the following day, they are removed by police at the request of the Mercedes-Benz Arena. Why this did not also apply to BDS remains unclear.
Elsewhere, there is a poster reading “Roger Waters – Welcome to Germany”, accompanied by printed interviews with the musician – a peculiar collection that has also been displayed at conspiracy-driven Querdenken demonstrations against pandemic health measures. “People should read his own words and make up their own minds,” explains a man in his late 50s. Among the interviews is a rather unflattering conversation in Der Spiegel in which Waters rants about the powerful “Israel lobby”, calls the Jewish state “a mistake” and delegitimises the democratically elected government of Ukraine. Words that do little to exonerate him.
Waters’ claim that a court ruled he is not an antisemite, isn’t true, by the way. The Administrative Court in Frankfurt am Main merely granted an emergency request by the singer to be allowed to perform in the Festhalle Frankfurt. The city had tried to prevent the concert at the request of the Jewish community. A step that was justified, among other things, by the historical significance of the venue: Frankfurt’s Festhalle was used for the deportation of Jews under National Socialism. In Munich, too, an attempt was made to ban the concert in the Olympiahalle – but this was not possible for legal reasons, according to a city council resolution.
In Berlin, Waters’ concerts were also sharply criticised: Berlin’s new culture senator Joe Chialo (CDU) condemned Waters’ performances “in the strongest possible terms”. His predecessor Klaus Lederer (Left Party) would have tried to prevent the concert if it had taken place in a municipal hall, he told the newspaper Die Zeit. The day before the first concert in the capital, Berlin’s governing CDU parliamentary group demanded the cancellation of both performances. Not to mention the many Jewish organisations that demanded the cancellation of the tour in Germany.
It doesn’t take long on this evening in the Mercedes-Benz Arena to see what bothers Waters’ critics so much about him. Right at the beginning, he makes it clear: “If you’re one of those ‘I love Pink Floyd but I can’t stand Roger’s politics’ people – you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now…” Can one separate the artist from his work? Even Waters’ answer to that is no.
What follows is a bizarre three-hour political performance of monotonous Pink Floyd cover versions and populist slogans. A tiring evening with simple bogeymen and little nuance. An evening that gives its ageing fans – on average white, German and around 60 years old – exactly what they want: It sells critique of consumerism against Visa and Coca-Cola for hundreds of euros per ticket, it packages anti-imperialist rebellion as stadium entertainment. “Resist Capitalism”, reads one slogan above the stage, “Lock Up the Killers” another.
Above all, it is an evening with a clear world view. There is “us”, “the good guys” – and the bad guys who have to be fought. “They’re evil”, flickers across the LED screen above the crucifix-shaped stage in the middle of the arena, while Waters’ reworking of the Pink Floyd hit “Us and Them” plays. The ominous enemy remains for the most part nameless. Here, Waters uses tropes that are structurally antisemitic: “They must think we’re fucking stupid!”, a comic-style speech bubble reads. “Who do you mean by they?” – “Them, up there in the penthouse, the fucking oligarchs” – “Ah, you mean…” – “THE POWERS THAT BE.” An ominous, all-powerful elite that is not explicitly named – this is the antisemitic blueprint from which many conspiracy narratives operate.
Waters creates a conspiratorial gap that functions as a dog whistle, an antisemitically tinged allusion. Why are “they” so brutal, asks the next speech bubble? Answer: because “they” want to destroy our resistance and continue ruling the world. It’s about a powerful enemy, acting in the dark, pulling strings behind the scenes and threatening our very existence. Against “them up there”. Against enemies who are repeatedly portrayed as dehumanised figures in the course of the evening. A dangerous narrative that has led to violence against Jews for centuries.
The victims of this alleged world conspiracy are commemorated by Roger Waters in giant letters above the stage. “Shireen Abu Akleh”, reads the LED screen, the name of the Al Jazeera journalist who was killed by an IDF soldier during a terror raid in the West Bank. Her “crime” according to Waters: “being Palestinian”, her punishment: “death”. Anne Frank’s name is also displayed, her crime: “being Jewish”. Also George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of racist and anti-feminist police violence are shown. For Waters, it’s all the same.
Before the song “The Bar”, Waters explains that he’s in the bar tonight – a physical and metaphorical place. On his piano are shot glasses and a bottle of spirits, later he toasts with his band. But the bar is also a place “where they won’t throw us in prison if we have an opinion that differs from the orthodox…view”. A peculiar pause. Waters turns the largest stage in the German capital with an audience of ten thousand into a conspiratorial space where he can finally say what is otherwise supposedly forbidden, without being arrested. A bulwark against cancel culture and consequences. More applause.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Roger Waters concert without the pig. After the interval, the large inflatable animal flies through the arena with demonically illuminated eyes – a symbol of all the evil in the world. The Star of David, for which Waters received much criticism in the past, has been removed from the pig. Instead, the logo of the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems is now displayed. The meaning is evidently the same. Waters plays the Pink Floyd song “In the Flesh”, dressed as a Waffen-SS officer with a red armband. Fascist banners with Hammer logos hang from the roof of the arena. With a dummy rifle, he opens fire on the audience.
Then a quick wardrobe change: the SS uniform is gone, now Waters wears a keffiyeh – a symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israel. “Palestinian rights” is displayed above the stage to great cheers. The audience reacts less enthusiastically to the slogans that follow, from “trans rights” to “reproductive rights”. Then the slogan “Fuck the Occupation”. A short time later, the separation barrier in the West Bank is shown, which Israel built during the second Intifada to prevent suicide attacks against civilians.
BDS, the anti-Israeli boycott movement, which Waters usually likes to talk about a lot, doesn’t come up once over the evening. Waters doesn’t mention Israel a single time between the songs. Why should he? His ideological world view is not only an integral part of his show, it is his show. He merely hints: “I wanted to talk to you about different things, because we’re in Germany, so there’s a lot to say, but maybe we’ll do that later.”
The promised monologue then turns out to be surprisingly short: Gorbachev good, nukes bad. World peace has never sounded so simple. For over three hours, Waters denounces war, militarism and weapons. And the fact that there is a war in Europe right now, after Russia brutally invaded Ukraine? Not a single word on that, despite Waters’ pro-Kremlin position being sufficiently well-known. It would seem that in Waters’ bar, one is not allowed to speak as openly as he likes to claim, after all.
Shortly after 11:00 pm, the evening is finally over. Standing ovation from the audience. And from the critic: zero points.