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Art and the Hitler salute

French comedian Dieudonné, a vocal anti-Semite, has been banned from performing in France. German judges, meanwhile, are grappling with "art" in the form of Hitler salutes. So where does art end and anti-Semitism begin?

Satire, wrote German author Kurt Tucholsky, is allowed to do anything. Writing the words in 1919, the man who would later "fight the war with his typewriter" had it relatively easy. Questions as to whether satire could or should tread on themes like the Holocaust or the crimes of National Socialism could not be posed, as they hadn't happened yet.

Today, nearly a century after Tucholsky's words appeared in a Berlin newspaper, countless discussions on the rights of comedians, caricaturists or filmmakers to poke fun at Hitler generate strong reactions. Most tend to answer yes. Works of art reducing Hitler to a laughingstock have been the subject of much debate, but they have never been banned.

When German artist Jonathan Meese gave a Hitler salute as part of an art installation, a judge found the artist not guilty of breaking German law. The artistic sphere in this case was found to supersede Germany's criminal code. The salute was meant to ridicule - and not identifiy with - Hitler and National Socialism, the court found.

Judges in Munich recently ruled differently, however, in the case of Günter Wangerin. The performance artist hoisted a placard of Angela Merkel dressed in a Nazi uniform in the midst of a demonstration against EU austerity measures. Though he also trumpeted his right to artistic freedoms, Wangerin was fined 3,000 euros ($4,100) for slandering the chancellor.

Contempt for the Shoah

The current controversy in France is of another dimension. A French comedian named Dieudonné - both his first name and stage name - has been found guilty of anti-Semitism on numerous occasions over the years, with combined fines reaching 65,000 euros. That doesn't bother his fans. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The French comedian's full name is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala

Dieudonné: Hate speech under the guise of democracy?

A gesture he invented, something of a modified Hitler salute called the "quenelle," has become a pop-culture reference. More recently, he ranted onstage about a Jewish journalist who, he said, belonged in a Nazi gas chamber. His audience doubled over in laughter. In a song called "Shoananas," viewed 400,000 times on Youtube, Dieudonné mocks the Holocaust, or Shoah, in which millions of European Jews died. The French comic considers himself a humorist, yet is everything he does on the stage automatically art?

No, said France's highest administrative court. Thereafter, at the initiative of French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a show in Nantes was canceled at the last minute. Two others in Tours and Orléans were also prohibited. The move only fanned the debate: Were the cancelations sensible or counterproductive? And didn't it all just lend cult status to the anti-Semite?

'No art without responsibility'

With the court ruling, the Dieudonné debate has landed in Germany's lap. "I believe the decision was the right one," said Klaus Staeck, whose roles include being president of the Berlin Academy of Arts, a trained lawyer and a well-known - and controversial - poster artist. A fan of satire, his works are often of a pacifist, ecological or leftist bent, and few know the importance of artistic freedom as well he. Staeck been involved in 40 civil lawsuits - and won them all. Yet he still says there's a limit to artistic freedom. "I believe that there is no satire and no art without responsibility," he told DW. "That's my maxim."

Jonathan Meese, Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Jonathan Meese has never shied away from controversy

Rafaal Seligmann, a German-Israeli author known for being vocal with his opinions, particularly on Jewish issues, is "not happy" with the Dieudonné decision. But, he says, you occasionally have to opt for the lesser evil.

"When someone uses free speech, the rights of a democracy, to go against those rights, then you need a way to act against that person. You have to be allowed to - and able to - show a red card to anti-Semites, rabblerousers and enemies of the people."

The makings of a martyr?

In France, opinions vary. The former French Minister of Culture, Jacque Lang, says he considers the proceedings legally problematic. "In order to override the freedom of speech, real reasons are required," he said.

An op-ed in the left-leaning "Libération" newspaper stated, "The decision, which [Dieudonné's] fans regard as censorship, poses the risk that a martyr to the freedom of opinion will be made out of a catastrophic comedian."

Staeck disagrees. "Since when is anyone who agitates against a group a martyr? That's a complete misuse of the term," he said. "Alas, democracy is so soft and listless that it doesn't know any borders anymore, and gives any agitator a chance to unfurl himself."

Still, he says, the "wonderful concept of militant democracy" remains. "This means you can also fight back against those who seek to destroy democracy."

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