To many Germans, the violence in Charlottesville, Va., this month and the American president’s reaction to it came as a shock. Even those who have come to expect little of Donald Trump — he’s a uniquely unpopular figure among Germans — were aghast. “It’s racist, far-right violence, and that requires determined and forceful resistance no matter where in the world it appears,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
What a strange moment, when the German chancellor lectures the American president on how to deal with neo-Nazis. But it’s also an instructive one, in that it highlights how the two countries deal with extremism.
In Germany, the very presence of neo-Nazis openly marching through a city bearing swastika-emblazoned flags, as in Charlottesville, is unthinkable. Unlike the United States, Germany places strict limits on speech and expression when it comes to right-wing extremism. It is illegal to produce, distribute or display symbols of the Nazi era — swastikas, the Hitler salute, along with many symbols that neo-Nazis have developed as proxies to get around the initial law. Holocaust denial is also illegal.
citement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.
These laws apply to individuals, but they and others are also defenses against extremist political parties. The Constitutional Court, Germany’s highest court, can ban parties it deems intent on impairing or destroying the political order. This year the court came close to banning the extremist right-wing National Democratic Party but determined the organization was too weak to outlaw.
This legal regime is backed by a political culture that effectively bans expression that might pass legal muster but still flirts with racist ideologies. The German right-wing-populist Alternative for Germany is a good example. Though its program and members do not openly embrace or reference Nazism, the party’s program dabbles in ideas that might be construed as racist, and as a result the party is considered untouchable by mainstream voters and politicians.
Germans have long argued over whether this legalistic strategy has worked. On the one hand, Germany’s democratic system is remarkably stable; on the other, it has a severe problem with right-wing extremist violence that again has been rising steeply since the refugee crisis of 2015. And our laws and cultural taboos have not prevented the Alternative party from gaining a small but steady 8 percent of voters ahead of the national election in September.
Furthermore, Germany’s legal ban comes at a cost. Limits on speech are a blunt instrument. Though it seems a legitimate and necessary act of respect toward Holocaust victims and their descendants to outlaw the denial of the Nazi atrocities, the American way of dealing with Nazism and its symbols always seemed to me the more mature way of handling threats to liberal democracy.
When in 1994, the Constitutional Court decided that denying the Holocaust was not covered by the constitutional right of freedom of expression, historians like Eberhard Jäckel argued that a truly liberal democracy should be able to allow for “stupidity” in its public debates. Germany’s ban on the swastika seems like a permanent declaration of distrust in itself, and more important, to argument and to education. It feels like a hasty surrender.
In a way, it is pointless to compare political cultures. Each is unique and deeply rooted in each country’s history. We won’t be able to copy America’s unique liberalism, and the United States probably won’t adopt our legalistic approach. However, there may be some convergence.
Very cautiously, Germany is allowing itself to confront Nazi thought. For decades, Hitler’s infamous book “Mein Kampf” was banned in Germany. But in 2016, when the copyrights owned by the Bavarian government ran out, it appeared in a critical edition for the first time, and it is now sold freely in bookstores.
In the wake of Charlottesville and Mr. Trump’s comments, I’ve heard some Americans bemoan the lack of strict anti-hate laws akin to Germany’s. And indeed, the episode is a reminder that an open and educated discourse cannot be taken for granted, anywhere. But it has also demonstrated the resilience of America’s civil society — for now.
Steffen Kailitz, an associate professor at the Technical University of Dresden’s Hannah Arendt Institute who studies extremism, authoritarianism and failing democracies, said he found the reaction to Mr. Trump’s statement about Charlottesville encouraging, because the broad backlash showed that in the United States, the taboos against racism and extremism remain intact.
But, he added, frequent breaches of that taboo may slowly shift the boundaries between politically legitimate and illegitimate public expressions. Consider the number of Mr. Trump’s supporters who approve of his position; many may not agree with white supremacy, but they are now less willing to condemn it because they are following the president’s lead.
In recent days, people in my Twitter feed have passed around a passage from the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s 1945 book, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” that in essence says that tolerance toward the intolerant cannot be infinite, or the tolerant risk eradication. That’s Germany’s militant democracy in a nutshell. And there may come a day when the United States must embrace it as well. But for now, I have faith in a democratic public’s ability to police itself. I wish Germany did.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.