Carnival is all about provoking those in power and those making headlines. But this year, German carnivals are tiptoeing around the Charlie Hebdo massacre, claiming sensitivity to religion - and that satire has limits.
US President Barack Obama is caricatured as a lame duck. Russian President Vladimir Putin wears a bear costume and turns an oil spigot. The German defense minister rides on a useless weapons arsenal. These are just some of the latest designs of the floats featuring figures made from papier mache and polystyrene. These are considered high points of Monday's carnival processions to which thousands of people will flock. Up to three million people from near and far are expected to travel to Germany's main carnival cities of Cologne, Mainz and Düsseldorf.
"We have a special responsibility to our visitors. They should be able to enjoy a worry-free carnival," said Christoph Kuckelkorn, who heads the Cologne parade, which is the country's largest. Out of concern for the safety of visitors, he and the Cologne carnival committee stopped one carnival float from being completed. They feared Islamic extremists could take its subject matter as a pretext to attack. The float didn't criticize politicians - who are used to being ridiculed at carnival time - but Islamism and terrorism. A drawing shows what was planned: a defiant response to the deadly attack on the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." A caricaturist in Carnival apparel stuffs a pencil into the barrel of a terrorist's gun, rendering it unusable.
The withdrawal of the float prompted fierce reactions throughout Germany. Politicians, religious leaders, ethicists and numerous other citizens spoke up, arguing that toning down free expression, an important part of carnival, would mean the terrorists had won. Most carnival associations in Germany agreed, but also said that the right to freedom of expression in carnival has limits when it comes to security. Most strikingly, they said provocation on the subject of Islamic extremism and terrorism should therefore be avoided.
Michael Bonewitz of the Mainz Carnival Society (MCV) said he respected the decision in Cologne: "Courage is always a carnival quality, but the question is how far one should take it." He and his colleague Kay Uwe Schreiber acknowledge that there are certain issues that would not be well suited to carnival. While they had sometimes satirized representatives of the Catholic Church, this was only when real people had been shown to engage in misconduct.
For religion as a whole, restraint rather than provocation was the rule. "We have always been sensitive when it comes to minorities and religion," Bonewitz said.
There is another, more basic, reason why the events of Charlie Hebdo, terrorism or Islamism cannot be displayed. A jury always chooses the floats in the preceding November. But a decision was made to address the values of freedom at the Rose Monday parade. The reason was the charges filed against cabaret artist Dieter Nuhr for his criticism of the Koran. The Mainz carnival therefore plans to drive home the point that the constitution in Germany protects freedom of expression.
The German constitution, in this image, is saying "here, only I apply," with the German "nur" (only) used as a pun on comedian Dieter Nuhr's name
The bombers' veto
The topics of religion, terrorism and Islamism should be kept out of the carnival celebrations, said Hans Weidemann, vice president of the carnival clubs association of Baden and the Palatinate. Roland Wehrle, president of the Swabian-Alemannic Fool's Guild, agreed. It's a view echoed by many carnival clubs. They say the current threat from Islamists clearly ensures that many participants hold back from criticizing "too coarsely."
There are some exceptions to this widespread self-censorship. In the western German town of Menden the carnival still plans to take a stand. There, a Charlie Hebdo float will join the parade. Its 20 oversized colorful pencils are meant to promote freedom of the press and condemn the Paris attacks. Organizers don't see a security issue.
References to terrorism and Islamism may not be making appearances on floats, but they will at least be seen in hall events at this year's carnival. The boldest example is in Cologne, where comedians at the annual "Stunksitzung" (which translates to "stink session" or "stink conference") dressed as fully veiled women described an elderly suicide bomber as a "late boomer." Their performance, ridiculing Islamic extremists, doesn't pull any punches.
Düsseldorf's has always been the most piquant and naughtiest carnival. But traditionally the motives of the floats are kept secret until Rose Monday. As in previous years, fearless chief float builder Jacques Tilly has not yet revealed any details, but in an interview with Deutsche Welle, he said satire shouldn't necessarily be the be-all and end-all: "We won't be building Muhammad. We don't want to attack religious fundamentals."
Time and time again, Tilly created a stir with his float designs in recent years. There were papier mache figurines of Islamist suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden bathing in blood. Another time, there was a hunt for Salafist extremists. The Düsseldorf carnival committee said there would be floats alluding to the current situation: "We must not be intimidated."
Meanwhile, the US government has issued a travel warning for its citizens about Rose Monday in Dusseldorf. Larger crowds should be avoided, the US State Department warned.
However, the warning was in the context of a demonstration of anti-Islamization Pegida supporters, also announced for Monday. The group canceled its protest, but cheekily announced its members planned to dress up as terrorists or Salafists with dummy explosives belts and mix with the crowd at the carnival.
Organizers of Düsseldorf's Monday parade are counting on police taking action if needed. The police said there would be enough security to ensure the safety of carnival revelers.