Germany takes courage from the anti-nazi martyrs
- Credit: World History Archive / TopFoto
New laws in Germany are causing anguished debate on the issue of free speech, as well as the country's dark history. Gavin Fearnley reports.
When he was hanged, Barthel Schink was just 16 years old. His killing in 1944, carried out by fellow Germans in broad daylight in Cologne, took place as the war in Europe was entering its final months. His crime? Refusing to join groups such as the Hitler Youth. Refusing to fight encroaching British and American troops. Refusing to become a Nazi.
Young Barthel wasn't alone. Five of his pals, all of a similar age, were also executed alongside him. Seven older resistance fighters met the same fate, left swinging from gallows, watched by around 400 onlookers. No doubt numbed by years of pulverising air raids and constant death.
Several years earlier, Adolf Hitler had talked about Germany's children being the future. On November 10, 1944 – when Schink died – the Nazis were murdering them.
Even today, next to the train station in the city's Ehrenfeld district, commuters can still see where this happened. Germans are good at not sweeping the country's Nazi past under the carpet, and a large memorial graphically depicts lifeless men with nooses around their necks.
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Throughout Europe, but for obvious reasons mainly in Germany, brown cobblestone-sized plaques lie cemented into pavements, showing where Jewish families were forced from their homes. They carry victims' names, state where they were deported to and, if they were killed, the date on which they died.
Germany's dark history is everywhere to see here. As a result, unlike the British and our country's own grim colonial crimes, Germans are very aware of what past generations have done. It is perhaps for this reason, right now in 2018, this country is at the centre of a very charged ethical debate about freedom of speech concerning anything which veers towards its xenophobic and anti-Semitic past.
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Internet trolls have been around for some time now. More recently, we've had the advent of Fake News – untrue stories apparently planted into our news feeds.
Partly as a way to combat this, Germany has introduced a new law, coming into force on January 1 this year. The rather snappily titled Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz is aimed specifically at sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. They are now given just 24 hours to take down 'obviously illegal' contributions or face punishment. In other words, anything blatantly aimed at inciting hatred, and/or Holocaust denial. Non-compliance means a potential fine of up to £44m.
We didn't have to wait long for the effect to be seen – less than 24 hours. It started on the last evening of 2017, when Cologne police tweeted a Happy New Year message in German, English, French and Arabic. This was all too much for Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), who tweeted: 'What the hell is going on in this country? Why is [the Cologne police force] tweeting in Arabic? Do you think the brutish, Muslim, gang rapist, male hordes can be so appeased?'
The police swiftly launched an investigation while Twitter temporarily blocked her account. Facebook also censored von Storch's posts.
With a large question mark hovering over the idea of what you now can and can't say on the internet in Germany, you'd think politicians would have taken heed. Not quite.
Enter, just one day later, German MP Jens Maier, member of – you guessed it – the AfD. A tweet from his account read: 'The small half-Negro seems to have been given too little attention. Nothing else can explain his behaviour.' The 'small half-Negro' in question was in fact Noah Becker, the 23-year-old son of tennis legend Boris, whose mother is black. What could have possibly provoked such an outburst? Seemingly, it followed this comment in an interview about his life in the German capital: 'I too have been attacked for having brown skin. In comparison to London or Paris, Berlin is a white city'.
After it was taken down, Maier would later claim the tweet from his account was sent by a yet unnamed colleague who had subsequently left the party. It just wasn't his 'style', insisted Maier. But Boris Becker was not having any of it. Writing in the newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, Becker said: 'That's what the AfD always does, it's their schtick. Put something out into the world and then distance themselves from it.'
Indeed, ties run deep between the AfD and UKIP. Members of the British party have often spoke about their German counterparts, wishing them luck in elections and inviting them to speak at events in the UK. Former leader, Nigel Farage, who of course gave a speech at an AfD conference in Berlin last year.
But the question now is not whether any of those comments are offensive. You don't get any extra points for knowing what's racist in 2018. Rather, it's about whether our sensitivity has gone too far.
Remember Paul Chambers? He was the man who tweeted about blowing Robin Hood airport 'sky high' if his flight was cancelled. Eventually, and with the support of Stephen Fry and Al Murray, he won a High Court appeal against charges of sending a menacing tweet on grounds that it was clearly meant as a joke. But it took two and half years of legal proceedings.
Max Schönherr, an author and journalist in Germany, says the recent case of police intervention concerning the behaviour of politicians is nothing new. 'I'm currently working on a project, listening to a lot of the speeches recorded in the German parliament from 1930 to 1932, just as the Nazis became the majority party. Back then there were a lot of vulgar remarks and insults thrown around,' he said. 'At one point the police come in to the parliament and arrest two Nazis under suspicion of physically beating up an MP from the SPD (centre left party) in the Reichstag canteen.'
Thanks to incredible success in the country's 2017 elections, the AfD now has 94 MPs in the German parliament. Astonishing, considering in the British equivalent, that's more than the combined number of MPs from the SNP, Lib Dems, DUP, Sinn Fein, and the Greens.
So, Germany now finds itself in a situation where it is actively curtailing what elected members of parliament, indeed in its third biggest parliamentary power, are saying on social media.
Is this justified? It could well be. Researchers from the University of Warwick say they have found a correlation between social media posts made by AfD representatives and attacks on refugees in Germany. In fact, the evidence for this was so damning, they noticed a lower number of hate crimes when internet outages had taken place. The study even suggests that a hate-filled post from a politician can actively 'predict violent crime against refugees'.
In the same way numerous non-Daily Mail readers are troubled by Virgin Trains' decision to no longer stock the paper (supposedly on request from staff members), many of those who despise the AfD in Germany are equally concerned about the possible erosion of freedom of speech.
But one can't help understanding the German stance. Haunted by the past, they're eager to never repeat their mistakes. And if those adolescent men trapped within the Nazi regime can stand up to the far-right, then surely so can we.
Gavin Fearnley is a journalist and translator who lives in Cologne.
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