SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Barenboim: 'The Germans Are Prisoners of Their Past'

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.

Photo Gallery: SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Barenboim Photos
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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 naďve. 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.

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From DER SPIEGEL
About Daniel Barenboim
  • Reiner Riedler / DER SPIEGEL
    Daniel Barenboim, 69, is celebrated as a man with dual talents. As a child, Barenboim was already performing as a pianist. Later, he forged an international career as a conductor. Since 1992, Barenboim has been music director at the Berlin State Opera. In 1999, Barenboim and the Palestinian author Edward Said established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which young Jewish, Muslim and Christian musicians from the Middle East perform together. Barenboim is one of the few conductors to have performed Wagner's music in Israel, where it is largely shunned.


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