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Germans, Jews, and Music

The cruelty of memory manifests itself in remembering what is dispelled in forgetfulness.

—Naguib Mahfouz

This statement by Naguib Mahfouz expresses something that I believe is very important for the relationship between Germans and Jews, since, with respect to each other, both are dealing with the problem of the past. Certain matters require the generosity of forgetfulness, and others demand the honesty of remembrance. From my point of view this is the difficulty with postwar German generations, although I have never had any personal experience of xenophobia or anti-Semitism in Germany. A recent statement by a well-known Berlin politician about “the Jew Barenboim” was made in a context that had nothing to do with Judaism, and I interpret it as a sign of his misunderstanding of Judaism.*

It is true that Judaism is not easily explained: it is part religion, part tradition, part nation, and partly an immensely various people. It is hard to deal with, as much for the Jews themselves as for everyone else, and especially for a country like Germany, which has such a horrible common history with the Jews. Sadly, after spending years in Germany, I have a deeper and deeper impression that this part of German history has not been assimilated or understood by many Germans. Such ignorance could lead to a new anti-Semitism, or to philo-Semitism, which would be as wrong as anti-Semitism.

I don’t believe in collective guilt, especially not after so many generations have passed, and therefore I have no problem living and working in Germany. But at the same time I expect every German not to forget this part of his country’s history, and to be especially careful in considering it. Each German will be able to do this, however, only if he has an understanding of his own self and the past that helped to form it; for if you suppress an important element of yourself, you are constrained in your dealings with others.

Such thoughts lead to the question of German identity and to the general question of what an identity consists of. Is there really only one identity for a person or for a people? The Jewish tradition has two distinct tendencies: the more fundamental one, represented by the philosophers and poets and scholars who were interested only in Jewish issues and in the Jewish Weltanschauung; and the other tendency associated with great figures such as Spinoza or Einstein, and to a certain extent also Heinrich Heine, and which applied the traditions of Jewish thinking to other cultures, including German culture, and to other issues. It is not difficult to see how a double identity developed among Jews.

In my opinion it is impossible for anyone at the beginning of the twenty-first century to believably claim a single identity. One difficulty of our times is that people restrict their concerns to ever smaller details, and that they often have little sense of how things are intermingled with one another, and together form part of a whole. The Germans have given the world so much by way of spiritual enlightenment—we have only to think of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Heine, Goethe, to name just a few—but perhaps the horrific experiences of the Nazi era, and shortly after, have made it particularly difficult for a German in the year 2001 to confront his own history as a whole.

I look at the question of identity both as a musician and from the perspective of my own history. I was born in Argentina, my grandparents were Russian Jews, I grew up in Israel, and I have lived most of my adult life in Europe. I think in the language that I happen to speak at a particular moment. I feel German when I conduct Beethoven, and Italian when I con-duct Verdi. This does not give me a feeling of being untrue to myself; quite the contrary. The experience of playing very different styles of music can be remarkably illuminating. When you have learned and played a Debussy pianissimo, and when you then return to a Beethoven pianissimo, you know even better what the differences are, and you realize you are dealing with two entirely different sounds. With Debussy the pianissimo has to be bodiless, and with Beethoven it has to have a physical core of expression and sound.

It is only natural to find excursions into different cultures valuable, but of course German culture is something extraordinary, and there should be no false modesty about it. If you understand Beethoven as somebody who was at the same time German and universal, it also becomes apparent that Germans, much more than those of many other nations, have occupied themselves with past cultures, for example with Greek mythology, literature, and philosophy. All of Bee-thoven’s work is based to some degree on the Greek principle of catharsis, which reflects a typical German attitude: one should not fear to enter the dark and reemerge into the light. The first movement of the Fourth Symphony, for example, starts from the depths of chaos and finds an extraordinary way to order and jubilation.

I found the speech of the president of Germany, Johannes Rau, on November 9 last year especially apt when he spoke about the differences between nationalism and patriotism. He said:

Patriotism can flourish only where racism and nationalism are given no quarter. We should never mistake patriotism for nationalism. A patriot is one who loves his homeland. A nationalist is one who scorns the homelands of others.

These seem to me very important points. I believe that many Germans lost their sense of patriotism, their affection for their country, during the second half of the twentieth century and did so partly out of fear of nationalism. This is unfortunate. The change took place during a time of large-scale immigration, when more foreigners wanted to come, or felt compelled to come, to Germany than ever before. Germany opened its gates and made use of the immigrants without having acquired the tolerance of a state based on immigration, such as, for example, Argentina or the United States. The attitudes of many Germans who are hostile to foreigners seem to me to derive from the fact that the last two or three generations of Germans have not adequately learned what immigration means. They fail to understand that it is possible to have more than one identity at the same time and to accept that people of foreign origin, with foreign customs and a foreign culture, can become part of one’s own land without their threatening one’s identity as a German.

The best example of this specific German problem is the current situation in Berlin, in which some people fear that their capital is becoming multicultural, or multidimensional. This fear surely stems from a past that has not been entirely assimilated. Berlin was the only divided city in Germany, and the two parts of the city had unusual external support; both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic considered Berlin a city with a special status. My hope is that Berlin will not lose its special status because of reunification—on the contrary. Because of the forty-year-long division and the existence of the East and the West side by side, Berlin, in my view, has a unique potential for encompassing differences, a potential that should now be made use of. Instead of complaining about the division caused by history, one should treat it as a positive force, for Berlin and also for the city’s relations with the rest of Germany and with other countries. After all, Berlin is the only city where a delegation from Moscow will not feel wholly foreign in the West and, at the same time, a delegation from Washington will not feel wholly foreign in the East.

If we are to understand the phenomena of nature, or the qualities of human beings, or the relationship to a God or to some different, spiritual experience, we can learn much through music. Music is so very important and interesting to me because it is at the same time everything and nothing. If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a place for yourself. And despite this, or maybe precisely because of it, music is the best means of escape from the problems of human existence.

For me there is only one clear definition of music, by Ferruccio Busoni, who said: “Music is sonorous air.” Everything else that is said about music refers to the different reactions that music evokes in people: it is felt to be poetic, or sensual, or spiritual, or emotional, or formally fascinating—the possibilities are countless. Since music is everything and nothing at the same time, it therefore can be easily abused, as it was by the Nazis. At the West-Eastern-Divan Workshop in Weimar, musicians from Israel and the Arab countries have in recent years worked together and shown that rapprochements and friendships hitherto thought impossible may be achieved through music; but this does not mean that music will solve the problems of the Middle East. Music can be the best school for life, and at the same time the most effective way to escape from it.

  1. *

    Editors’ note: Klaus Landowsky, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union in the Berlin Senate, caused an outcry toward the end of last year when he talked about the difficulty of choosing the right person to run the Berliner Staatsoper, whose director was then, and still is, Daniel Barenboim. In the presence of a reporter, Mr. Landowsky said, “On the one hand, you have the young Karajan, Christian Thielemann. On the other, you have the Jew Barenboim.”

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