BERLIN — U.S. politics has dominated global headlines for months, generating amusement, puzzlement and concern. Sorrow and alarm, however, eclipsed other reactions over the weekend as people around the world joined Americans in wondering how ...and more »
BERLIN — U.S. politics has dominated global headlines for months, generating amusement, puzzlement and concern.
Sorrow and alarm, however, eclipsed other reactions over the weekend as people around the world joined Americans in wondering how divisions and resentment had festered so badly that a demonstration by torch-wielding white nationalists in a university town would leave a woman dead after a car hit a crowd of counterprotesters. A 20-year-old man who police say drove the car has been charged with second-degree murder. Two police officers were also killed when their helicopter crashed.
In nations that have adopted strict codes policing speech seen as inciting hate, there were also questions about why white supremacists carrying guns were allowed to assemble and propagate a message targeting religious and racial minorities.
“Most people in Germany have difficulty understanding that gatherings like in Charlottesville are possible in the U.S. because we have drawn a different lesson from history,” said Matthias Jahn, chair of criminal law at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. “Our German law centers on the strong belief that you should hinder this kind of speech in a society committed to principles of democratic co-existence and peace.”
A spokesman for the German government, Steffen Seibert, said Monday the violence that unfolded in Charlottesville was “sickening” and described the symbols and slogans invoked on the streets — including swastikas and chants of “Blood and Soil,” a Nazi-era rally cry — as “diametrically opposed to the political goals of the chancellor and the entire German government.”
Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, spoke out over the weekend, saying in a tweet, “We know Canada isn’t immune to racist violence and hate.”
Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said in a statement it was “very concerned” about events in Charlottesville, warning, “The anti-Jewish ideology of the Nazis was a precursor to the eventual murderous policy and extermination of six million Jews.”
That sense of shock was reflected in breathless coverage in foreign media.
“The ghosts that he summoned,” announced the headline in the Germany newspaper Die Tageszeitung, in an apparent reference to the suspect, James Alex Fields Jr., and the Nazis that a former teacher said he had exalted. The foreign embrace of Nazi ideology is deeply disquieting for Germany, a country still focused on reckoning with the darkest chapters of its past — from which it emerged in no small part because of the United States.
[Alleged driver of car that plowed into Charlottesville crowd was a Nazi sympathizer, former teacher says]
International media accounts, however, were equally attentive to the particular American racial rancor stoking violence in Charlottesville — and focused blame on the Trump administration.
“President fails to blame white supremacists,” observed the British newspaper the Guardian.
A front-page headline in the French daily Libération blared, “The White House,” suggesting that the center of racial animus was the executive branch of the American government.
While denouncing the message of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, free speech advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, defended the right of these groups to stage the Unite the Right rally — at the site of a Confederate statue scheduled for removal. Amid an outpouring of condemnations, many made a point of emphasizing free speech as a bedrock American principle.
“Even as we protect free speech and assembly, we must condemn hatred, violence and white supremacy,” tweeted former president Bill Clinton.
[Perspective: White supremacists didn’t just arrive in Charlottesville. They’ve always been there.]
For some Western democracies, the tension is not as acute.
Germany has chosen to curtail speech in an effort to keep Nazi ideology at bay. The German constitution, approved after World War II, codifies individual rights such as equality before the law and freedom of speech, but postwar penal codes prohibit a range of expression linked to the Third Reich. It is a crime to deny the Holocaust and to “incite hatred” against segments of the population. Paraphernalia associated with the Nazi Party is banned. And raising one’s arm in a Hitler salute runs contrary to criminal law, as two different sets of tourists — two Chinese men in Berlin and an American in Dresden — learned over the past two weeks.
The provision that would have criminalized the far-right demonstration in Charlottesville, said Jahn, the criminal law professor, is a prohibition on assembly that “disturbs the public peace in a manner that violates the dignity of the victims” by venerating Nazi rule. And a 2015 amendment, he said, requires courts to consider racial motives as an aggravating circumstance.
In spite of these statutes, crime motivated by right-wing ideology has surged in Germany, according to a report issued this year by the Interior Ministry, at the request of the far-left Die Linke party.
And German courts have at times declined to leverage the broad scope of the law to root out even ideologies they deem harmful. The nation’s highest court this year rejected an effort to outlaw the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, reasoning that the party had aims “contrary to the Constitution” but did not pose a credible threat. Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative for Germany party is expected to enter the German Parliament for the first time this fall.
But Hajo Funke, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, said right-wing fanaticism peaked last year, after months of anger over a seemingly limitless flow of asylum seekers into Germany, and has begun to abate in 2017.
“One factor is Trump, and people looking at the U.S. and saying, ‘This is not the right way,’” Funke said. “The other factor is that the euro crisis and the refugee crisis are to a degree under control.”
And, he said, right-wing violence is “contained by institutions such as the courts and the police, and by people in power. Imagine if [German Chancellor Angel] Merkel had someone like [White House adviser] Steve Bannon in her government.”
Like Germany, France also has a law that criminalizes certain types of speech, largely designed to combat Holocaust denial.
The 1990 Gayssot Act limits an individual’s ability to question the size, scope or nature of “crimes against humanity.” While critics allege that the parameters of the legislation are too broad — it also prohibits “any discrimination founded on membership or non-membership of an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a religion” — the measure has led to several high-profile convictions.
At the same time, however, legislation has hardly banished hate speech from France.
In 2013, in what would become one of the most high-profile cases in recent years, the Franco-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala began encouraging a gesture that resembled a Nazi salute. Despite innumerable convictions and fines, he has continued with versions of these routines.
Another case is that of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 89-year-old co-founder of the far-right National Front. Since the late 1980s, the elder Le Pen has continually referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of history. Under the Gayssot Act, Le Pen has also been convicted and fined on numerous occasions — but has continued to repeat his remark. As recently as March, he told The Washington Post that he still did not regret the comment.
McAuley reported from Paris.
Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world
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Charlottesville,Donald Trump,Angela Merkel,Steve Bannon,Swastika,Nazis,neo-Nazi,White supremacy,White nationalists,James Alex Fields,Jr.