Recently, famed musician and former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters caused controversy by performing in Berlin while dressed in a costume reminiscent of the Nazi era, desecrating the memory of Anne Frank, and displaying Nazi imagery. Some have said that this behavior shows a lack of respect for Anne Frank and amounts to denying the Holocaust. While his behavior indicates a disturbing mix of racism, antisemitism, and historical memory distortion, I would say that it does not amount so much to what we should call Holocaust denial, but rather, to a celebration of the Holocaust.
Holocaust remembrance services are held to pay respect to the victims and prevent the evils of the past from being forgotten. Roger Waters’s antics at the Berlin conference twisted commemoration in a callous disregard for the Holocaust’s victims and survivors, adding gasoline to the fire of the poisonous myth that Jewish people should be held accountable for the atrocities done against them.
Waters continues to justify his acts when he writes, “I have spent my whole life protesting injustice and totalitarianism. Anne Frank’s name was often used in our home after the war, and she served as a constant reminder of the horrors that might occur if Nazism is allowed to go unchecked. My father paid the ultimate price in his fight against the Nazis during World War II. I will continue to speak out against injustice and those who do it no matter the cost to me personally”, Waters’ aggressive rhetoric equating the Holocaust with joy is scurrilous and helps spread bigotry, undermining the whole idea of commemoration.
Roger Waters has a history of activism and voicing unpopular political opinions, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his recent behavior in Berlin raised the stakes of his rhetoric to new and worrying levels. Waters intentionally used Nazi comparisons while discussing Israel, a nation with a complicated past. At his performances, the former Pink Floyd frontman showed Nazi-like symbolism and made derogatory remarks about Holocaust victims.
Antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and the exhibition of Nazi symbols are all crimes punishable by law in Germany. Despite rumors to the contrary, Waters does not perform in a duplicate SS uniform; instead, he uses costumes that are comparable to the originals but are meant to be humorous. While Waters’ acts may be offensive, they can be translated as acts of celebration, rather than denial. Wearing Nazi costumes and in other ways showcasing Nazi acts may be viewed as a way of celebrating this aspect of history. Whilst we want to ensure that the Holocaust is remembered, this is certainly not the way we want to do so.
Associating Israel with the Nazis not only displays Waters’ utter lack of understanding of the Holocaust’s historical context but also serves to further spread destructive stereotypes and anti-Semitic clichés. The intentional comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany devalues the Holocaust and threatens the Jewish state’s survival. Waters has consistently denied any antisemitic bias, saying instead that his criticism is directed only at the state of Israel and not against Jews in general. While Jewish demonstrators were barred from his German performances, he has been a vocal backer of the BDS campaign, which targets Israeli businesses. Hatred and prejudice are the only possible motivations for such behavior.
Professor Yehuda Bauer, the respected Holocaust scholar, defined Holocaust denial as arguments and materials that downplay or dismiss the systematic murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Holocaust denial may also take the form of a claim that the Holocaust did not happen or that it was a hoax perpetrated by Jews for their own political or economic advantage. In the case of Roger Waters, his use of Nazi iconography and tropes to skew history and foster hatred and antisemitism are not a denial of the Holocaust, but rather a celebration of it, which should be condemned as such.