Erdogan and the Satirist Inside Merkel's Comedy Conundrum
With his insulting poem about Turkish President Erdogan, Jan Böhmermann has triggered an affair of state. Now, Chancellor Merkel has elected to allow legal proceedings against the German comedian. What, though, was Böhmermann's intent?
Jan Böhmermann has disappeared. He's not giving interviews; he's not answering his phone. Since Monday, he has also gone silent on Twitter, where he is normally extremely active. He has hardly left his home in Cologne in the last few days and he is also now under police protection.
He had his Thursday show on the German public broadcaster ZDF cancelled and his Sunday radio show on RBB will likewise not be broadcast this week. It was cancelled last Sunday as well. Böhmermann was already in his home studio ready to record when he realized that he was in no mood to be funny. So he called it off.
Friends and acquaintances who have had contact with him in the last few days are worried that he won't be able to withstand the pressure. The ZDF satirist is a sensitive person, even if that hasn't always been part of his public persona. The scandal surrounding the disparaging poem he wrote about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has affected him more deeply than many have realized. Perhaps one has to be vulnerable to emotional pain in order to know how to inflict such pain on others.
Two weeks ago, when he was still active on social media, he tweeted out the Beatles hit "The Fool on the Hill." The song is about a simpleton sitting alone on a hill with a silly grin on his face -- and everyone can see that he is a half-wit. It is essentially how people see Böhmermann, and it is how he wanted to be seen: The misunderstood fool. The tweet went out two days after his insulting Erdogan poem was broadcast on his ZDF show "Neo Magazin Royale" and one day after the broadcaster deleted the show from its video hub and distanced itself from Böhmermann's verses. And that was just the beginning.
Prior to the scandal, Böhmermann had led a niche existence in Germany's media landscape, but now everybody in the country knows who he is. The 35-year-old has triggered an affair of state, one which has served to demonstrate just how limited Chancellor Angela Merkel's power really is. And how absurd German law can be. If Böhmermann intended to show just how powerful satire can be, he has been incredibly successful.
The Böhmermann scandal is now entering its third week, and only now is it becoming clear just what the five-minute clip has set in motion. It didn't just shine the spotlight on the Turkish president's sensitivity and the limits of chancellor's steadfastness, it has also unsettled all of Germany -- a country which normally doesn't spend much time thinking about satire and art and the freedoms associated with them.
On Friday, the need for doing so became even more apparent. Chancellor Merkel announced that the federal government had granted permission for criminal proceedings to go ahead against Jan Böhmermann under the controversial Paragraph 103 of the German Criminal Code. The law makes it illegal to insult the representatives of foreign countries. The federal government must approve the initiation of Paragraph 103 proceedings.
By granting permission, Merkel has gone against the advice of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Justice Minister Heiko Maas, both of whom are members of the Social Democratic Party, Merkel's junior coalition partner. The chancellor confirmed that the coalition partners had expressed "differing views."
Yet even as she announced that legal proceedings would go ahead, the chancellor also signaled her intention to abolish the law before the end of the current legislative session, saying it was "unnecessary." The chancellor also shared her concerns about the situation of the press in Turkey and the plights of individual journalists in the country. She added that the German government would ensure freedom of expression at home and she emphasized that the independence of the judicial system applied as much in Turkey as it does in Germany and "other countries in the democratic world."
'Kicking Kurds, Beating Christians'
Merkel, in short, was doing her best to walk a political tightrope -- trying to satisfy Erdogan while at the same time seeking to assuage those voices which have accused her of sacrificing European values in the interest of securing a political deal with Turkey aimed at reducing the number of refugees coming to Europe.
Ironically, it was a tightrope not unlike the one Böhmermann was trying to walk. His Erdogan poem was cleverly constructed. In the televised skit, he is talking with his sidekick Ralf Kabelka about the limits of what is allowed in Germany. Abusive criticism is not allowed, Kabelka says, whereupon Böhmermann -- to make it clear exactly what isn't allowed -- recites his poem about Erdogan. When the audience started applauding, Böhmermann prevented them from doing so.
The poem includes references to "goat fucking" and "oppressing minorities." It calls Erdogan "dumb as a post, cowardly and uptight" and "perverse, lice-ridden and a zoophile." "Kicking Kurds, beating Christians all while watching child porno films." It goes on in that vein.
The satirical verses drove a wedge through the country. Böhmermann managed to demolish a nationwide consensus that hadn't really been up for debate for years: What are the limits of humor? For Böhmermann, though, consensus generally isn't the solution; it is the problem. He views consensus as poison.
His lines -- and Merkel's decision to allow legal proceedings to ensue -- have now divided Germany into two camps. One camp views Böhmermann as an uncompromising political artist. Those in the second camp are unable to get beyond the insulting nature of the poem -- the "pig fart" and the "shriveled testicles." They wonder if it is really worth it to defend Böhmermann's freedom to distill art out of insults.
The real provocateur, of course, is Erdogan himself, the man who is Böhmermann's target and the man who is making life extremely difficult for Chancellor Merkel. And his provocations have nothing funny about them. It is a context that cannot be forgotten when discussing the insulting poem that Böhmermann composed.
Those who criticize Erdogan are, depending on the circumstances, accused of being "terrorists," "traitors," "provocateurs" or "agents" of a foreign power. In a country where the majority is politically illiterate and gets its information from pro-government television, most people believe the dominant narrative of an evil world trying to keep Turkey in its place. In such an atmosphere, it is even possible for a schoolchild to be prosecuted over an ill-considered Facebook post.
No longer is the discussion focused on whether the satirical poem successfully made its point or not. The work of art has become much broader than that. ZDF, the chancellor, Erdogan and the German public: All have become part of Böhmermann's work.
Kowtowing to Erdogan
The chancellor's role in the drama, put on full display on Friday, has been that of a politician who is trying her best to stay above the fray without getting her precious hands dirty. On the one hand, she sought to soothe the irascible prince of the Bosporus, on the other, she didn't want to seem as though she were kowtowing to Erdogan. She has failed on both counts.
Germans are no longer certain if the chancellor still knows where the limits of her power lie. And in Turkey, the desire to take legal action against Böhmermann has only become greater.
Böhmermann is both provocative and exasperating -- which helps explain why this scandal has not generated the reactions one has come to expect when an artist is being threatened with prosecution. The country has neither joined together to laugh at Böhmermann's poem nor has German society unanimously rejected the stereotypes used in the insulting work.
Indeed, the effect of Böhmermann's sketch is akin to that of a real work of art: It is a puzzle that has inspired people to think hard about our crazy world and the mad times in which we live. Instead of holding up a mirror to the country, which is allegedly the function of cabaret, Böhmermann has sent the country into a hall of mirrors and has provoked all kinds of strange reactions. It is, in fact, these reactions which have transformed the mini-sketch into a bona fide work of art.
Mathias Döpfner, head of Springer Verlag, the publishing house that puts out Germany's mass-circulation tabloid Bild, wrote an open letter in which he expressed "full and complete" support for all of the insults in the poem. Bild publisher Kai Diekmann tried his own hand at satire by inventing and printing an "interview" with Böhmermann -- one which wasn't funny at all. The German government has elevated beating around the diplomatic bush to a new art form. Government spokespersons have been reduced to stammering. The culture pages of German newspapers have dubbed Böhmermann's transgression as the only kind of real satire that is possible anymore. And other artists have expressed solidarity with Böhmermann.
But a surprising number of people, many of whom are usually among the first to jump on the freedom-of-expression bandwagon, have declined to sign on this time around.
Germany, it would seem, is unsure how to respond. Böhmermann has triggered a debate over a question that, it was thought, had long since been answered. When, after all, was the last time that Germany has seriously discussed where the limits of freedom lie?
Even ZDF head Thomas Bellut, who approved the satire's broadcast, considers the poem to be borderline. "You can see it both ways," he says. The ZDF editor responsible, who talked about the controversial scene with Böhmermann before ultimately giving it the green light, "will not face any kind of disciplinary measures," Bellut says.
The Least Bad Decision
He made the decision to remove the scene from ZDF's online video hub based on "my personal system of moral values," Bellut says. "It was not an easy decision. But I still think it was the least bad decision that I could make."
The decision taken by the ZDF head and its program director is not uncontroversial among the broadcaster's employees. On Thursday, the station's committee of editors sent employees a letter that wasn't shy about praising Böhmermann's poem. The letter noted that the ZDF program had a direct effect on heads of government and launched a debate. "Program mission fulfilled."
But Bellut rejected the demand by the editorial representatives to put the satirical poem back on line as a "historical document."
Still, Bellut says, Böhmermann can count on the full support of ZDF. The broadcaster has ensured him comprehensive legal support in his legal dispute with Erdogan. "We will accompany him through all levels of jurisdiction," he says.
Bellut was on vacation when the episode of "Neo Magazin Royale" was aired. He was watching the program live, but switched it off before the controversial scene with the poem came on. It was only the next morning that he and his program director Norbert Himmler were alerted. Together, they decided to block access to the piece of satire and take it off of the station's video hub.
Because the piece was removed on April 1, there was initially some confusion surrounding the move. Was ZDF's decision to take down the piece just a gag? Was it Böhmermann's next satirical coup, carried out with the approval of ZDF?