The artist collective Center for Political Beauty had been under criminal investigation for nearly 500 days. Now the proceedings have been dropped, but the artists call for further inquiries to guarantee freedom of art.
The 16-month criminal investigation against the artist collective Center for Political Beauty (Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, ZPS) has been suspended, Thuringian State Premier Bodo Ramelow announced on Monday.
The fact that the art group's director, Philipp Ruch, was under investigation for "forming a criminal organization" was revealed last week and the case obtained international media attention. The criminal investigation has been described as the first of its kind in Germany's postwar history, as the country's constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees freedom of artistic activity.
Even though the investigation has been dropped, the artists say the case has raised further questions they still want answered, ZPS spokesperson Tilda Rosenfeld told DW. What were the political motivations of the prosecutors who launched the investigation? Why did it go on for so long? And why didn't the federal government react to the unfounded proceedings, even though there is proof that it had been informed?
A Holocaust memorial replica and fake spies
The investigation was launched in November 2017, after the guerrilla artists had set up a replica of Germany's national Holocaust memorial outside of the home of Björn Höcke, Thuringia's leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD). The installation is still in place to this day.
The action aimed to draw attention to Höcke's controversial position towards the country's Holocaust remembrance policies; the politician has described the actual memorial in Berlin as a "monument of shame" and has also called for a "180-degree turn" in Germany's attitude to World War II.
When they set up the Holocaust replica, the artists' group also announced that they had been spying on Höcke for months.
Criminal proceedings had been launched in reaction to this claim, but they were however quickly dropped as a Cologne court determined that various elements of the surveillance stunt — including cliche spy costumes and secret agent toys — were clearly satirical enough to define it as an art performance.
Declared 'terrorists' at a far-right conference
A few days after the replica memorial was installed, Höcke was a speaker at a conference organized by the magazine Compact, alongside other far-right leaders such as PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann and Martin Sellner, the leader of the Austrian Identitarian Movement, who recently made headlines for receiving a donation from the New Zealand mosque attacker. During his speech, Höcke complained about the artists, claiming that they were "not an artists' group, but a criminal organization, even a terrorist organization."
Four days after that speech, the Thuringian state prosecutor, launched the criminal investigation against the artists. The proceedings were based on a law known as paragraph 129, which allows the state to monitor people suspected of belonging to criminal groups and terrorist organizations.
Law expert Jürgen Möthrath, president of the German Association of Criminal Defenders, told Die Zeit that to launch proceedings based on this legal provision, a public prosecutor must suspect a person of planning a particularly serious offense, such as homicide, rape or drug-related crimes.
The art collective's director was listed among members of the 'Islamic State' and the Al-Nusra Front, for example.
Meanwhile, newspaper Die Zeit has revealed that the state prosecutor, Martin Zschächner, had made a small donation to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung has also found that the same prosecutor dismissed complaints against an AfD politician who had made racist generalizations against Africans and Arabs; incitement to hatred against specific groups is illegal in Germany. "This definitely demonstrates that he is not a neutral judge," said Rosenfeld. "We are calling for his suspension."
Calls to investigate government officials' involvement
In January 2019, the Federal Agency for Civic Education canceled its invitation to a congress in Leipzig that they had extended to the ZPS director. It was later revealed that the decision was based on information provided by the German interior ministry, which wrote in an email that "according to the information of security authorities, there are criminal findings concerning the ZPS and its director."
"Until now, no one on the federal level has taken a stand. They have always claimed that the case was restricted to the state level," said the ZPS spokesperson Rosenfeld. "However, there are different elements that show that the Interior Ministry was also informed of the situation and didn't react."
The artists' collective has therefore publicly asked why no one at the federal level has reacted to this information. They are calling for an inquiry into the political stances of the politicians and judges involved in setting up the criminal investigation. They also want the government to explain why the proceedings could go on for 16 months without justification. "It's about protecting freedom of art," says Rosenfeld.