In the past, Roger Waters has been the subject of criminal investigations in Germany for wearing a Nazi uniform during performances. Now, a university is losing prestigious donors over his inclusion in a Palestinian literature festival.
While he faced no punishment in 1990, police invested him this year under a German law that forbids the glorification of Nazis, including displaying swastikas, performing the Nazi salute, or wearing a Nazi uniform.
A show of Waters' was also protested in Frankfurt, Germany, by Jewish communities, who called him an "anti-Semite." City authorities demanded his show be cancelled, but a German court ruled while his performance uses “symbolism manifestly based on that of the National Socialist regime,” the musician’s work “did not glorify or relativize the crimes of the Nazis or identify with Nazi racist ideology.”
Following the attacks on Israel by militant group Hamas on Oct. 7, Rogers is once again under scrutiny for his art. The University of Pennsylvania’s administration has been facing overwhelming backlash from donors, many of whom are pulling funds and calling on the school's president to resign, in part because Waters was a speaker at a Palestine Writes Literature Festival held shortly after the conflict began.
The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia sent a letter posted on the Palestine Writes site which expressed “deep concern” over Waters' May performances where “he dressed in a Nazi-like uniform and shot a prop machine gun into the audience.”
Waters has also drawn anti-Semitism accusations through his criticisms of Israel, and his involvement in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, which protests Israel through economic action over its occupation of territories where Palestinians seek statehood, as well as Israel's repeated human rights abuses on Palestinians.
Many have warned against conflating criticisms of Israel to anti-Semitism, including the festival's organizer Tala El-Fahmawi, who told CNN that Waters "has stood as an opponent to war crimes and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians which as we know does not equate to anti-Semitism.”
However, few have noted an equally insidious trend of conflating satire, or the portrayal of abhorrent actions, to endorsement of those actions. Despite its status as one of the greatest concept albums of all time, its critics fail to engage with The Wall's content on even a surface level, subsequently ignoring its status as one of the most anti-fascist pieces of media of all time.
Both the album and movie versions of The Wall follow the story of a fictionalized rockstar, Pink, and the compounding factors in his life that eventually lead to a mental spiral. Not always literal, The Wall uses heavy imagery to address topics such as consumerism, toxic masculinity, the criminalization of youth culture, and Nazism.
Roger Waters was born in England in 1943 — the height of World War II. His father was killed in the war, inspiring scenes in The Wall where a young Pink grapples with the loss of his own father in combat. The film version even opens with a harrowing sequence directly depicting his father being blown up by German bombs.
Fast forward to 1979 when The Wall the album was released — and Margaret Thatcher was serving her first year as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In Waters' view, Thatcher's conservatism had an iron grip on the country, through her policies of British Nationalism and isolationism. In The Wall, Waters deeply criticizes her platform of emboldening fascist ideologies.
Youth in particular fell victim to this indoctrination in Waters' viewpoint. In The Wall, faceless children at school desks are fed to a meat grinder, losing their identity and individuality (Thatcher, famously, standardized education curriculum in the UK). Students are then all the more malleable when Pink, in a hallucination sequence, imagines himself as a fascist dictator who is rallying the dejected youth.
The scene relies heavily on imagery, drawing direct parallels to the Nazis (seriously — it's not subtle.) The youth are mobilized to the streets, committing acts of vandalism and assault reminiscent of Kristallnacht. This conveys Waters' entire point: the country that once prided itself on beating the Nazis, has now become them.
With all this in mind, it begs the question: have those calling Rogers' work anti-Semitic even seen it? In their coverage of UPenn's literature festival, CNN noted that the donors who pulled their funds over alleged anti-Semitism "did not specify what was said" by Waters (among other speakers) to draw their opposition.
In May, Waters posted a statement responding to his German legal woes, that noted "the depiction of an unhinged fascist demagogue has been a feature of my shows since Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1980," which is a performance that is “quite clearly a statement in opposition to fascism, injustice, and bigotry in all its forms."
While Waters' outfits could appear to be in violation of German law, his reason for wearing it, and his principles — and those of The Wall — are undeniable. To censor The Wall, or punish Waters for its creation and performance, would be to prove its very point.
In an interview with podcaster Katie Halper earlier this month, Waters said of the criticism: “I can be allowed to do a show because it’s theater, darling. The idea that no one can dress up in a f**king Nazi uniform ever, to do anything, in a theater or a film, is ludicrous, obviously.”
“You don’t dress up like him, in a pro-Himmler or pro-Nazi way," Halper commented. "It’s a scathing critique, you are playing a villainous character.”
To which Rogers responded: “It’s a parody."
This article was updated to include recent events.
Ryan Adamczeski is the Digital Director for The Advocate Channel. Views expressed in The Advocate Channel’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate Channel or our parent company, equalpride.
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