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Banned Books

Oliver Samson (als)
March 2, 2008

More and more publishing houses are facing law suits in Germany, with plaintiffs demanding forbearance. The dividing line between allowing literature and protecting personal rights is a controversial matter.

The pages of a book
Germany has a history of banning -- and burning -- books

It began it 1971 with a major piece of literature: Klaus Mann's novel "Mephisto" was banned after a legal battle spanning over years. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the personal rights of the deceased actor Gustav Gruendgens took precedence over freedom of speech. Gruendgens's involvement during the Nazi reign was hardly disguised in the novel.

The book, however, was still obtainable in the GDR at the time, and was reprinted six times. It was allowed to be distributed in Western Germany as of 1981.

Since the Mephisto battle, courts have repeatedly had to address just how far the "freedom of expression" argument can go when people recognize themselves in novels, films or theater works.

The late actor Gustav Gruendgens
The late actor Gustav GruendgensImage: AP

Sometimes judges rule in favor of personal rights, and sometimes in favor of freedom of expression and the press.

But, the legal departments of publishing houses have been particularly busy over the past few years.

Sueing over a single sentence

"Law suits are occurring more and more," said Rainer Dresen, director of the legal department at the German branch of publisher Random House. "Sometimes it's just due to a sentence that is vague -- in order to get a book whose content is generally disliked or unpopular from the market."

The boom in law suits is primarily connected to two specific rulings. In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights restricted the range of reporting on celebrities or prominent people in the so-called "Caroline ruling" -- a case which Princess Caroline of Monaco brought before the court.

The other ruling was in Germany in 2007, when the Federal Constitutional Court banned the further distribution of Maxim Biller's novel "Esra," for what it called "infringing on personal space."

The author's former girlfriend had said she recognized herself in the book's protagonist. The book was banned, and the woman was awarded 50,000 euros ($75,000) in damages.

Princess Caroline
Taboo subject: Princess CarolineImage: AP

Critics of the "Esra ruling" see this as the start of a development in which rulings in legal cases concerning yellow journalism are carried over to literature.

"It's true there have been more objections as of late," said Peter Roeder, managing director of the Suhrkamp publishing house in Frankfurt.

In the past, people may have just been annoyed or even felt flattered.

Now, "people are making demands much more aggressively," said Dresen of Random House.

From the cellar to bestseller

The need to protect personal rights is handled very differently in other countries. The unauthorized biography "Girl in the Cellar -- The Natascha Kampusch Story" was allowed to be published in England, but not in Germany. The Guardian quipped: "From the Cellar to Bestseller."

Writer Maxim Biller
Maxim Biller's book was bannedImage: dpa

In 2006, a Frankfurt court banned the screening of the film "The Cannibal from Rohtenburg." The court said that Armin Meiwes did not have to accept that the film portrayed a life and crime so similar to his own.

The film, however, was shown at the prestigious Sitges Film Festival in Catalonia, where it received awards for "Best Director" and "Best Actor."

Just last week, the Berlin District Court confirmed an interim injunction banning the book "Interview with a Cannibal" about Meiwes's life. Meiwes's relatives objected to the publication of details about their personal lives, even though the book was written with the cooperation of the cannibal.

From taboo to liberal

In an international comparison, Germany stands somewhere between France and the United States when it comes to protecting personal rights.

Armin Meiwes in court
Armin Meiwes in court, but not in the movieImage: AP

"France strongly protects private lives -- they are completely taboo," said Karl-Nikolaus Peifer, a media and communications law professor.

Currently, French journalist Airy Routier could face imprisonment because he reported in Nouvel Observateur about an SMS which Nicolas Sarkozy supposedly sent to his ex-wife in which he asked for her to come back to him. The president sued the magazine on fabrication grounds and the distribution of false information.

In the US, on the other hand, freedom of expression is prized, and shelters everything from hate speeches to pornography and Holocaust denial.

"People do not have a real idea of personal rights there," Peifer said.

Dresen agreed.

"Our American colleagues are amazed by the situation in Germany," he said.

He also believes little can be done about the wave of law suits rolling through the country -- other than hoping that the tide will eventually turn in favor of freedom of expression and the press and away from preliminary injunctions.

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