Monday, August 14, 2017

Freedom of Speech, German Style

For what seems like the first time in a while, I'm going to write again about a difference between life in Germany and life in Wisconsin (USA).

It pertains to the freedom of speech.

I did not hear much about the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA until things turned ugly. I understand neo-nazis and white supremacists are allowed to speak out, march, display signs, shout nazi slogans, etc. in the United States of America. The First Amendment to the US Constitution grants citizens the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, so decent people must by law tolerate the filth that white supremacists spew. Nazis get to march in the US if they submit a permit to do so. I'm not sure how those ideologies reflect the "peaceful" part of the right to assemble, since they are based on oppression and hatred, but that's the way it is over there.

Germans also enjoy the freedom of speech as granted to them by the Grundgesetz. However, there are limitations and consequences for those who breech those limitations. In Germany it is unlawful to display nazi symbols, gestures, or paraphenalia publicly. One is also not allowed to openly and publicly declare that the holocaust never happened.* This is based on Article 2 of the Grundgesetz, which states that a person has the right to free development and expression of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against Germany's constitutional order or moral law.

*One can be a holocaust denier, but s/he cannot speak or write about this inexplicable belief publicly without consequences.

Giving the nazi salute in public in Germany (even if the person claims it was a joke or just to add some spice to their vacation photos) violates the rights of so many and offends moral law and decency. Do I agree that this behavior should not be allowed in Germany? Absolutely.

People/tourists who think it's funny while in Germany to mouth off about Hitler, shout "Sieg Heil", give the "Hitlergruß" (as one of my principals in Wisconsin gave me when I announced I was marrying a German) will get their asses arrested, and could face a [not-hefty-enough] fine. I wouldn't mind if they'd get escorted to the nearest airport - without passing go. Just take your ignorance and hatred somewhere else.

Americans should be familiar with limitations on free speech as well. One cannot yell "Fire!!" or "Bomb!!" in a crowded theather, airport, restaurant, etc. without facing consequences if caught. I find this reasonable. American readers might also want to be aware that the first amendment may not apply at all in American airports, or at least not in the Milwaukee airport.

On the same day as the "Unite the Right" rally in Virginia, an American tourist in Dresden started giving the nazi salute outside a café. An as yet unknown passer-by beat him up and then walked away. Since I don't condone violence I would have rather seen the fool arrested and fined - bigly - but I must admit the thought crossed my mind that he had it coming. Don't pull that shit here, laddybuck. Don't travel to foreign countries if you are that ignorant about the world and human dignity.

However, it is also against the law in Germany to beat people up on the street, and this is a good thing. So now authorities are, of course, searching for the assailant, who will likely face charges of battery if found.

Article 1 of Germany's Grundgesetz is "Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar." ("The dignity of persons is inviolable.") This is a statement I know well, as I teach this to my students during the Orientierungskurs. Giving the nazi salute or marching with nazi flags is violating the dignity of all those who were murdered during the holocaust and anyone who lost a loved one during that regime.

Let this be a notice, then, to tourists who come to Germany. You are welcome and we hope you enjoy your stay. But do not for one moment think we find it even remotely funny when guests make "jokes" about or references to nazis except for the purpose of genuine learning. And regardless of the reason for having done it, a nazi salute will lead to jail.

*I am aware that "nazi" should technically be capitalized, but I won't do it.


  1. Anonymous21/8/17 11:29

    I just wish that we, as Americans, would take our own advice and put Article 1 into our own constitution. Charlottesville is about a 30-minute drive from where I did my Bachelor studies. That area of Virginia has earned a special place in my heart, but it is far from perfect in terms of race relations. The town I studied in (smaller than Charlottesville) is home to one of the many Robert E. Lee High School's throughout the south. During one of my semester's at the uni, KKK leaflets were left throughout the downtown streets overnight. Community leaders were quick to trash them and disavow the messages on them. That must have been 2014 or so, and white nationalists/terrorists kept it underground for the most part. Since the election of Trump, several people of color that I know who are still there say that things have gotten worse, and several of my friends have expressed that they have feared for their personal safety on multiple occasions since the election.

    The rural area of Missouri where I'm from is quite simply openly toxic, moreso than I ever perceived the Charlottesville area to be, but there are few people of color to feel the effects. I'm not sure of the situation in Missouri because I speak to pretty much no one who is still there except my family, and they are woefully ignorant to anything having to do with race apart from being quick to judge when they see protests which a small group of people have turned violent. We've got serious problems in the US, and it drives me nuts that so many white people refuse to acknowledge that it has been going on for decades.

    1. I agree with so much of what you wrote. I've never lived in the South, only in Wisconsin. We like to think we're open and diverse up there. In my home town we had a little diversity when I was growing up, but there was very, very little integration and even less reaching out by white people to people of color or from other cultures. My family and their friends had parties, gatherings at the lake, etc., but everyone was white. I am relatively certain that is still the case.

      I fear also that #45 encourages those with ugly and racist views. After Charlottesville and his response to it, why wouldn't they feel emboldened?

      "So many white people refuse to acknowledge..." I can only say "Uh-huh" and I better leave it at that. It makes me sad. Many - including some I know personally - have the "Well, THEY..." or "But what about _them_?" attitude. That is not an appropriate response to racism, white nationalism/terrorism, or hatred. I will never understand this.

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