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How literature can fight right-wing extremism

Sabine Peschel sh
May 14, 2019

DW spoke to Ralf Nestmeyer, Vice President of the PEN center for writers in Germany, about looming dangers to freedom of expression. He discusses the state of German media and extremist slogans such as 'lying press.'

PEN-Vizepräsident Ralf Nestmeyer
Image: privat

DW: Mr. Nestmeyer, as we sit in Chemnitz — a scene of extreme far-right violence last summer — during PEN's annual conference, can you tell us about freedom of expression in Germany, and whether it threatened by the rise of far-right populism?

In Germany, I see a tendency for freedom of expression to be threatened through hate speech and false claims motivated by hate ­— this problem is getting bigger, not smaller. It is now increasingly common that certain right-wing statements are legally reviewed, although some people from the AfD (Germany's far-right populist party, Alternativ für Deutschland) and other groups are trying to stop this.

Is fear the hidden motivation behind far right-wing speech that is motivated by hate?

Yes, I think that all those who are strongly represented in this right-wing spectrum and who speak out are always afraid of something: fear of strangers, fear of losing their jobs, fear of losing their social status. They feel threatened although that may be an irrational threat. Unfortunately, this threat is manifested in far-right protests, which often leads to violence that must not be tolerated.

Read more: Chemnitz killing: Trial begins amid questions of impartiality 

Right-wing demonstration in Chemnitz in 2018
PEN held its annual conference in the German city of Chemnitz, where far-right demonstrations and xenophobic violence took place in the summer of 2018.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer

What can literature do in the face of the far-right's increasing influence on public discourse?

The freedom of the word is very important for PEN. It is also in the PEN Charter that as members, we always want to work towards maintaining it. We try to create openness and to allow the widest possible range of discussions.

And what can writers do in concrete terms?

Of course, they can express themselves in many ways, not only in their books and works, but also by engaging in public debates and giving interviews. As part of our conference here in Chemnitz, for example, we had an event at the Theaterplatz where 25 authors took turns speaking and expressing their positions and personal views on freedom of expression. I think such events are extremely important.
Read moreOpinion: Populists are targeting Western democracy

In far-right discourse, the term "lying press" is often used. How can writers and journalists defend themselves against the accusation of producing fake news?

One can point out again and again that fortunately in Germany we have a really great media landscape, and that many reports in renowned newspapers are far from being so-called fake news. This is a default term used by those who see every criticism is fake news, à la Donald Trump.

Bodo Ramelow: "The AfD is stoking people's fears"

We should continue to strengthen our diverse media landscape, and I have no doubt that reports that appear in reputable media or in public broadcasting are based on thorough research. There can always be a little slip up — like the case of Claas Relotius at Der Spiegel — but that is relatively rare. Normally, there is a great deal of research, and one has to thank all the journalists in this country for this.

Read moreDer Spiegel files suit against ex-star reporter Claas Relotius

Has the emergence of right-wing populism changed the consensus on what is considered politically acceptable?  

There has certainly been a shift, unfortunately. Many statements that used to be cast off in the past are now politically accepted or tolerated. At times, it really hurts to hear the kinds of statements that come from the right-wing fringe. That cannot be endured with equanimity.

Unlike right-wing movements of the past, the New Right is very adept at using new media such as social media to drive opinions. How does the PEN react to this?

The PEN sees no reason for a direct interaction with the New Right. We do not want to enter into a dialogue because their agitation is not worthy of dialogue.

Oleg Senzow
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Senzow has been imprisoned for criticizing Russia's annexation of Crimea.Image: picture-alliance/AP

What is PEN doing to promote freedom of expression abroad?

A lot. For example, we just appointed Oleg Senzow — the well-known filmmaker and author who was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for his criticism of the Russian annexation of Crimea — as an honorary member. Translator Andreas Tretner, a PEN member, has been leading a collective of translators to translate his book "Life," waiving the fee. Senzow is imprisoned in the Arctic Circle under the most terrible conditions and still has 15 years to go.

Ralf Nestmeyer is a freelance journalist and author. Since April 2018, he has been Vice President and Writers-in-Prison Officer of the German PEN Center.