Some cross words were exchanged at a prominent cultural festival in Germany last week.
Not angry words – words about a politically symbolic cross, the swastika.
On the eve of the annual Bayreuth Festival, which produces the operas of 19th-Century composer and anti-Semite Richard Wagner, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin withdrew from the title role in a production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” after German media reported on an unfortunate part of the singer’s past – as a member of a Russian heavy metal band in his teens, two decades ago, Nikitin had a swastika tattooed on his chest.
“It was a major mistake in my life, and I wish I had never done it,” he said in a statement released by the Festival that announced Nikitin’s replacement in this summer’s opera by Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn. “I was not aware of the extent of the confusion and hurt that these symbols would cause, particularly in Bayreuth and in the context of the festival’s history.”
Nikitin’s reference was to the connection of the Festival, founded by Wagner to play and honor his works; its management during World War II by Winifred Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law and a friend of Adolf Hitler; and the Festival’s subsequent attempts to rehabilitate itself from any association with the man who was an outspoken anti-Semite and later the favored composer of the Third Reich.
Wagner is still anathema to many Jews, and occasional attempts to break an informal taboo against playing his music in public in Israel have resulted in controversy.
It’s still a touchy point in Germany. Nikitin, who says he is apolitical and no neo-Nazi, has had the swastika tattoo covered up with another tattoo – the swastika would not be visible during his performances, but Festival officials, speaking of their “absolute rejection of any form of National Socialist thinking,” quickly arranged his withdrawal.
The singer’s swastika is the latest example of the balance that many European countries – including those that supported or opposed Nazi Germany during World War II – have attempted to reach in post-war, and now in post-Cold War years, between free speech or freedom of artistic expression on one hand, and suppression of the symbols of reviled regimes (in some cases, Communism as well as Nazism) on the other.
In Germany itself, display of the swastika as well as other Nazi-era or racism symbols are illegal according to paragraph 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch (Criminal Code).
Other countries on the continent struggle with the issue: the European Union considered than dropped a proposal to ban Nazi symbols in all 25 member states; Hungary, after the fall of Communism, banned the public use of Nazi and communist symbols; ditto for Lithuania; a priest in Italy recently came under fire for welcoming parishioners to church wearing a swastika armband; Switzerland last year rejected a ban on the swastika; a school in southern Austria was recently rebuilt after a Google Map showed it to be in the shape of a swastika, and a baker near Vienna last year apologized for taking a cake order that featured a sugary swastika.
Nearly seven decades after the end of the Holocaust, survivors and perpetrators still alive, the swastika (or a form thereof) now a universal symbol of rightwing racism, these controversies continue.
Europe’s political and cultural leaders, it appears, are sensitive to the emotional harm that the sight of a swastika can still cause.
If, as sports fans say, it’s not over till the fat lady sings, the controversy in Bayreuth is over because the bass-baritone won’t be singing.