INSIGHT: America’s endless freedom of speech — a German perspective

“Don’t you want a white supremacist rally to be prohibited?” I asked the organizer of an Austin counterprotest.

“No, they have the right to have a rally,” he answered.

The pictures from Charlottesville were just a few days old: the car crashing into counterprotesters; armed men shouting Nazi-slogans like “blood and soil”; anti-Semitic and racist propaganda; and people carrying a flag with a swastika.

But the man I talked with was clear: For him, the First Amendment gives everyone a right to free speech. His words still stick in my head even now.

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Of course, the right to free speech is an inalienable part of the Grundgesetz, the German constitution, as well. But from a German perspective, it is appalling to see people using hate symbols and shouting Nazi-propaganda slogans in the U.S., even if this is permitted by the right to freedom of speech.

This is the country, after all, that was a member of the Allied Forces who defeated the horrific Nazi dictatorship in Germany at the price of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers.

In Germany, you can be sentenced to prison for wearing clothing depicting swastikas, denying the Holocaust, distributing anti-Semitic propaganda or for making Nazi salutes. It does not matter if you are part of a hate group, drunk or not aware of the law about incitement of people.

Recently two Chinese tourists had to pay 500 Euros each after posing for photos with their outstretched arms upraised in front of the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Wearing swastikas in public is also prohibited, as is shouting certain Nazi slogans. Does Germany thus censor free speech? My answer is, “No.” However, there is nothing as unlimited as the First Amendment in the German Constitution — with good reason, at least for Germany, considering its history.

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Swastikas and Nazi salutes are an embodiment of the Nazis’ inhumane ideologies, including the suppression of free speech, as well as genocide against an estimated 6 million Jews. Using the symbols of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich can therefore be considered a statement against human dignity, equality and freedom of speech — in violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by the German constitution.

The prohibition of Nazi symbols, however, does not prevent right-wing extremists from holding rallies. Recently, about 800 neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Berlin to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Rudolf Hess, the second-most-powerful man in the Nazi regime. They were allowed to rally and to march if they followed certain rules — but you would have a hard time finding counterprotesters defending their free speech rights.

Of course, you can’t stop people from following racist ideologies and joining hate groups by banning certain symbols. Germany also struggles with extremist groups, right-wing populism and racist propaganda as parliamentary elections approach Sept. 24. But at least the constitution does not allow them to use symbols that terrorized millions of people in the past to promote and glorify their hateful ideologies today.

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Gillert is a staff writer for Die Welt, a newspaper in Berlin, and is at the American-Statesman for two months on an Arthur F. Burns fellowship.

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