Someone must have made it all up, it was just too perfect to have really happened. At some point, the curtain will be pulled back on the person who wrote this comedy.
It was Wednesday, Oct. 30, the day before Halloween, the day of the year on which evil spirits are driven away, and the sun was shining. The physics department at the University of Hamburg lies far away from the main campus, in the shadow of the city's convention center and next to the municipal jail. The Karoviertel and the Schanze, neighborhoods crawling with the city's left-wing resistance, are both located nearby. Two years ago, in fact, the edge of the restricted area during the G-20 summit ran somewhere through here and the police are familiar with every nook and cranny. This time, though, it wasn't about protecting the world's most powerful leaders -- it was about making it possible for a former politician named Bernd Lucke to finally hold a lecture with the rather benign title of "Macroeconomics II."
The lecture had been cancelled twice in the previous two weeks due to pressure from students and activists with the local left-wing Antifa antifascist movement. The first time, they shouted at Lucke, decrying him as a "Nazi pig." The second, a few of them raided the lecture hall, which had little security.
Students have prevented lectures by unpopular professors time and again in decades past, and the development never really seemed all that ominous in retrospect. Young people have always had something of a human right to protest and cross lines -- at times in more prudent ways than others. And perhaps a little more composure would have been appropriate this time around.
But where is that composure supposed to come from? Especially in a society that has grown a little emotionally overheated of late? In addition to the two lectures by Lucke that were forestalled, a book reading by former German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière in the city of Göttingen was also impeded. Meanwhile, an event in which Christian Lindner, the head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), was to speak to his party's university arm also had to be cancelled. This confluence of events, along with some rather unfortunate statements made by Hamburg politicians, even prompted the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, to hold a very lively special session on "Defending the Freedom of Expression in Germany."
Two-Thirds of Germans Afraid to Say What They Think?
There has been a flood of articles in the media on the issue as well, and they often make reference to the same poll indicating that two-thirds of the German people are afraid to say what they think. The phrase "the limits of what can be said" is heard frequently these days, as is "PC dictatorship." At times, the discussion makes it sound almost as if National Socialism and Stalinism have joined forces to abolish fundamental rights. But what the entire debate suggests more than anything else is that freedom of expression is actually alive and well in Germany. And rather exhausting.
In part because the debate has created a paradoxical situation in which the freedom of expression has had to be enforced in a very real way -- not in the relative anonymity of Twitter, but in a lecture hall in Hamburg with real students inside and real police officers out front -- without that freedom ever seriously being threatened. Last Wednesday, Lucke was to give his lecture, come what may. Lucke is an economics professor at the University of Hamburg, but he is also the founder of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, although he left the party following a power struggle that resulted in its shift to more extremist positions. In the time since his departure, he has largely fallen out of the public spotlight.
The night before Lucke's lecture, the university issued a press release that did little to conceal how tense the situation had become. It stated that the event was to take place at the planned time after Professor Lucke rejected a proposal by the university for him to hold the lecture online in an effort to de-escalate the situation. For that reason, the statement read, the university took the step of requesting that law enforcement officers be on hand to provide security at the lecture. They seemed to be preparing for the worst: The university said its psychotherapeutic outpatient clinic would be available for drop-in treatment of any post-traumatic stress disorder that might be experienced by students or staff as a result of the lecture.
And what ultimately happened? Nothing. Around 300 students turned up for their compulsory lecture last Wednesday at 12 p.m. Hundreds of police stood around, as did 30 to 40 journalists and about the same number of protestors or curious bystanders -- it was hard to tell a difference between the two. Lucke himself entered unnoticed through the side entrance to the lecture hall, named after the German physicist Otto Stern, who emigrated from Germany in 1933 to flee the Nazis and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1943. One student tweeted that Lucke cracked a joke during his lecture that the choice of the hall next to the jail would be quite appropriate if there were a protest.
When Efforts To Silence Fail
So, that's the good news: Freedom of expression is still alive and well in Germany, and fundamental rights are secure and are even protected against the smallest of attacks. The other news is that Bernd Lucke emerged as the primary beneficiary. It would be easy enough to think that Lucke himself had been the brilliant mastermind behind this German comedy, but that would be giving him too much credit. Lucke's political rebirth in recent days likely came as a surprise to him. In fact, he should be thanking the Antifa protesters and students for all the attention.
Perhaps the debate on freedom of expression taking place in Germany right now really has more to do with ideas like the climate our opinions create, our ability to control our opinions and the way we speak to each other. About the way in which we wage our battles and the political consequences they have. Sometimes, even the best of intentions can have the opposite of their intended affect. In this case, instead of silencing Lucke, his opponents inadvertently made him a lot louder.
Politics is always a question of interpreting reality. The idea behind a democratic public is that of a competition of ideas through which one interpretation wins out. It is the struggle to determine which interpretation is relevant and which is not.
A Madhouse of Opinions and Insults
The debate over freedom of expression itself, its scope and its effectiveness -- from the political level right down to the emotional worlds of normal people -- is highly indicative of the state of our public today. It shows that many people feel insecure and are thus politically unpredictable. It shows the power of social networks and online platforms, but also the havoc this digital era is wreaking within the public sphere. Our public, it appears, has become a madhouse of opinions and insults, worldviews and impositions.
Something tangible has changed. Right-wing populists are now leading countries in almost all regions of the world and they have a penchant for bending reality to fit their needs. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are the best-known examples, but the situation isn't much different in Poland, Brazil or the Philippines. And in Germany, too, the growth of the AfD has had a massive influence on the public debate.
A number of polls and studies have been released showing how the climate of opinion has shifted and what the ultimate consequences may be. A survey taken by the respected Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research in May found that two-thirds of Germans are convinced that you have to be careful these days about the kinds of subjects you discuss and how you discuss them, particularly when it comes to refugees, Islam, the Nazi era, Jews, right-wing extremism and the AfD. At the same time, 76 percent of respondents said AfD co-head Alexander Gauland's 2018 statement that Hitler and the Nazis were only "a speck of bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history" was unacceptable. But more than half also said "it gets on their nerves, that more and more people are telling you what you can and cannot say and how to behave."
The Shell Study, a recently published report on the beliefs and mindsets of more than 2,500 young people between the ages of 12 and 25, produced similar findings. Two-thirds of respondents said they believed that you can't say anything bad about foreigners in Germany without being immediately called a racist. More than half said they believed, "the government is hiding the truth from the people." And at least one-third still fears that society is being "infiltrated by Islam."
A Dictate on Opinion?
These aren't random findings. They match up closely with those of other recent polls. When pollster Infratest Dimap questioned people in the run-up to recent elections in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, 64 percent of the respondents in Brandenburg and 69 percent of those in Saxony agreed with the statement that one is "ostracized today on certain subjects if a person speaks their mind." According to the "Center Study" by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a think tank affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party, 55 percent of those surveyed complained that there is an "opinion dictatorship" in Germany. And in a survey conducted by the PEN Centre among authors and journalists, 75 percent expressed concern about the situation regarding freedom of expression in Germany.
In the 1970s, the "spiral of silence" theory in political science described a phenomenon in which many conservative people didn't dare to express their views openly because they diverged too strongly from the opinions propagated by the mass media. But today, it's the vociferously indignant and social media mudslingers who are making some people feel that they aren't free to say what they wish. Today, the "spiral of silence" is known as the "chilling effect."
"Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship. " -- Article 5, Paragraph 1 of the Basic Law, Germany's constitution
Those three sentences, those 50 words, were all it took in 1949 to establish one of Germany's most important fundamental rights, the freedom of expression.
A New Era of Freedom of Expression
Seven decades later, historian Timothy Garton Ash, who teaches at Oxford and Stanford, needed 700 pages to analyze all the problems that freedom of expression encounters in a globalized and highly connected world. Seven years after its publication, his book "Free Speech" has become a primary source on the subject.
At no other time have people had the ability to express their opinions as freely as they can today and to spread them as far. This state of affairs is the product of the internet, of global migration and the opening of Western societies, in which a growing number of minorities are making their voices heard. Garton Ash describes it as a new era of freedom of expression.
At the same time, however, the risks posed by this freedom of expression are more evident than ever before, including "sewage-tides of abuse," as he writes in his book.
So, how free should speech be? And what conventions should all participants in a discourse be required to adhere to? This dispute is often hard fought -- and not just in Germany. The world, says Garton Ash, has not become a global village, as it was once called in the 1960s, but a global metropolis, a "virtual cosmopolis."
This is because villages are small, quite homogeneous places. In big cities, on the other hand, a lot of very different people are brought together. They seldom or never encounter each other, and when they do, it's usually only for a fleeting moment. And they remain strangers. One of Garton Ash's theses in the book is that this makes freedom of expression all the more important. Freedom of expression makes it easier to live with diversity and it also schools us in the art of tolerance. "Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you," he writes.
Civil, Robust, Well-Informed Criticism Needed
Garton Ash, a liberal Anglo-Saxon, lists 10 principles that are needed to guarantee the right to freedom of expression in the future and to protect the dignity of people with dissenting opinions. One principle is: "We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge." Garton Ash opposes the boycott of politically unpopular professors or guest speakers, as seen recently in the United States and Germany. "It is precisely in universities that the widest possible range of influential and controversial views should be given a platform," he argues in the book, "and then met with civil, robust, well-informed criticism." Ash does consider student protests against speakers to be legitimate, though, so long as the speakers are still allowed to speak.
Garton Ash is even opposed to the banning of hate speech. "If we were to put together all the characteristics on the basis of which people may feel themselves to be insulted, and all the taboos of all the cultures in the world, and then rule them off-limits, there would be precious little left that we could talk about," he writes. But a minimum degree of civility is also required, Ash argues.
But where does the border lie? It must exist, but where, exactly, in a country like Germany, with its Nazi past and its right-wing terrorist present? A country in which an anti-Semite attacks a synagogue in Halle and murders two people, a country in which politician Walter Lübcke, a conservative, became the target of what is believed to have been a political assassination in June. Both perpetrators became radicalized online, spurred on by unbridled internet rhetoric.
Garton Ash argues we have to be extremely careful with the limits we set, even if that is difficult. An increase in freedom of expression leads to greater diversity of opinion which, in turn, leads to more disputes. This is challenging, of course, but Garton Ash argues we must resist the urge to quickly withdraw when insulted, but to instead either ignore hate speech or to confront it with confidence. "Rather than encouraging people to be thin-skinned, what we need in a world of increasing and increasingly intimate diversity is to learn how to be a little more thick-skinned, to live and cope with difference."
He says that it creates more problems when a society goes too far in taking sensitivities into account. Garton Ash argues that for years in Germany, intellectuals, journalists and politicians failed to sufficiently address societal fears about Muslim immigration. "But the more people didn't say it publicly," writes Garton Ash, who speaks fluent German and knows the country well, "the more they thought it -- and probably said it privately, in the corner pub and at home. So, the pressure of the publicly unspoken built up, like steam in a pressure cooker" and the lid finally burst off in 2010 with the publication of Thilo Sarrazin's book "Germany Abolishes Itself," a bestselling xenophobic screed that sold millions. "Precisely because" immigration is such an important issue in Germany, "it is damaging that the German discussion of it should arrive in a half-boiled sauce of eugenics and cultural pessimism," Ash wrote in an earlier essay.
Universities on the Frontlines
As in the U.S., the universities in Germany are the focal point for struggles over what can and cannot be said. And it is no coincidence that one of the most prominent of these cases revolves around the historian and violence researcher Jörg Baberowski of Berlin's Humboldt University. In 2015, Baberowski dared to criticize Angela Merkel's refugee policies and her emphasis on creating "welcoming culture" in Germany receptive to refugees and immigrants. When a national organization of college students who are members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Stiftung think tank invited him to an event at the University of Bremen, it had to be relocated to another location and police had to conduct patrols in front of the building. The General Student Committee (AStA) on campus had distributed flyers with the headline: "Right-wing radicals are taking to the stage!"
Baberowski sued the student organization. Since then, the Higher Regional Court of Cologne has ruled to lift an injunction prohibiting Bremen AStA from making claims that Baberowski spreads theories that glorify violence, that he trivializes arson attacks on refugee shelters and that he advocates racism and represents right-wing extremist positions. Under the ruling, the student group is again free to make those assertions. The court did not rule that Baberowski is doing any of these things -- only that it falls under the freedom of expression for the student group to make those claims.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 45/2019 (November 2nd, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.
Protests this May against Islam Studies scholar Hans-Thomas Tillschneider at the University of Bayreuth, who runs the class "A Compact Introduction to Islamic Law," were tame by comparison. Tillschneider is a member of the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt with the AfD. He's the party's science policy coordinator in the state legislature and his office in the city of Halle had for a time been inside the offices of the far-right Identitarian Movement in the city. He is considered to be a right-wing extremist, even by the standards of his own party.
'A University Must Endure Controversial Points of View'
The university appeared to have had everything under control. Security guards and police prevented protesters from entering into the building. Tillschneider described the demonstrators on Twitter as "diabolic totalitarians." The university administration responded to the situation with a statement: "We live in a state governed by the rule of law, with clear rules that we abide by. A university must also endure controversial points of view and counter absurd theses through argumentation."
Susanne Schröter, professor of ethnology at Frankfurt's Goethe University, became particularly well-known because she's been caught up in free speech controversies twice now. Her research focuses on "normative orders," the question of what can be said and what cannot.
The first controversy was in 2017. Rainer Wendt, the head of the German Police Union (DPolG), was scheduled to speak as part of a series of lectures organized by Schröter. The title of his talk was: "Everyday Police Life in an Immigrant Society." Wendt has developed a reputation for controversy because he proposed the erection of a fence at the German border during the refugee crisis and claimed that police in Germany conducted no racial profiling.
Schröter was flooded with mails and insults on social media asking how she could dare to invite a racist to the university. Then 60 research associates at the university wrote an open letter to Schröter that was highly critical of Wendt, claiming that he is an active advocate of racist police practices. "It is our expectation that Rainer Wendt will not be offered a stage at the Goethe University in Frankfurt."
Schröter ultimately cancelled the event -- not because she had been persuaded by the arguments, but because she didn't want to be responsible for any injuries that might have ensued in a police operation.
Then, in May, it happened again. This time, the controversy surrounded a planned event on the subject of headscarves. Schröter had invited speakers with a range of differing opinions to participate. This time, the attacks came from the left and the right, and activists demanded Schröter's dismissal from the university. University management, though, supported her and 700 people registered their interest in the event. In the end, very few protesters showed up.
Calling a Fascist a Fascist
All these cases seem to have less to do with the exchange of views and more to do with using exaggeration and hyperbole to insult the other. Doing so means it is no longer necessary to make the laborious effort of understanding the other. Instead, the other is simply sidelined as a racist, a fascist or a left-wing extremist.
The AfD is trying to make its supporters believe that such actions only originate from the left, from an alleged mainstream thought-police who are anxious to silence the parties and other members of the right wing. The fact of the matter, though, is that the right also has similar weapons in its arsenal.
In November 2018, men at the University of Greifswald stormed into a lecture being given by language researcher Eric Wallis, who was head of the Regional Center for Democratic Culture at the time, an organization that develops strategies for combating far-right extremism in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Wallis says he was giving a talk called "Brainwashing -- Framing against Xenophobia" when a group stormed into the auditorium and held up a banner reading: "Is it still allowed to say what you think?"
The poster included the symbol of the far-right, nativist Identitarian Movement. Wallis describes how the protesters shouted, "Tradition, Multiculturalism, this is the end of the line." He suspects that they had hoped they would be thrown out of the room in order to claim that their opinion had been suppressed. "But I didn't want to allow that to happen."
Instead, Wallis invited the protesters to stay for a discussion after he finished his presentation. And he said he looked forward to having an exchange with them. A video recording of the protest shows that the men left the auditorium right after he made the offer.
Many can't seem to resist posing as victims of intimidation and intolerance. Maybe Garton Ash's call for self-confidence could prove helpful -- along with the realization that many of the people jumping into the debate are primarily interested in establishing their own position in a society that is becoming increasingly polarized. We are seeing a resurgence of the categories of "left" and "right," a division that many had thought was fading into the past. Many people are mostly trying to assure themselves that they are on the right side. To better understand this mechanism, it is helpful to take a closer look at the genesis of the Lucke controversy.
Sharply Worded Statement
In late July, after it became clear that Lucke would be returning to the university, the student association there, known as Asta, issued a sharply worded statement. "Such a person doesn't belong at any university, and the University of Hamburg in particular can assuredly do without his return," the statement read. But the association ultimately came to the realization that the statement hadn't been particularly helpful. In a new statement, the association wrote that despite his "problematic past," Lucke had "every right to return to the university."
When Bernd Lucke was scheduled to hold his first lecture on October 16, Asta held a long-planned rally in front of the lecture hall. The rally was attended by students, interested citizens, a group called "Grandmas against the Right" and members of Antifa.
There are videos on the internet of what then happened inside the lecture hall. You can see Bernd Lucke sitting in the auditorium with a smile on his face as Antifa flags wave. Onstage, megaphone-wielding Asta representatives try to calm the audience, while in another video, you can hear students singing and clapping, a bit like at a summer camp. "The atmosphere was peaceful," says Asta spokesperson Leo Schneider, "even if others have sought to portray a different image so that Lucke can pose as a victim." The police did not get involved.
But a debate quickly erupted on the web as to whether the protests against Lucke's lecture constituted an attack on free speech and freedom of opinion in Germany. "Nobody has to like what Bernd Lucke has to say. But back in the day, National Socialist students drove Jewish professors out of the universities in a similar manner," Thomas Ney, a Pirate Party member who is part of the municipal government in Oranienburg, just outside of Berlin, tweeted. "I'm not sure if Antifa is aware of the methodological similarities."
A tweet from Robin Mesarosch, a parliamentary spokesperson for German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, laid out the counterargument. "Bernd Lucke is the founder of the most successful Nazi party since the NSDAP. There is no excuse for him to be in a lecture hall. That isn't an issue for labor law, but for all of society. The students of Hamburg are saving the honor of this society."
Common ground between those two positions is difficult to find.
The president of the University of Hamburg is a man named Dieter Lenzen, and he had been looking forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school's founding this year. The university had recently been recognized for the first time as being one of the 11 best in the country. It was shaping up to be an excellent year. Then came the Lucke debate.
To ensure that Lucke's lecture could finally be held after two unsuccessful attempts, the city of Hamburg and the university had to shoulder expenses "as we had never experienced before," says Lenzen. Students reported that they were afraid of going to the lecture, he said, and technical personnel refused to provide support for the event. "Only each individual can determine if they feel threatened in a given situation," Lenzen says. "We are also dealing with an extremely sensitized generation for whom the rejection of violence is self-evident."
'No Basis for Discussion'
Leo Schneider and Niklas Stephan are active in Hamburg's Asta, and are responsible for social issues and anti-discrimination. They both study politics. They seem a bit exhausted and more than a little dismayed that everything played out quite unlike they had hoped. First came the hostility from the internet, blasting the left for being the new Nazis. Then came the one-hour discussion following the first incident, which pitted Lucke against three representatives from the student association and was moderated by Lenzen.
Stephan, a 22-year-old in a sweatshirt, recalls the event with evident discomfort. "Lucke is a political professional, he is a professor and has been a regular talk-show guest. He set rhetorical traps for us," the student says. As a result, Asta has no intention of speaking with Lucke again. "It makes no sense to do so," Stephan says. Plus, they don't want to talk with racists anyway. As long as Lucke doesn't distance himself from racist statements, "we don't see any basis for discussion."
Mostly, though, the two regret how the "discussion became skewed," Stephan says. The focus has become "whether leftists, who express their opinions with legitimate protests, are infringing on the freedom of expression." That, the student says, "is absurd." He then adds: "We have the moral high ground."
Really? In fact, the question as to how society should deal with a strengthened right wing is more difficult to answer than many might think. Sociologist Armin Nassehi of the University of Munich has focused intently on that question in recent years. He also published correspondence he has had with the right-wing publisher Götz Kubitschek, which led to accusations that he had opened the door to hostile rhetoric entering mainstream society.
He says the argument that one shouldn't give AfD politicians or people harboring right-wing extremist views a platform to spread their ideas is widespread in the leftist milieu. Dialogue with the far right is frowned upon because it allegedly makes their political ideas acceptable. "I would be the last to say that right-wing ideas don't present dangers," says Nassehi. "But it is extremely naïve to believe that you can limit the power of misguided ideas by keeping them at arm's length."
Some voters, he argues, are attracted to the New Right's claims that they are the only ones who openly discuss taboos. Despite the fact, Nassehi says, that nobody in Germany is prevented from saying what they think. The problem, he says, is the internet, which produces two contradictory phenomena: "The free opportunity to say anything. And the unlimited possibility to be bashed, no matter what you say. Even for reasonable statements." That is where the feeling that freedom of expression is being limited comes from.
The case of a publisher named Stefan Kruecken may be illustrative. Together with his wife Julia, Kruecken runs a small literature publishing house in northern Germany. Three weeks ago, he would have answered the Allensbach question -- about whether one needs to be careful about what one says in Germany -- with a shake of his head. This changed after he posted a Facebook entry on the page of his company, Ankerherz.
Following Lucke's failed attempt to give his initial lecture, Kruecken wrote: "What took place today at the University of Hamburg should be concerning to all who value our democracy. Insulting Bernd Lucke as a 'Nazi swine,' prohibiting him from speaking and shouting him down under the Antifa flag -- that is deeply undemocratic."
Ankerherz can't be accused of being pro-AfD. Its most successful book thus far was a biography of a Hamburg ship captain, a son of enthusiastic Nazis, who grew up in the rubble of war and now believes tolerance and cosmopolitanism to be in grave danger. For years, Ankerherz has been publishing commentaries in opposition to the AfD and Pegida, the Islamophobic movement. The practice has earned the publishers death threats. But after posting his warning about the anti-Lucke protest at Hamburg University, Kruecken says, he received more than 5,000 comments within 72 hours.
Kruecken was called a "Nazi coddler" and "Lucke fucker" and advised to buy a black uniform and pin the SS logo on the back. "Don't come with your centrism" and "centrist extremist" were two of the most common insults Kruecken received, as though the enemy had long since taken root in the political center.
What he found particularly concerning wasn't so much the "hateful roar from the Facebook jungle," Kruecken says, but comments from supporters who said they were just as critical as he was of the protests against Lucke's lecture but didn't dare say so openly.
But perhaps the tone hasn't really changed so much after all. Perhaps the need for harmony and safety has simply grown. Political debate, after all, has always been rough and tumble, and insults are not a new phenomenon. Long-time Bavarian conservative leader Franz Josef Strauss, for example, spoke in 1974 of "red rats" who should be chased back "to where they belong." In 1984, Joschka Fischer of the Green Party addressed Richard Stücklen, the deputy president of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, by saying: "If I may, you are an asshole."
Nazi comparisons, in particular, have long been popular. Nobel Peace Prize-laureate Willy Brandt called conservative politician Heiner Geissler "the worst rabble rouser" since Joseph Goebbels. In 2002, Helmut Kohl complained that then-Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse was "the worst parliamentary president since Hermann Göring."
In the 1950s, political speeches and rallies were raided and posters were ripped down, often with support from above. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU thanked his party's youth wing after his 1953 election victory for the fact that they had "engaged in political poster war, even using their fists." In the overly politicized atmosphere of the late 1960s, violence was a feature on both sides. In the 1969 campaign, more than 200 people were injured.
More Political than Ever
And yet, our understanding of politics has changed. The largest conflicts, according to the Berlin-based author Marc Saxer, are no longer material in nature, but largely cultural. Instead of focusing on distribution, they are largely about attitudes and positions. Gender equality? At its core, he argues, it is a conflict centering on women's desire to have more influence, more power and more money -- and the fact that men have to give some of it up. The debate, though, says Saxer, is focused more on sexual morals. Climate change? Really a conflict over vast material questions, like how to limit growth and how much it will cost. But individual behavior, such as eating meat and air travel, has taken center stage. It has become focused on personal habits and attitudes. The private sphere has become more political than ever.
Classical distributional conflicts are, theoretically at least, easier to solve. Person A wants to have more, person B wants to give less. Ideally, they meet somewhere in the middle. In cultural conflicts, by contrast, there are no compromises, particularly when the poles of this political-cultural conflict are dominated by extreme positions.
The two poles are more similar than the combatants might like, which also helps explain the severity of the clash. Both feel like they are under threat, that something is fundamentally wrong with society and that those on the other side are barbarians. They also believe the other side is more powerful and better networked, have the upper hand in the discussion and are generally on the advance. This has led both sides to develop a circle-the-wagons mentality. Wherever one has positioned oneself is the good and moral side, while the other is evil and amoral.
In times of such polarization, traitors are the worst kind of enemy, as are heretics and those seeking compromise, like Baberowski or Schröter or Kruecken or even renegades like the Berlin journalist Steffi Unsleber, who just recently learned what it is like to come under fire from one's own ranks.
Unsleber, who works for the left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung (taz), dared to post a tweet criticizing the planned rent cap in Berlin before following it up with an article in her paper. Renters in Berlin who already have an apartment would benefit, she wrote, but it would become even more difficult for those moving to the city and for people who spent all of their savings to buy an apartment and then rent it out. The rent-cap plans, she wrote, were rather unfair.
When the draft rent-cap law was then actually passed in late October, Unsleber followed up on her initial criticism with several more tweets. They were re-tweeted thousands of times and she was sharply attacked for her "neo-liberal diarrhea," "half-baked manure" and "privileged bullshit."
The indignation might have been particularly intense because someone from the leftist side had criticized a leftist-camp project. In polarized times like these, the ranks generally remain closed.
Because she reports frequently on the right wing and neo-Nazis, Unsleber's contact information is not publicly listed. Now, she is happy that left-wing extremists don't have easy access to her address either. And she has deleted her Twitter account.
Are you allowed to say everything you want to say? Of course not. The freedom of opinion is an extremely important right, but it isn't the most important one in the German constitution. "Human dignity shall be inviolable," reads Article 1 of Germany's Basic Law. It is forbidden to insult people or call them an asshole, even if they are an asshole. In contrast to almost everywhere else in the world, denying the Holocaust is punishable by law in Germany.
Freedom of opinion is a fundamental right, but even fundamental rights have their limits for the simple reason that some rights contradict one another. And freedom of opinion doesn't protect you from the opinions of others -- from criticism of your own opinion. If you want to talk, you have to expect pushback.
The ways these opinions are expressed has become coarser. Much of that has to do with the AfD, which has pushed the public debate to the right. AfD politicians say things that haven't been said in public in Germany for quite some time. You could argue that the AfD has expanded the freedom of opinion on the one hand, while also using this debate to argue that freedom of opinion has become limited -- a self-affirming prophecy.
On the Saturday before the election in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, the leader of the so-called "Flügel," the name for the AfD's xenophobic-nationalist wing, was standing on a stage in the city of Erfurt. The stage had been erected especially for him at a central location in the city. On the right and left of the stage were two young men standing on vehicles and waving gigantic German flags. When Höcke hit a rhetorical high point, they would wave the flags.
Freedom of opinion is one of Höcke's favorite issues because it fits into his strategy: He wants to weaken faith in democracy, in the established parties and in the media. So he says things like: "We are seeing the only relevant opposition party -- the AfD -- come under attack from the political-medial establishment." He argues that the central right in a democracy, the freedom of opinion, is being suppressed via political correctness. Then he arrives at his applause line: "The political-medial establishment of this country has transformed our democracy" into a state where certain viewpoints are not allowed. The flags wave, the audience boos and claps.
Calling a Fascist a Fascist
Höcke himself was the focus of an interesting legal case centering on the freedom of opinion recently argued in a Thuringia court. It asked whether it was permissible in a speech to call Höcke a fascist. The municipality of Eisenach had prohibited the accusation, but at the end of September, the court ruled otherwise.
In explaining the ruling, the court wrote that it was not a value judgment that could easily be disputed, that there was a verifiable body of evidence for the accusation. The judgment referred to a book of Höcke interviews that was published in June 2018 in which Höcke said that a new Führer was needed and argued that parts of the population, particularly immigrants, should be excluded. Höcke made clear that he was in favor of the "cleansing of Germany." He said a "strong hand" and "taskmaster" should muck out the swine stall with a broom. Regarding Hitler, he said that he is "presented as the absolute evil," but that it's not that "black and white."
It is, in short, allowable to call Höcke a fascist. Freedom of opinion is alive and well. Particularly when it is rooted in fact.
On the evening of the Thuringia elections, Höcke and the word fascist were conflated everywhere. Annalena Baerbock, co-chair of the Green Party, was the first to experiment with the appellation, and others followed suit. Höcke, the fascist. It was a frightening thing to say on that evening, particularly given how well he did in the election, but also gratifying. In the live interview of leading party candidates following the announcement of the election results, the Green Party candidate Anja Siegesmund even called Höcke a fascist to his face.
And Höcke? He has a kind of flickering gaze, but he didn't show any anger or shock. Indeed, there was something approaching a smile on his face, almost as if he was enjoying the insult.
Höcke and Lucke are separated by more than just a couple of letters. They actually have very little in common. The one is a fascist, the other is not. But there is one lesson they have both learned: The louder you are accused of being the bad guy, the more helpful it can be.
By Tobias Becker, Anna Clauß, Silke Fokken, Lothar Gorris, Armin Himmelrath, Peter Maxwill, Ann-Katrin Müller, Miriam Olbrisch and Klaus Wiegrefe